• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

How, and How Not, to Improve the Schools

But what is it that is bringing about these miraculous results? Kopp has one word that she uses on almost every page of the book: “transformational.” She applauds transformational teachers, transformational leadership, and transformational schools. Transformational teachers change the trajectory of children’s lives. They tell every child that they are going to go to college; that, according to Kopp, seems to cause major changes. So does tracking data and extra time. KIPP schools have

total central control over the indicators used to track progress…such as college matriculation and completion of eighth grade, student attrition, and teacher retention. Other nonnegotiables include more time and the requirement that every adult who works at KIPP chooses to be there.

Some of those schools offer the extra health services that our society apparently can’t afford to provide to all children, and some provide extra tutoring and help for families. In the schools she calls transformational, poverty does not get in the way of high test scores.

But can these individual charter schools or charter networks generate the same success in entire urban districts? After all, it took eighteen years for the handsomely funded KIPP charter network to grow to ninety-nine schools enrolling 26,000 students, a tiny number compared to a nation with millions of impoverished, low-performing students. Kopp points to New York City, Washington, D.C., and New Orleans as districts with significant numbers of TFA recruits that have made “historic progress and improvement.”

However, her evidence is shaky. She says that New York City is a model where “the needle is moving against the achievement gap in ways that are meaningful for students.” She refers to the city’s gains on federal tests, but does not acknowledge that the gains were no larger than those of other urban districts. She refers to the city’s improvement on New York State tests, but curiously fails to mention that those dramatic gains evaporated following a widely publicized investigation in July 2010: after the state acknowledged that its tests had become easier over time, the city’s test scores dropped back almost to where they had been in 2002, and the achievement gaps among racial and ethnic groups reverted as well.

Is Washington, D.C., a promising model? Kopp believes that the TFA alumni who have managed the district’s schools since 2007 have made remarkable improvements by imposing new demands for data, measurement, and accountability on every school, as well as a new teacher evaluation system. But a few months after Kopp’s book appeared, USA Today revealed evidence of a major cheating scandal. The newspaper disclosed that test scores at certain schools showed a remarkably high rate of erasures from wrong to right.

The investigation centered on a school that Chancellor Michelle Rhee had celebrated, where scores rose sharply in a short period of time. Kopp could not have known about the cheating allegations, but she surely knew that the district’s steady improvement in reading and mathematics scores on the federally sponsored tests called the National Assessment of Educational Progress had begun in 2003, long before the arrival in 2007 of Rhee, a TFA alumna, as chancellor of schools for the district. Unfortunately, despite its improved test scores, the District of Columbia continues to have the largest achievement gap between white and black students in the nation—fully double that of most other big cities tested by the federal government.

As for New Orleans, it is the poster child of the corporate reformers because the public school system and the teachers’ union were wiped out by Hurricane Katrina. Now about 70 percent of the students in the district attend charter schools, staffed by TFA and other young teachers. Reformers have portrayed New Orleans as an educational miracle, and the media have faithfully parroted this characterization as proof that nonunion charter schools are successful. But few paid attention when the state of Louisiana recently released grades for every school in the state and 79 percent of the charter schools formed by the state received a grade of D or F.

Teach for America is a worthy idea. It is wonderful to encourage young people to commit themselves to public service for two years. The program would be far more admirable if the organization showed some modesty, humility, and realism in its claims for its inexperienced teachers. Many foundations, corporations, and even the US Department of Education treat TFA as a systemic solution to the critical needs of the teaching profession. But it is foolhardy to expect that a profession of more than three million teachers will be transformed by the annual addition of a few thousand college graduates who agree to stay for only two years.

Teach for America is no substitute for the deep changes needed in the recruitment, support, and retention of career educators. Our nation’s schools need professional teachers who have had the kind of intensive preparation and practice that nations like Finland insist upon. The Peace Corps sends out young people to do whatever is required in impoverished communities, not to serve as full-fledged Foreign Service officers for two years. Nor is it realistic to claim that these young people, because they are smart, can fix American schools and end the inequities in American society by teaching for a few years. If only it were that easy!

The current reform movement in education has embraced Teach for America and privately managed charter schools as remedies for the nation’s schools. But this combination is unlikely to succeed because one alienates career educators and the other destabilizes our public education system. It is hard to imagine improving the schools without the support and trust of the people who work in them every day.

Under pressure from the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program, many state legislatures have recently passed laws to evaluate the effectiveness of teachers in relation to the test scores of their students. This is very questionable, not least because most teachers do not teach subjects that are tested (only reading and mathematics in grades 3–8 are regularly tested, but not history, science, civics, the arts, foreign languages, or other subjects). Many economists are excited about measuring teachers by “results” in this way, but test publishers warn that the tests measure student performance, not teacher quality.

Although many legislatures want student scores to count for as much as 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, these measures turn out to be inaccurate, unreliable, and unstable. Students are not randomly assigned, and the scores say more about the composition of a class than about the quality of the teacher. A teacher may look highly effective one year but ineffective the next, depending on which students end up in his or her classroom. Research has demonstrated that those who teach students with disabilities, students who are just learning English, and other students with high needs are less likely to get big test score gains and more likely to be rated as “bad” teachers. By imposing such indiscriminate standards, some excellent teachers will be fired, and others of less distinction will get bonuses. No profession worthy of being considered a profession would allow legislatures to determine how to assess the quality of its practitioners. They are not competent to do so. Part of the definition of a profession is that it is self-regulating, not subservient to external mandates. More self-regulation and professionalism is needed in teaching, not less.

The problems of American education are not unsolvable, but the remedies must be rooted in reality. Schools are crucial institutions in our society and teachers can make a huge difference in changing children’s lives, but schools and teachers alone cannot cure the ills of an unequal and stratified society. Every testing program—whether the SAT, the ACT, or state and national tests—demonstrates that low scores are strongly correlated to poverty. On the SAT, for example, students from the most affluent families have the highest scores, and children from the poorest families have the lowest scores. Children need better schools, and they also need health clinics, high-quality early childhood education, arts programs, after-school activities, safe neighborhoods, and basic economic security. To the extent that we reduce poverty, we will improve student achievement.

So what does Finland teach us? We need to raise the standards for entry into the teaching profession, and future teachers should have intensive professional and academic preparation. If we were to improve the teaching profession, then perhaps more of the talented young people who now apply to Teach for America would choose to enter teaching as a career, not as a stepping stone to graduate school or another more remunerative line of work. If teaching were to become admired and prestigious, our schools would certainly benefit. But no matter how admired the teaching profession becomes, our society must do much more to reduce poverty and to improve the lives of children and families.

—This is the second of two articles.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print