How Not To Fix Our Schools

Recently, a manifesto  appeared in the Washington Post called "How To Fix Our Schools".  Written by some of the superintendents of public schools , like Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein, the manifesto echos many of the same points made in the recent documentary "Waiting for Superman".  I would like to examine the fundamental claim in the manifesto, that teachers alone determine student achievement and other factors like poverty have no bearing.

According to the manifesto, "as President Obama has emphasized, the single most important factor determining whether students succeed in school is not the color of their skin or their ZIP code or even their parents' income -- it is the quality of their teacher."  I had to do a doubletake when I  read this.  I have a degree in education.  According to an educational class that I took over twenty years ago, the most important factor in determining student achievement was the socio-economic level of the child's parents.  This was first pointed out in a study done in 1966 called the Coleman Report.  According to the Coleman Report, teacher quality accounts for only one-third of student achievement.  Teacher quality is therefore important but hardly qualifies as the "single most important factor determining whether students succeed." But its been over 20 years since I've taking that class.  Maybe there is new research that contradicts this finding.

Well, it turns out there isn't any.  According to an article written by Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute "Decades of social science research have demonstrated that differences in the quality of schools can explain about one-third of the variation in student achievement. But the other two-thirds is attributable to non-school factors."  Rothstein provides examples of recent research by Michelle Phillips and Jonathan Crane that contradict the manifesto's claims about teacher quality.  I encourage everyone interested in this issue to read his article, especially the footnotes.

My point is that the fundamental belief about teachers made by people like Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein is not supported by educational research.  If the analysis behind their proposals is faulty, why should we give any credence to their proposals.

One additional thing I discovered in reading Rothstein's article.  Remember that quote attributed to President Obama.  It turns out that this is not quite what Obama believes.  According to Obama's remarks at a high school in Missouri "I always have to remind people that the biggest ingredient in school performance is the teacher. That's the biggest ingredient within a school. But the single biggest ingredient is the parent." (emphasis mine).  What does it say about those that wrote the manifesto that they would resort to distorting what the President believes in order to gain popular support.

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    This seems blatantly obvious (5.00 / 1) (#1)
    by jbindc on Mon Dec 13, 2010 at 06:30:46 PM EST
    If a kid comes to school without being fed, or is dealing with other issues at home and no one is looking to see if he did his homework - how can it NOT be obvious that this has a greater impact on his performance?  

    And if performance is solely the measure of the teacher in the classroom, then how is it explained that some kids do very well in the same class that other kids fail, and that most kids (if they are a statistically normal group and fall along a bell curve) will be average?  Seriously - how hard is it to see this?

    I am not a teacher, but my mother was one for almost 50 years.  Other family members also taught for almost 40 years. I've seen the job up close - it's hard work for little pay and little appreciation.

    It Seems Obvious (5.00 / 0) (#2)
    by john horse on Sun Feb 20, 2011 at 02:58:57 PM EST
    but unfortunately, not to our MSM (mainstream media).  

    If the "reformers" are basing their analysis on faulty assumptions then it means that their solutions to the problem will probably not work.

    By the way, thanks for reading and responding to my post.  Sorry it took so long to respond to your comment.

    john horse, I'm a retired (none / 0) (#3)
    by Zorba on Sun Feb 20, 2011 at 04:30:24 PM EST
    teacher (special education) and I absolutely agree with you.  Yes, teachers are important, but they cannot make up for the family's circumstances, the neighborhood's circumstances, etc, etc.  For the population I worked with, it has only gotten worse- the special ed kids, even if they are severely or profoundly handicapped, still have to sit for the mandated "No Child Left Behind" state tests.  Kids who are living in poverty, with very little, if any, support at home, sit for the same tests.  Yet they think that an individual teacher can overcome all these problems, no matter how good he/she is?  Michelle Rhee and her ilk need to get back down in the trenches and see what teachers actually have to deal with on a day to day basis.  

    My mom used to say (5.00 / 0) (#4)
    by jbindc on Fri Feb 25, 2011 at 12:53:06 PM EST
    that she was expected to accept 100% defective raw material and turn out a perfect product.  She also wondered what other business would that be applicable to (answer:  none).

    You Can't "Get Back" To the Trenches (5.00 / 0) (#5)
    by john horse on Sun Feb 27, 2011 at 01:54:11 PM EST
    if you've never been in the trenches to begin with.  Michelle Rhee has never taught school.