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How, and How Not, to Improve the Schools

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Matt Roth
David Donaldson, a high school teacher in the Teach for America program, with his students at the Maryland Academy of Technology and Health Sciences, Baltimore, December 2009

In his 2012 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama proposed that teachers should “stop teaching to the test” and that the nation should “reward the best ones” and “replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn.” This all sounds sensible, but it is in fact a contradictory message. The president’s signature education program, called Race to the Top, encourages states to award bonuses to teachers whose students get higher test scores (they are, presumably “the best ones”) and to fire teachers if their students get lower test scores (presumably the teachers “who just aren’t helping kids”). If teachers want to stay employed, they must “teach to the test.” The president recommends that teachers stop doing what his own policies make necessary and prudent.

Like George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind, Barack Obama’s Race to the Top program is part of what Pasi Sahlberg calls “the Global Education Reform Movement,” or GERM. GERM demands teaching to the test. GERM assumes that students must be constantly tested, and that the results of these tests are the most important measures and outcomes of education. The scores can be used not only to grade the quality of every school, but to punish or reward students, teachers, principals, and schools. Those at the top of the education system, the elected officials and leaders who make the rules, create the budgets, and allocate resources, are never accountable for the consequences of their decisions. GERM assumes that people who work in schools need carrots and sticks to persuade (or compel) them to do their best.

In Finland, the subject of the first part of this article,1 teachers work collaboratively with other members of the school staff; they are not “held accountable” by standardized test scores because there are none. Teachers devise their own tests, to inform them about their students’ progress and needs. They do their best because it is their professional responsibility. Like other professionals, as Pasi Sahlberg shows in his book Finnish Lessons, Finnish teachers are driven by a sense of intrinsic motivation, not by the hope of a bonus or the fear of being fired. Intrinsic motivation is also what they seek to instill in their students. In the absence of standardized testing by which to compare their students and their schools, teachers must develop, appeal to, and rely on their students’ interest in learning.

The GERM model seeks to emulate the free market, by treating parents as consumers and students as products, with teachers as compliant workers who are expected to obey orders and follow scripts. Advocates of GERM often are hostile to teachers’ unions, which are considered obstacles to the managerial ethos necessary to control the daily life of a school. Unions also make it hard, if not impossible, to carry out cost savings, such as removing the highest-paid teachers and replacing them with low-wage, entry-level teachers.

Finland’s success confounds the GERM theorists, because almost every teacher and principal in Finland belongs to the same union. The union works closely with the Ministry of Education to improve the quality of education, and it negotiates for better salaries, benefits, and working conditions for educators.

The American school reform movement—the odd coalition of corporate- friendly Democrats, right-wing Republicans, Tea Party governors, Wall Street executives, and major foundations—proudly advocates the tenets of GERM. More testing, more privately managed schools, more deregulation, more firing of teachers, more school closings, they believe, and eventually every student will go to college and poverty will be eliminated. There is little evidence to support this approach.

The Duke University economist Helen F. Ladd recently delivered a major address titled “Education and Poverty: Confronting the Evidence,” in which she demonstrated that poverty drags down academic performance, not only in the US, but in other nations as well.2 To argue, as so many of the corporate reformers blithely do, that poverty is used as “an excuse” for bad teachers is either naive or ignorant. Or it may be a way of avoiding the politically difficult subjects of poverty and income inequality, both of which are rising and threaten the well-being of our society.

The corporate reformers believe that entrepreneurship will unleash a new era of innovation and creativity, but it seems mostly to have unleashed canny entrepreneurs who seek higher test scores by any means possible (such as excluding students with disabilities or students learning English as a second language) or who seek maximum profit. One facet of the business plan for reform is reducing the cost of instruction. Many governors tackle this head-on by slashing the budget and laying off teachers. Others, claiming to act in the name of “reform,” replace teachers with online instruction. Another way to reduce costs is to rely on inexperienced teachers, who are at the bottom of the salary scale and are likely to leave teaching for more remunerative, less demanding jobs before they are eligible for a pension.

Experienced teachers are fleeing American public education in response to the testing demands of No Child Left Behind, which reduce professional autonomy. According to federal data, the “modal years” of teacher experience in our public schools in 1987–1988 was fifteen, meaning that there were more teachers with fifteen years of experience than any other group. By 2007–2008, the largest number of teachers were in their first year of teaching. In response to the ongoing drumbeat of public opprobrium inspired by corporate-style school reform, we are losing the experienced teachers that students and new teachers need.

Unlike Finland, where entry into teaching is limited and competitive, the United States has low standards for new teachers. In Finland the profession is highly esteemed; in the United States it is not. Some states require master’s degrees, some do not. The difference is not compensation, but the high degree of professionalism that Finland expects of its teachers. In the United States, some states and districts require teachers to have a degree in the subject they teach or to pass a test to demonstrate their mastery of their subject, some do not.

Schools of education are held in low esteem within the university system. Online universities now award the largest numbers of master’s degrees in education. The teaching profession in the United States is a revolving door. It’s easy to enter, and many teachers leave—up to 40 to 50 percent—in their first five years as teachers. The turnover is highest in low-scoring urban districts. We do not support new teachers with appropriate training and mentoring, and we have a problem retaining teachers. No other profession in the United States has such a high rate of turnover.

For those who take seriously the need to improve the teaching profession, this would seem to be the right time to raise entry standards and to improve teacher education. If we were to learn from Finland’s example, we would select well-educated candidates for entry into teaching, require academic excellence and a master’s degree, and make certification as an education professional meaningful. But corporate reformers have shown no interest in raising standards for the teaching profession. They believe that entry-level requirements such as certification, master’s degrees, and other credentials are unrelated to “performance,” that is, student test scores. They also scorn seniority, experience, tenure, and other perquisites of the profession. Instead, they believe that a steady infusion of smart but barely trained novices will change the face of teaching. In no other field but education would such judgments be tolerated, because they reinforce the low status of education as a profession, one where no prolonged preparation is thought necessary.

The corporate reformers’ favorite remedy for the ills of the profession is the Teach for America program. By now, everyone in the education field knows the story of how the Princeton student Wendy Kopp developed the idea for Teach for America as her senior thesis in 1989, then raised millions of dollars from corporations and turned her idea into a wildly successful brand. TFA enlists new graduates from the nation’s best colleges and universities, who commit themselves to teach in distressed urban and rural schools for two years. In the past decade, Kopp has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for TFA.

Just in the past eighteen months, TFA received $50 million from the US Department of Education, $49.5 million from the ultra-conservative Walton Family Foundation, and $100 million from a consortium of other foundations, as well as additional millions from corporations and other major donors. Each year, TFA selects several thousand idealistic young people, gives them five weeks of training, and sends them out to teach. The school districts pay members of TFA a starting teacher’s salary and typically pay TFA $5,000 for each new teacher.

TFA, like the Peace Corps, is an admirable idea. The young people who join TFA are typically among our brightest students from top-tier universities. On some campuses, more students apply to TFA than to any other prospective employer. Like others who become teachers, they want to make a difference in the lives of children, particularly those who are poor.

And yet TFA has aroused the anger of veteran educators because of the organization’s arrogance. TFA claims that its young recruits are better than other teachers, presumably because they are carefully selected and therefore smarter than the average teacher. It also claims that its corps members produce remarkable results even in the two or three years that most are likely to teach. But researchers such as Linda Darling-Hammond at Stanford, Barbara Torre Veltri at Northern Arizona University, Philip Kovacs at the University of Alabama, and Julian Vasquez Heilig at the University of Texas have challenged TFA’s claims.3 They maintain that the students of TFA’s young recruits have not achieved the remarkable test score gains that the organization boasts about. Critics ask why inexperienced young graduates are permitted to teach the nation’s most vulnerable children. Veteran educators resent the suggestion that new college graduates have arrived to save their schools; they know that novices with a few weeks’ training, no matter how smart and idealistic, can’t be expected to produce dramatic results in two or three years as a teacher.

In A Chance to Make History, Kopp ignores the critics and concentrates instead on telling stories about successful classrooms and schools led by TFA alumni and teachers. The message of the book is that TFA has discovered the secrets to producing astonishing changes in schools and needs to keep growing to bring these changes to entire districts.

The book is written in the first person and consists of anecdotes intended to demonstrate that TFA has discovered how to provide an excellent education for every child in America, regardless of poverty or other handicaps. Kopp confidently asserts that there is “hard evidence that we can ensure all of our children in urban and rural communities have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.” Back when she started, she writes, “many assumed that fixing education would require fixing poverty first.” She is now convinced, however, that TFA teachers, “even in their first and second years of teaching, are proving it is possible for economically disadvantaged children to compete academically with their higher-income peers.” She points to the KIPP network of charter schools, the YES Prep charter schools in Houston, and the Mastery charter schools in Philadelphia as remarkable success stories, where disadvantaged children achieve high test scores. (Kopp acknowledges that her husband, Richard Barth, is the chief executive officer of KIPP, which also received $50 million from the US Department of Education in 2010.) These examples make her confident that “we don’t need to wait to fix poverty in order to ensure that all children receive an excellent education.”

  1. 1

    Diane Ravitch, “ Schools We Can Envy,” The New York Review, March 8, 2012. 

  2. 2

    Working Paper SAN11-01, Sanford School of Public Policy, Duke University, November 4, 2011; forthcoming in The Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. 

  3. 3

    See Julian Vasquez Heilig, “Teach for America: A False Promise,” National Education Policy Center, June 9, 2010; Philip Kovacs, “Huntsville Takes a Closer Look at Teach for America’s ‘Research,’” Living in Dialogue (blog), Education Week, December 11, 2011; Philip Kovacs, “Research Suggests Teach for America Does Not Belong in Huntsville,” Living in Dialogue (blog), Education Week, January 9, 2012; Linda Darling-Hammond, Deborah J. Holtzman, Su Jin Gatlin, and Julian Vasquez Heilig, “Does Teacher Preparation Matter? Evidence About Teacher Certification and Teacher Effectiveness,” Education Policy Analysis Archives, Vol. 13 (2005); Barbara Torre Veltri, Learning on Other People’s Kids: Becoming a Teach for America Teacher (Information Age, 2010). 

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