Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Education Reform - The Hunt for a Magic Bullet

A few days ago Michael Gerson shared his thoughts on education reform. I'm left suspecting that Gerson has never attended a public school. I'll admit, criticizing a Gerson's column is fairly criticized as going after the low-hanging fruit - easy picking - but at the same time, given its prominent publication in the Op-Ed section of the Washington Post, I don't think that Gerson's witch's brew of ignorance and contempt for the profession of teaching should be left unchallenged.

One of the most obvious flaws in Gerson's commentary is his eagerness to attribute students' academic successes to rookie teachers from Teach For America, while criticizing the prior state of the school and suggesting that the school has only recently been rescued from chaos and failure:
Public school students here [in D.C.] perform two grade levels behind their peers in New York City. Last year, Smith taught some children who were "nonreaders" -- meaning they had somehow reached the fifth grade with the reading skills of kindergartners.
Nobody is disputing that the situation is atrocious.
Trinidad's local elementary school reflected the chaos around it. "Students ran the school," says Scott Cartland, the principal of the Wheatley Education Campus. "The kids were running down the halls, roaming."
Certainly, that's something that can be said to be a failing of prior administrators.
[TFA corps member and fifth grade teacher Amber Smith] teaches a boy named I'Kareem, who sits in the front row, raising his hand at every question and sometimes in the lulls between questions, just to get a head start. He is a handful. No thought goes unexpressed. He has some social challenges. But he reads at the eighth-grade level, and he told me that in chess club, "I'm always winning." In Smith's classroom, I'Kareem gets extra time and attention. In a chaotic classroom, he would be lost.
But wait a minute. First, we're talking about a child who has presumably been at this school for going on six years, with Gerson telling us that the school has had order in the halls only for the most recent two years. Whether in terms of Smith's teaching, order in the halls, or any other change in the school, Gerson tells us that it's "still too early" to see any improvement in student performance. Smith makes no claim that she's responsible for I'Kareem's above-grade reading skills in a school where on the whole his peers lag significantly behind him. So, quite plainly, I'Kareem was not lost before the changes were implemented and, despite having acknowledged "social challenges" (whatever that means), he was not lost. I expect that Gerson was introduced to I'Kareem as an example of the good the reforms can do, but he should have had the perception to realize that there was a lot more at play in I'Kareem's above-grade reading skill than a couple of years with more orderly hallways and the attention of his fifth grade teacher.

Gerson's lecture that "I'Kareem gets extra time and attention" being duly noted, what's his basis for suggesting that I'Kareem gets time and attention in his fifth grade class that he did not get in prior classrooms? Believe me, I am fully aware that some teachers will ignore kids who are working at or above grade level in favor of focusing on the kids who are lagging behind, and to a large degree programs like "No Child Left Behind" force teachers and schools to focus on lower performers - there are only so many hours in the school day, and hours of teaching time must be divided between all students. But we shouldn't simply assume that he didn't receive "extra time and attention" from prior teachers.

Also, if the prior context involved teachers giving "extra time and attention" to students other than I'Kareem, to try to bring them up to grade level, its' fair to ask what is happening with those kids in Smith's classroom. We're dealing with a zero sum game - there are only so many minutes in an hour, and even the most dedicated TFA corps member can't add extras. If Gerson weren't slurping up the Kool-Aid, he could as easily criticize Smith for diverting her attention away from "those who need it the most" in order to engage in the more rewarding task of teaching a student who is already ahead of the curve. That might be completely unfair to Smith - I don't know how she divides up her classroom time or what motivates her decisions - but when you take a "facts be damned" approach to analysis the data you skim off the surface can often support any number of divergent, even mutually inconsistent hypotheses.

If we assume that I'Kareem did not receive "extra time and attention" during his earlier schooling, to what do we attribute his above-grade reading level. If he went to the same classes with the same teachers as the rest of his peer group, but ended up reading at the eighth grade level while they (on average) read at the third grade level, shouldn't we be asking "What makes him, or his experience, different?" Also, if we assume that I'Kareem was reading well above grade level before Principal Cartland took over the school, as I expect was the case, would Gerson be still be holding him out as an example of "evidence of success"? Whether then or now, the exception doesn't prove the rule.

We've had pundits who were in love with the idea of rigid disciplinarians "turning around" inner city schools for... how many decades, now? Yes, we want safe, secure schools that can provide a decent learning environment for students. But if we're going to pretend that there is nothing special about the inner city school, that the kids there are no harder to teach than kids anywhere else, why the intense focus on behavior codes and rules that often go way outside of what would be tolerated by parents in a middle class school. Some of the practices of successful inner city school programs seem designed to make up for shortfalls in the children's home environment, even as lip service is paid to the notion that kids are the same everywhere and that the teaching staff is at the root of all problems.

Gerson implicitly concedes that discipline, of itself, does not bring about automatic gains in academic performance. Two years into Wheatland's reform under principal Scott Cartland, "It is still too early... to see dramatically rising test scores". For that matter, the school's performance has bounced about a bit and has not appreciably changed during Cartland's first two years of service - that's not an indictment of him or school discipline, but highlights how you need to be careful about "magic bullet" solutions. Toting a baseball bat as you patrol the newly pacified halls of your high school (and here I describe Joe Clark, not elementary school principal Scott Cartland) may inspire a hagiographic motion picture about your life, but it won't of itself significantly improve the school's academic performance.

As for the only specific detail Gerson offers, a fifth grade classroom in which "disruption is confronted immediately, with a note of the infraction put up on the white board", substitute putting a child's name on a chalkboard and you could be describing a scene from the one room schoolhouse in Little House on the Prairie. Gerson believes this to be innovation? (Strangely, during my tenure as a substitute teacher - the person who often gets the worst from even the best kids in a class - that wasn't a tactic I found necessary to maintaining classroom order. What's the point of the list? The teacher knows who has misbehaved, so do the students, and if you're going to write somebody up (or not) the only thing that counts is that action.)

Gerson also effuses about Teach For America, with little indication that he's done more than read their promotional literature. His first comment wouldn't strike most people as praise, but that's before you recognize that he's contemptuous of the teaching profession as a whole:
Smith is a Teach for America corps member, meaning that fresh out of college, with five weeks of training, she was thrown into the deep end of the teaching profession in a low-income school.
More accurately, she graduated from a college with decent grades, applied to Teach for America, was admitted into its ranks, and was treated like pretty much any other rookie teacher entering an inner city classroom - with the exception that TFA corp membership is a short-term commitment. With due respect to Gerson's suggestion that 65% of TFA corp members pursue a career in education, the crucial question is how many of them stay in the classroom? (The answer appears to be "less than 20%".) Becoming a principal, administrator or policy maker has value, but TFA sometimes sends the message that those are the only roles that matter, and that teachers are fungible. I'll commend the teacher profiled in the piece for choosing to stay in the classroom beyond the end of her two-year commitment, but heck - if the next teacher to come through the door is every bit as good as her, why does that matter?

Gerson fictionalizes,
Teach for America has become a revolutionary force in education reform because it has taken a rigorous, scientific approach to teaching. Contrary to the mythology of the profession, successful teaching is not a matter of inspiration or credentials. In the exhaustive study of its own outcomes, Teach for America has isolated some common characteristics of good teachers: perseverance, high expectations and the constant adjustment of methods to achieve ambitious outcomes.
First, where can I find any evidence that TFA "has taken a rigorous, scientific approach to teaching"? Which of the "insights" Gerson attributes to TFA represent this "scientific" approach? Perseverance? High expectations? Adjusting your methods when they don't work? Um... yeah. And they care so much about all of this "science" that they cram it all into a five week summer course?

During my aforementioned days as a substitute teacher, I spoke with another teacher and commented how it would have been helpful to have had some of the formal training that I assumed to be part of a standard education degree on teaching technique, classroom management and behavior issues. The response? "To tell you the truth, we had a single, one semester class on teaching and managing the classroom, and it wasn't very helpful." To me, that reflects a contemptuousness of a "scientific approach to teaching" akin to that displayed by TFA's five week summer course - the rough equivalent of a one semester course on actual teaching technique. (Granted, an experienced teacher could probably give me the rudiments of what I wanted to know - principally, techniques to manage disruptive behaviors and the testing of limits, inside of an hour.) There's nothing magical about TFA's five week course - not surprisingly, it results in the bright graduates of elite colleges performing at roughly the same level as any other rookie teacher:
Studies have found that, when the comparison group is other teachers in the same schools who are less likely to be certified or traditionally prepared, novice TFA teachers perform equivalently, and experienced TFA teachers perform comparably in raising reading scores and a bit better in raising math scores.

The question for most districts, however, is whether TFA teachers do as well as or better than credentialed non-TFA teachers with whom school districts aim to staff their schools. On this question, studies indicate that the students of novice TFA teachers perform significantly less well in reading and mathematics than those of credentialed beginning teachers.
TFA corps members who become credentialed and stay in the classroom "do about as well as other similarly experienced credentialed teachers in teaching reading; they do as well as, and sometimes better than, that comparison group in teaching mathematics." In other words, as should come as no surprise, teachers get better over time. Even Michelle Rhee admits she was a disaster as a first year TFA teacher - due to the fact that she had not yet learned to manage a classroom. So what's with the contempt for teaching as a profession?

Some interesting facts about teacher performance: teachers tend to perform better when they're in schools with other high-performing teachers. Also, a teacher's high performance in one school does not automatically mean that the teacher will be equally effective in another. Beyond that, an absurd number of teachers, sometimes exceeding 50%, teach out of field. I recall a high school computer science class in which a math teacher substituted for the regular teacher - the first thing he did was try to turn on an Apple II computer (remember those) by hitting the power light (the actual power switch was on the back of the machine) and declaring "This computer doesn't work." Teachers will be less effective if they don't know the subjects they are teaching.

If I were to extract a one-word takeaway from what makes a great TFA corps member great, or what sets high performing teachers apart from the crowd, the word would be "enthusiasm" - or in a few more words, enthusiasm for teaching coupled with the firm belief that you can make a difference and that your students can perform, translated into action to make your beliefs a reality. What do we call somebody without enthusiasm? Burned out. Talk to teachers in inner city schools and what do you hear of as a serious problem? Teacher burnout. Have you ever worked in a context in which your peers were energized and enthusiastic about their jobs? Or a workplace full of clock watchers? Both enthusiasm and burnout are contagious, and it's in no way surprising that students pick up on a teacher's or school's enthusiasm (or lack thereof).

How do you make a teacher "better" coming out of the gate? There's of course the school of thought that if you pay teachers better, you'll attract better candidates. That may be true to some degree, but in our society it's a moot point - save for in a handful of elite public schools and in a few experimental programs around the nation, we're not going to pay teachers appreciably better - and when hard budget choices are to be made, teaching jobs will remain among the first to go on the chopping block. Meanwhile we have people like Charles Lane saying that teacher layoffs are no big deal because "300,000 is the upper end of a range that could be as low as 100,000" - about nine percent of our nation's teachers being laid off versus a "mere" 3% - and suggesting that the only people who think that's a big deal are those beholden to teacher's unions. He also pretends that layoffs will only marginally affect classroom size, as if the layoffs will primarily hit regular classroom teachers as opposed to those with specialized skills - art, music, physical education, foreign languages, etc.

But more to the point, who are we trying to draw into teaching? If we're trying to attract people who are presently drawn by high salaries, buying into our nation's mythology that the highest earners are invariably "the best and the brightest", we're going to be both investing a phenomenal amount of money in teacher salaries and disappointed in the outcome. I know some really great trial lawyers who are very smart people, but would hate every minute of their lives if they were accountants. And the opposite is true. Even if you assume that teaching is a job that "anybody can do", there's a legitimate question of whether it's a job anybody would want to do.

Raising salaries does make a difference within the current pool of candidates - school districts that offer better pay and working conditions will, on the whole, get more applicants for their jobs than those that do not, and will generally have more high quality candidates to choose from for any job opening. And salary competition isn't enough - many "failing" school districts pay well, but people don't want to work in the schools. That is in no small part why TFA dresses itself up as a "corps" of teachers providing a form of public service, with a commitment short enough that its recruits can see a clear end date to their service. A new teacher applying for the same job is doing so with no similar short-term commitment. With some that represents a level of commitment to a cause far above and beyond what TFA asks of its corps members. With others it's because they can't find a job elsewhere. Particularly in this economy, TFA is displacing some certified teachers who are applying for jobs that are going to corps members, but by the same token they're allowing struggling school districts to be more selective in who they hire.

Related to increased salary is the issue of "merit pay", something that seems to be advocated by those who place the most faith in standardized tests and a means of measuring teacher and student performance. But when I talk to good educators, they speak of how "No Child Left Behind" and its emphasis on standardized test scores takes away from the time they can spend educating their students, and sucks the joy out of teaching. Helping kids prep for a test is different than helping them learn. I can't think of a single person, ever, who has praised the teacher who taught a test prep course as "inspirational" or as "having made a difference in my life." I guess it's a way to be objective, forcing teachers to comport to the role of fungible drones, but it seems inapposite to what I think of as quality education. And frankly, I'm skeptical that standardized test scores are a good measure of student performance. Practicing for a test will raise your performance for that test, but without necessarily providing any other benefit.

There's a valid question of whether colleges of education do a good enough job educating teachers. Should more time be spent focusing on pedagogy, the principles and methods of classroom instruction? Should teachers be held to higher academic standards than is often presently the case - one college I know of doesn't require calculus for its undergraduate economics classes because they're heavily populated with students from the college of education; many offer less rigorous classes for non-majors that may be sufficient for a teacher's subject matter certification. A teaching college should be trying to prepare highly qualified teachers, not tiptoeing around the possibility that academic rigor will scare off applicants and leave its classrooms with empty seats. But... let's just say that problem is far from unique to colleges of education. Note also, the cost of an education at a top college is far beyond the investment justified by a $30-$40K starting salary. Absent a subsidy, students who pay for an elite college through loans can't afford to take an entry level teaching job.

On the other hand, some view teaching more as an art. You could add more classes on pedagogy to a teaching program, but they're not going to make much difference - what matters most are the skills you learn on the job. Most likely there's actually a balance to be reached, with college classes providing a foundation. New teachers are likely to benefit from strong support, mentoring, and instruction on pedagogy once they're in the classroom - and may be better able to retain and implement what they learn within that real world context. Students are also less likely to encounter classes on the theory of the theory of teaching - classes taught by people who are far removed from their classroom experience, or who have never taught in a classroom, but are still "qualified" to teach new teachers how to teach. (The epitome of the cliché, "Those who can do; those who can't do, teach; those who can't teach, teach teachers.")

One way or another, with due respect to TFA's ability to market itself and the commitment and good work of its corps members, an approach that appears both better for teachers and (in the longer run) students and schools is that of The University of Chicago's Urban Teaching Education Program (UTEP):
UTEP, a two-year master’s program in education that focuses on urban education in Chicago, drastically differs from TFA, which provides only five weeks of summer training for teachers before dropping them, often alone and unsupported, into these extremely difficult environments. What results is a 61 percent retention rate for teachers after five years. Comparably, after the initial two years of training that gives graduates a master’s in education, UTEP teachers have cohort supervision and support for three years after they begin teaching. UTEP has a 95 percent retention rate for teachers after five years, and 91 percent are still teaching in Chicago. These high levels of commitment can be attributed to the significant training and support networks that Huang says are necessary to teach effectively in urban schools.
TFA cannot adopt a UTEP-style model. It has to stay sufficiently light to scale to the large number of corps members it recruits, and it's not positioned to provide the type of training or support that UTEP can offer. By the same token, UTEP can't produce enough graduates to serve the nation's need. The proper criticism of TFA is not that it provides limited education to college graduates, pats them on the behind and puts them in inner city schools - the proper criticism is of those in its ranks who deliberately advance the line that a five week course is all it takes to be an effective classroom teacher, who cherry-pick pro-TFA research to suggest that corps members outperform other teachers (whatever the facts), and who scorn teaching as a profession - and, of course, with credulous columnists like Michael Gerson who eagerly lap up and regurgitate that tripe. At this time we have about twenty years of TFA alums to look at - twenty years that firmly establish that TFA no magic bullet.

UTEP should not be an exception, nor should its focus on teacher support and skills development be limited to the inner cities. Colleges of education should start doing a better job researching and teaching educational technique. Most seem content to produce graduating class after graduating class of teachers "qualified" to get an entry level position in a conventional school environment - but why not engage in research that challenges some of the conventions? We've had how many decades of "sit quietly in rows of desks while the teacher lectures you", and our biggest "innovations" are along the lines of mandatory homework policies? Surely we can do better.

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