Thursday, July 29, 2010

Obama Still Doesn't Get It

Speaking before a "large civil rights organization" Thursday, Obama attempted to address some of the push-back he has been receiving from those on the left who have found his administration's policies misguided.

From the Times:
"[Obama] said the “Race to the Top” program, which provides additional federal funds to local schools that meet administration standards — and a companion effort to overhaul the nation’s 5,000 worst schools — were ultimately aimed at giving good teachers higher salaries, more support, from supplies to smaller classes, and more training to provide them with career opportunities and financial rewards. About $4 billion is being invested in each initiative.
... All I’m asking in return, as a president and as a parent, is a measure of accountability. Surely we can agree that even as we applaud teachers for their hard work, we need to make sure they’re delivering results in the classroom. If they’re not, let’s work with them to help them be more effective. And if that fails, let’s find the right teacher for that classroom.”
My problem with Race to the top and Obama's other initiatives has nothing to to with a comfort with the status quo. I'm incredibly saddened by the continued failure of our public education system to close the achievement gap. But the reforms he champions are deeply misguided.

His operating assumption is that poor teaching is the problem. But this is simply not true. Students come to school with varying levels of human and social capital. Depending on socio-economics, one school might literally be twice as hard to teach at as another. That is to say, the teacher of one classroom of students might have to work twice as hard to bring those students to proficiency as they would at another. Of course, this is simply impossible for most teachers. We hear stories of truly amazing teachers who occasionally manage to produce these kind of results. But these are the Michael Jordans or Red Barons of their field. The fact is that it is unreasonable for us to expect teachers in overwhelmingly more difficult situations to perform at such a high level.

On top of this, determining teacher performance is, and always has been, tremendously difficult. Students are not widgets, classrooms are not production lines or monthly sales tallies. Schools are complex systems of human transformation. This isn't to say that there aren't bad teachers, or that it is impossible to evaluate them, but that it is complicated. Teaching is a profession that is as much an art as science. Poor schools tend to be the first place rookie teachers start and - as they are the most difficult environments - the easiest places to fail, thus either forcing many teachers to leave the profession altogether or to transfer out asap.

Now, what should we be doing *instead* of Race to the Top? If students have a constitutional right to an equal education, this should include a rectifying of any lack of human and social capital they might have had the misfortune of having received. Starting as early as birth, society should make it a priority to see to it that every child encounters the best possible environment we can help them receive. This might include home visits by a qualified specialist to monitor nutritional needs as well as intellectual and emotional support. It may involve parenting classes or child-care support. It might involve the establishment of more and better community centers in which both parents and children can enrich their lives, thereby increasing their human capital.

Upon entrance into school, the classroom should be tailored to each student's level of human capital. For some students, one teacher and 25 peers might be just fine (in higher SES neighborhoods, many children enter school with 3x the vocabulary and basic reading skills). But other students, with lower human capital, may require remediation and/or intervention. They may need an extra teacher's aid, a smaller class of 10-15 students, possible counseling sessions, extra language, support, etc.

The crucial step in real, meaningful reform to public education will be in recognizing that all students have not had the same life experiences, and that our schools should be organized accordingly. In this way, we will be truly meeting the needs of each student, and finally breaking the wretched cycle of poverty and dysfunction in America.

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