Thursday, September 22, 2011

Dana Goldstein on Obama, the Reformists, and the Teacher Quality Debate

I’m kinda late on this, but Dana Goldstein had a great post a couple weeks ago on Obama’s job-creation speech and what it signals about his education agenda. In the speech, the president called for $30 billion in federal spending to prevent teacher layoffs. Goldstein thinks that’s deceptively remarkable:
This may seem like an uncontroversial, conventional Democratic spending priority. Indeed, the 2009 stimulus and the Education Jobs Fund* also helped school districts avoid teacher layoffs.

But it's important to realize that on education, Obama has rarely sounded like a conventional Democrat. During his years in the Senate, his presidential campaign, and after he entered the White House, Obama framed his school reform agenda around the issue of teacher quality, not teacher job security. He has resisted seeing schools primarily as places of employment, and has focused instead on measuring student achievement and using the data to evaluate teachers.

So last week's rhetorical emphasis on saving teachers' jobs --unaccompanied by talk of "teacher quality"-- is actually something notable from Obama. It represents a messaging win for teachers' unions and for the more traditionally liberal wing of the Democratic coalition. Now the rhetoric is being echoed by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on a Midwest speaking tour.
Goldstein then takes a close look at the opposite wing of the reformist movement. Most reformers, she writes, are talking about who ought to be laid off, given that budget crunches are forcing layoffs, but
What's less acknowledged is that there is a quieter conversation among reformers about reducing the size of the teaching force regardless of whether or not such a move is necessitated by budget crises
Goldstein quotes former NYC schools chancellor and News Corp. executive Joel Klein outlining his alarming vision for the future of American schooling:
A very different system would be empowered by technology…a huge infusion of private capital aimed at creating an entirely new delivery system. Teachers would be much fewer, but paid much more…it would be data-driven, it would be customized, it would engage kids, it would differentiate the approaches we take, and it would value human capital in a much different way

Monday, September 19, 2011

Let Them Fail
The Deprivations of Growing Up Without Messing Up

Tape installation by Stephen Doyle. Photograph by Stephen Willis for the New York Times.
There’s a fascinating article by Paul Tough in last week’s New York Times Magazine. The article follows the parallel and cooperative, but very distinct, character education initiatives at KIPP’s NYC flagship school KIPP Infinity, and at its Infinity’s North Bronx neighbor, Riverdale Country School. The pairing is an excellent one, because these schools fall on either side of the philosophical divide in contemporary education: KIPP is a No-Excuses charter school serving low-income students of color in the south Bronx. Riverdale is a high-end private k-12, with the looser, more Romantic, and more Progressive educational outlook that is common among New York City’s elite private schools.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff in this article, but perhaps the most interesting theme is the one that inspires article’s headline: “What if the secret to success is failure?” That phrase refers to a character strength that psychologists call grit. It’s the ability to overcome adversity, to bounce back from failure and frustration, to dust yourself off and keep going. It’s a quality on which both Riverdale and KIPP put a great deal of emphasis, because it appears to be a key ingredient of success in life. At the end of the article, Tough raises an interesting question: does the privilege of Riverdale’s students, and the reluctance of middle- and upper-class parents to allow their students to fall prevent them from developing grit?

It’s a great question, and it’s relevant far beyond the walls of Riverdale Country and KIPP Infinity. At play here are not only demographics, but an entire approach to child rearing favored by contemporary wealthy, educated parents, one in which children are not allowed to fail.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Scope of American Student Under-Achievement

A couple of my readers have been suggesting that the problem with American student achievement is actually only a problem with our poorest and lowest-performing students, whose weak scores are dragging down the averages. I don't think that’s the case, and I want to present some data on this question, because it’s an important one.

I’m looking at the 2009 international assessment scores (from the Programme for International Student Assessment, which are available online). Now, test-scores don’t tell you everything, of course, but when you need a blunt comparative instrument, they’re a good one. According to the data from these exams, high-performing US students are indeed more competitive with high-performing students from other countries than low-performing US students are with low-performing students from other countries, but there’s still plenty of room for concern.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Education Reform and Teacher Professionalism
(Psychoanalyzing the Politics of Teaching, part 4)

This is the fourth in a series of posts on the professional status of teachers. The series is non-contiguous—i.e., I’ve written other, unrelated posts in between installments of the series—so I figure only my most faithful readers are up to date on the whole thing. For everyone else, feel free to catch up here:

Expertise in Education

In part 3 of this series, I wrote about the difficulty of establishing a consistent, identifiable expertise among teachers. The key word here is consistent: expert teachers do exist, they’re just rare. Now great doctors are rare too—and the same probably goes for excellent plumbers and electricians—but everyone who gets a license to practice medicine—or to be a master plumber or electrician—has a high baseline level of expertise. Most doctors have had over 10,000 hours of experience practicing medicine by the time they finish their residency, not to mention thousands more hours of academic coursework.

The baseline competency among teachers, on the other hand, is very low: first-year teachers generally have only a few hundred hours of classroom teaching experience and relevant coursework, often less; and as discussed previously, much of that coursework is of low rigor and uncertain value. That’s a big problem because teachers, like doctors, do a job that’s too important to screw up. (Click here for a more detailed discussion.) Without sufficient training and support, many of them burn out before ever attaining expertise, and many of those who remain learn slowly in the absence of guidance, mentorship, and any clear model of excellence.

We all know what expert teachers are like, though, because we’ve all had one or two in our lives. They have a way with kids—not only a capacity to charm or quiet them, but an ability make difficult concepts approachable, strange ideas interesting, narratives and facts unforgettable—and anyone who sees them interact with children recognizes it. That ability, like the dog whisperer’s, appears almost magical; like the doctor’s, it comes with a decisive, authoritative sense of what should be done in a given situation—how a disease should be treated, how a wayward child should be handled—and the lay-person—the non-teacher, the exasperated father, the worried mother—defers naturally, automatically to that authority. Just as the sick person is relieved to cede authority over their health and body to a competent doctor, the parent is relieved to cede authority over their child to a competent teacher. Authority, power, and autonomy are not things we resent giving to trusted experts; they’re things we want to give them—after all, we pay them to take them from us.