Targeting teachers

Education reformers, researchers, and even a new film all argue that unfit teachers are dragging down our schools

Good teachers are always seeking new ways to engage their students.
(Image credit: Getty)

Why the focus on teachers?

For decades, education reformers have worked to eliminate yawning achievement gaps between middle-income and poor children by increasing funding, reducing class size, or devising cutting-edge curriculums. But today most reformers have decided that quality teaching is the critical variable, and a controversial new documentary, Waiting for Superman, largely takes their side. Researchers have discovered that two teachers who instruct the same grade in the same school can produce widely divergent outcomes — regardless of the socioeconomic status of students. A recent study showed that an elementary student taught by subpar teachers in three successive grades is unlikely ever to catch up to peers who had effective teachers over the same period. Stanford economist Eric Hanushek calculates that replacing the worst-performing 6 percent to 10 percent of teachers with average teachers would enable the U.S. to close the national test score gap with high-performing nations like Finland and Canada.

What makes a good teacher?

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That's what everyone wants to know. Teach for America, which takes recent college graduates and trains them for two-year stints in low-income schools, says good teachers set high goals for students, perpetually seek ways to engage them, and involve parents. Qualities like charisma, experience, or a master's degree in education are helpful but not essential. What sets the best teachers apart: their perseverance and their work ethic. What that means, reformers say, is that more quality teaching can be created by policy. "Strong teachers insist that effective teaching is neither mysterious nor magical," says Teach for America executive Steven Farr.

How is effectiveness measured?

Increasingly, through a tool called "value-added modeling." The program uses students' standardized test scores to track how much "value" each teacher adds as a student progresses from one grade to another. Hundreds of school districts nationwide have adopted it, in part because it's a prerequisite for "Race to the Top," the Obama administration's competition for $4.35 billion in school funds. "In other fields, we talk about success constantly, with statistics and other measures to prove it," says Education Secretary Arne Duncan. "Why in education are we scared to talk about what success looks like?"

Are test scores a fair gauge?

Many teachers think not. Teachers unions have long resisted efforts to grade teachers, arguing that grades force teachers to "teach to the test" or, worse, avoid working at schools in poor neighborhoods. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, says Race to the Top has "a chilling effect" on teachers because it measures their work in a rigid, numerical way. Many teachers say it's not possible, in six hours of class a day, to make up for the lack of "social capital" of students from households where parents read little, have limited vocabularies, and signal low expectations for their children's education and future lives.

Why do some schools succeed?

Schools that beat the odds tend to have powerful cultures designed to give kids new ambition and productive habits. The now-famous Harlem Children's Zone, for example, recruits top teachers, but the privately funded charter also provides small classes, state-of-the art labs, and counseling and medical services. Most important, the culture is built on an expectation of excellence. "If your child comes to this school, we will guarantee that we will get your child into college," vows Geoffrey Canada, the school's founder. The pursuit of excellence, however, requires extraordinary teacher commitment: At the Knowledge Is Power Program, a charter system operating in 19 states and Washington, D.C., the school day lasts from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., and teachers must be available for questions until 9 at night. But it works. KIPP schools, which are overwhelmingly Hispanic and African-American, average an 85 percent graduation rate.

Can that success be replicated?

That's the crux of the debate. Washington, D.C., has been a laboratory for reform since Michelle Rhee, a Teach for America veteran, took over its school system in 2007. Rated the nation's worst, Washington schools provide "an education that every single citizen in this country should be embarrassed by," Rhee says. In addition to paring the district's bureaucracy and closing dysfunctional schools, Rhee fired underperforming teachers and fought to institute a teacher evaluation system that would enable her to fire hundreds, perhaps thousands, more. Her plan was fiercely resisted by the teachers union, which looks to have won the battle. Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty, who hired Rhee, lost his re-election bid last month, and his successor appears unlikely to retain Rhee. But despite that setback, reformers have increased their leverage nationally through Race to the Top grants, which critics liken to "bribery" of school districts to adopt the White House's reform agenda. So teachers are likely to remain very much in the spotlight. "The pressure of accountability is paying off," says Kati Haycock, director of the nonprofit Educational Trust. Teachers unions now "know they will be held responsible if they are defending teachers who aren't any good."

Falling behind other nations

Despite the fact that the U.S. spends more per pupil than most developed nations do, American schoolchildren are increasingly falling behind. Thirty years ago, the U.S. led the world in terms of high school and college graduation rates. But at both levels, the U.S. has declined from first place to 18th. American 15-year-olds now rank 25th internationally in math, 21st in science, 15th in reading literacy, and 24th in problem-solving skills. Poor and minority students fare far worse. Despite a steady decline in U.S. performance relative to other developed nations, a Gallup poll showed that 76 percent of Americans report being completely or somewhat satisfied with their own children's public schools, suggesting a lack of urgency that frustrates reformers. "Why can't we be the best in education?" says Harvard University professor Paul E. Peterson. "Why do we have to take mediocrity as about right for the United States?"

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