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Want to Fix Obama's Bad Education Policy? Start With These Two New Books

The problem with the Left's embrace of center-Right policies


Public school teaching, writes education reporter Dana Goldstein, has “become the most controversial profession in America.” The “ineffective teacher,” she writes, has become “a feared character,” comparable to “crack babies or welfare queens” in earlier eras. Long accustomed to being the punching bag of the right, teachers and teachers unions are newly targeted by Democratic education reformers; the Obama administration, too, has championed a series of center-right reforms fashionable among hedge fund managers. Not surprisingly, between 2008 and 2012, teacher job satisfaction “plummeted from 62 to 39 percent, the lowest level in a quarter century,” Goldstein notes in her smart and valuable new book, The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession. 

All of this would be a price worth paying if the currently popular center-right reforms were likely to significantly improve opportunities for disadvantaged students. But the whole enterprise is based on a very weak foundation and faulty thinking, according to Goldstein. In another engaging new book, Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works, education reporter Elizabeth Green also suggests that the current emphasis on ranking teachers and quickly dismissing some is misplaced. Taken together, these two young reporters raise grave doubts about the unfortunate bipartisan support for today’s punitive approach toward teachers.

The first premise of the education reformers, says Goldstein, is that “the all-powerful individual teacher” is “solely responsible for raising student achievement in measurable ways.” To say otherwise is to be making “excuses.” In a 2007 speech, candidate Barack Obama declared: “From the moment our children step into a classroom, the single most important factor determining their achievement is not the color of their skin or where they come from; it’s not who their parents are or how much money they have. It’s who their teacher is.”

The statement came as a great surprise to education researchers, who have consistently found that while teachers are important, family socioeconomic status is a much more powerful predictor of academic achievement. In fact, Goldstein notes, research finds that differences in teacher quality account for “perhaps 7 percent” of the achievement gap. While Barack Obama’s teaching experience was limited to University of Chicago law students, another president, Lyndon Johnson, who taught in the Texas public schools, knew that teachers were a piece of a much larger landscape. “Rather than paint schools and teachers as saviors who could overcome the challenges of poverty,” Goldstein writes, “Johnson described his teaching years with considerable humility.”

Johnson wanted to improve teaching, but he also sought to tackle larger social inequalities that drive the achievement gap, including school segregation. “Desegregation could improve schools surprisingly quickly,” Goldstein notes, pointing to a number of powerful studies on the benefits to low-income students of having the chance to attend middle-class schools. Obama has not been similarly committed to the issue, she observes, noting that for several decades, “the federal government has done nothing to encourage local school districts to create racially and socioeconomically mixed schools.” 

Instead, the Obama administration’s signature 2009 Race to the Top education initiative had at its centerpiece the idea that America’s school teachers should be ranked, from top to bottom, based on how much value they added as measured by student test scores. If merit pay bonuses were put in place to ensure that disadvantaged students consistently got the best teachers rather than the worst, Green reports, reformers made the audacious claim that after four years they could “close the black-white test score gap.”

These extravagant promises immediately ran into a number of difficulties. To begin with, there were practical problems in accurately assessing teacher contributions to student test scores. The RAND corporation warned that “the current research base is insufficient to support the use of VAM [value added measurement] for high-stakes decisions.” Using one year of data, more than one-third of teachers were misclassified, Goldstein writes, and using three years of data, one-quarter remained erroneously classified—meaning an average teachers was classified as ineffective or excellent, or an excellent or terrible teacher was labeled average. Moreover, because testing was mostly focused on math and reading in grades 3-8, two-thirds of teachers weren’t appropriately measured. In New York, gym teachers were graded on math results. In places like Florida and Tennessee, Goldstein writes, kindergarten, first- and second-grade teachers were held accountable for how students did on third-grade tests. With lucrative bonuses riding on test scores, major cheating scandals erupted in places like Atlanta, where teachers held “erasure parties” to change student responses before submitting the answer sheets.

The ranking of teachers in a competition for merit pay also undermined what educators have long known is a key to successful schools: collaboration among educators. Green notes that researchers James Stigler and Harold Stevenson concluded that one reason Japanese students perform so well in math is that teachers are given considerable time to work with one another preparing the very best lesson plans. Hard-nosed education reformers like Harvard Business School graduate Doug Lemov came to a similar conclusion and encouraged teacher collaboration at a charter school he founded. If teachers are rigidly ranked and a limited number of bonuses are handed out, why should a teacher share an innovative education idea with a colleague?

Likewise, the idea that financial bonuses could systematically connect great teachers with low-income students rested on a misunderstanding of how educators decide where to teach. Polling suggests teachers care more about working conditions than salary, and they avoid segregated high-poverty schools that have, on average, high rates of discipline problems and weaker principals. As Goldstein notes, research by UC Berkeley’s C. Kirabo Jackson found that after Charlotte, North Carolina schools resegregated, high-quality teachers of all races tended to leave high-poverty schools. In a national experiment, less than one-quarter of high-performing teachers applied for a program offering an extraordinary $20,000 bonus to transfer to a low-income school.

Education reformers want to use the rank-and-stack approach not only to reward the best teachers but also to fire the worst. An influential 2006 Brookings paper suggested that firing the bottom 25 percent of first-year teachers could boost American economic growth by $200-$500 billion. In a recent high-profile lawsuit, Vergara v. California, reformers went after more experienced teachers as well, suggesting that tenure protections should be weakened or eliminated because it is too hard to fire incompetent teachers. A Newsweek cover declared that “the key to saving American education,” was to “fire bad teachers.”

The firing-to-success idea rests on the myth that teacher are born, not made, and it is the central theme of Green’s book. Green calls this “the fallacy of the natural-born teacher,” the idea that good teaching is “an innate quality, a mysterious idiosyncrasy some people were randomly assigned at birth.” Combating that myth, and demonstrating that struggling teachers can improve their craft, is something advocated by leading education professors Green profiles—Magdalene Lampert, David Cohen, Deborah Ball—but also Teach for America–style education reformers like Lemov. Unlike the accountability hawks, this group is interested not only in telling teachers whether they are succeeding, but instructing them on “what to do to improve.” Because teaching is a mass profession, it must rely not on superstars but on improving the skills of ordinary people. 

Looking at history, Goldstein explains why eliminating teacher tenure—as has happened recently in Florida and North Carolina—is a terrible mistake. Dating back to 1909 in the U.S., tenure was adapted from the highly regarded Prussian system and was backed by reformers like Harvard president Charles William Eliot to reduce the political influence over teacher appointments. Chicago adopted tenure after a superintendent fired highly effective teachers in retaliation for union activities. Over the years, opponents of tenure have included Southerners who wanted to fire black teachers in newly integrated schools and black nationalists, who wanted to fire white teachers in black schools. Past attacks on teacher tenure, Goldstein implies, don’t bode well for the future.

Similarly, Green and Goldstein’s books work in concert to dismantle some of the myths surrounding charter schools. The theory, Green notes, is that “Unfettered by unions, charter schools were able to … hire and fire on the basis of performance alone.” It is true that at many charter schools, educators work incredibly hard, teaching an extended day and then making themselves available to students in the evenings. But on average, charter schools perform only about as well as traditional public schools. 

Even more academically successful charter schools are facing problems of teacher morale, as educators are often paid less to work more. Teachers report higher levels of dissatisfaction, and turnover is double that in traditional public schools. Citing the extraordinary hours expected of charter school teachers, former National Education Association president Dennis Van Roekel notes, “There’s a problem when we’re creating a job you can’t do if you have kids.”

So what is to be done? Goldstein offers a number of ideas, and Green one big idea.

To begin with, teachers shouldn’t be asked to shoulder the entire burden of lifting children out of poverty. Citing the strong benefits of choice programs that give low-income students a chance to attend economically integrated schools, Goldstein calls for federal support for such efforts. While integration used to seem hopelessly outdated, she says, “today, a growing number of charter school leaders acknowledge the research showing that integration promotes academic and social-emotional growth for all kids.” Even for advocates focused solely on the teacher quality issue, integration can be a way of connecting low-income students and great teachers. 

To attract stronger teachers to the profession, Goldstein calls for an across-the-board pay raise. The U.S. has historically relied on low-paid female teachers to be “wholly unselfish, self-abnegating and morally pure,” Goldstein writes. Not surprisingly, this stingy approach has limited appeal to many top-notch college graduates, and a majority of public school teachers have below-average SAT scores. The median income for American teachers is similar to police officers and librarians and significantly less than accountants, registered nurses, or dental hygienists, Goldstein reports. In high-achieving nations like Korea, teachers have 250 percent of the local buying power of American teachers.

Goldstein does call for unions to give ground on layoff policies that ignore teacher quality and are based strictly on seniority. But instead of supporting individualized merit pay, she calls for policies that reward groups of teachers for excellence so as to encourage valuable collaboration among educators. And instead of eliminating tenure, she calls for peer assistance and review programs, such as those used in Toledo, Ohio, and Montgomery County, Maryland, in which expert teachers work to improve the craft of struggling colleagues but when that does not work, recommend that employment be terminated. These reviews are more accurate than evaluations by administrators, who may not have expertise in a particular subject area.

Along the same lines, Green wants to see tests used as diagnostic tools to identify areas where teachers can improve rather than as clubs to inflict punishment. Because both education school professor and education reformers are converging around the idea that it is possible to build a better teacher, Green notes that the Gates Foundation, which has a pushed hard for a rank-and-stack approach, is now giving grants to coach teachers to improve their craft.

It is a shame that these two books are being published toward the end of the Obama administration rather than at the beginning. If their insights had been known then, Democrats might not have unilaterally disarmed in the education wars. They might have used the special opportunity provided by election of an inspiring African American president to push a genuinely forward-looking agenda that supports our nation’s teachers rather than demoralizing them.

This piece has been updated.