Tag Archives: ed reform

Schools Should Collaborate, Not Compete

In my time teaching, I’ve found that observing colleagues in their classrooms is one of the best ways to improve my own practice.  Teachers have different styles,  sure. But there are certain methods that simply work better than others. Implementing some of those best practices–how to best distribute materials and organize group work, for instance–has absolutely made me into a better teacher. To some extent, the subject, grade level, or curriculum is irrelevant. If it works, it’s worth trying out.

Yet for some reason we are reluctant to apply that logic to improving schools as a whole. Instead of trying to identify and replicate what makes schools great, we get bogged down in competition and useless, arbitrary labeling. Are charter schools better than traditional public schools? Are charter schools “public schools” or not? These questions are akin to me observing a number of great teachers and only taking away that, on average, classrooms that use Staples-brand pencils perform about the same as those that use OfficeMax. A classroom is a classroom, a school is a school. If it is effective, who cares what we call it?

Last week, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute released a report that supports that kind of sentiment. Entitled “Searching for Excellence,” the report examines the performance of charter schools in five U.S. cities—Albany, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, and Indianapolis. Though much of the report is devoted to comparing charters with regular district schools—an exercise that I consider to be useless—it also suggests a path to improving charters overall: closing or replacing low-performing schools and expanding or replicating high-performing ones. It’s an incredibly simple yet logical step, echoing the well-publicized NACSA “One Million Lives” campaign (which I have previously discussed).

But why can’t we push that idea even further? Traditional public schools, charters, and parochial schools undoubtedly have a lot to learn from each other. Especially in struggling districts, kids deserve a culture of collaboration, not competition, between all schools.  Our initial reaction to a successful school should be to celebrate it, not debunk it; educators should be excited to  pick up tips and strategies that have proven to be successful. If a real culture of collaboration existed, the recent finding that KIPP schools boost relative academic performance would have led to teachers and principals lining up out the door to see KIPP in action. Yet it seems to me that far more energy has been spent attempting to criticize KIPP’s practice and undermine the study’s findings. That competitive, negative attitude is nothing but a distraction.

Any teacher knows that there isn’t a single “right” way to teach; any principal knows that there isn’t a single “right” way to run a school. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from each other. With so many great educators in districts across the country, there is  a wealth of knowledge and experience that we could be sharing. It’s just a matter of swallowing our pride and doing it.

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Interests Matter: Why Teachers Shouldn’t Be the Primary Shapers of Education Policy

The recent transformation of education into a prominent nationally policy issue has prompted an  increasingly important question: who should be crafting our country’s education policies? Though teachers and school administrators have largely controlled education policy for decades, in recent years outsiders–including think tanks, charter management organizations, and other advocacy groups–have had impressive success in implementing reform policies. Unsurprisingly, this has led to a backlash from the traditional educational establishment, who insist that teachers are the only people qualified to decide what our education system needs.

I don’t think anyone could seriously say that teachers shouldn’t be involved in shaping education policy. Besides their obvious expertise and importance in student success, as the primary actors in implementing any reform it would be both illogical and impractical to ignore their input. But that doesn’t mean that they should take the lead. Teachers shouldn’t be the primary shapers of education policy because they have material interests in the system independent of its effectiveness. Education policy should be guided by actors that are solely interested in what is best for students.

Let me be clear. I am not suggesting that interests of teachers and interests of students or opposed–in other words, that teachers do not want their students to be successful. But it’s indisputable that teacher and student interests are not identical. Last-in first-out layoff policies? Nearly unbreakable tenure guarantees? Blocking of meaningful teacher evaluation systems? While certainly in the interests of teachers, those sorts of policies are at best marginally helpful to students. And that’s a problem. We should be able to point to every facet of our educational system and explain how it is the most efficient and effective way to help kids learn. Teachers primarily shaping policy won’t get us to that point.

Don’t get me wrong. Teachers can and ought to continue to pursue their interests within our education system. But let’s stop the illogical charade that they can simultaneously support what is best for our kids.

It Doesn’t Matter If Class Size Matters

I’ll admit it: I kind of like low attendance days at school. With fewer students in the classroom the day is calmer and more relaxed; I feel like I have more flexibility to focus in on struggling students. In that sense, I am definitely a fan of smaller classes.

Much has been written about the effect of reducing class size on student achievement, and results are generally mixed, though it seems to have a more positive effect on elementary school students. Yet the policy has a passionate and politically active following, led by the New York-based Class Size Matters.

I’m not going to engage in the debate on the effectiveness of smaller classes; that is for people far more knowledgeable than me. But in a practical sense, whether class size “matters” is the wrong question: we need to be talking about efficiency. Advocating for a policy because it would work without considering its relative cost and viable alternatives is an irresponsible and unrealistic exercise.

In theory, the goal of any education policy is to improve outcomes for kids. With countless policy options and a limited budget, we have no make difficult choices about what those policies should be. Most people would agree that having books at school provides a benefit that justifies the cost; on the other hand, buying each student an xBox so they can play educational games is not considered a worthwhile cost. (Hey, you’ve got to give the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation some credit for not taking the pro-Microsoft path there.)

Of course, it is not always that simple. There are policies that could potentially have massive impacts but are not feasible because of their cost. For instance, I bet our students would be in dramatically better shape academically if each of them had five hours of one-on-one tutoring every evening. Would that “matter”? Of course. But it would be so expensive that it is almost silly to even discuss it as a possibility.

In other words, “mattering” is not enough. Especially in our cash-strapped cities, we need to be looking at efficiency of our policies–whether each dollar we spend is getting us the most in return. Dramatically decreasing class size, though it may help kids, isn’t good policy simply because it costs too much. And anyone who is serious about improving education in this country should switch their focus to feasible alternatives. I fully acknowledge that smaller classes would make my day-to-day easier. But that doesn’t make it good policy.

What the Washington and Georgia Charter Victories Mean for Ed Reform

Though President Obama’s resounding victory rightly dominated national attention on Tuesday, education reform movement won as well: referenda expanding the use of charter schools in both Washington and Georgia gained key victories. The bill in Washington is particularly significant: three previous initiatives had been rejected, leaving the state as one of only 10 in the nation with no charters. These victories, while minor at first glance, could be a boon for education reform in general. They are a signal of an impending national recognition of the need to expand school options, particularly in our cities.

For most voters, education is (understandably) a local issue. When discussion turns to schools, people inevitably think about schools in their communities, where their children go. And if those schools are satisfactory, statewide education reforms–including school choice–seems unnecessary. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

The problem with this approach, of course, is that most states have huge disparities in educational quality: having great school districts in a state doesn’t preclude the presence of bad ones.  For advocates of statewide reform, the trick becomes communicating the necessity of reform to voters in good school districts that wouldn’t reap its benefits. Not an easy task.

That’s why the results in Washington and Georgia are so encouraging. It appears that the general public is starting to understand what so many people in struggling school districts already do: creating more high-quality school options is key to improving outcomes for the thousands of kids who aren’t receiving a quality education. Voters are developing a powerful collective mindset that our goal should be to ensure that all kids–not just our own–are attending great schools. If more people follow the lead of citizens in Washington and Georgia and turn their thoughts towards schools outside of their communities, we will make significant progress towards the goals to which we aspire. Education reformers should be emboldened by these results and push harder than ever.

Stop the “Rhee Scare” of Education Reform Conspiracy Theories

James Cersonsky recently sparked a debate with his piece on the increasing influence of Teach for America alumni in education policy. He discusses the TFA spin-off organization Leadership for Educational Equity, which was created as a resource for TFA alums who are interested in education policy and advocacy. (As someone who absolutely fits that profile, I am proud to call myself an LEE member.) Unfortunately, Cersonsky’s piece ignores the obvious and universally positive consequence of TFA’s growing alumni base–a new generation of leaders dedicated to improving education in this country–in favor of perpetuating conspiracy theories about education reform.

Cersonsky details the various initiatives of LEE, including supporting candidates for public office, providing online trainings for advocacy, and hosting an extensive job bank. He also explicitly acknowledges that the organization doesn’t push any particular ideology or policy. Not too nefarious, right? But that doesn’t stop Cersonsky from diving into paranoia:

And while LEE may be policy-neutral, it isn’t hard to imagine the massive proliferation of Michelle Rhees and, in turn, the entrenchment of education reform geared toward money-soaked charter expansion, “new unionism,” and test-based student achievement. In other words, what began—and is still viewed by many—as an apolitical service corps could be the Trojan horse of the privatization of public education.

Besides the comical contention that something not being “hard to imagine” somehow constitutes an argument, this quote shows that Cersonsky is one of a growing group of people who absurdly view TFA corps members and education reformers as part of a conspiracy dedicated to destroying public education.

Don’t get me wrong: Policies generally associated with modern education reform–charter expansion, tenure reform, merit pay, etc.–certainly should be debated and critiqued, as all policies should be. But opponents of those policies prefer fear-mongering to actual discussion. Worst is the implication that “reformers” are trying to do anything but improve outcomes for kids. Everyone in the education debate needs to understand that we all ultimately have the same goals; what differs is the means towards those goals. And for that reason, anyone who is truly dedicated to improving education in this country should be excited by a generation of young politicians eager to raise the issue on the public agenda, regardless of what that may mean for their preferred policy solution. Resorting to baseless accusations and personal attacks is childish and unproductive.

When reading Cersonsky’s piece, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to absurd anti-Communist rhetoric during the Red Scare. In education today, I suppose we have a “Rhee Scare,” with modern McCarthys like Cersonsky abound. We should approach them with skepticism.

The Tide is Turning In Teacher Evaluation

Last week, Teach Plus released its long-awaited national survey of teachers’ opinions on various aspects of education reform. The report focuses on the growing differences in opinion between teachers with fewer than 10 years of experience–“The New Majority”–and teaching veterans. Perhaps the most striking of these differences concerns the use of student growth in evaluating teachers. From the report:

Whereas the notion of standards of effectiveness finds broad support among all teachers, measuring teacher effectiveness sees far less support among veteran teachers. New Majority teachers are far more likely
to agree that growth in student learning should be included as part of  a teacher’s evaluation. When asked about the use of student growth measures in their evaluations, 71 percent of New Majority teachers
agree that student gains should be included in teacher evaluations as compared to 41 percent of veteran teachers.

In other words, younger teachers are more than twice as likely to say that student learning should be used as part of their evaluation. As I’ve written previously, such a system is both common sense and elevates the profession; only inertia and reliance on anachronism have prevented widespread implementation.

But that may soon change. Indeed, the results of the survey show that the days of that status quo in education may be numbered. Since we know that a great teacher is the ultimate difference maker for kids, it is only logical that our system takes student growth into account. Younger teachers understand this. They acknowledge that a contract that rewards longevity and credentials instead of effectiveness, while predictable and stable for employees, is not best for kids. The “New Majority” is ready to redefine and professionalize the teaching profession as respected, accountable deliverers of education. I just hope that veterans join the fight sooner rather than later.

Interests of Teachers Or Interests of Kids?

When I first heard about the teacher strike in Chicago, my thoughts turned to the students. Besides the lost instructional time, I know from teaching in Philly how much students in cities need the structure, safety, and positive atmosphere of school. I shudder at the thought of my own students getting locked out of the school building for a week without anywhere else to go.

Yet as I’ve read perspectives on the strike from both sides, I still can’t wrap my head around the CTU talking point that the strike is somehow in the interests of the kids. To put it bluntly: How could you say with a straight face that locking 400,000 kids out of school for a week is in the interests of students? As I see it, the strike is finally knocking down the illogical but widely-held view that teachers’ unions should be trusted with determining what is best for students. Unions should still exist, but let’s dispense with the farcical idea that what is best for them is best for students.

Amidst the present ubiquity of education reform in the news and on pundits’ tongues, it’s easy to forget that education only recently became a real public policy issue. Indeed, prior to No Child Left Behind and its precursors, education was pretty much a local concern, handled by the only people viewed as qualified to do so: teachers and administrators. Teachers’ unions, then, were given the power to define and pursue the interests of students as well as teachers. Pretty sweet deal. (N.B. I wrote in much greater depth about the history of the unions in chapter 2 of my undergraduate thesis.)

But with the emergence of data showing the flaws of public education in this country, unions are having trouble proving that they still represent the interests of students.  Clinging to structural anachronisms while opposing logical reforms like evaluations linked to performance, substantive tenure reform, and expansion of high-quality school choices in cities is hard to square with claims that the unions speak for anyone but teachers.

The strike in Chicago is bringing that disconnect to light even more.  Teachers are banishing nearly half a million kids to the Chicago streets over getting a less than 30% raise in a recession and  because they don’t want to toughen an evaluation system that laughably rates 99.7% of teachers satisfactory. It takes serious cojones for the CTU to say that those demands are in anyone’s interests but their own.

News reports suggest that the sides are getting closer and students will be back in school on Monday–by all accounts, a great development. But the whole ordeal should serve as a reminder that any organization that keeps kids out of school for a week does not represent the best interests of students. We ought to reconsider where objective educational expertise actually resides.