Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Concept Offensive to Reasonable People

Questions are being asked about possible test-score fraud in the Washington DC public schools.  Michelle Rhee, who's taken credit for performance improvements, has responded quite defensively:  In regards to the investigation of scores, she calls it

"an insult to the dedicated teachers and schoolchildren who worked hard to improve their academic achievement levels....
It isn't surprising that the enemies of school reform once again are trying to argue that the Earth is flat and that there is no way test scores could have improved ... unless someone cheated."
A common criticism of the DC schools (along with just about everywhere else in the country) has been the assertion that the union has "resisted reform".  I think this is probably true, given what "reform" actually means.  I'm curious as to what people think the union in DC has actually done to resist "reform", that any other union hasn't done in any other district.  I'm asking this under the assumption that, as is commonly said of union resistance to reform, they probably feel they have fought against the standard reform platform: performance pay, ending tenure, and general undermining of teacher protections.  The underlying premise of these reforms is that poor teaching is driving the achievement gap, and that what is needed is an improvement in the quality of teaching, and thus the so-called accountability measures.

My problem with this is that it isn't as if the teachers in DC are really much worse than anywhere else.  I mean, they could be in some marginal sense, but it would be really odd for there to be so many bad teachers, to the extent that they are driving such dismal performance in classroom after classroom.  There just isn't anything about DC that would make it so exceptionally worse than other, similarly disadvantaged districts.

Except of course, that all districts with similar demographics are doing terribly.  We tend to say these are "bad schools".  Yet that's largely a useless term.  "School" is simply a building staffed by credentialed employees.  The quality doesn't change substantially from one to the next.  What does change is the student body.  Often in a matter of a few miles - across "the tracks" - scores can almost double. The reality is that these schools face tasks that are really not comparable.  Therefore it is somewhat absurd to speak of them in similar terms, and even more absurd to address them with similar policy. 

Ever wonder why you don't hear about "bad" teachers at "good" schools?  It isn't because they don't exist.  It is because they are largely irrelevant.  As long as they show up and provide some basic level of instruction, the kids will do relatively OK.  This isn't even "bad" teaching, necessarily.  (Just try managing to keep 30 kids somewhat focused and following a curriculum for 6 hours a day, and try not to go insane yourself - the term "bad" will take on new meaning!)  No, what goes on at "good" schools is average teaching.  And that's fine.  We can go into deeper discussions there, but I think that's beyond the scope of the achievement-gap problem.

But what goes on at "bad" schools is... surprise, average teaching.  The problem is, given the resources everyone at such schools are working with, considering the task they face, average produces "bad" results.  The vainglorious hope that modern education reform is after is a concept that should be offensive to reasonable people: poor schools need above average teachers.  This is exactly what Nicholas Kristof wrote in a recent op-ed piece in the NY Times.  We need to
"attract the kind of above-average teachers our above-average children deserve."
Now, there are 3 million teachers in America.  In school districts with millions of kids, hundreds of thousands of them poor and disadvantaged, are we really going to hang our hopes on finding "above average" teachers?

This is the John Rambo, Jaime Escalante model of education.  It looks really cool, and is inspiring to believe.  But ultimately it is disrespectful to the countless teachers out there doing an increasingly thankless job, asked to single-handedly fix modern society's social problems by the sweat on their own brow.  And when they fail - when they are merely "average" - they are labelled "bad", and suddenly now the reason for America's continuing social ills. 

Just imagine if we treated combat soldiers or cops this way?  Not Rambo?  Not Clint Eastwood?  Well, don't complain that we didn't give you the resources to properly accomplish your mission.  You weren't above-average!  Haven't you seen the movies?  Why couldn't you have been just like them?  Well, now we've lost the war.  Now the neighborhood has become crime-ridden.  And it is your fault.

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