I came across two articles in the past few days discussing education and the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top program. When the administration passed the stimulus package last year, $4.3 billion was allocated to the Department of Education budget for the Race to the Top fund. States across America can get a piece of this money if they can prove they are “leading the way with ambitious yet achievable plans for implementing coherent, compelling, and comprehensive education reform.” This often includes tying test scores with teacher performance, which many unions are unhappy about.
Joe Klein in this week’s Time laments that New York State, although facing a huge budget gap, refused $700 million of this federal money, which is only granted if states give parents more school choice and competition with an added emphasis on teacher evaluation and accountability. It was New York’s United Federation of Teachers who “thwarted the state’s attempt” at receiving this money.
I’ve discussed teachers unions on this blog before, and I still believe that they are keeping a lot of bad teachers in classrooms. Obama and his Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, have taken on an important yet daunting task: requiring the schools to make more teachers accountable, and to improve the education of millions of children. The improvement of our nation’s education is a big priority, as Klein notes, American students are now “32nd internationally in math scores, 10th in science, 12th in reading. It will be impossible to rebuild our economy- to create the sophisticated, high-paying jobs we need- as long as we have an archaic, industrial-age school system.”
Most of us can agree that a big priority here is to get-and keep- good teachers in the classroom. But what, exactly, makes a good teacher? Amanda Ripley takes on that question in last month’s Atlantic:
But we have never identified excellent teachers in any reliable, objective way. Instead, we tend to ascribe their gifts to some mystical quality that we can recognize and revere—but not replicate. The great teacher serves as a hero but never, ironically, as a lesson.
She turns to the years of research that Teach for America has compiled about their greatest teachers, the ones who can get their students ahead by one to one and a half levels in a single year, a complicated task when all the teachers are placed in low income neighborhoods. What they have found is that the income of the student’s families doesn’t become much of a detriment to their education if there is an excellent teacher in their classroom. So Teach for America tried to figure out what made those teachers so excellent, and how to find those qualities in their new recruits.
Superstar teachers had four other tendencies in common: they avidly recruited students and their families into the process; they maintained focus, ensuring that everything they did contributed to student learning; they planned exhaustively and purposefully—for the next day or the year ahead—by working backward from the desired outcome; and they worked relentlessly, refusing to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls.
When Ripley interviewed excellent teachers, those whose students were able to improve their skills by one to one and half levels by the end of the year, she noticed they spoke very differently than teachers who were not able to get their kids to those same levels.
Like all the teachers I talked to in Washington, Mr. Taylor [the excellent teacher] laments the lack of parental involvement…But when I ask him how that affects his teaching, he says, “Actually, it doesn’t. I make it my business to call the parents—and not just for bad things.” …
Other teachers I interviewed spent most of our time complaining. “With the testing and the responsibility and keeping up with the behavior reports and the data, it has gotten so much harder over the years,” said one fourth-grade teacher at Kimball, the same school where Mr. Taylor teaches. “It’s more work than it should be. They don’t give us the time to be creative.”
A 23-year veteran who earns more than $80,000 a year, this teacher has a warm manner, and her classroom is bright and neat…But she seems to have given up on the kids’ prospects in a way that Mr. Taylor has not. “The kids in Northwest [D.C.] go on trips to France, on cruises. They go places and their parents talk to them and take them to the library,” she says one fall afternoon between classes. “Our parents on this side don’t have the know-how to raise their children. They’re not sure what it takes for their child to make it.
The teachers who can make a big difference are absolutely relentless in their pursuit to get their students to learn, regardless of poverty or parental involvement- traits that teachers unions say is why we should keep students test scores untied to teacher pay and performance. So how does the second teacher that Ripley interviewed perform?
When her fourth-grade students entered her class last school year, 66 percent were scoring at or above grade level in reading. After a year in her class, only 44 percent scored at grade level, and none scored above. Her students performed worse than fourth-graders with similar incoming scores in other low-income D.C. schools. For decades, education researchers blamed kids and their home life for their failure to learn. Now, given the data coming out of classrooms like Mr. Taylor’s, those arguments are harder to take. Poverty matters enormously. But teachers all over the country are moving poor kids forward anyway, even as the class next door stagnates.
Even if the teachers are failing, their principals are likely to review them positively, and very few are fired.
Now, Teach for America searches for candidates who can show they have perseverance, relentlessness, and have made and reached big goals for themselves. These are the candidates most likely to make the biggest difference. Schools in D.C., led by Chancellor Michelle Rhee, are starting to use a process similar to Teach for America’s to recruit and retain the best teachers. As part of the process, half of the teachers score will be based on how their students perform on standardized tests, and the other half will depend on “five observation sessions conducted throughout the year by their principal, assistant principal, and a group of master educators. Throughout the year, teachers will receive customized training. At year’s end, teachers who score below a certain threshold could be fired.” D.C. will be applying for Race to the Top money, and I hope that what they are doing will get kids to perform better and lead as an example for schools around the country to change the way we do things and improve education for our kids.