Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Education Reform: Charges and Countercharges

Discussions of the state of education in this country have become as contentious as those between Democrats and Republicans on raising taxes. With regard to education, the teachers seem to have become the main focus. Teachers obviously play a critical role. A reasonable person would conclude that better teachers would produce better results, and that we could do more to provide good teachers. A reasonable person would also conclude that providing improved educational results involves much more than just policing our teaching staffs. Unfortunately, we seem to be running short of reasonable people. Those who focus on reform have been aggressive in calling for changes in the way teachers are evaluated and rewarded. Those who represent teachers have been aggressive in their defense charging that the approach pushed by the reformers is flawed. Both sides are right—and wrong. There is a middle ground here that needs to be found, but both sides seem more interested in issuing polemics than negotiating.

Richard Rothstein has added to the discussion with an article posted on the Economic Policy Institute website: Grading the Education Reformers. The immediate target for Rothstein’s ire is a book by Steven Brill, Class Warfare. He levels this accusation at Brill and the collection of “reformers.”

“Brill's briskly written book exposes what critics of the reformers have long suspected but could never before prove: just how insular, coordinated, well-connected, and well-financed the reformers are. Class Warfare reveals their single-minded efforts to suppress any evidence that might challenge their mission to undermine the esteem in which most Americans held their public schools and teachers. These crusaders now are the establishment, as arrogant as any that preceded them.”

Rothstein summarizes the tale they have concocted and told so often that he fears it has become the conventional wisdom.

“Student achievement has been stagnant or declining for decades....Teachers typically have abysmally low standards, especially for minorities and other disadvantaged students, who predictably fall to the level of their teachers' expectations....Although teachers' quality can be estimated by the annual growth of their students' scores on standardized tests of basic math and reading skills, teachers have not been held accountable for performance. Instead, they get lifetime job security even if students don't learn....Protecting this incompetence are teacher unions, whose contracts prevent principals from firing inadequate (and worse) teachers....Union negotiations have produced perpetually rising salaries, guaranteed even to teachers who sleep through their careers. Breaking unions' grip on public education is ‘the civil rights issue of this generation,’ and some hard-working, idealistic Ivy Leaguers and their allies have shown how.”

Charter schools with herds of dedicated, young, non-union teachers are the solution, of course.

Rothstein counters this picture by correctly pointing out that

“Given the charter school hype in Waiting for Superman and Class Warfare, it may seem hard to believe that students in charter schools do not, on average, outperform those in comparable regular schools.”

Just as there are good and bad public schools, there are good and bad charter schools. Rothstein also takes issue with the habit of blaming unions for everything.

“You wouldn't know from Class Warfare that students don't do any better where teacher collective bargaining is prohibited. In non-union Texas, for example, students perform about the same as socioeconomically similar students in union-dominated New York.”

He also disputes the characterization of our students as having made little or no progress over recent decades.

“Central to the reformers' argument is the claim that radical change is essential because student achievement (especially for minority and disadvantaged children) has been flat or declining for decades. This is, however, false. The only consistent data on student achievement come from a federal sample, the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Though you would never know it from the state of public alarm about education, the numbers show that regular public school performance has skyrocketed in the last two decades....”

Rothstein falls into the same degree of overstatement for which he is so critical of the reformers when he discusses teacher evaluation. He implies that student scores on tests will be the dominant determinant in ranking teachers. That may have been suggested by some initially, but most reformers are now more interested in an evaluation process that matches more closely that used for other professionals. Test scores would be one component. To merit rank a professional, one requires some means of assessing accomplishment, some means of determining degree of difficulty of assignment, and a comparison with peers. Teachers and their unions should be willing to give that a chance. It is difficult and it is subjective and it is not always fair, but it is better than assuming everyone is equal.

Rothstein is correct in pointing out that the shouting match between the two sides allows the major point to be missed. Test scores measure student performance. If the student is not performing well, why is that automatically the teacher’s fault? Why not spend equal time studying the psychology and home environment of the children to see if there are better means to provide motivation. The charter schools that seem to perform best are the ones that are structured to essentially replace whatever home and neighborhood environment students emerged from.

Perhaps the most efficient means of producing a high-performing student is to have he or she born to high-performing parents. We recently wrote of South Korean mothers who were up in arms because the government had the audacity to intend to discontinue Saturday classes. We have regions where systems are going to four-day school weeks to save money. Where is the uproar? The era of supposed poor student performance coincides with the era of two-income families. Perhaps our mothers are too tired in the evenings to tiger-up anymore. Our students also have to compete with countries that provide quality preschool care for working mothers. That is another factor to consider.

We recently discussed the paper that compared each state’s students’ scores against those of other countries. Our states spanned the performance spectrum. We had states that performed as well as the best countries, and we had states that compared with the poorest performing countries. How can one look at that data and declare that the teachers are responsible. Something is responsible, but it is likely a complex combination of a number of factors, including school systems, parents, culture, and economics.

It would be nice if people stopped yelling at each other and got back to some productive arguing about the best way forward.

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