The Chicago teachers’ strike gave me an excuse to do something I’ve been meaning to do for a while: read up on the education reform movement. So I watched Waiting for Superman. I read Steven Brill’s Class Warfare: inside the fight to fix America’s schools. And I worked my way through a variety of less well known blogs and articles and videos.
It’s all interesting and makes several good points. But I’m still not convinced.
The ed-reform case. In a nutshell, the argument is this: The difference between good teachers and bad teachers is enormous. So the clearest path towards improving American public schools is to identify which is which, reward the good teachers (so they keep teaching) and fire the bad ones.
We also need longer school days and longer school years. We need high expectations for students, particularly students who are poor or otherwise disadvantaged. We shouldn’t accept that any sub-population of our kids is unteachable.
Particularly in big school districts (which tend to have a lot of disadvantaged kids), the bureaucracy of the system and the culture of the schools have to change. The way to do that is through charter schools, which operate within the public-school system, but have their own rules and constitute an end-run around the usual bureaucrats. (I’m not even getting into vouchers for private schools. That’s a whole different subject.)
From there, the discussion goes to teachers unions: They’re the villains. They’re the reasons none of this common-sense stuff has happened. They protect the bad teachers who ought to be fired and the lazy teachers who hide behind the restrictive work rules laid out in massive union contracts
The movement’s heroes are the pioneers who start or teach in high-standards charter schools in failing inner-city school districts. They have impressive Ivy League degrees (usually in something other than education), but they have turned their backs on the millions they could otherwise make and decided to save children instead. They work night-and-day, kids and parents can always reach them, and they don’t care about things like health insurance.
The other heroes are hard-nosed public-school principals and superintendents who refuse to go along with the status quo, so they take on the evil teachers unions and carve out bureaucratic space for the charter-school heroes to work their magic.
It makes a great book and a great movie. So why aren’t I convinced?
OK, I buy this much. A lot of the education-reform story is just common sense. Anybody who was ever a student knows what a big difference an unusually good or bad teacher can make. Imagine what your own schooling would have been like if every teacher were like your best teacher – or your worst.
And yes, it’s probably no great mystery who the best and worst teachers are. The kids, the parents, the other teachers, the principals – in most schools I bet they all know. If your kid has always hated a subject and suddenly loves it, chances are a really good teacher is involved. Or if your kid has always been eager and confident in school, but suddenly isn’t, bad teaching is a good first guess at an explanation.
And it’s true that bad schools develop a culture of failure. The good students with the caring parents find ways to opt out. Controlling a class, not teaching the kids something, becomes the top priority. Teachers commiserate with each other’s sense of defeat. Kids, parents, and teachers all become convinced that their best efforts will go unsupported. Rebuilding a culture of success – in spite of poverty, nightmarish home situations, drugs, violence, and all the other things that can get in the way of education – is damn difficult.
The unintended effects of testing. Ideally, you’d like to train and hire good teachers, and then let them teach. (That’s what they do in Finland, whose school system is the best in the world.) But that’s not what’s happening in “reformed” school districts here.
When you measure a school’s success by its test scores, reward or punish principals based on their schools’ success, give principals the power to fire teachers easily, and measure teachers’ impact on test scores, the whole system starts to revolve around the test. Some teachers have told me that their daily lesson plans are required to identify exactly which part of the test the lesson covers.
A fictional (but I fear far too realistic) example was shown in season 4 of The Wire. A new junior high math teacher is initially horrified by his inner-city Baltimore class, but then starts on the classic To Sir With Love trajectory: figuring out who these kids are, finding where his subject meets their lives, gaining their trust by teaching them something whose value they can see, and then … being shut down by the principal because he isn’t teaching what’s on the test.
When you remember your best teachers, chances are you remember them as idiosyncratic, creative, and spontaneous. If a hurricane was coming, they might drop everything and do a unit on hurricanes. If a bird nested outside the classroom window, that was a chance to learn about birds.
That’s exactly the kind of teaching you won’t get in a test-driven system.
Low cost/low wage. The big reason America has no middle class any more is that we’ve applied the Wal-Mart model to one industry after another: Drive down costs by driving down wages. If you just did it in one industry, everybody else would benefit. But if you do it in all industries, you destroy the middle class.
Steven Brill’s book claims that’s not a goal of reform, but the stories he tells say otherwise.
Early in the book we meet a New York City charter school that shares a building with a numbered public school. As Brill describes the two schools, they are night and day: The charter is orderly, focused, and successful; the public school isn’t. He then proudly points out that the charter pays its teachers (on average) more.
But that’s just salary. He later mentions that charter-school pensions and other benefits are far lower, more than eclipsing the difference in salary. Plus, the charter has a longer school day and a longer school year; it gives teachers special school cell phones so that parents can reach them at any hour; and it allows the principal to fire teachers at any moment for any reason.
Lower pay, harder work, no down time, no job security – why do those evil teachers’ unions resist this modern utopia?
The heroic young charter-school teacher Brill follows in Class Warfare burns out by the end. So is that the plan nationally? Find 3 million idealistic and talented young people who are willing to give their lives totally to teaching our kids … and then find 3 million more five years from now when they burn out?
Is it really such a bad idea to preserve teaching as a liveable middle-class profession?
The superstar charter schools aren’t really comparable. Charter schools in general do no better than regular public schools, but there are some spectacular success stories like KIPP or the Harlem Children’s Zone (which I’ve told you about before). These schools prove that good teaching can overcome many of the disadvantages of poverty.
The most moving scenes of Waiting for Superman follow families through the lotteries that determine whether their children will be admitted to these massively over-subscribed schools. It’s a little like watching the lottery in the Hunger Games.
But I’m sure every public-school teacher who watched those scenes had the same thought: “I wish all my students had won a lottery to get into my class.”
The process of applying to a charter school weeds out families that don’t value education or just can’t get their acts together. Brill brushes this off by quoting a study; it shows that the students who lose the lotteries (whose families presumably are just as dedicated) do worse in their public schools than the winners do in their charters.
That misses the point. The charter school is made up entirely of families who value education. That by itself would change the culture of a school, even if you let unionized tenured public-school teachers teach the classes.
Politics. A lot of the funding for the education reform movement comes from billionaires. Some of them are probably sincere (Bill Gates, I suspect), but for a lot of them (the Walton Foundation, I suspect) education reform is just a wedge issue to divide anti-poverty liberals from pro-union liberals. Governor Scott Walker has made use of ed-reform rhetoric in his quest to destroy Wisconsin public-employee unions completely.
It has to make you suspicious when one of Brill’s heroes (New York City education chancellor Joel Klein) leaves his education job to become an executive VP for Rupert Murdoch.
A second subtle message of education reform is that the education issue can divorced from the poverty issue, that it’s OK to have a large underclass as long as we provide a way for a few talented poor kids to escape, and that the only way to help those kids is to destroy teaching as a middle-class profession.
The rich have always looked for ways to make the middle class fight the poor rather than ally with them. We shouldn’t fall for that old trick again.
Where to go. I wish I knew. The state of most inner-city schools is unacceptable, and even many of our suburban schools aren’t giving American kids what they need to compete in the future. Something does need to change, and the best charter schools deserve credit for demonstrating that poverty by itself doesn’t make children unteachable.
But there is also a lot of special-interest money out there doing what special-interest money does: creating dubious “facts” and self-serving frames. We all need to be careful that we don’t get herded in the direction the billionaires want us to go.