The Second American Revolution

If education reformers stick to principle and don’t back down, all other obstacles to victory can be overcome.

Recently, Andrew Rotherham wrote a short piece in The Atlantic in which he describes “The 3 Main Obstacles in the Way of Education Reform”. The first obstacle he mentions is that currently “We buy reform.”

Or at least we try to. Some politicians really think that throwing money at the problem will help and the less principled ones do it because they are trying to pay back certain political allies. The result is that untold billions are taken from taxpayers to support giant bureaucracies on the federal and state levels and to prop up programs that do little or nothing to help the students who desperately need it. Rotherham writes,

The result is the current Byzantine system of programs and rules that characterize education policy — the 82 separate federal programs to improve teacher quality recently documented by the Government Accountability Office — and a continuing lack of strategic ability to make hard decisions at any level of education policymaking.

This bears repeating – there are 82 separate federal programs to improve teacher quality! Improving teacher quality is important, of course, but ultimately it’s just one small piece of the education reform picture. While one can find some good in the Bush era No Child Left Behind and Obama-Duncan’s Race to the Top, in the grand scheme of things both programs end up creating as many problems as they solve, and do so at an unbearable financial cost.

Rotherham’s second obstacle is “Schools lack for an adequate way to measure teacher performance.” I disagree with Rotherham here. We have adequate ways to measure performance. They are not perfect, but what we have is good enough to work with in the meantime while we continually strive for improvements. As I wrote in January,

In perhaps the most in-depth study on the subject to date, three Ivy League economists studied how much the quality of individual teachers matters to their students over the long term. The paper, by Raj Chetty and John N. Friedman of Harvard and Jonah E. Rockoff of Columbia, tracked 2.5 million students over 20 years, and using a value added approach, found that teachers who help students raise their standardized test scores have a lasting positive effect on those students’ lives beyond academics, including lower teenage-pregnancy rates, greater college matriculation and higher adult earnings. (The authors of the study define “value added” as the average test-score gain for a teacher’s students “…adjusted for differences across classrooms in student characteristics such as prior scores.”)

While using value added is important, this measure is not the only way to evaluate teachers. Observations by principals and outside evaluators are important components as is feedback from parents and students. These hybrid evaluation plans are being used now in New York and elsewhere. In Harrison, CO, School Superintendent Mike Miles has used a combination of standardized tests and classroom observation to come up with a tiered system of teacher effectiveness. (Miles, who has been called “an icon in educator effectiveness,” is apparently on his way to Dallas to head up its school system.)

Rotherham correctly bemoans “last in, first out,” the horrific seniority system that too many school districts still use. Seventeen states, including California, do not leave staffing decisions of this nature to individual school districts – they are state mandates. Seniority, a teachers union favorite, is like our tailbones, a vestigial remnant from another era. In this rigid system, no weight is given to an employee’s effectiveness, just to length of time on the job. So on a regular basis we have “Teachers of the Year” being laid off, while far less effective colleagues get to keep their jobs. The union claims this is a fair way to make staffing decisions.

Fair? Hardly. It’s highly unprincipled – horrible for children, grossly unfair to good teachers and taxpayers and must be done away with in toto.

In fact, the National Teacher of the Year award has just been given to a teacher in California. On its website, NEA proudly proclaimed her “an NEA member.” The irony is that this terrific teacher could have been laid off, with no exception made for her teaching ability, if she had been hired a few years later. So you might say that she is still on the job in spite of the teachers unions and their insistence on a seniority-based system.

Rotherham’s third obstacle is, “Education policy is by its nature political, conservative, and change-averse.”

All too often educrats, school board members and the teachers unions selfishly fight to maintain the status quo – and the kids be damned. Unless the current state of affairs is rigorously and unapologetically challenged by reformers, our country will suffer irreparable damage.

Rotherham could have added a fourth and overarching obstacle – that there is squishiness in parts of the reform movement. For example, “partnering” with the industrial style and self-absorbed teachers unions and searching for “best practices” are diversionary and ultimately pointless exercises, yet there are some who embrace them in the name of reform. In an exceptional essay, RiShawn Biddle makes a case for “The Importance of Being Divisive in Education.” He notes that many significant historical figures like Winston Churchill and Thomas Paine were considered divisive because of their standing on principle and their unwillingness to compromise. He claims that for education to undergo a necessary transformation, we need to have more divisiveness, not less. Teachers unions and other members of the educational establishment have derisively referred to Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee as divisive. But as Biddle says,

… school reformers should accept — and fully embrace — being divisive. Because it is the only way we can transform American public education.

The situation is somewhat akin to the founding of our country. I suppose that King George looked upon George Washington as divisive, as well as the aforementioned Paine, and Madison, and Jefferson. Biddle goes on to state,

Being divisive about challenging a failed, amoral system that condemns 1.2 million children a year to poverty and prison is at the heart of the school reform movement. And this is a good thing. There is nothing wrong with actively opposing a traditional system of compensation that has fostered teacher quality policies that subject our poorest children to the worst American public education offers. And, more importantly, there is nothing terrible about pushing to end policies that do little more than harm the futures of children who deserve better.

In short, education reformers are at war with those who, for their own selfish reasons, are fighting to maintain a failed system. Because a revolution in education must occur if we are to regain our status as a great nation, playing nice with the enemy will not get the job done. In a time of warfare, divisiveness is a virtue. Without it, and a principled spine of steel, the war will be lost and our country along with it.

About the author: Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

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