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Teachers Still Dodging Silver Bullets of Ed Reform

Last week I had an article published on the international magazine Quartz, entitled "Poverty is what's crippling public education in the US--not bad teachers."

In this article, I responded to the claim made by conservative economist Eric Hanushek that four great teachers in a row would eliminate the achievement gap.

I wrote:

...the real world is proving to be a difficult place for Hanushek's theories to be verified. No school has ever replicated the results predicted by his "four great teachers in a row" theory. In fact, there is no real research to support the idea that we can improve student achievement this way--it is all based on extrapolations.
And in fact, new data shows that in the three large urban school districts where these reforms have been given full rein, the results are actually worse than in comparable districts that have not gone this route.

Some of the key findings from the Economic Policy Institute's April report:
  • Test scores increased less, and achievement gaps grew more, in "reform" cities than in other urban districts.
  • Test-based accountability prompted churn that thinned the ranks of experienced teachers, but not necessarily bad teachers.
  • School closures did not send students to better schools or save school districts money.
Most importantly:
  • The reforms missed a critical factor driving achievement gaps: the influence of poverty on academic performance.

In response to my article, a Quartz reader named Francis Clifford responded, in a message forwarded to me by the publisher. He wrote:

I don't dispute Mr. Cody's identification of poverty as a problem for successful public education. As a now-retired white man attorney educated in Catholic grade and high schools, and college undergraduate, and who came from a household comprised of my widowed uneducated mother who worked in a blasting supplies factory and baked cakes for income supplement and me in a small town in the anthracite coal region of central eastern Pennsylvania, I wonder if we should simply start over in our public schools.
The reason for my thought is two elementary school projects I saw on television back in the '80s, I believe, where poor kids performed marvelously because the project founders started over. For them, poverty had no effect whatsoever. They did not require their kids to test for entry, so they were not working with an edge of high mental potential. They and they teaching staff, of whom there were few, were simply dynamic in their classes. I forget what the class sizes were. They required the kids to wear uniforms. They brought in the parents - who typically in poverty situations is usually one only, the mother - to advise them about homework and a few other items so they had an idea what was going on. (I think it is widely accepted that kids wearing uniforms engenders a group identification of oneness, of single purpose, of team while erasing the distinction kids observe between classmates who can afford to be well-dressed and those who can't. It's a kind of an economic leveler.)
These founders inexhaustibly exuded enthusiasm among the students, from the time they walked into the building, until the time they left. The kids witnessed only positive attitudes and encouragement from the teachers. The kids blew away state standardized tests and actually enjoyed every minute at school and looked forward to coming.
To be fair, these founders did not have to deal with the marginal kids on either end of the spectrum, especially the lower end where the challenging mental and emotional problems lie. But the teachers were selected for their dynamic personalities, not necessarily for their high college marks, and for their commitment to this educational paradigm. The teachers were not unionized. If one had to be fired, due process and seniority were not issues. (Due process, except for Fourteenth Amendment protected categories, is not a universal constitutional right outside organized units unless specifically required by state statute.)
But starting over would be painful. There would not be, could not be, unions. There would be no tenure. The kids would be number one in word AND in action. We would create separate physical locations in the building to work with those at both ends of the spectrum. The super-bright would be fast-tracked as their talents allow. Those with notable mental and emotional deficits would receive more personal attention from specially trained teachers. The guys who founded the schools I referred to would serve as consultants to construct instruction and administration.
I don't see this ever happening because the vested interests - unions - would not consent to de-certification, which to me and many other existing and former parents proves that public school teachers in general truly are interested in their own welfare FIRST, not the kids' learning. If they can be sold on the methods the founding guys demonstrate, then let them put their money where their mouth is. Let them admit that the system those guys has created is indeed better, far better, than the existing system that they won't change structurally. They only continue to seek as culprits outside causes, such as "poverty," over which they have no control for why some kids from certain homes can't learn. The analysis always seem to end with teachers blaming these outside forces while nothing is done systemically to eliminate or work around those forces.
Francis Clifford

Mr. Clifford's collection of silver bullets for beating poverty is being actively implemented at a number of charter schools chains, such as the KIPP schools around the country. This model has found limited success, when judged based on its ability to deliver increased test scores.

However, researchers have raised some significant problems. Mr. Clifford mentions that the schools he believes to be worthy of emulating "did not have to deal with the marginal kids on either end of the spectrum, especially the lower end where the challenging mental and emotional problems lie." Many of today's charter schools, as a matter of policy and practice, likewise exclude the more challenging students. They tend to have fewer English Learners, and fewer special ed students. And students with behavior issues, who cannot hack the "zero tolerance" discipline policies in place, are often rejected and sent back to the public schools, with which these schools are supposedly competing. This shows up in higher attrition rates.

This gives us a model of education in which students are sorted into two groups -- those "strivers" willing to be compliant, work long hours, and with viable parental support, and those unwilling or unable to meet these requirements. This is a recipe for inequity and stratification, and it results in public schools that are sort of "sacrifice zones," holding the rejects, whom we do not really expect to succeed.

As far as unions being a huge obstacle to change, much of the country has never had strong teacher unions. And states where unions are weakest often have the worst educational outcomes. Conversely, some of the states with the highest outcomes, like Massachusetts, are places where the unions have been the strongest. If unions were such a crippling factor, we would not see this.

Mr. Clifford closes with the complaint that teachers "blame outside forces while nothing is done systemically to eliminate or work around those forces."

This is rather unfair. Teachers, by the very nature of their work, are doing a great deal to attack these problems every day as they work directly with students. Their work puts them in a position to do as much as they can to help students overcome the effects of poverty. Teachers have no choice but to "work around" the poverty they encounter: most are in a daily struggle to respond to its pernicious effects.

The problem we have is some education reformers have made it an article of faith that education alone can vanquish poverty. They have demanded that teachers assume this burden, and come up with all sorts of reasons why recalcitrant and irresponsible teachers, unwilling to do their jobs, and impossible to fire because of union protections, are the reason poverty persists. This is nonsense.

Mr. Clifford is correct that nothing is being done to systemically eliminate poverty -- but that is not the fault of teachers, who repeatedly ask that poverty be addressed. Teachers by themselves are not, unfortunately, going to eliminate poverty, even if we get rid of the "bad" ones supposedly responsible for poor test scores. We need to look a bit more critically at our economic system to find the real culprits for poverty, if we are serious about its systematic elimination. Until we do, this box of education reform silver bullets is going to continue to misfire.

What do you think? Can we beat poverty with a combination of school uniforms and dynamic teachers unprotected by due process?

Continue the dialogue with Anthony on Twitter.

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