Author: RiShawn Biddle

Education’s Sophistication Problem: The Troubles with Data

One of the greatest challenges in reforming American public education starts and ends with the lack of regard for the power and usefulness of data. And this can be seen…

One of the greatest challenges in reforming American public education starts and ends with the lack of regard for the power and usefulness of data. And this can be seen when one looks at Corporate America and the firms who are the most-admired players in their respective sectors.

When one looks at the most-successful businesses in the corporate world — Wal-Mart, Proctor & Gamble, McDonald’s, Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon — they share a few things in common. One of the most-important is they use data, including such metrics as the speed it takes to make a burger, and the growth of toothpaste sales in India, to guide long-term business strategy and operations. This information (and more importantly, the analysis and understanding of the data) allows executives, middle managers, and staffs to focus develop marketing programs, launch new initiatives, and improve the efficiency of their operations in order to build market share and generate long-term profit growth.

In fact, data has become so important for businesses that mastering its use is as much a part of work in most companies as the main products and services provided. Proctor & Gamble is now conducting an inventory of the skills its employees have in data analysis and use, looking to establish baselines for what everyone within the consumer products giant should know. An entire career sector, devoted to data analysis (whose practitioners are data scientists), has also developed as a result.

But the key thing is that the data serves as a guide for these companies, not the end goal or activity themselves. What they learn can help them develop long-term growth plans, bring focus to operations (and ensure they stick to their knitting), even look at creating new products. McDonald’s decided to develop its successful chicken snack wrap after data showed that the sales for its chicken selects were plateauing; it helped the company further develop its concept of building “platforms of products” that meet every price point, draw in new customers, and as seen with its line of breakfast burritos (which use the same tortilla shell as the snack wraps), even maximize the use of inventories for long-term cost-savings. But McDonald’s still took 18 months to develop and test market the product to see if it passed muster among 150-to-200 customers in focus groups, and didn’t make it difficult for workers on the ground to get it to customers in a timely manner. More importantly, it didn’t just use the data on chicken select sales to make dumb short-term moves that would reap short-term profits, but ruin McDonald’s long-term business prospects. Companies with a penchant for using data to simply reap short-term profits pay the price — usually in going out of business — and are indicative of other operational and management issues. Think Enron or any of the Wall Street firms that went bust during the financial meltdown.

I see this in my own experience. As editor of this publication, I pay as much attention to key metrics — from growth in unique visitors, to the number of mentions in publications such as The Wall Street Journal and Education Week — as I do to what is happening in the debate over the reform of American public education. Yet the metrics serve as a guide to Dropout Nation‘s ultimate goals, not the end. While certain issues and topics may get more attention than others from the audience, I cannot just write about those matters because I serve an audience that is equally divided between policy players, grassroots activists, parents and teachers. Because this magazine is mission-driven, it means I must also cover topics that may not attract much interest from either audience — chronic truancy is one such matter — but relate to the ultimate goal of ensuring that every child gets the high-quality education they need to succeed in life. And because not every new section or item is immediately successful, I have to look deeper into data in order to determine whether it will work out in the long haul.

I point out these examples because such nuanced, thoughtful understanding and use of data is one that is lacking in American public education today — even among school reformers who should be paying more attention to how data is used successfully in the private sector and can be applied in areas such as teacher evaluations and even guiding classroom instruction.

As evidenced today in a piece written by Mike Petrilli, the research czar for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, on the disconnect between families and policymakers over what schools should be, there tends to be this fear among nearly all education traditionalists and even some reformers that using data will lead to the narrowing of curriculum and instruction. The more data is used and the more testing that is done to get that data, the more-likely that schools will offer narrow, inferior education to kids. There will be fewer art and music appreciation classes (because those courses are not tested), while teachers will simply focus on test prep (or just “teach to the test” instead of actual teaching because their evaluations are based on student achievement on tests. Or so goes the theory.

Forget the growing evidence that standardized testing, along with formative assessments, can help students learn, or that test prep, used judiciously as a small aspect of overall instruction, can be useful. Or the reality that the nation’s traditional public schools are already a collection of failure factories and mills of mediocrity; and that music and art classes have been in decline even before testing became widespread. This line of thinking fails to realize that data can be used as guides for overhauling instruction, curricula and leadership. And the fact that plenty of teachers, administrators and school boards use data the wrong way, to simply “teach to the test” and narrow learning, are signs of a deeper talent problem within American public education.

As Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman pointed out during a congressional hearing this past July, those low-quality instructors who “teach to the test” are being lazy. More importantly, it shows that those teachers don’t have what it takes to work in classrooms. A good-to-great teacher knows that it is really difficult, actually, almost impossible, to ever successfully “teach to the test” for numerous reasons — including the fact that content can change over time, and cut scores change often enough to make it difficult to game the system. So they must actually teach children so that they master all that they must know in order to pass today’s test and take on more-complex subjects several grades down the road.

This is also true in the area of course diversity in schools. As the Harlem Link Charter School has shown in its own work, a high-quality school structures instruction and curriculum to make sure that children continually become more-literate no matter what class they take. The books read for social studies class help build comprehension while they still get the background knowledge they need to be fully literate and well-rounded. Schools need not neglect music appreciation courses or American history; those that do are not only doing a disservice to the children in their care, the administrators who run them and their parent districts also show their lack of imagination, competence and leadership.

The problem in American public education has nothing to do with data or its usefulness. The issue lies with the fact that American public education has trailed far behind other sectors in using data in shaping what is done every day in classrooms and central offices. As I noted in yesterday’s commentary on reshaping the work of teachers, data has provided plenty of information that can use thoughtfully and intelligently in creating new specialties within teaching that can help improve student success and make teaching more-rewarding for our good-to-great instructors. But ed school professors, policy wonks, teachers’ union bosses and others have neglected this important and much-needed reform, largely because their sophistication with data is low compared to their peers in the corporate world.

This lack of sophistication when it comes to thinking about and using data also highlights one of the most-pressing elements of education’s talent problem: That the work of teaching and administrating schools is no longer perceived to be as a sophisticated profession in an increasingly knowledge-based economy. Certainly, the problems of degree- and seniority-based pay scales, defined-benefit pensions and near-lifetime employment — which fails to recognize and reward high-quality work and doesn’t reward good-to-great work early in teaching careers in meaningful ways — is a major reason why it is so hard to attract talented collegians into the profession. But teaching was a far-less lucrative and even-worse paid profession for most of American history, and yet, it is likely that the profession attracted those who were likely to be top talent (including African American collegians and grad students who couldn’t teach at the higher ed level in the Jim Crow-era South).

But today, there are even blue-collar jobs such as machine tool-and-die manufacturing, and elevator installation, which visibly appear to demand more sophistication and challenge than what teaching, as structured by school districts and teachers unions, does today. Careers in such fields as marketing and even journalism demand that its practitioners are as much statistics geeks as they are skilled in crafting powerful messages and shoe-leather reporting. Far too many people perceive wrongly that teaching is unsophisticated, and that anyone can do it. And that perception, along with the poor structure of teacher compensation, complicated certification processes that don’t actually measure competence, and the reality that the United States is a more-diversified and competitive economy than Finland, is why it is so hard to attract bright talents into the profession.

Anyone who spends any time working with kids on reading knows that this isn’t so; good-to-great teachers need to be entrepreneurial, understand the psychology of children, must be skilled in analyzing formative and summative test score growth data, and need to have strong subject-matter competency and instructional method, in order to do the job. But ed schools, with their penchant for focusing on pedagogical theory instead of the skills teachers need to succeed every day, don’t speak to those realities in any of their courses. Neither do school districts nor the professional development outfits charged with helping teachers build their knowledge and skills over time. And school reformers (your editor included) have really fallen down on the job in this arena, neglecting an opportunity to help teachers elevate their profession.

So instead of high-quality talents who know how to use data in sophisticated ways, we have teachers and administrators who use data badly. And we end up with other players in education who view the results as a data problem instead of a problem of people who are ill-equipped to use it properly in helping students succeed. All in all, a shame.

It is time for everyone within education who holds unsophisticated views about data to toss off those ideas, pay attention to what happens in the corporate world, and embrace more-sophisticated thinking when it comes to testing and the usefulness of information. This would help spur the reforms we need to provide our children with the rigorous, wide-ranging curricula and high-quality teaching they deserve.

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Michigan’s Rick Snyder Versus Zip Code Education

Amid the debate in Michigan earlier this year over Gov. Rick Snyder’s successful effort to expand the power and reach of emergency financial managers now overseeing five local governments and…

Photo courtesy of MLive.

Amid the debate in Michigan earlier this year over Gov. Rick Snyder’s successful effort to expand the power and reach of emergency financial managers now overseeing five local governments and Detroit’s school district, one of his more-ambitious proposals got little notice: The governor proposed to expand the state’s inter-district choice program — and end the practices of Zip Code Education that condemn poor and minority children to dropout factories — by requiring every district to open their doors to any student anywhere.

But now, school districts have begun paying attention to Snyder’s plan. As one would expect, suburban districts are readying to fight Snyder and school choice activists at any turn. The emerging battle hits upon the two most-important reasons why it is hard to expand school choice and end zip code education practices such as zoned schooling. And those issues exemplify why school reformers must fiercely challenge the very mindsets that help perpetuate the nation’s education crisis.

As Redefine Ed‘s Adam Emerson and Doug Tuthill have noted, the Grosse Pointe district outside Detroit has already passed a resolution opposing the plan while city officials (who don’t actually run the district) have done the same. More than likely, the nine other suburban districts that, like Grosse Pointe, have never participated in the current inter-district choice program will do the same. The publicly-stated reason: That requiring choice will lead to the “further erosion of local decision making”. The fact that the Wolverine State’s constitution charges the state with providing “free public elementary and secondary schools”, along with the reality that school districts are arms of state government with no real independence of their own, essentially undercuts their argument. So does the fact that Michigan’s state government provides 54 percent of all school funding, essentially rendering local control a mythology.

But as typical in school choice battles throughout the nation, the opposition from Grosse Pointe’s school board and the families they proclaim to represent (as well as those in other districts) has nothing to do with local control.

From where they sit, they heavily subsidize the district and thus, have them the right to shut the door on children from Detroit and elsewhere. The fact that these districts actually generate more money by skipping out of the state’s school funding system — and collect more money (for the Harbor Springs district, which participated in the choice program until last year, an additional $1,500 per student) means that choice is not exactly a lucrative option. While Michigan may provide the majority of school funding, the fact that these districts can easily opt out of its funding formula makes it difficult to force districts to open their doors to students outside of their boundaries.

This hits upon the fiscal barrier to school choice: The fact that state governments, which now contribute 48 percent of school funding, refuse to assume their constitutional responsibilities and take over full funding of education. This allows traditional districts to come up with the excuses they need to keep poor and minority kids out of the schools they operate (as well as refuse to take on other systemic reforms), killing the seeds of inter-district choice.

Then there is the attitude among middle class families and others that poor and minorities don’t share the same interest in providing their children with a high quality education as they do. From where they sit, poor and minority families should do exactly what they have done — pick up stakes and buy homes — if they want access to a high quality education; since those families haven’t (or, more often than not, can’t afford) to do so, those families must obviously not care enough about giving their kids what they need to succeed.

This particularly condescending and racialist version of the Poverty Myth of Education that is a plague throughout American public education ignores the empirical evidence that poor families desire high quality education. Minorities and parents in high-poverty districts, for example, were more likely than middle-class parents to request a teacher for their child based on how teachers improved student achievement, according to a 2005 study by University of Michigan researcher Brian Jacob and Lars Lefgren of Brigham Young University. But one need not just look at research reports. Some 420,000 children are waiting for seats in the nation’s charter schools, the nation’s most-prominent form of choice, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools; minorities make up 30 percent of enrollment in the nation’s dwindling collection of Catholic diocesan schools, offering tuition assistance to the poor families that attend them.

These views also ignore the reality that for most poor and minority families, choice is not exactly an option. Even with the passage of voucher-like tax credit programs and expansion of vouchers and tax credit efforts in 13 states, the programs still reach few students. Indiana’s new school voucher program, for example, still only serves two-tenths of one percent of the Hoosier State’s 1.1 million school-aged children. The federal Race to the Top program has helped spur the expansion of more charters; but thanks to state laws that place traditional districts in charge of authorizing those schools — and thus, allowing the districts to keep out competition — there are still far too few of them (and even fewer of high quality) to give children real choices.

Poor and minority families shouldn’t have to fight so hard to provide their children with high-quality education. Given that states are responsible for providing high-quality options — and that school districts are merely arms of the states that form them — these barriers are absolutely amoral and illegal. Suburban districts such as Grosse Pointe aren’t necessarily nearly as good at providing high-quality teaching and instruction as many perceive them to be; just ask any black parent whose kids attend schools in similar suburban enclaves such as Fairfax County. But given that they do provide high-quality education to their kids in general, there’s no justifiable reason for denying poor and minority kids opportunities to escape the worst American public education offers.

In pushing to expand public school choice, Snyder and his supporters are doing the right thing. But it will take more than just doing the right thing to make choice a reality. The governor and the Republican majority must move to make school funding a state priority, ending the use of local property tax dollars to fund schools. This could be done simply through a property tax relief effort similar to what has been done in Indiana (where the state generates all but a smidgeon of school operating dollars), or replacing the portion of property tax dollars collected by districts with a statewide property tax that flows directly to the state before being parceled out statewide. Such moves would then allow Snyder to essentially create a weighted school funding (or voucherize) school dollars so that the per-pupil spend follows each student to any school of their choice.

Snyder will also have to team up with choice activists, including the Black Alliance for Educational Options and other Parent Power groups to challenge attitudes among middle class families about their poor and minority counterparts. This means a public relations and advocacy strategy that features families discussing their aspirations, and informing middle class families about the realities of choice. At the same time, Snyder and school reformers must also push for black legislators — especially those representing Detroit who oppose the choice program because it may lead to students (and dollars) fleeing the district — to remember their responsibilities to the children and families they represent. This even includes reminding those politicians that families will remember their votes on the proposal on Primary and Election Day, and recruiting school reform-minded candidates who can apply campaign pressure.

If Snyder’s legislation doesn’t pass, school reform activists could also file suit against the state and districts such as Grosse Pointe for perpetuating Zip Code Education, a strategy touted by Dropout Nation and Heartland Institute scholar Bruno Behrend in last month’s The Conversation podcast. The Connecticut Parents Union is already taking this approach in a suit it filed last month on behalf of Stratford grandmother Marie Menard, who helped her grandchildren attend school in that district until it found out that the kids and their mother didn’t actually reside there. The state would be forced to defend against the suit, but Snyder could also play a part in forcing a negotiated settlement that leads to expanding public school choice.

It is high time to end Zip Code Education practices that deny high-quality choices to every family. And Michigan can be the first place where the next set of barriers are brought down.

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The Importance of Changing How Teachers Work

Would you expect a cardiologist to do the work of a gastroenterologist? No. So why do we expect a strong reading teacher to also be equally as talented in math?…

Would you expect a cardiologist to do the work of a gastroenterologist? No. So why do we expect a strong reading teacher to also be equally as talented in math? The fact that we expect the latter and not the former gets to the heart of one of the biggest challenges we face in improving the teaching profession and American public education as a whole.

When it comes to teachers, school reformers and education traditionalists talk plenty about overhauling how teachers are recruited, changing the way they are trained, revamping the array of costly, ineffective degree- and seniority-based compensation packages, and subjecting them to more-rigorous success-based performance management. All of these discussions are critical. But one of the most-important conversations is the one that is also the one least-considered: Re-imagining the very ways teachers work in classrooms and how principals oversee what they do.

As Stanford University Professor Linda Darling-Hammond has astutely noted, teacher training is in the same state that medical training was a century ago, before the work of Abraham Flexner and the Carnegie Corp., led to improvements in how doctors are selected into med schools and taught how to conduct exams and surgeries. The same is true for the actual work of teaching. As doctors were expected back in the 19th and early 20th centuries to be jacks of all trades instead of being allowed to become dedicated specialists working efficiently in hospitals and practices, teachers are expected to be general practitioners when it makes more sense for them (and for schools) to become master specialists in aspects of student learning.

In elementary schools, teachers are generalists expected to provide high-quality reading, math and science instruction to students, regardless of their own aptitude in those subjects. This, in spite of the growing evidence that this isn’t even close to possible. As the Los Angeles Times revealed last year in its value-added analysis of elementary teachers working in the L.A. Unified School District, some teachers have strong competency in reading while lagging behind in math teaching, while others are stronger in math teaching than in reading and writing. At Shirley Avenue Elementary in suburban Reseda, for example, only a couple of the teachers analyzed by the Times, Paul Wainess and Mark G. Gendernalik, were strong in both reading and mathematics; the rest were either strong in one of the two subjects, or in many cases, barely treading water in either one.

Even within a particular subject, some teachers are going to have real expertise in one aspect than another. Some teachers, for example, are really going to be skilled in providing intensive reading remediation to struggling readers. Others may have strong expertise in addressing aspects of writing and composition, which is also important for students in their future success. And still others may be good in dealing with areas such as phonics. One can even go further, with teachers becoming reading and math specialists for students in particular grades; after all, kindergartners who need to learn quantities don’t have the same needs as fifth graders who must be able to understand that equal signs are the first steps in understanding the algebraic equations they must master three grades onward.

This specialization extends even into middle schools and high schools, where kids begin going from class to class to teachers who are already specialists of a sort. But given that our kids who have had abysmal instruction in the early grades may need help in other areas, there is a need for even more specialization. For students who struggle with memorizing geometry, they may need a math teacher who has also become a specialist in helping kids acquire and retain knowledge; that teacher can also help those students learn new memorization skills they can apply to other classroom activities. Other teachers can become masters as helping kids left back a grade quickly get up to speed on the subjects they must master and assist them in dealing with the psychological issues that can sometimes come with being held back.

Breaking up teaching into specialties could do wonders for students, providing more-specialized instruction that will address their needs. As Arthur McKee of the National Council of Teacher Quality points out, it can also help schools. After all, specialization has helped the medical profession improve patient care, develop innovative treatments, and improve quality of life for society as a whole by allowing doctors in different fields to address our wide array of ailments and needs. For schools and districts, specialization can allow principals and superintendents to divide up work efficiently, thoughtfully, allowing for the most-meaningful forms of customizing instruction to the needs of children in classrooms.For example, a district can put together a group of teachers with success in improving the achievement of English as Second Language students, and have them go from school to school addressing particular issues. Or a principal can do something similar within his own school.

It can even improve the teaching profession itself. The lack of meaningful career paths and opportunities to grow as professionals is as much a reason why teaching remains unattractive to talented collegians as the seniority-based privileges that fail to reward good and great teachers for their success in improving student performance. Specialization can allow teachers to build expertise in particular subjects and sub-areas within them, gain recognition (and even financial reward) for their work as masters in those particular learning areas. It can also nurture the entrepreneurial talents that teachers must have to be able to do the work of improving student achievement no matter the challenge.

Given that the high-quality teachers we want in our classrooms are likely to also be the kinds of talents who will eventually be bored with just working in one classroom, expanding the range of opportunities for them to stretch and do great work is critical to improving the talent pipeline into American public education. It can also spur the very collaboration that so many teachers and education players consider to be a key to improving student achievement. Teachers could follow the path of doctors and start their own instructional practices that serve particular learning needs.

The tools for allowing this specialization are already here. Thanks to Value-Added Analysis of student performance data, we can pinpoint the areas in which elementary school teachers (and even those at the secondary level) are strongest; the development of formative assessments also allows for the analysis of teacher strengths. While the science of reading and mathematics is still developing, there are plenty of areas in which teachers can be come master instructors. All that is needed is for that data to be used, for strong, performance-based assessments than can help teachers hone their strengths, and for ed schools and alternative teacher training programs to improve their offerings (as well as become more-selective in their recruiting). Given that medical schools and the entire healthcare sector has paved the way for specialization, ed schools and the rest of American public education can build upon that work and take it further.

At this moment, however, instructional specialization doesn’t come up in the thinking of ed school professors, policy wonks, NEA and AFT presidents, or elementary school principals. This is a shame. The challenges of overhauling American public education require abandoning a 19th century model of how teachers work that doesn’t serve children, families, taxpayers or even teachers themselves. It is high time that specialization becomes a part of education.

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Time to Break Apart L.A. Unified

When I wrote two years ago about the Los Angeles Unified School District’s plan to hand over 200 of its traditional public schools into charter school operators and grassroots groups,…

School reform in L.A. Unified may be as burned out as Garfield High's famed auditorium. Photo courtesy of The Eastsider L.A.

When I wrote two years ago about the Los Angeles Unified School District’s plan to hand over 200 of its traditional public schools into charter school operators and grassroots groups, I noted that the proverbial rubber still had to meet the road. After all, L.A. Unified had stood so stubbornly against reform that even famed Garfield High School teacher Jaime Escalante was forced to flee the district’s employ. And the American Federation of Teachers’ City of Angels local is notorious for getting its way and keeping the status quo quite ante.

So it wasn’t that shocking when L.A. Unified’s board voted yesterday to essentially put the kibosh on that reform effort, giving the AFT first dibs on taking over those schools. This move, which came weeks after otherwise reform-minded Superintendent John Deasy rejected one group’s choice to run its school, simply proves that the district is better at talking about change than actually doing it. All but 11 of the 51 schools spun out by L.A. Unified in the past two years have been handed over to groups led by the AFT’s rank-and-file. Given that the AFT now controls the majority of seats on the district’s board after four years of control by a group backed by L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, this was also predictable.

But the move also proved the reality that L.A. Unified, in its current form, is nearly impervious to system reform. Because the district is spread across much of L.A. County, it is difficult for Villaraigosa or his counterparts to mount a sustained reform campaign — especially when the AFT has the financial wherewithal (and the benefit of having elections held during periods when citizens aren’t watching) to get its way. Former L.A. Unified board member Caprice Young learned this the hard way back in 2003 when she lost her bid for re-election after the AFT poured $740,000 (and plenty of rumor-mongering) into the campaign of Jon Lauritzen (who died four years later). And Villaraigosa learned this lesson in March when Bennett Kayser, a longtime AFT player, narrowly beat the mayor’s chosen candidate, Luis Sanchez (and helped the union regain control) in one of the nastiest campaigns in recent memory

Beyond the board itself, L.A. Unified’s sclerotic  bureaucracy — most of whom are drawn from the district’s mediocre teaching corps — functions to keep things as is. Although the district has managed to follow through on some critical curriculum reforms and is pushing through with efforts to use Value-Added data in measuring school performance, the district still remains behind path-breaking districts such as New York City and D.C. Public Schools. What results is that reform-minded superintendents such as Deasy simply end up being wardens minding the proverbial asylum, but never really in charge.

This isn’t to say that reform can’t possibly happen. As is, the district is authorizing more new charter schools and is making some small gains in student achievement. But Deasy and Villaraigosa can’t get more done until the traditional district model is broken apart.

The first step should start with Villaraigosa proposing to California’s state legislature to break up the district into smaller districts, with the mayors in each one having sole control of the systems. While the conditions for reform at the state level aren’t exactly as good as they were under Arnold Schwarzenegger, the proposal would finally force Arnold’s successor (and predecessor), Jerry Brown, to finally take a public stand on systemic reform. For Villaraigosa, a former state assembly speaker who may have his eye on returning to Sacramento, this move would also have the added benefit of rallying centrist and liberal Democrat reformers desperate to toss Brown out of office to the mayor’s side.

If the state legislature and Brown give their blessing, the move would finally place full responsibility for education in the hands of the officials who should be most-concerned about the impact of schools on economies and communities. Villaraigosa and other mayors should then embrace the Hollywood Model of Education. This could include taking on the model of school governance successfully being used in New Orleans and being used by Michigan in reforming Detroit’s failing traditional district. It could even involve a modified form of the school spin-off plan L.A. Unified put into place a year ago. Anything would be better for L.A.’s kids than what the AFT and its allies controlling the district intend to wrought in the coming years.

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We Need High-Quality Black Teachers (and Good and Great Teachers Overall)

This week’s news that Paterson, N.J., teacher Jennifer O’Brien was suspended from her job after declaring earlier this year that she was merely a “warden for future criminals” (instead of…

This week’s news that Paterson, N.J., teacher Jennifer O’Brien was suspended from her job after declaring earlier this year that she was merely a “warden for future criminals” (instead of her actual role as a first-grade teacher), has led to discussions about the need for more black and Latino teachers — especially men — in America’s teaching corps. Commentator Dr. Boyce Watkins, in particular, declared in a piece for NewsOne that the lack of diversity in the teaching corps has led to “Black/brown inner city children poisoned by the white female teacher from the suburbs”. The solution, argues Watkins, is to recruit the “thousands of highly-qualified Black and brown teachers, consultants and counselors who know how to handle Black children.”

Certainly, Watkins is right that we need more minorities in the teaching profession, and just as importantly, we need more men in the teaching ranks. Women make up 79 percent of the nation’s teachers and most of them are white. This lack of diversity in the teaching ranks has helped contribute to a major problem in education: The lack of role models, especially men of all races and backgrounds, who can serve as powerful examples of achievement for our children. Young men of all ages need strong male role models. And young black men, half of whom will likely drop out of high school before they reach senior year of high school after a decade of educational neglect and malpractice, need them most of all.

Yet Watkins fails to consider that there are plenty of examples of black teachers and leaders who think just as lowly of black children (and kids of other backgrounds). Consider Jersey City Superintendent Charles Epps, who was chastised by Dropout Nation and others earlier this year for declaring that the young women attending the traditional public schools there were “our worst enemy” in his (abysmal) effort to improve education in the district, and that many of the kids in the district’s schools were “dirty, nasty, bad”. Then there are the even worse examples of low expectations for black children in districts such as Indianapolis Public Schools and Detroit’s woeful school system, where blacks control the central offices, hold principal jobs, serve as school board members and make up large percentages of the teaching corps. That some of the best-performing schools and districts in America for black and Latino children include charter school outfits founded by white men such as the Knowledge Is Power Program and Green Dot, along with the fact that some of the most-important reform efforts that are helping black children succeed are also being led by whites, also proves false the notion that only black teachers and leaders can serve black children.

If anything, there are plenty of black teachers and black principals who care just as little for the educational, economic and social futures of black children as those of other races. This shouldn’t be surprising. As University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee teaching guru Martin Haberman points out, most of  the nation’s university schools of education are geared toward preparing teachers to work in suburbia and with white students, failing to prepare them for urban backgrounds and to work with black, Latino and Asian children, no matter their economic background. Given that most black teachers and principals are educated in those same schools — and come from middle class backgrounds having little experience dealing with poor children — it isn’t shocking that many of them may be just as ill-equipped to teach black kids, especially those from poor households, as their white and Latino peers. There are plenty of black teachers and leaders like Epps who could use some courses in cultural competency.

There is also the problem that far too many teachers — along with others working in American public education — embrace the Poverty Myth of Education, that only some kids can learn, that children from poor and minority households are incapable of mastering anything more than rudimentary knowledge, and that their families deserve little more than disdain and pity. Even if they don’t say it publicly, they privately believe this myth to be gospel — and it can’t help but affect their teaching. Jean-Claude Brizard, the new head of Chicago Public Schools — where African-Americans make up 30 percent of all teachers and 40 percent of staff overall — hit upon that point yesterday during his presentation before the City Club of Chicago.

But empathy for children isn’t the only part of being a high-quality teacher. They must also have strong subject knowledge competency, have strong instructional ability, be gifted as classroom leaders, should hold kids, adults and themselves to high expectations, and must be entrepreneurial self-starters who can take on classrooms no matter what they are. Right now, we don’t have enough of these teachers, either for black children or for all kids. As the National Council on Teacher Quality pointed out last month in its latest report on teacher preparation, one out of every four ed schools didn’t require their ed school students interning as student teachers to spend time with mentoring teachers to learn all the things full-time teachers must do (including engaging parents) once they leave for classrooms. Add in the fact that 54 percent of all teachers are trained at ed schools with low entrance requirements — along with the reality that few ed schools properly train teachers in the science of teaching reading and mathematics — and it will be hard for even a caring, culturally competent teacher to provide high-quality instruction to any student, no matter their race or class.

The case of Jennifer O’Brien does exemplify the need for diversity in teaching staffs. It also shows the problems that black families have in securing high-quality education for our kids, even in relatively diverse suburban communities such as Fairfax County. But, more importantly, it shows the need for improving how we recruit and train teachers in the first place. We need to select high-quality talents who care for children and also can do all the things teachers must do to help our kids succeed. We must overhaul how we train teachers — even starting new alternative teacher training programs outside of ed schools — in order to get those teachers ready for every child and classroom. And we have to hold every teacher, principal and superintendent to accountable for doing the best for all of our kids and especially black children.

Our kids deserve better than to be called criminals by laggard, uncaring teachers and leaders. They deserve a high-quality education fit for their futures.

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Why NYC Teacher Performance Data Should Be Public (Or Rick Hess Gets It Wrong Again)

When the Los Angeles Times released it value-added analysis of teacher performance data based on student test scores(and the names of the teachers whose work was analyzed) last year, some…

When the Los Angeles Times released it value-added analysis of teacher performance data based on student test scores(and the names of the teachers whose work was analyzed) last year, some school reformers, including American Enterprise Institute scholar Rick Hess, surprisingly joined education traditionalists in opposing the effort. Why? From his perspective, there’s no reason to make such data transparent, and that the data itself is too imperfect for public dissemination. As your Dropout Nation editor showed, Hess’ arguments didn’t stand up to scrutiny.

So it wasn’t surprising when Hess and others joined common cause  last week with the American Federation of Teachers’ New York City local to decry the New York State Appellate Division’s decision to allow the New York City Department of Education to release value-added data on individual teacher performance to media outlets and the public. And once again, the objections raised by Hess, other reformers who share his thinking, and education traditionalists, are off-target.

The first argument — that releasing the data serves no compelling public interest — is most-certainly off base. For taxpayers and for families who subsidize New York City’s public school system to the tune of $24 billion a year — most of it spent on teacher salaries and benefits — knowing how well teachers are performing in classrooms is certainly important. Releasing this data is essentially no different than disseminating salary data (which, as the husband of a former state government worker whose salary was exposed by the paper for which he had worked, I know how discomforting this can be). And given that school districts are government agencies accountable to taxpayers — and that New York State law doesn’t ban such release of data (and shouldn’t) — the decision by the Appellate Division is the right one.

For families, there is certainly a compelling interest for knowing the individual success of teachers in improving student performance. After all, they are finally learning what has been emerging as fact for some time: That the quality of a child’s education can vary from classroom to classroom. Even in the best-performing schools, traditional, charter or private, there are high-quality teachers working across the way from those who need help improving their instruction, and those who don’t need to be in classrooms at all. Contrary to what Hess and other foes of releasing teacher performance data may think, empowering parents and caregivers with this information can help them in making high-quality decisions for their families — and spur them to push for much-needed teacher quality reforms that will benefit all of our children.

If anything, releasing the data addresses one of the biggest problems in American public education: The fact that school data is largely a black box, with reporting mostly geared toward compliance instead of helping parents make smart educational decisions. For most parents, the data that is most-important for them is that about the teachers who instruct their kids every given day in the school year. By releasing this data, we finally get parents into important conversations about teacher quality that need to be had — and also take the next step in helping them attain their rightful roles as lead decision-makers in education.

Then there are the benefits of releasing this data for good-to-great teachers. For far too long, high-quality teachers have gone without the proper recognition — both in higher salaries and other rewards — for their success in the classroom. They never get the full recognition (or the wide range of compensation and career opportunities) they so richly deserve. Even worse, because we don’t recognize those teachers, they are often  forced by their colleagues to remain quiet about their achievements (or in the case of the John Taylor Gattos and Jaime Escalantes, forced out of the profession because of jealousy within the ranks).

Meanwhile they have had to serve alongside poor-performing teachers, who have lurked in the shadows, aided and abetted by teachers unions, administrators and colleagues who instinctively (if not quantitatively) knew better and did nothing. These teachers, who have gained near-lifetime employment (through tenure) just after three years on the job, are paid as much as $100,049 a year, and get nearly-free healthcare benefits and defined-benefit pensions, are a burden on taxpayers and colleagues alike. And because they help foster cultures of mediocrity in which only some children are considered capable of learning, they reap comfortable compensation at the expense of young boys and girls, many of whom will never enjoy the kind of middle-class salaries and strong job protections.

This isn’t to say that the data is perfect. But value-added analysis has stood up to three decades of scrutiny. As the work of Dan Goldhaber, Jonah Rockoff and others have shown, the data generally remains consistent over time. The arguments made by Hess, other reformers, and opponents of teacher quality reform against such uses are mere hogwash. The solution to the question of data quality is to improve the quality of data, not keep it from being released to the public. And to not use student test data in evaluating teachers, especially when it stands up to scrutiny, is just plain doing a disservice to families, teachers and children.

One can understand why AFT and National Education Association affiliates oppose releasing this data. After all, for them, it is the pursuit of perfection at the expense of the good of improving education for children, largely because the second goal is of secondary importance to them. As for Hess and other reformers who agree with this stance? This is a different story.

The unwillingness to support releasing such data proves one of the problems with some reformers: For all their talk of bold reform — including demanding the use of value-added teacher performance data in evaluations — they are unwilling to embrace it when the proverbial rubber meets the road. As a result, they are looked upon by other elements of the reform movement as being paper tigers, only interested in theoretical and policy discussions instead of real-world application of those ideas.

Releasing this teacher data is the right thing for everyone — and especially our children. Hess and other reformers opposed to the idea should be celebrating its release and developing ideas for improving the use of this data.

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