Kevin Welner is a professor of education policy and program evaluation in the School of Education at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and director of the National Education Policy Center.
On Tuesday, I published a guest blog on the Washington Post’s “Answer Sheet,” and Alan asked that I post the same thing here. It’s a heartfelt and, I hope, substantive expression of how infuriating it is to watch policymakers charge ahead (or backwards) with poorly conceived, poorly supported, and facile notions of how schools can improve.
I have always promoted reform that benefits vulnerable children who have the cards stacked against them, and of course that includes improvement of teaching and implicates changes in hiring, retention, and dismissal (as well as working conditions, induction, professional development and the like). But I am certainly among those who are very troubled when leaders – including Tom Boasberg, superintendent of DPS and one of the Manifesto’s signers – buy into the trendy and simplistic finger-pointing. With that said, here’s what I wrote:
For a concise compilation of today’s fads and gimmicks in education, go read “How to fix our schools: A manifesto by Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee and other education leaders,” published in the Outlook section of Sunday’s Washington Post. The sort of nonsense about education found in the new Manifesto has become astoundingly commonplace, but this time it came not from a Hollywood filmmaker or a Washington think-tank advocate but from the leaders of 16 of the nation’s major city school districts.
According to the Manifesto, “It’s time for all of the adults — superintendents, educators, elected officials, labor unions and parents alike — to start acting like we are responsible for the future of our children.” Absolutely. Members of each of these groups can do more – a lot more.
In fact, we should start by removing the irresponsible signers of this Manifesto from any position of power over “the future of our children.”
Are the adults who signed this Manifesto acting responsibly when they bash teachers, and only teachers? What about the “superintendents” and “elected officials” who are conveniently never mentioned again in the Manifesto but who actually have some control over the resources available to students and their teachers?
Are these adults acting responsibly when they advocate for even more test-based accountability and school choice? Over the past two decades, haven’t these two policies dominated the reform landscape – and what do we have to show for it? Wouldn’t true reform move away from what has not been working, rather than further intensifying those ineffective policies? Are they acting responsibly when they promote unproven gimmicks as solutions?
Are they acting responsibly when they do not acknowledge their own role in failing to secure the opportunities and resources needed by students in their own districts, opting instead to place the blame on those struggling in classrooms to help students learn?
As a researcher and a parent, I yearn for an end to the over-the-top propaganda, the slick think tank reports, the educational “leaders” more interested in blaming than in solving, the wasteful sinking of taxpayer money (and educators’ time) into reforms that have been shown not to work, and the stirring films that suggest that the heartbreaking denial of educational opportunities to innocent children can be miraculously solved by the latest fad.
- Move money from neighborhood schools to charter schools!
- Make children take more tests!
- Move money from classrooms to online learning!
- Blame teachers and their unions – make them easier to fire!
- Tie teacher jobs and salaries to student test scores!
None – literally NONE – of these gimmicks is evidence-based.
Charters? Overall, they’re no better than other schools.
Tests? Twenty years of testing has bought us minimal improvement in scores but made learning less engaging.
Online learning? Sometimes it’s a good supplement for classrooms, but the research doesn’t support it as a widespread substitute – unless you’re an investor in one of the companies that stand to make a fortune courtesy of taxpayers.
Easier routes to firing teachers? Why do states, districts and schools (including charter schools) with few if any union protections have the same patterns of student learning?
Test-based merit pay, etc? Rarely has a policy been so vigorously pursued that so clearly lacks research support.
The Manifesto and these facile “solutions” are built on little more than rhetoric, and it all begins with a patently incorrect factual assertion:
“So, where do we start? With the basics. As President Obama has emphasized, the single most important factor determining whether students succeed in school is not the color of their skin or their ZIP code or even their parents’ income — it is the quality of their teacher.”
If the president did in fact say this, he is wrong. [And, as a commentator on the Washington Post site pointed out, the Manifesto appears to have severely twisted the president’s actual words.] While no researcher could offer precise numbers, regression models tend to attribute a far greater role to out-of-school factors such as parental educational level and family income. While teacher quality is, in my opinion, the most important in-school factor, there are many others: school leadership, class size, facilities (e.g, working bathrooms, heating, air conditioning, lighting, etc), learning resources (books, computers), and curriculum. Teacher quality is critical, but the variance we can attribute to this one factor is probably less than 10 percent. This isn’t new – we have known about the high predictive ability of out-of-school factors since the famous Coleman study almost 45 years ago.
None of this means that in-school factors should be ignored. They should absolutely be addressed, including teacher quality. But they should be addressed based on evidence of best practices, and calls to address these needs should not be made as part of an attempt to downplay out-of-school needs. It is disgraceful for these leaders who are in charge of 2.5 million students – disproportionately students in impoverished, urban areas – to act as enablers for those who dismiss the need to address issues of concentrated poverty. Unemployment is high. More and more families are falling into poverty, and their children are showing up to school hungry, in need of health and dental care, and even homeless. Yet these “leaders” dare to suggest that everything will be just fine if we had fewer tenured teachers and more charter schools and online learning.
Think about that – the people to whom we have handed over responsibility for educating our children are engaged in scapegoating, offering bread-and-circus diversions while the children under their care see their life chances slipping away. These are the people in power – the people who have overseen the system that they now seem to acknowledge has only gotten worse under their regimes and their policies. They scapegoat and divert because they refuse to acknowledge their failures and to step aside. How very, very sad.
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