The single-biggest problem in discussions about reforming American public education is that nearly all players think their belief is gospel. Both defenders of traditional public education’s status quo, and school reformers hold certain ideas that they think lead to the one and only solution (or the most-important solution of all). The reality is that it will take a wide array of solutions — including ending the culture of mediocrity and disdain for data that permeates throughout our schools and districts today.
Dropout Nation has spent pages and podcasts taking down some of those viewpoints — including the notion that poverty is the underlying cause of achievement gaps and the nation’s dropout crisis, and that some kids are incapable of handling college prep curricula. At the same time, we have also made clear that school choice is just one imperfect (and sometimes incomplete) answer to solving our dropout crisis. Below are some more beliefs that are sorely mistaken: need to be embraced with other aspects of reform:
It’s All About Standards: Embraced by the standards and accountability types in the school reform movement (including supporters of the new Common Core State Standards), it’s based on a belief that more-rigorous curriculum standards will help in holding schools and districts accountable for results, in developing tests that actually measure what students are learning and in structuring better curricula and instructional practices. This certainly makes sense. After all, without standards for learning, schools, districts and states would simply continue with the decades of educational malpractice that has led to the current woes within public education.
The problem? Start with the reality that standards won’t mean much is school curricula isn’t aligned with them. Essentially, one can create rigorous standards and explain clearly what every child should learn — and it will be useless without assuring that the curricula follows according to them. This is a critical issue because so many of the curriculum developers are either skeptical of the underlying rationale for the standards or (wrongly) any kind of curriculum standards whatsoever.
The second problem lies with how to ensure that that the standards are actually being enforced at the school level; essentially one will have to hope that everyone involved behaves honorably (unlikely) or that a state or federal agency will hold feet to the fire (which, based on past history, still means more gamesmanship). States have struggled with this challenge for decades. Thanks to the embrace of Common Core, this will now be a national struggle as well. While folks such as Checker Finn and Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute dance around the issue by arguing that a national non-profit board can handle the job, past experience (including that of the U.S. Department of Education with some provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act) suggests otherwise.
Ultimately, you must still improve teacher quality (along with developing more-rigorous and aligned curricula) in order to make all this work. This means ed schools must be overhauled in order to better recruit and train teachers. It also means expanding the pool of alternative teacher training programs, and expanding Teach For America and other existing programs.
It’s All About Curriculum: The flip-side is the line of argument advanced by Robert Pondisco and his employers at Core Knowledge, among others. It is based on a couple of rather seductive notions with the usual rings of truth. The first: That teachers are only as good as the curriculum they use in instruction. The second: That standards are meaningless without strong content that provides students both with skills and background knowledge
But as with so many beliefs, rings of truth doesn’t mean absolute truth. Forget for a moment that none of the groups actually agree on which curricula is best for improving student achievement in any subject (much less all subjects): The curriculum-is-the-solution crowd forget that curricula doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is shaped by a series of underlying standards, goals and beliefs; it is taught by teachers who must have the subject-matter competency, entrepreneurial drive and care for the lives of children needed to be good instructors; and the underlying rigor (including teacher and curriculum evaluation) must be reinforced by strong, thoughtful principals and superintendents. If the curricula is divorced from standards, then it will be ineffective and will cause systemic problems up and down the line (including frustrating efforts to evaluate teachers and the most-important matter of all — ensuring every child learns). If the curricula is taught by lousy teachers, the kids won’t learn. And if school leadership doesn’t do its job of fostering a culture of genius, high-quality curriculum will become low-quality in an instant.
As standards is only one part of the formula for school reform, so is curriculum. Standards and curricula both need to be of high-quality in order to be worth their respective salts. And you need systemic reforms in place in order to assure that the curricula does its job.
It’s All About Economic Desegregation: The usual line trotted out by the Jerry Orfield-Richard Kahlenberg crowd is one based on the Civil Rights Movement concept of integration and busing. Minorities and the poor, according to this view, can’t receive the same quality of education as their white middle-class peers unless they attend school with these peers. Based on this logic, it’s better to just ship poor kids to the schools attended by middle class kids instead of improving the quality of schools in poor neighborhoods.
Kahlenberg in particular has spent the past two decades trotting out studies and school districts that supposedly prove this line of thinking. A couple of decades ago, it was Wake County, N.C. (even though its achievement gaps were never truly closed and the desegregation effort involved only a smattering of all students). These days, it is the D.C. suburb of Montgomery County, Md., the subject of a recent report by Heather Schwartz, a Rand Corp., researcher brought in by Kahlenberg’s employer, the Century Foundation. This, despite the fact that Montgomery County (in which only 65 percent of black males graduate from high school, according to the Schott Foundation for Public Education) isn’t exactly the model Kahlenberg and Schwartz claim it to be.
What I’m saying, to be kind, is that Kahlenberg and Orfield are touting a strategy (originally developed by an earlier generation of civil rights activists out of political necessity) that hasn’t worked in improving student achievement. If anything, integration has done more to keep poor and minority kids from getting high-quality education in their own neighborhoods. Magnet schools, for example, haven’t
The biggest problem with integration is that it tacitly argues that there is no way to improve the quality of education our poorest kids receive in their own neighborhoods; in essence, no one should bother reforming education so poor kids can have high-quality schools in the communities in which they live. This view ignores the success charter schools operators such as the Knowledge Is Power Program and Catholic diocesan schools in improving student achievement right in those very neighborhoods. There are other words for it, but we’ll keep them out of this family publication.
Integration is no substitute for complete, systemic and much-needed overhaul of American public education.
It Comes Down to Working Things Out at the School Level: A good number of folks, including Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews, articulates this perspective (which is what used to be called site-based or school-based decision-making). From where they sit, school bureaucracies, policymaking bodies and legislative edicts merely set up a framework for school activity — and not even a good one at that. Ultimately, the people best-suited to deciding school activities — from curriculum to hiring, evaluating and compensating teachers — are school principals, who are closest to the ground. This perspective makes sense on its face: No matter how robust the school data system or well-informed the superintendent or state legislator, these players aren’t anywhere near the classroom and cannot observe every bit of activity that happens daily in schools.
But the school-based decision-making viewpoint ignores the complex structure that is American public education, one in which hiring and firing decisions are made not by principals and not even by superintendents, but largely controlled by collective bargaining agreements, state laws and federal and state regulations. Moving all teacher hiring-and-firing decisions down to principals (a move taken in New York City) definitely helps
If we moved to a private sector-driven education system, fully decentralized all districts or even adapted the Hollywood Model — my formula for reforming governance and delivery of education — then the site-based approach would work. Until then, we must reform every aspect of American public education in a systematic way.
You have to make all teachers better: This belief, held by many teachers union officials and teachers such as 2009 California Teacher of the Year Alex Kajitani and David B. Cohen, assumes that every teacher is capable of high-quality instruction. From where they sit, teachers need help developing their classroom instruction. Performance management should not use objective student performance data (especially test data) for hiring and firing teachers; instead, evaluations (along with so-called peer review) should be used to help laggards get better.
Nothing wrong with trying to believe that. But in the real world, some folks just aren’t fit for certain jobs. This doesn’t mean that they are terrible people and it doesn’t mean they can’t be successful in other lines of work. What it does mean that they won’t do a good-to-great job — be they lack the skills, talent, temperament or desire — in a particular field. No matter how much additional training or assistance they receive, they won’t do any better. Teachers are no exception. An instructor is no more successful in improving student achievement after 25 years of teaching than an instructor working for four years, according to a report by Dan Goldhaber and Michael Hansen of the Center for Reinventing Public Education. This means that a teacher that is poor-performing after four years in the classroom is unlikely to get any better 21 years down the line (and vice versa for her high-quality colleague). Given everything that we know at this moment about the impact of high-quality and low-quality teaching, we can’t afford to continue exposing kids to instruction by teachers who don’t make the grade.
Teachers union bosses and teachers have to face this reality: Many of of their colleagues lack either the subject competency, empathy for children, or entrepreneurial zeal needed to be high-quality teachers. Quite a few lack all three characteristics. They are all too willing to mire themselves, their students and their colleagues in mediocrity in order to collect their paychecks. These teachers cannot be made better. The best solution is to improve how we recruit and train teachers, and develop performance management systems that separate good-to-great teachers from those who aren’t.
Editor’s Note: Originally, I had mentioned that Core Knowledge was opposed to standards. Robert Pondisco took time to note that Core Knowledge did support Common Core. For accuracy’s sake, I have made the proper correction. Apologies to all for the error.