Will the right teachers improve our schools?
The reason this heart is cold is two-fold. First, although the administration professes great dissatisfaction with current standardized tests, almost every form of accountability relies on these scores, and we are seeing ever-higher stakes attached to them. But the second, bigger issue, is the belief that the primary reason scores are systematically lower in low-performing schools is that we do not have the "right teachers" in place there. The solution, therefore, must be to identify and replace the "wrong" teachers with better ones.
This has led to policies such as the firing of half the staff of schools in Rhode Island, Los Angeles and elsewhere, and teacher evaluations that heavily weight student test scores.
But a fascinating study has just come out that poses some real problems for this approach. Edward Moscovitch has done a systematic comparison of the test scores of students in high and low-performing schools. His conclusion? The different outcomes are largely due to factors brought into school by the students rather than the quality of instruction. He writes:
The implications of this finding are enormous: It suggests that the policies we are pursuing are unlikely to make much of a difference, because they don't address the real problem.
What's the point of getting rid of half the teachers at an inner-city school if the ones who replace them also lack the necessary tools? Similarly, replacing a public school with a charter school won't by itself make any difference; either way, teachers need help, not blame. They need help not because they do a poor job of teaching, but because they work with very needy children.
Moscovitch carefully compares groups of students and provides detailed evidence to support his conclusions. Those who think we can improve schools by selecting the "right" teachers should take a close look.
Moscovitch goes further. He points out that the carrots and sticks that are the primary tools of the "education reformers" are useless once the logic that drives them is destroyed. But we must agree with President Obama that the status quo is indefensible. What we must do is embrace a constructive alternative to that reality. Moscovitch highlights the work the Bay State Reading Institute has done to equip teachers to build literacy among poor and minority students. I saw excellent progress at my own school when we had a chance to develop strong cross-curricular collaborative teams, and really worked together to raise academic expectations.
The crazy-making part of the whole education reform debate is that we will hear Obama and Duncan praise the sort of professional development we are advocating. The problem is that the thrust of the reforms being inspired by Race to the Top actively undermines this work. You cannot build the sort of sustained collaborative community of teachers, students and parents that is essential to turning around a struggling school by firing half the staff. In Oakland, schools that were shut down four years ago are now once again under the hammer, and effective principals and teachers are demoralized or even forced out.
President Obama will find no argument when he says our children deserve better than what they now receive. Policies that focus on building the capacity of our teachers and help them respond to the great needs of their students are the way forward.
What do you think? Can we systematically improve schools by replacing ineffective teachers? Or is this a dead end strategy?
Anthony Cody, with comment by Don Perl
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