How to fix education

I’ve become quasi-obsessed with education policy these days, I realize.  Kind of like where I was with health care policy 5 years ago.  Anyway, I’ve really been enjoying reading reviews and excerpts of Dana Goldstein’s new book, The Teacher Wars.  Richard Kahlenberg has a great essay in TNR that reviews this book along with Elizabeth Green’s Building a Better Teacher (I’m definitely looking forward to reading both).  The main thrust of the essay is that liberal reformers have made a huge mistake in adopting the center-right’s testing/teacher accountability approach.  And I think the best evidence (and these books) suggests that Kahlenberg is right.  Near the beginning of the piece, this really caught me:

The first premise of the education reformers, says Goldstein, is that “the all-powerful individual teacher” is “solely responsible for raising student achievement in measurable ways.” To say otherwise is to be making “excuses.” In a 2007 speech, candidate Barack Obama declared: “From the moment our children step into a classroom, the single most important factor determining their achievement is not the color of their skin or where they come from; it’s not who their parents are or how much money they have. It’s who their teacher is.”

Oh, Barack!  Did Obama actually believe that when he was saying it?  I don’t know if I’d prefer the answer to be yes or no.  Either way, it is so demonstrably not true.  If only things were so simple:

The statement came as a great surprise to education researchers, who have consistently found that while teachers are important, family socioeconomic status is a much more powerful predictor of academic achievement. In fact, Goldstein notes, research finds that differences in teacher quality account for “perhaps 7 percent” of the achievement gap.

Alas, we have had testing-based reform:

Instead, the Obama administration’s signature 2009 Race to the Top education initiative had at its centerpiece the idea that America’s school teachers should be ranked, from top to bottom, based on how much value they added as measured by student test scores. If merit pay bonuses were put in place to ensure that disadvantaged students consistently got the best teachers rather than the worst, Green reports, reformers made the audacious claim that after four years they could “close the black-white test score gap.”

These extravagant promises immediately ran into a number of difficulties. To begin with, there were practical problems in accurately assessing teacher contributions to student test scores. The RAND corporation warned that “the current research base is insufficient to support the use of VAM [value added measurement] for high-stakes decisions.” Using one year of data, more than one-third of teachers were misclassified, Goldstein writes, and using three years of data, one-quarter remained erroneously classifiedmeaning an average teachers was classified as ineffective or excellent, or an excellent or terrible teacher was labeled average. Moreover, because testing was mostly focused on math and reading in grades 3-8, two-thirds of teachers weren’t appropriately measured…

The ranking of teachers in a competition for merit pay also undermined what educators have long known is a key to successful schools: collaboration among educators.

So, what do we do?  Answers:

To attract stronger teachers to the profession, Goldstein calls for an across-the-board pay raise. The U.S. has historically relied on low-paid female teachers to be “wholly unselfish, self-abnegating and morally pure,” Goldstein writes. Not surprisingly, this stingy approach has limited appeal to many top-notch college graduates, and a majority of public school teachers have below-average SAT scores. The median income for American teachers is similar to police officers and librarians and significantly less than accountants, registered nurses, or dental hygienists, Goldstein reports. In high-achieving nations like Korea, teachers have 250 percent of the local buying power of American teachers…

Along the same lines, Green wants to see tests used as diagnostic tools to identify areas where teachers can improve rather than as clubs to inflict punishment. Because both education school professor and education reformers are converging around the idea that it is possible to build a better teacher, Green notes that the Gates Foundation, which has a pushed hard for a rank-and-stack approach, is now giving grants to coach teachers to improve their craft.

It is a shame that these two books are being published toward the end of the Obama administration rather than at the beginning. If their insights had been known then, Democrats might not have unilaterally disarmed in the education wars. They might have used the special opportunity provided by election of an inspiring African American president to push a genuinely forward-looking agenda that supports our nation’s teachers rather than demoralizing them.

Or short version, i.e., my latest mantra… treat teachers like professionals an pay them like professionals.

I was actually discussing this with my son David today and he asked me about prospects for change.  At first I was quite pessimistic, but in truth, one big thing would really help.  Just get Bill Gates on board.  Looks like there’s at least some progress in that area.

On a related note, really enjoyed this Vox excerpt from Goldstein’s book on the Teach for America program.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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