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The Keys to a Successful Education System

Susan Notes: I cede comment to Mark Crockett, who demonstrates the service researchers can provide--to educate the general public, not to mention teach them how to read a newspaper.

Mark Crockett Comment: Kevin Huffman won the Post's next great pundit contest. A pundit is an expert, a learned person. Any news pundit worth his salt offers wise, insightful and accurate judgment and advice to readers. Or so one might hope. Unfortunately, Huffman's January 2 column on school reform -- earnestly intended, I assume-- lacked wisdom, intellectual discernment, and authenticity.

Huffman's "keys to a successful education system" are eerily similar to those advocated by Washington Post editors (I wonder if this had any connection to the outcome of the pundit contest): more charter schools, better standardized test scores, and performance pay for teachers. Reforms such as these are touted also by corporate groups like the Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable; groups that claim American economic competitiveness is inextricably tied to student achievement. But the research shows that charter schools are no better-- and often worse-- than traditional public schools. Standardized test scores typically measure family income and too often assess low-level cognition. And performance pay has a long track record that is anything but enviable.

Here' a quick critique of Huffman's main arguments.

First, American public education is actually pretty good. The Sandia report (Journal of Educational Research, May/June, 1993) showed that much of the hysteria spread by A Nation at Risk, the Reagan-era polemic that spawned decades of education "reform" by claiming a "rising tide of mediocrity" threatened the country, was simply unfounded. [see, for example: PHI DELTA KAPPAN, May 1993, Title: "Perspectives on Education In America," or suppression of Sandia.] However, Huffman believes the hype ("our test scores trail those of other industrialized nations," he says) and relies almost exclusively on PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) test scores to make his case. So does the McKinsey report Huffman cites. Eric Hunushek, the conservative economist cited by Huffman, calls PISA scores "early-warning signals for later economic welfare" (Education Week, Feb. 2005).

PISA tests 15-year-olds. There is considerable argument about what PISA really measures and there are criticisms of its methodology. Stefan Hopmann and Gertrude Brinek of the University of Vienna observe that much of PISA's methodology remains secret and say that "we do question if some basic elements of PISA are done well enough to carry the weight of, e.g., comparative league tables or of in-depth analyses of weaknesses of educational systems." What is clear is that PISA does seem to assess poverty and other socioeconomic factors that influence education. According to UNICEF, the U.S. has a child poverty rate of 22 percent, much higher (in some cases more than double) than the rate in other developed nations.

Second, the United States is consistently ranked as the most (or one of the most) economically competitive nations in the world. In its latest rankings, the World Economic Forum placed Switzerland first, and the United States falls one place to second position, with weakening in its financial markets and macroeconomic stability. No one can legitimately lay the Great Recession on the schools and student test scores. Nor have school leaders and teachers been responsible for the shipment of millions of manufacturing jobs offshore. Nor did American 15-year-old students vote for unfunded tax cuts "directed primarily at corporations and the already-wealthy" that helped to cause massive federal deficits.

Finally, Huffman-- and Post editors-- argue for performance pay that is tied to test scores. Huffman seems to think that a lack of such connection will "inhibit innovation." But that's not true. A good place to start on performance pay is Stanford business professor Jeffrey Pfeffer's March 8, 2007 testimony to Congress on performance pay (in short: it doesn't work).

Does anyone following the reports on the bonuses soon to be paid to bankers in the wake of the financial meltdown really believe that they deserve them? That their performance "tied to taxpayer bailouts and nearly-free money from the Federal Reserve" warrants it? There are some who might claim that derivatives and credit default swaps --complex instruments pioneered by Wall Street were--innovative. No doubt they were created by "smart" well-educated people. But the economic harm they inflicted has done more to undermine American stability and competitiveness than anything that can be blamed on public education. Want innovation in schools? Perhaps a replication of the Eight-Year Study, published in 1942, is in order. Breaking away from the corporate, behavioral model can (and did in that study) lead to improved results. The students in the thirty nontraditional schools the Eight-Year Study followed performed, overall, better than those in traditional college-prep schools and "proved that many different forms of secondary curricular design can ensure college success and that the high school need not be chained to a college preparatory curriculum." [see: http://www.8yearstudy.org

Most of the jobs in the near future (the next decade) are predicted to be in the service sector. They do not require college educations. It's clear that our nation-- and the nations of the world-- face serious problems. We need to educate for responsible democratic citizenship, for moral and ethical development and growth, and we need to teach students to think critically and reflectively. Test scores are diagnostic barometers, not end results and certainly not measures of a nation's economic future.

I agree with Kevin Huffman on one thing. Let's get to work. But let us focus on programs and policies and practices are well-grounded in research and that promote both personal and social growth and development.

by Kevin Huffman, Washington Post

Ten years ago, deep in the Rio Grande Valley, two 23-year-old Teach for America teachers opened an after-school tutoring program. Through sheer force of will, the program became a public charter school, housed on the second floor of a local church. Eventually, that school became a cluster of 12 schools, serving kids from Colonias -- communities so impoverished that some lack potable water.

IDEA College Prep graduated its first high school class in 2007 with 100 percent of the seniors headed to college. Last month, U.S. News and World Report ranked it No. 13 among America's public high schools.

"It's not magical resources," IDEA Principal Jeremy Beard told me. "It's the thinking around the problem. I have no control over what goes in on in the kids' Colonia. But we can create a culture. Kids here feel part of a family, part of a team, part of something special."

I have worked in education for most of the past 17 years, as a first-grade teacher, as an education lawyer and, currently, for Teach for America. I used to be married to the D.C. schools chancellor. And the views expressed here are mine alone. I tell the IDEA story because too often when we look at the sorry state of public education (on the most recent international benchmark exam conducted by the Program for International Student Assessment, U.S. high schoolers ranked 25th out of 30 industrialized nations in math and 24th in science) we believe the results are driven by factors beyond our control, such as funding and families. This leads to lethargy, which leads to inaction, which perpetuates a broken system that contributes to our economic decline.

Last year, McKinsey & Co. monetized the cost of our international achievement gap. Our education system's poor results cost the country $1.3 trillion to $2.3 trillion a year, it found -- as much as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the stimulus package combined. America cannot afford this kind of failure. We must make this the decade of education reform.

Of course, if an instant solution existed, we wouldn't be in this bind. Still, the answers are not unknown. They basically boil down to people, policies and parents.

First, while many great people work in education today, the talent pool needs to be upgraded. This requires better entries and exits from the system. School districts must aggressively recruit top talent, make the work more desirable by increasing and differentiating pay for high-performers, put individual schools in greater control of their workforces, and hold teacher and principal prep programs accountable for their graduates' performance.

Doing those things also requires taking seriously who needs to leave the system. An analysis published last month by Stanford economist Eric Hanushek on the worst teachers in this country -- the bottom 6 to 10 percent in terms of advancing student learning -- found that replacing those teachers with educators of average quality would catapult the United States from the bottom of PISA's international rankings into the top 10. Hanushek notes that the majority of our teachers are competitive with teachers anywhere but that the system nationwide is dragged down by the impact of the bottom rung.

Next, we need policies explicitly driven by transparent data on student achievement and designed to foster more research and development in schools and districts. The $4 billion Race to the Top Fund, a program in which states compete for stimulus-funded grant money, is an excellent start; Congress should make it an annual grant program.

But let's be clear: It is unfortunate that our schools need such a program. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has credited Race to the Top with giving states the incentive to change laws that banned the use of student test results in teacher assessments and capped the number of new charter schools. As our test scores trail those of other industrialized nations, it is self-defeating to tolerate policies that impede assessment or inhibit innovation.

Finally, parents need to take the reins. There are about 50 million children in U.S. public schools, and their parents can and should win every political battle. The key is asking the right questions, rooting everything in what is good for students. Will this teacher/school/policy help my child learn? Most important, can I see the data, please? School by school, district by district, parents must enter the fray and demand what is best for their children, rather than letting adult needs drive policy. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), whom I have known and admired since his days running the Denver Public Schools, has said, "To me the burden of proof is not on the people who want to change the system, the burden of proof is on people who want to keep it the same."

It's a new decade. Let's get to work.

The writer, executive vice president for public affairs at Teach for America, won The Post's America's Next Great Pundit contest.

— Kevin Huffman, with comment by Mark Crockett
Washington Post


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