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It’s the Stupid System

Strange bedfellows Joel Klein and Al Sharpton, and their ghostwriters, have a piece in yesterday’s Huffington Post arguing that the key to closing the achievement gap is revamping how we evaluate and reward teachers. Value-added assessment, merit pay, and presto chango! the achievement gap is gone.

How skoolboy wishes it were this easy. But strewing together some quotes from President Obama, Linda Darling-Hammond, and Diane Ravitch doesn’t make it so.

Let’s start with our popular President. Klein and Sharpton quote him as saying, “The single most important factor in determining [student] achievement is not the color of their skin or where they come from … It’s not who their parents are or how much money they have–it’s who their teacher is.” But that’s just not true. The gaps in performance among children of differing racial and ethnic backgrounds, and between poor and more economically advantaged children, are substantial even at the start of kindergarten, and many studies show that these differences continue to grow across the early elementary grades. Moreover, there is little evidence of a narrowing of the gap in the high school years. And make no mistake: poor and minority children attend different schools than more affluent and white children, in New York City and elsewhere, and these differences shape students’ subsequent achievement trajectories.

Moreover there is no evidence–let me repeat that, no evidence–that exposure to a string of effective teachers over time can eliminate the achievement gap. Klein and Sharpton are reduced to citing the discredited projection of DOE consultants Robert Gordon, Tom Kane, and Doug Staiger that “if low-income minority students could be assured of having teachers who fell in the top 25 percent of effective teachers four years in a row (in lieu of a sub-par instructor from the bottom quartile of teachers), students could close the achievement gap altogether.” Studies by Brian Jacob, J.R. Lockwood, Dan Goldhaber, Dale Ballou, Cory Koedel and their colleagues show why this cannot be true.

As usual, skoolboy’s main concern is that Klein and Sharpton are talking about effective teachers without ever once discussing what it is that they do. Reward the good ones, get rid of the bad ones, it’s all about sorting teachers–and never about actually improving instruction. Let’s suppose that Klein, Sharpton and others are right–that it is difficult to tell which teachers are going to be highly successful when they start teaching, because the instruction teachers receive prior to taking over a classroom can’t fully prepare them for the challenges of an urban classroom. Why not focus on professional development, and assisting novice teachers in learning effective practices on the job? How does giving effective teachers merit pay and dismissing poor performers actually improve anyone’s practice?

Even when Klein and Sharpton stumble onto something promising, they muck it up. “Structured classroom observations by principals and master teachers, independent assessments of student work, and teacher attendance are just a few of the outcome-based measures that districts might employ,” they write. Hey, I’ve got an idea! Why not use observations and independent assessments of student work as mechanisms for improving teachers’ practices? Is that so alien an approach?

To curry favor with teachers–like that’s going to work here–Klein and Sharpton say, hey, it’s not teachers’ fault. “The shortage of effective teachers in high-poverty schools stems less from the personal or professional shortcomings of teachers,” they write, “than from a system for cultivating teaching talent that regularly fails both teachers and students. It’s the system, stupid–and it desperately needs reform.” The heart of this “system” is the teaching profession, which of course is a thinly disguised attack on teacher unions, with a dollop of disdain for ed schools on top.

skoolboy has another stupid system in mind–the one that thinks that the problem of retaining teachers in high-poverty schools can be solved by throwing a few thousand dollars of merit pay at them. Oddly missing in Klein and Sharpton’s screed is any recognition that it might be easier to retain teachers in high-poverty schools if those schools were safe, had adequate resources, and supported teachers’ work. The question to ask is not why so many teachers flee high-poverty schools; it’s why do any choose to stay?

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