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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.”

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.

  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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