Education Reform: I’m Still Not Convinced

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.

But …

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.

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  • Nancy Minter  On September 24, 2012 at 1:05 pm

    The 500 lb gorilla, no one wants to deal with, is that the problem with education, is the ignorance parents. Some are blissfully ignorant of their ignorance, others are proud to be ignorant. They want their children to be ignorant, because they don’t want to feel foolish in front of them. They want our children to be ignorant too, just cause. You can wrap it in all the religious, conservative, fiscal etc. trappings you want, but it basically boils down to people who are ignorant, don’t want to feel ignorant, so all the rest of us have to be ignorant too.

  • tahiya  On September 24, 2012 at 1:09 pm

    hmmm… as a teacher in public, non-public and supplemental education programs for 17 years, specifically special education I have to say I am very tired of people who don’t work in schools opining on the problems therein. It’s interesting. No one presumes they understand the performance problems of for-profit companies and yet they go to work day after day in companies and organizations that have just as many performance issues as any school or public works department. I have since moved on to work in industry and deal with performance and training there, with a two-year position in higher education in between. It’s not a union problem. It’s not a teacher problem. It’s not a pay problem. It’s a human performance problem and it’s NO different than any other human performance problem in any other organization.

    Two points:
    1. A company that sells a product or service functions under a closed loop. The purchaser, user, evaluator of the product or service is generally one and the same entity. That’s a very simple configuration and yet it yields entire fields of human endeavor studying and attempting to manage the problems that arise within it. Most of these problems are the management of human behavior within the system.

    A public service program such as a school, hospital, social service agency, must contend with a wildly different loop. The entity that purchases the service/product is different from the one that uses it which is different from the one that evaluates it. Add to that the complexity that most direct users of the product are not self-selecting. Remember school is coerced, not chosen until after the age of majority. Finally, the evaluators are multiple stakeholders with wildly varying agendas and knowledge, both general and specific to the service under scrutiny. This expands the problem set of managing the human behaviors in the system, and tangential to it, exponentially.

    2. It is a well researched pattern that all incentives to perform become relatively ineffective after 2-3 applications. Humans just don’t jump for the same jelly bean over and over again. As a special education teacher in my first career, and as a performance improvement professional now I have personal, direct experience and extensive study into the field. People have been complaining about schools, government, their diets, their health habits, the roads, the services, the welfare state, the military since one person could whine to another. Before you go off rallying for reform just sit and think about your own life. What have you been meaning to change about yourself for years and haven’t succeeded? What have you succeeded at changing for the better? How long did it take? I would wager your successes did not hinge or reward structures that never changed, was not supported by keeping your environment and cues the same, and took a great deal of repeated effort and thoughtful re-engineering not only of your physical environment but of your internal mindscape. Now consider how impossible it would be to make that change for someone else without their full investment.

    One last idea: the biggest barrier to education is the presence in the classroom of the child/teen who is poorly trained at self-management. They are in the way of the other students’ access to their Free and Appropriate Public Education. (FAPE) Instead of suspensions and expulsions, why don’t we require their parents to supervise them through their school days until they demonstrate that they can manage themselves in the classroom. Education is not free, state paid child care, although most American parents seem to think that’s the primary function of their local public school.

  • Irene Cullen Gravina  On September 24, 2012 at 3:57 pm

    I agree with the above that people have always complained about education, and believe they always will. But we do need to set standards, and those fell very low in the ’90s in the cities, at any rate, when I was an education writer in Boston. Similar conditions existed elsewhere, and lawsuits were brought, and reform began to happen. MA adopted its own changes before getting sued, but was about to if it hadn’t. Reform doesn’t mean charter schools. That is pretty much its own side issue. Testing is part of reform, along with more funding, and yes more criteria to fire a teacher. Previously, the law only allowed a teaacher to be let go if he or she committed “moral turpitude” (doing drugs, for example), stealing money, or physical violence against kids, pretty much. No way to get rid of a teacher who could not do the job to an acceptable standard. The new law allows that, after much review, retraining, on-going evaluation, feedback, etc. I interviewed the first teacher fired in MA for poor performance that anyone could remember, ever. Some teachers were asked to go by school systems, but given glowing reviews to take with them to get a job elsewhere. Also, Doug, you mention Finland. Finland has boiled education down to, guess what, education. They have no extra-curricular activities. No band, orchestra, school plays and I’m not sure whether they even have gym. It’s academics, kind of like when I went to school (except JFK brought in gym.) So they know what they have to do to get it right. They also have almost no homework. School hours resemble those of a regular job. You work while you are there and then go home. Our former superintendent, Maureen LaCroix is going in a delegation to Finland. It will be interesting to see what she has to say when she gets back. As for kids with special needs, yes it’s a hassle to graduate with a certificate of attendance after doing the best you can for 22 years, as most special ed kids do. On the other hand, they have a curriculum now that goes beyond kindergarten level, and actually must be taught something if at all possible, or are supposed to be. That is huge. Instead of doing calendar, story time, the letter of the week, recess, and whatever for 20 years as people in her program had before, she came home every day and told me about the Egyptians, the parts of the skeleton, the American Revolution, and a whole lot of other stuff. They taught her the old-fashioned way, with the teacher in the front talking, then asking questions and calling on students. (This group was not the best at reading and writing. That happened separately, or was supposed to, although that part of it still could use some spiffing up.) Because society and its needs keep changing, public education requires a constant fix. Some of this will be going back to old ways. Some of it new. But I agree also its the teacher in front of the class that makes the difference. Oh–Finland also holds very high standards to become a teacher, and pays quite well. That is huge. Teaching is still one profession where using your brains pays big dividends.

  • Adele Hite, RD MPH  On September 25, 2012 at 9:11 am

    I’m a former public school teacher whose kids have attended public schools, public magnet schools, and charter schools–you nailed it when you said the primary difference between charter schools and regular public schools is the process it takes to get into the school. Even a public magnet school, where a parent has to fill out a form in order for the kid to attend, has a vastly different atmosphere than a public school where the students just show up.

    Is the problem the parents? Often. As a teacher, I loved my students; the parents drove me nuts. But parents are often laboring under the same ridiculous working conditions the teachers are–they are often hoping we have the time, energy, and ability to understand and inspire their kids when they don’t.

    Are unions the problem? Maybe, in that “bad” teachers are often difficult to remove from the classroom. But this problem is not solved by making it easier to remove those teachers when we’ve chosen all the wrong criteria for identifying what a “bad” teacher looks like. And please–everyone knows what a bad teacher looks like. You could choose 5 random members of the community, have them spend a day in a school, and they’d let you know by the end of the day which teachers needed to go and they’d be right. You could, god forbid, ask the students. They’d be right too.

    I left teaching because I wasn’t teaching. I was expected first and foremost to prepare students for standardized tests. At the same time, I was to monitor bathrooms, hallways, and lunchrooms; to coach; to keep exquisite track of the presence/absence of students at all times; to prepare weekly lesson plans for review by an administrator who hadn’t been in a classroom in 20 years–all within an infrastructure that left me with 28 desks for 32 students (where was my “seating chart”? the principal wanted to know) and at a salary that made my kids eligible for free/reduced lunches at their own public school.

    What needs to change? All of it.

    • weeklysift  On September 26, 2012 at 11:40 am

      Thank you. My sister recently retired from teaching in Tennessee — and not because she was sick of teaching or being with kids. I suspect the two of you would have a lot to talk about.

  • JEsaili  On September 26, 2012 at 10:55 pm

    I enjoyed your writing on education. I have a few observations, especially on some comments other teachers have made (I am a teacher and this is a second career for me for the past 14 years).

    Some teachers get tired of the public commenting on their jobs and trying to reform education. It can get tedious, as many of us know that the general public has no idea what we do day in and day out. However, public relations IS part of this job: we have to be as open and as transparent as possible. People entrust their children to us every day and expect us to perform miracles. When a parent comes into a school and sees what we actually do all day, the turn around is amazing (usually). School has changed so much in just the last 10 years, that even recent graduates find it hard to believe.

    However, the testing craze is driving both teachers and parents nuts! Here in Texas, the Texas Education Agency has managed to take a fair, decent idea-end of course testing in the 4 core areas-and turn it into a monster. You would need an entire week’s conference to understand it.

    My point is really simple: reform teacher preparation programs AND give schools the money they need to take a child’s education to the next level. A very good example of this may be found up in Alaska, of all places. Here is a link to an article about how one school district turned around the drop out and disconnect many students felt. It take time, effort and money:

  • Jessica  On September 27, 2012 at 12:05 am

    As you research and further examine education reform and where it comes from, you should pay special attention to things that are happening in Detroit and Highland Park. Although Highland Park is its own city, it is completely surrounded by Detroit, is also under-served, and is often included when people look at Detroit.

    This past year, changes have taken effect because of Emergency Financial Managers and other things. For example, all Highland Park public schools are now charter schools, and the charter is from a company (another interesting aspect of educational reform to observe – where the charters come from and state laws surrounding that) and the poorest performing Detroit Public Schools have been taken out of the District and added to the “Education Achievement Authority”, while others are designated as “self-governing schools”, supposedly removing the power of the superintendent, school board, etc.

    For those interested and passionate about Educational Justice, Detroit is a great place to focus your gaze and observe (although it is difficult to get any valid outside perspective on Detroit given the media’s obsession with its problems). It is a place where not only it is nearly impossible to separate education from poverty (and from race), but also where some wide-sweeping attempts at reform are supposedly being made. (Is it a coincidence that this experimentation is happening in an under-served city whose vast population is lower class and racial minorities?)

    I’m not going to bother posting any resources, because info about all these things can be found very easily by using Google.

  • Allison  On September 28, 2012 at 4:40 pm

    I’m one of the burned-out charter school teachers; I had a job right out of my teacher ed program in a “change the world” type startup charter school that was terribly mismanaged. My students were awesome, but after a year of that I went back to grad school. Now I hope I can make a difference in the world through doing useful science instead of teaching.

    But I’m really posting because I thought you and the rest of the readers here would be interested in this blogger:

    He is a radical preschool teacher in Seattle; I linked through to his thoughts on education reform.

  • Irene  On November 25, 2013 at 9:20 am

    I just want to mention I am certified to teach, did a full school year of student teaching but only worked as a substitute, not a full teacher for personal reasons, not because I didn’t like the job. But I have raised two daughters with special needs and interacted extensively with the school system at all levels and around all the edges (having to negotiate every aspect of getting an education in my town, collaboratives, private placements, etc.) I also have done a lot of teaching of my kids. And reported on education for two years, interviewing teachers, the principals, parents, school boards and committees, etc. So I do feel that I know something about education. True I am not in the classroom, and from what I hear from English teachers who are they don’t like the kind of direction they are getting, such as giving the exact same essay topic to all kids in the grade and grading the papers according to certain set criteria. This is along the lines of teaching to the test. But I have also realized these kids do not have the consistent curriculum we had, and can take electives or different kinds of courses within each subject, so in order to be tested they need more uniformity. We were tested also, there just wasn’t as much fanfare about it, and the state didn’t award money based on the results. Nor did it expect continuous improvement from a district that already had great results. One thing I know is I covered the Boston schools before we had ed reform up here and was told the kids get 30 days (!) of unexcused absences a year! That’s six weeks of class. Only half the kids would be in a class, and half of those had their Walkmans on. When asked if those kids were going to fall through the cracks, I was told by the teacher, as far as he was concerned, they “already had fallen through the cracks.” This was high school. I asked to speak to the vice principal (the principal wasn’t there either) and he told me not allowing Walkmans in class would require “a systemwide change.” Well, with ed reform, they got it. The kids had no homework because textbooks were lost if they were sent home. And this was Boston, MA, across the river from Harvard and some of the best colleges and other public school systems one could find. So for all the complaining, and I covered that too, the “draconian” standards of our MCAS test were merely setting a goal, and that goal was to be able to function at an 8th grade level! These kids were mostly black, also, so not educating them or caving to whatever pressure was on the system to be “flexible” raises issues of racial equality or opportunity also. This was during a time when there was a lot of gun vioilence among students, and I think the teachers were afraid and rightly so, but there were some very big things wrong with that picture, and it is better now that MCaS standards were put in.


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