11/09/2010 01:50 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Another Vague Plan: A Manifesto without Teeth

[This entry is founded upon my personal philosophy of education and does not represent the views of staff and board of the Salvadori Center.]

I finally made it through my backlogged reading pile to read the "Manifesto" by Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee et al. that appeared in the Washington Post in October, and I am completely underwhelmed. This is a manifesto? While there may be principles and intentions in it, it seems like another laundry list of recycled ideas -- or "flags of convenience," to quote Larry Cuban -- that have limited support in research. How can the same people who demand "data-drive instruction" make bold statements about teaching, leadership and technology that have little support in educational and psychological research? While I don't disagree with everything they say, I take exception with the fact that they seem to ignore some necessary Big Picture givens that complicate the discussion and practice of educational reform. Part one (of a three-part entry) examines their take on teacher quality.

To say that the most important aspect of education is the quality of the teacher is an oversimplification and frankly, naive. I'm not disagreeing with the argument that high-quality teachers could actually equal high-quality instruction (and thus, potentially higher achievement). Having been a classroom teacher, I know full-well the difference an instructor can make in the life of a child. What I do take exception with is the notion that the external factors at work in society are less significant to a child than who is guiding him/her through third grade. The manifesto states that teacher quality is more important than skin color, parental income, or zip code, an idea attributed to President Obama. Really? Is it really true that children living in poverty or who have been entrenched in the history of racism in this country just need a good teacher to change their entire experience of opportunity? Sorry, but this is misguided. The manifestations of structural violence -- the violence so embedded in our society that it has become part of our reality (such as poverty, racism, sexism, competition) -- is a necessary part of the discussion in how to improve education, and cannot be tossed aside for some quick fix to "teacher quality." The research conducted by Jean Anyon presented in Ghetto Schooling in 1997 is still relevant today. Her case studies demonstrate that classroom content and instruction is directly related to the socio-economics of the school (or school district). The reality is that education of socio-economic and/or politic "elites" is designed to ensure that these kids stay at the top of the hierarchy and that the socioeconomic and/or politically disenfranchised receive an education that ensures that they maintain their place in the world as well.

Equal educational opportunity is currently a myth and one look at classrooms in New York City -- where experienced teachers get prime positions and green, under-prepared and possible transient teachers (i.e. Teaching Fellows or TFA folks) are thrown into the grittiest classrooms -- demonstrates this. A high schooler I spoke to years ago when I was doing my own research in NYC told me about having seven Earth Science teachers inside of four months. She then looked at me and said "do you really think they want me to pass the regents exam?" She got it. Extreme example? Yes. But, accidental? Maybe not. Another example on a larger scale: two years ago, at least 10 schools in upper Manhattan received a large three-year STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) grant from General Electric. This grant was poised to make a huge difference in the lives of many under-served kids. By year two of the funding cycle, the NYC DOE snatched the money away and redistributed it throughout the city for more "test preparation" and teacher accountability work. Stealing from the poor to give to the data collectors? Hmmm.

Improving teacher quality is important, but doing so without understanding the greater social forces at play will keep us on this hamster wheel. And while Klein and his colleagues think that a proposal for a merit pay system will mitigate these social forces, in actuality, merit-based rewards in education have been tried and failed. Recall the investigations into teachers changing student answers on standardized tests in the 90s so they could show the most improvement. Or the debunking of the "Texas Miracle" when it was discovered that test scores of English Language Learners and low achievers were thrown out. Corruption will find a way into this system because it is a system based on competition not an acknowledgment of our complex reality. We'd be foolish to think that a "teacher of the year" can ameliorate the societal, political and economic realities of children. We should re-consider teacher education, tenure, and teacher selection, but it must be done through an acknowledgment of the current social paradigm that exists in this country.