Between the 1999-2000 and 2007-2008 school years, before the effects of the current recession were even fully felt, the ratio of high poverty schools increased from 12 to 17 percent. In all, a whopping 16,122 public schools have been labeled high poverty.
There is a growing body of quantitative research showing teaching ability to be the most important school-based factor influencing student performance. The evidence that effective teachers significantly influence student achievement is clear ….
This “Lake Wobegon effect,” where the great majority of a group is characterized as above average, fails to acknowledge and represent the variation in teacher quality we know exists in the teaching workforce. It is nearly impossible to use many existing evaluation methods for high-stakes personnel decisions such as: When all teachers are above average, how do you decide which teachers to lay off? Which teachers should receive tenure? Which teachers have earned bonuses in a performance-based system?
Given the demand for objective, quantitative measures of teacher performance and the shortcomings of many existing evaluation systems, it is not surprising that a number of districts and states have begun to utilize so called value-added models, or VAMs, to evaluate teachers.
The total commitment to the use of student achievement data (VAM) is not as “cut and dried” as Goldhaber and the Klein acolytes would like us to believe.
Effectiveness is not a monolithic thing, but rather teachers are more or less effective across different subjects, students, and circumstances. So far, conversations about value-added measurement seem to use language in ways that present a single view of teaching and position teacher effectiveness as something static that can be estimated by a single statistic. Those who believe teacher effectiveness is flexible across subjects, students, and varying demands do not suggest that all teachers are good at something—some aren’t—but rather that the complexity of roles and expectations for teachers requires them to have a dynamic profile of effectiveness. Those who talk about VAM, as if it were both the crystal ball and the Holy Grail for education reform, would love for us to believe otherwise.
What is so frustrating for teachers is the reality that confronts them each and every day. Students in middle class, high socio-economic status neighborhoods come to school better prepared than students in poor, low socio-economic status neighborhoods. Joel Klein seems to argue that to acknowledge this fact is somehow racist, that the mantra must be “no excuses.”
We all agree, teachers, no matter the classroom must provide the highest level of instruction of which they are capable.
To ignore the reality of the impact of poverty is foolish.
Richard Rothstein not only succinctly analyzes the mythology that teachers alone can eliminate the achievement gap he spells out concrete policies to ameliorate the impact of poverty.
It’s no cop-out to acknowledge the effects of socioeconomic disparities on student learning. Rather, it’s a vital step to closing the achievement gap.
The commonplace “no excuses” ideology implies that educators—were they to realize that their efforts alone were insufficient to raise student achievement—would be too simple-minded then to bring themselves to exert their full effort. The ideology presumes that policymakers with an Olympian perspective can trick teachers into performing at a higher level by making them believe that unrealistically high degrees of success are within reach.
There’s a lack of moral, political, and intellectual integrity in this suppression of awareness of how social and economic disadvantage lowers achievement. Our first obligation should be to analyze social problems accurately; only then can we design effective solutions. Presenting a deliberately flawed version of reality, fearing that the truth will lead to excuses, is not only corrupt but also self-defeating.
Mythology cannot, in the long run, inspire better instruction. Teachers see for themselves how poor health or family economic stress impedes students’ learning. Teachers may nowadays be intimidated from acknowledging these realities aloud and may, in groupthink obedience, repeat the mantra that “all children can learn.” But nobody is fooled. Teachers still know that although all children can learn, some learn less well because of poorer health or less-secure homes. Suppressing such truths leads only to teacher cynicism and disillusion. Talented teachers abandon the profession, willing to shoulder responsibility for their own instructional competence but not for failures beyond their control.
It’s a canard that educators advocating socioeconomic reforms wish to postpone school improvement until we have created an impractical economic utopia. Another canard is the idea that it’s impractical to narrow socioeconomic inequalities, so school reform is the only reasonable lever. Modest social and economic reforms, well within our political reach, could have a palpable effect on student achievement. For example, we could
- Ensure good pediatric and dental care for all students, in school-based clinics.
- Expand existing low-income housing subsidy programs to reduce families’ involuntary mobility.
- Provide higher-quality early childhood care so that low-income children are not parked before televisions while their parents are working.
- Increase the earned income tax credit, the minimum wage, and collective bargaining rights so that families of low-wage workers are less stressed.
- Promote mixed-income housing development in suburbs and in gentrifying cities to give more low-income students the benefits of integrated educations in neighborhood schools.
- Fund after-school programs so that inner-city children spend fewer nonschool hours in dangerous environments and, instead, develop their cultural, artistic, organizational, and athletic potential.
The unrelenting campaign to stigmatize teachers and specific schools is ill-conceived and cruel. It should be no surprise that schools in the poorest zip codes are closed and reopened with different numbers and names multiple times. It should be no surprise that the first school that Tweed bureaucrats chose for a Cathie Black visit houses the district gifted and talent program, an “A,” with an asterisk.
The President, governors, mayors and chancellor/superintendents may endorse a “no excuses,” close schools, stigmatize teachers approach, tragically they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
Teachers and principals have a moral and professional obligation to continually upgrade skills, to challenge ourselves and those around us to constantly scrutinize our performance, to seek different and more effective approaches, never to be satisfied with the status quo.
We also have an obligation as citizens to challenge policies that allow millions of Americans to wallow in poverty, that prevents yet another generation of youngsters from rising from poverty. For too many of the kids we meet in kindergarten classrooms, in spite of our best efforts, incarceration is a far more likely path than college.
The federal dollar commitment to full service community schools are a fraction of one percent of RttT funding, only ten grants were awarded in 2010, two to charter schools.
We shelter estates up to five million dollars, we continue tax breaks to families earning over $250,000 a year, and we expect teachers to bear the burden of solving the achievement gap.
Our leaders should hang their heads in shame.