Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Rambo Escalantes Model

Even despite heaps of evidence that the achievement gap in American schools has more to do with socioeconomics, plenty of so called reform-advocates continue to blame it all on poor teaching and the unions that supposedly stick up for it.  To further illustrate that this problem is structural, specifically in so far as achievement gaps have more to do with socio-economics than anything else, take a look at the website School Performance Maps.

Basically, it asks you to pick a state, and then plots individual school API (Academic Performance Index) on a google map.  Take your pick from any area of the country and you'll see the index line up perfectly with the socioeconomics of the region.

Part of it is that objectively more qualified teachers are not attracted to low-performing schools.  But that in itself is complicated.  For one, the job is just different.  Some people thrive on the challenge of teaching tough schools, and seek them out.  Others would fail miserably if given the chance, yet might excel in a higher SES school, possibly even outperforming those more comfortable in a low-SES setting.

Pay-for-performance models' main weakness - and this has been understood for decades - is that in an uneven system, it's very difficult to establish a reliable measure of true performance.  I can guarantee you that getting 30 middle class 9th grade history students to move X # of points in a year is considerably easier than getting poor students to do the same.

Great teachers might do it.  The Rambo Escalantes.  But that's no way to set up a workable model.  It's idiotic.  There are over 3 million teachers in the US.  That supposedly intelligent people looking at the issue aren't getting this is frightening.  And while they fiddle, real kids lives are at risk.

We can insist on accountability, standards, and even find a way to do incentives properly.  But to propose any of that as actual meaningful reform is absurd.  We need to pull way back and examine broader economic and social issues that have been dogging us ever since enlightenment.


  1. First, I want to thank you for your comment on TNR. I deeply appreciate your writing and your efforts as an educator.

    About the "Rambo Escalantes Model," I have my own reasons for not wanting to teach in a low-SES school. The biggest reason, by far, has nothing to do with the kids or the amount of effort required. I don't even really object that much to having to spend my own money on making copies, buying classroom basics like math manipulatives, etc. What I don't want to deal with is the micromanagement that teachers at those schools have to put up with. Being told what to hang on my "focus wall," what lessons I'm supposed to teach on which day according to the pacing guides, the mandated curriculum enforced through still more mandated, district-level testing and reporting of scores, those are the kinds of things that make any kind of respect for teacher "professionalism" at these schools a joke.

    I've done it before, when I was a first-year teacher, and in all honesty at that point I really benefited from the structure. But my district moved me, first to one school with high scores, then to another. After two years without that level of interference (with basically no interference at all - I've had almost complete freedom to teach what I want, when I want, how I want) I think I'd have a really, really hard time going back. Am I being a selfish jerk? I'm honestly not sure. After seeing firsthand and up close the difference that income levels, parent age, and parent education make in kids' academic outcomes, I don't feel like I'm such a critical part of the equation - what I mean is that I don't think that it's all on me to change the lives of these students. If I'm going to take on that level of responsibility, I need to have some say in HOW I'm going to do it. Being forced to march lock-step with grade level colleagues and to ignore children's developmental needs are not the so-called solutions that I want to be a part of. I also feel a major need for some amount of stability in my professional life. I've been in three different schools in three years because my district keeps placing me in one-year positions, and I'm hoping my next placement will stick.

    If the country is going to do more than pay lip service to the notion of providing excellent teachers to ALL of our students, we need to treat those teachers with respect and allow them to make real decisions about how to best reach their students. If all we're supposed to do is deliver scripted lessons, canned curricula, and test prep, then maybe I chose the wrong career and we really would be better off bringing in a new set of TFA-ers every two years to teach our kids. Sure don't feel right, but what do I know? I'm just a teacher!

    Thanks again for your writing.

  2. Excellent comments. My experience as a teacher has been mainly at a charter, where we didn't have that level of scrutiny. But I've known plenty of teachers, who were in or came from that environment and hated it. I also have subbed quite a bit in those classrooms.

    Yet at my charter, I always thought - in all honesty, that I would have sacrificed that level of scrutiny if it came with the kind of structural support that we didn't have, and our kids didn't have. We had considerable freedom to do what we wanted, but we were left to fend for ourselves when it came to trying to support such an at-risk population that needed dramatic intervention.

    So, yeah. Wouldn't it be nice if we could just have some sensible reform? We know these schools are struggling, but instead of scripted curriculum to force some minimum standard of success out of 30 needy kids and one likely inexperienced teacher, we ought to be paying extra for highly-qualified, experienced teachers to go in and work with classes maybe half the size. And set up lots of social support, because many of these kids are dealing with families in crisis.

    I totally hear you. If I had to do things over I'm not sure I would have picked teaching. I was motivated not just by an affinity with kids/learning/etc., but by seeing education through a social justice lens. I knew how powerful education could be - not just for poor kids but for any one (like I kind of was as a boy), who felt sort of beaten down by the institutional aspect of learning, as opposed to feeling like I belonged there. I still think education is such an amazing area of life - a real microcosm of broader society and where the growing child fits in to his or her future.

    But I certainly wasn't aware of the difficulties I would face trying to work from within the system. I mean, it's such a crap shoot as to what kind of administration and school culture you get hired into. I was laid off in November and one of the benefits has been the opportunity it has given me to kind of unwind those first 3 years and reflect on what it all meant.