The superintendents' wrong solution

Alonso's and others' blame-teacher mentality won't fix schools

October 21, 2010|By Steven J. Klees

A group of 16 school superintendents, including Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso, recently published a "manifesto" on "How to Fix Our Schools." I have great respect for the difficult job superintendents have to do, but this group has got it all wrong. Their diagnosis: Blame their teacher. Their solution: Give us the power to evaluate and fire teachers easily.

These superintendents are taking one extreme position in the current education reform battles. They are part of a conservative movement that goes beyond U.S. borders and beyond education that is attempting to reverse the hard-won protections that workers have struggled for.

The bankruptcy of their solution in education is most evident in the mechanism that is recommended to accompany it: pay for performance. This idea goes back a long way, gets trotted out every couple of decades — and each time it fails. A basic problem is that it is a statistical impossibility to figure out how much of the gain in student achievement is actually caused by teacher performance. Students' test scores are the result of literally dozens of factors. Thus, merit pay schemes will necessarily reward many poorer teachers and fail to reward many good teachers. The fear of simplistic and mechanical evaluation procedures was an important reason for Baltimore teachers to reject the recent contract proposal.

This superintendents' recommended policy also takes as given the nationwide push toward incessant testing of our children. There is no evidence that this testing regime that accompanied No Child Left Behind has improved student achievement. And there is evidence that it has narrowed the curriculum, encouraged teachers to teach to the test, ignored problem-solving and higher-order thinking skills and increased teacher and student anxiety and dissatisfaction. It is worth noting that the country that does best on international tests is Finland, which hardly tests its students at all.

The superintendents say "we have to change the rules to professionalize teaching." But new rules made up by administrators are the very opposite of professionalization, which has to come from the teachers themselves. The status of teaching as a profession has plummeted over the last three decades, and teachers know this better than anyone. When surveyed, teachers used to say they thought it would be great if their children wanted to be teachers; hardly any teacher responds that way today. The superintendents, if anything, are contributing to lowering the status of teachers even further as they promote a blame-the-teacher philosophy for education's ills.

It is disheartening to see so many superintendents with such a limited vision of what to do. Aside from a narrow view of punishing and rewarding teachers, their manifesto mentions two things: technology and school choice. While technology has a place in schools, there is no evidence that the diffusion of new technologies has done anything to improve student achievement. If anything, it contributes to the achievement gap as advantaged students become even more advantaged. And there is also no evidence that charters or vouchers improve achievement.

What to do? There is no blueprint, but we know a lot of things that could help. Many of those things are outside school. We need to pay special attention to the well-being of children ages 0 to 6 so they have a fairer start at school. During the school years, schools and social policies must help support families. As one example of what's wrong, many children in the U.S. suffer from hunger and malnutrition, which, among many horrible consequences, adversely affects school performance.

Regarding achievement, use broader tests to check on how we are doing by testing samples of students, not all students. Reinvigorate the portfolio movement through which students are evaluated on a range of dimensions. Lower class sizes and assign some teachers to engage in a long-term relationship with students and their families.

Teachers need to be treated as professionals, with commensurate pay and considerable say over the means by which they are evaluated. Given the right attitudes and working conditions, they can and will police themselves. And we need superintendents with a much broader vision of education than offered in the "manifesto."

Steven J. Klees is a professor of international education policy at the University of Maryland, College Park. His e-mail is sklees@umd.edu.

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