It is impossible to open up a magazine, click on a website, or listen to talk radio without hearing about the issue of education reform. As citizens, it frightens us to hear that out the Chinese are overtaking our place as top test takers, or that the state of public schools is so dismal that only a superhero can save it.
How much of this talk is accurate? How much is just a faulty interpretation of facts which then get repeated ad nauseum?
One of the major stories we are hearing here in California (and across the nation) is the issue of teacher quality, and how some say it is the number one determinant in student academic outcomes. On this issue hinges key decisions that will be decided this year such as seniority-based layoffs vs. performance-based layoffs, merit pay, and teacher evaluation based on test scores (also known as value-added measure). It is an important issue, and some of the leading figures in education reform today will tell you the entire future of America's education system rests on making a fundamental change in how we define teacher quality.
Does the viability of our public school system truly rest on the shoulders of America's classroom teachers?
I got to thinking about schools labeled as failing, as mine was a few months ago, and how the label contains the implicit belief that were it not for such low teacher quality, my school would not be failing. But all public schools in California are under the umbrella of the teachers' union, and no teacher is (yet) assigned to teach at a public school based on value added scores. "Bad" teachers then, should appear on the radar all over the state. They must exist in wealthy public schools too because forced teaching assignments are not the norm in this state. If bad teachers are everywhere, then failing schools must be everywhere too. Thus I began my search for affluent, failing schools with the information available on the world wide web.
My methodology was to research the 10 wealthiest communities in California based on per capita income. They were:
Using the greatschools.net website, I located all the public schools located within the attendance boundaries of these areas, and double checked their free and reduced price population, a national measure of economic status, to verify that they did indeed serve an affluent population.
Finding: there was not a single, failing, public school located in the wealthiest communities. In fact, the wealthiest communities produced schools with the highest possible score, a 10, in the GreatSchools rating system.
The charts below show the scores on a scale of 1-10, with 10 representing the highest academic achievement score, of the public schools located in these affluent areas.
All of these schools, with the exception of Menlo-Atherton High School, had a free or reduced lunch rate of less than 10 percent. Not coincidentally, the average class size was below 20 for most of these schools (how are they affording this during the recession?)
Now skeptics will say that the wealthier schools' parents would not tolerate the presence of an ineffective teacher. They would pressure the principal for their removal, pull their child out of the school, etc. But if that is the case, we are saying that parent education level does matter and that parental participation in school does make a difference in the academic achievement of students. Most likely families in wealthy schools have had experiences with lackluster teachers but the effect was mitigated because Johnny has grown up in an environment filled with all the resources he needs to be successful in school, with or without a stellar teacher.
While the correlation between family income levels and student achievement is not news to educators and those in the education field, the American public, by and large, does not keep up with the minutiae of education reform. They do not have the luxury to be connected to Twitter for hours at a time, to interpret the academic papers published by universities and think tanks, to fact check movies like Waiting for "Superman". Who is telling the truth, who is twisting it, and what's their motivation? Sometimes it is easier to just watch a movie that turns a complicated issue into a simple good guys vs. bad guys narrative, with the solution neatly presented to the audience in a bow-tied box.
But I believe that the general, inquisitive reader who has stumbled upon this education page wants to dig a little deeper, wants to make up his or her own mind about what is really happening in schools. Does teacher quality matter? According to several studies teacher quality is the most important in-school factor that impacts student performance. But the most important factor overall is socioeconomic class, and this trumps even the most spectacular teachers on any given day. Any classroom will tell you that it is more difficult (but not impossible) to teach students who are not well fed, have not had a good night's sleep. It is hard to concentrate on the lesson when your toothache is so painful you just want to put your head down and cry. And more frequently today, many of our students do not even have the simple comfort of having a roof over their head and must travel from place to place each night, looking for shelter. Even the greatest of teachers cannot teach a child, who for reasons like these, is unable to even make it to the classroom.
Does knowledge of the impact of poverty mean teachers have given up on high expectations for students who live in it? Absolutely not. In fact, it is the knowledge of these inequalities that drives many teachers who work in impacted communities to go above and beyond what their colleagues in Beverly Hills and Malibu do, out of necessity. They have made a conscious decision to teach in communities that struggle with the issue of poverty, crime, and violence expecting no praise, fame, or acknowledgment for it. They don't let students use their hard knocks as a crutch.
Are there ineffective teachers that exist in these schools? Yes, there are ineffective workers everywhere. But common sense will tell you that firing all of them, and they should be fired, will still not put food on a child's table, will not pay the rent at the end of the month.
Today, it is controversial to state obvious truths such as these. It is easier to blame the very teachers who have committed to working in impacted schools for the achievement gap that exists across the country. The federal government has instituted policies that in some cases call for the firing of entire faculties when a school does not make the appropriate gains in schoolwide test scores, and has labeled calls to heed socioeconomic factors as "making excuses."
There is no denying that public schools have been neglected for too long, and have much room left for improvement. Instead of hunkering down to do the hard work of educating students, states argue with each other over the standard of proficiency in exams, parcel taxes allow affluent communities to raise more funds for their school than others, and unions and management have made contentious contract negotiations a way of life. Additionally, in California, schools are reeling from over $21 billion dollars in education cuts over the last two years. As we begin 2011 with a renewed commitment to improving public schools, let us hope that the people who are most charged with this task will fulfill it based on solid, logical truths and not on political ideologies.
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