National Standards, Charter Schools and Teacher Recruitment/Dismissal: The Confluence of Policy and Politics

 

Barack and Arne and Randi, and Diane all agree on National Standards, as does the influential  Aspin Institute head Walter Issacson.. Is it a done deal? Not Quite.
 
Firstly, what do we mean by national standards? There are a number of voluntary organizations  that have promulgated standards in a range of subject areas: mathematics, social studies, etc. Additionally each state has their own state standards, that vary greatly, compare Mississippi  standards to Massachusetts standards.
 
 
(A panelist) … made the point that national standards were looked at as a point of weakness when she said, “We have national standards for thermostats, is it to much to ask for national standards for education.” The panel all agreed that it would be great to see fifteen states come together to create national standards for education and to encourage other states to follow their lead. Governor Romer touched on the topic and called for more research into a “good authentic test.”
 
In the current issue of the American Educator, the monthly magazine of the American Federation of Teachers, AFT President Randi Weingarten raises the issue: should the AFT support national content standards ? and asks for member feedback.
 
It’s not a “done deal” because gaining a national consensus on any education issue is a heavy lift. For example, we do not have any agreement on how to define graduation rates. The National Governors’ Association has an initiative, “Education Counts,”  over a period of years states will voluntarily define graduation rates. However Chief State School Officers raise a range of State-level questions , and, it will take at least until 2012 to establish a common metric.
 
If we have difficulty defining and measuring graduation rates imagine the challenge of defining and measuring content standards.
 
I can just hear Glenn Beck on Fox Cable, “They want to mandate the teaching of evolution!” Remember the “Monkey Trial” ? Watch “Inherit the Wind” lately?
 
Second, “charter schools” have become code words for “union-free schools with performance-based salary schedules.” From the President to the Secretary of Education to the mayors of major cities (New York, LA, Chicago, DC, etc.,) charter schools have taken center stage. Teacher unions are political organizations, they endorse and work for candidates, they raise dollars through voluntary member contributions, they lobby for education funding and they negotiate contracts. Increasingly we hear anecdotal evidence that teacher contracts impede the ability of principals to make decisions: contracts impact negatively on pupil performance, and, there are the beginnings of research in this area. The reality is that evidence is scant at best, and, union contract flexibility does exist, i.e., the Pilot Schools in Boston and the Belmont Pilot Schools  in LA are prime examples.
 
In spite of all the adulation of charter schools the March, 2009 Brookings Institute Milwaukee Study, studying six years of charter schools in Milwaukee concludes
 
the performance of charter schools and traditional public schools is statistically indistinguishable for the most recent years of our study;

We conclude that while charter schools overall may help the education of urban youth, our study of Milwaukee indicates that they should not be expected to be the silver bullet that some reformers seek. We also suggest that it is important to better understand and deal with instability in school attendance in urban school districts, as it proves to be the most significant determinant of student achievement in all of our statistical models.

In spite of the evidence in the school district with the most experience, politics overwhelms policy. The student attendance issue was dramatically highlighted in the Center for NYC Affairs Study, “Chronic Absenteeism”. Student absenteeism is ignored while the charter school issue swirls.

 Lastly, teacher recruitment/teacher dismissal is high on the Duncan agenda. Obama and Arne argue we should attract the “best and the brightest” to careers in teaching. Once again, research is lacking, and, the research that does exist is complex  and far from conclusive.
Back in 1990 Ronald Ferguson from Harvard pointed to, 
 
 Teachers in Texas who instruct children of color tend to have weaker language skills, a fact that accounts for over one-quarter of reading and mathematics score differentials for Black and White students, and 20 percent of the gap between Hispanic Americans and Whites. Performance is improved by: (1) teachers with strong language skills; (2) class size of 18 students or fewer; (3) teachers with more experience; and (4) teachers with master’s degrees.
 
Schools of Education, non-traditional teacher certification programs and school districts and schools must use available research to select the candidates with the greatest chances of success, i.e., raising pupil achievement, and, we need much more research in this critical arena.
 
Who should be discharged? About half of all teachers leave the profession within five years, and we suspect that many leave because they are not successful and are encouraged to leave. Clearly, the probationary period, in most states the first three years, must be the period to evaluate carefully.
 
President Obama, at a Town Hall forum, raised the issue of the experienced teacher, who after a number of interventions is still failing. Teacher dismissal procedures exist in every state, and, they all involve some sort of due process, as they should.
 
 The reauthorization of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), under whatever the new name is, will require Republicans as well as Democrats, perhaps, the first truly bi-partisan issue. From the teacher union side we will neither see compliance or rejection. Union leadership is far ahead of their membership.
 
We will see a confluence of policy and politics.
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