Bob Cullen Photography | What Doesn't Work in Our Schools--And What Might

What Doesn't Work in Our Schools--And What Might

May 15, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

The New Yorker has just published a riveting and important piece on the lavishly funded school reform effort in Newark, N.J. The gist: Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg famously pledged $100 million for a crash effort to remake the city's woeful public schools. Now Zuckerberg's millions and a lot of public funds are gone. Many consultants have grown fatter as a result, but very little has changed for Newark's public school students, at least judging by their academic achievement.

Conclusions will be drawn from this, and they will probably be the wrong ones. On the right, certainly, it will reinforce the belief that the problems of urban public schools are the fault of the students who attend them and their parents, and no conceivable amount of money will solve them. On the left, the article seems likely to exacerbate the growing enmity between teachers' unions and advocates of charter schools and other devices to take away teachers' tenure and seniority rights.

The real lesson, in my view, is that any effort to reform schools by changing the way they're administered, or simply by making it easier to fire teachers, is doomed. It will be either a failure or a very expensive failure, depending on how it's funded. Here's why:

Changing the outcome in urban public schools depends on changing one or both of the only two factors that really matter--the fannies in the seats or the fanny standing in front of the classroom. 

I say this as someone who spent five years as one of the fannies standing in the front of an urban classroom. Mine was an English classroom at Central High School, just past the border with Washington, D.C. in Prince George's County, Md. (The photos in this post were made when I was teaching. Hi, kids!)

Private schools, charter schools, and public schools in wealthy suburbs tend to be successful because they influence the characteristics of the fannies in the seats. Private schools screen applicants and their tuition rates tend to assure that with a few exceptions, their students come from homes with wealth and education.  Wealthy suburban public schools are selective in that only kids whose parents can afford the homes in those suburbs are permitted to attend. Charter schools, even in urban neighborhoods, practice a subtle form of selectivity because their kids by definition come from the sub-group of urban parents who are intensely involved in their children's education; otherwise, they wouldn't go through the process of identifying and applying to a charter school. The charter schools then can further cull this pool by slowly eliminating kids who misbehave or don't want to do extra work to improve deficiencies.

Public schools are left with the rest. And that's not going to change. 

Those kids will bring a heavy burden of environmental problems to school with them, unless, somehow, America discovers a way to give well-paid jobs to every adult in poor neighborhoods, to influence those adults' reproductive choices, and to enrich the early lives of their children. I don't believe this is a job government can do.

Which brings us to the characteristics of the people standing in the front of the classroom, the teachers. Our national policy, codified in the No Child Left Behind Act, is predicated on several fallacies about teachers. One is that the credentials some of them acquire in schools of education have any bearing on their ability in the classroom. They don't. Some good teachers have degrees from schools of education. A lot of ineffective teachers have the same credentials.

A second fallacy is that there's a pool of great teachers on the streets of America who could succeed in urban public schools if the public schools could only fire the deadwood and hire them. The truth is, no such pool exists. The No Child Left Behind Act can be compared to a novice baseball team owner who goes to his general manager and says, "I have a plan. We'll fire all the guys hitting under .300 and bring in only .300 hitters!"

Any baseball fan could tell that owner that .300 hitters don't grow on trees. People who can effectively teach in urban public schools are equally scarce. What we need to do is what that putative baseball team would need to do--design and implement a plan to identify talent, acquire it, develop it, and ultimately, give the team a pipeline full of good hitters.

At present, the American teacher pipeline does pretty much the opposite. Schools of education tend to have the lowest admission requirements on their campuses. Bright kids aren't often attracted by the wages and working conditions of public school teachers anyway, so the education schools don't get enough talent to start with. Their courses don't do enough to impart teaching skills. The graduates who are skilled gravitate toward schools that are less stressful than urban public schools. Urban public schools get the rest.

If you want to envision a successful teacher development program for America, go back to the baseball analogy. Baseball devotes a lot of money to scouting and identifying talent. It invests in acquiring that talent. Then it invests more in coaching and developing it. Stars are brought to the big leagues, where they make big money. Duds are let go.

We could, in this country, try to use those concepts. Suppose the government offered to pay for the educations or pay the student loans of very bright and talented kids in return for their pledge to teach for, say, ten years in an urban public school. (Teach for America does something somewhat similar in that it identifies and accepts only very bright kids. Teach for America requires only two years of service, though, and at Central High, this meant that teaching was basically a way station on the road to law school.) You'd have to train these recruits much more effectively than the average school of education currently does. Our present education schools stress theory way too much. You can make As in education courses without having anything like the personality, temperament and passion required to actually teach in an urban public school. We have to change that.

Finally, once good teachers emerged from this pipeline and proved themselves in urban public schools for a couple of years, we'd have to pay them like the scarce commodities they are, regardless of their seniority or paper credentials. (Identifying effective teachers is a big problem in itself; suffice it say that both the old system of principal evaluations and the newer system of using student test scores are seriously flawed and would have to change.) You wouldn't even have to fire teachers to make room. The staff turnover in troubled schools is sufficiently high that there would be more than enough open classrooms for our new .300 hitters.

This wouldn't solve all, or even most, of the problems of urban public education. Too many of those problems are outside the schools' control. But it would make a difference, and that difference is probably the only one  public policy can hope to make. It would be expensive, but it would be better than pouring money down a rat hole the way Mark Zuckerberg just did.







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