Firing Line: The Grand Coalition Against Teachers

Firing Line: The Grand Coalition Against Teachers

J. Barkan: Ed Reformers v. Teachers

To read a web letter in response to this article and a reply from Barkan, click here.

IN A nation as politically and ideologically riven as ours, it’s remarkable to see so broad an agreement on what ails public schools. It’s the teachers. Democrats from various wings of the party, virtually all Republicans, most think tanks that deal with education, progressive and conservative foundations, a proliferation of nonprofit advocacy organizations, right-wing anti-union groups, hedge fund managers, writers from right leftward, and editorialists in most mainstream media—all concur that teachers, protected by their unions, deserve primary blame for the failure of 15.6 million poor children to excel academically. They also bear much responsibility for the decline of K-12 education overall (about 85 percent of all children attend public schools), to the point that the United States is floundering in the global economy.

In the last few years, attention to the role of public school teachers has escalated into a high-profile, well-financed, and seriously misguided campaign to transform the profession based on this reasoning: if we can place a great teacher in every classroom, the achievement gap between middle-class white students and poor and minority students will close; all students will be prepared to earn a four-year college degree, find a “twenty-first-century job” at a good salary, and help to restore U.S. preeminence in the world economy.

Here is Barack Obama speaking at Kenmore Middle School in Arlington, Virginia on March 14, 2011:

The best economic policy is one that produces more college graduates. And that’s why, for the sake of our children and our economy and America’s future, we’re going to have to do a better job educating every single one of our sons and daughters…But when the quality of a teacher can make or break a child’s education, we’ve got to make sure our certified teachers are also outstanding teachers—teachers who can reach every last child.

This article will investigate the fix-the-teachers campaign of today’s “education reformers.” It’s not their only project. They also want public schools run with the top-down, data-driven, accountability methods used in private businesses; they aim to replace as many regular public schools as possible with publicly funded, privately managed charter schools; some are trying to expand voucher programs to allow parents to take their per-child public-education funding to private schools. All this will reshape who controls the $540 billion that taxpayers spend on K-12 schools every year. It endangers the democratic nature of public education as well. But nothing affects children more directly in the classroom than what the reform movement is doing to teachers.

Some Necessary Context

Everyone who supports public education believes that only effective teachers should be in the classroom; ineffective teachers who can’t improve should lose their jobs. Accomplishing this requires a sound method for evaluating teachers and a fair process for firing. In the current system, school principals have the responsibility to assess teachers’ performance and dismiss ineffective ones. Making sure that principals do this well is the district superintendent’s responsibility (not the teachers’). The system works if administrators at all levels and school boards do their jobs.

Even with these assumptions stated, a productive discussion can’t begin without first addressing two questions: what accounts for variations in student achievement, and what is the overall state of K-12 education in the United States?

On the first question, research shows that teachers are the most important in-school factor determining students’ academic performance. But they are not the only in-school factor: class size and the quality of the school principal, for example, matter a great deal. Most crucially, out-of-school factors—family characteristics such as income and parents’ education, neighborhood environment, health care, housing stability, and so on—count for twice as much as all in-school factors. In 1966, a groundbreaking government study—the “Coleman Report”—first identified a “one-third in-school factors, two-thirds family characteristics” ratio to explain variations in student achievement. Since then researchers have endlessly tried to refine or refute the findings. Education scholar Richard Rothstein described their results: “No analyst has been able to attribute less than two-thirds of the variation in achievement among schools to the family characteristics of their students” (Class and Schools, 2004). Factors such as neighborhood environment give still more weight to what goes on outside school.

Ed reformers have only one response to this reality: anyone who brings up out-of-school factors such as poverty is both defending the status quo of public education and claiming that schools can do nothing to overcome the life circumstances of poor children. The response is silly and, by now, tiresome. Some teachers will certainly be able to help compensate for the family backgrounds and out-of-school environments of some students. But the majority of poor children will not get all the help they need: their numbers are too great, their circumstances too severe, and resources too limited. Imagine teachers from excellent suburban public schools transferring en masse to low-performing, inner-city public schools. Would these teachers have as much success as they did in the suburbs? Would they be able to overcome the backgrounds of 15.6 million poor children? Even with bonus pay, would they stay with the job for more than a few years? Common sense and experience say no, and yet the reformers insist they can fix public schools by fixing the teachers.

On the second question—what is the state of education in the United States?—both critics and advocates of the reform movement agree that some public schools need significant improvement and that improvement is achievable. But in order to mobilize broad support for their program, ed reformers from Obama on down have pumped up a sense of crisis about the international standing of the entire education system. In reality, however, students in American public schools serving middle-class and affluent children surpass students in other nations in standardized test scores (which ed reformers use obsessively to define success).

The most recent data come from the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment, released in December 2010. PISA tested fifteen-year-olds in sixty countries (plus five non-state entities such as Hong Kong) in reading, math, and science. Consider the results in reading, the subject assessed in depth in 2009: U.S. students in public schools with a poverty rate of less than 10 percent (measured by eligibility for free or reduced-price lunches) scored 551, second only to the 556 score of the city of Shanghai, which doesn’t release poverty data. The U.S. students outperformed students in all eight participating nations whose reported poverty rates fall below 10 percent. Finland, with a poverty rate of just 3.4 percent, came in second with a score of 536. As the level of student poverty in U.S. public schools increased, scores fell. Because of the high overall child-poverty rate (20.7 percent), the average reading score for all U.S. students was 500 (fourteenth place). In short, poverty drags down our international standing (see this Department of Education site).

How to Find and Fire Bad Teachers the Reform Way

The ed reformers have a formula for producing an outstanding teaching force: identify and dismiss all bad teachers, replace them with excellent ones, keep the latter on staff by paying them more, and evaluate everyone regularly to make sure no teacher is slipping. Private schools have the freedom to do this. But public schools, according to the credo, are hamstrung by protections for teachers—due process (imprecisely called tenure), seniority, and set salary scales—which are written into state laws and union contracts.* Because of due process, the reformers claim, it’s too difficult to get rid of bad teachers; because of seniority, they aren’t necessarily the first laid off; because of salary scales, they get paid as much as better teachers. The reformers want the quality of teaching alone to determine if a public school teacher stays employed or gets a raise.

But how do you measure quality accurately? The reformers promote relying heavily on students’ standardized test scores: students who do well on these tests have clearly learned something, the argument goes. Therefore if you track the test scores of each teacher’s students every year, you can measure how much students have learned and use that number to make personnel decisions. The traditional protections can go, the unions will be weaker (a boon to reformers who consider them roadblocks to change), and, voilà, public schools will improve.

Due process, seniority, and salary scales predate unionization; they grew out of state and local civil service reforms in the early twentieth century when political machines thrived in large part by controlling jobs. Civil service laws protected teachers against the graft, cronyism, and favoritism that plagued public school systems under the thumb of political bosses and run by patronage. The laws benefited children by aiming for a meritocracy: teaching jobs would go to those who had training and skills. Since the 1960s when public employees in many states won the right to bargain collectively, teachers’ contracts have included the same protections.

The traditional protections are just that—protections against corruption and favoritism; they have nothing to do with evaluating teachers. Even if an ideal evaluation system existed, teachers would still need recourse when administrators and politicians ignored regulations. Yet the reformers have misleadingly conflated the two issues: we can’t get proper evaluations, they claim, without eliminating protections. Since state laws can be written to take precedence over teachers’ contracts, the most effective way to eliminate protections is to get state laws changed. This is what the reform campaign is doing around the country.

A short digression on due process: it doesn’t mean that public school teachers cannot be fired. The problem is extremely drawn-out and costly procedures for hearings and rulings. Unions get the blame for this, but departments of education (notorious for bureaucratic snafus and foot-dragging) and the lawyers on both sides (also foot-draggers) bear equal responsibility. The solution is straightforward: strict time limits for the process. But, perversely, with the escalation of the reform campaign, “reform superintendents” have a greater interest in showing that due process doesn’t work than in repairing it.

Consider what happened in New York City. In 2002 Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his schools chancellor, Joel Klein, both ardent reformers, gave school principals the power to accuse and immediately remove any teacher for alleged misconduct or incompetence. The number of teachers out of the classroom and waiting for hearings climbed. Klein assigned them to seven sites around the city where they sat, under the watch of security guards, for months, then often years. Klein’s holding sites, dubbed the “rubber rooms,” turned into a media bonanza for Bloomberg’s reform program after the New Yorker ran an article in August 2009 that placed the blame for due process delays on the union. In April 2010, under increased pressure from teachers, Klein finally agreed to a procedure for speeding up the cases. According to the New York Times (December 7, 2010), 534 of the total 770 cases had been closed by mid-November (keep in mind that New York City employs 84,000 public school teachers). The saga demonstrates this much: due process can be speeded up and made to work. It’s not an impenetrable logjam scuttling the system, as reformers claim.

* Teachers receive the protection of due process after several years of probation; it guarantees that a teacher will not be fired without a fair hearing to determine if there is just cause. After probation, teachers do not have to reapply for their jobs every year. Seniority lists teachers according to how long they’ve been teaching; when a school district imposes layoffs, teachers with less seniority are laid off before those with more seniority. Salary scales preset raises according to the number of years of teaching and, in most districts, additional credentials (for example, a graduate degree).

Forging Ahead With a Dubious Notion

The reformers’ plan to improve teaching hangs on the notion of annual teacher evaluations based heavily on student test scores. But if this process isn’t consistently accurate, it will hurt children as well as teachers: it will misidentify good and bad teachers (should “good” be defined as good at test prep in any case?), get the wrong ones fired, demoralize entire staffs, and discourage talented people from entering the profession. So far, the consensus judgment of the research community is not positive. Experts at the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Education, RAND, and the Education Testing Service have repeatedly warned policy makers against using test scores to measure teacher effectiveness. The calculations require “value-added modeling” (VAM, complex mathematical models to control for in-school and outside factors that influence individual test scores over time so that teachers can be compared) and carefully calibrated tests. In a 2009 report to the U.S. Department of Education, the Board on Testing and Assessment of the National Research Council wrote, “Even in pilot projects, VAM estimates of teacher effectiveness that are based on data for a single class of students should not be used to make operational decisions because such estimates are far too unstable to be considered fair or reliable.”

Yet reformers have not only made this approach the cornerstone of their project, they’ve successfully sold the idea to politicians across the country who are rushing to write it into state laws. And the public is going along—with practically no one confronting how seriously VAM will narrow the curriculum. It’s doubtful that many of VAM’s non-expert promoters could describe the modeling methods. VAM has the appeal of being mathematical, complex, and data based. It’s the kind of technical fix that sounds convincing; it readily wins hearts, not minds.

John Ewing, president of Math for America (which promotes better math education in public high schools), describes the VAM phenomenon in “Mathematical Intimidation: Driven by the Data” (Notices of the American Mathematical Society, May 2011):

People recognize that tests are an imperfect measure of educational success, but when sophisticated mathematics is applied, they believe the imperfections go away by some mathematical magic. But this is not magic. What really happens is that the mathematics is used to disguise the problems and intimidate people into ignoring them—a modern, mathematical version of the Emperor’s New Clothes….

Of course we should hold teachers accountable, but this does not mean we have to pretend that mathematical models can do something they cannot….In any case, we ought to expect more from our teachers than what value-added attempts to measure.

An (Optional) Introduction to VAM

This seems like the right place to offer an introductory description of how VAM is used to estimate teacher effectiveness for readers who are interested. Not everyone will be, and those who aren’t should guiltlessly skip over this section. I wrote it because I couldn’t find what I needed for my work—a step-by-step explanation for the general reader of “basic VAM” and the problems it raises. As state after state mandates test-based teacher evaluations, pays statisticians to develop value-added models, and narrows how teachers teach and what children learn, the relevance of this abstruse subject to citizens is bound to grow…even if it never makes for fun reading.

In education, “growth models” typically compare a student’s test score one year to previous test scores in the same subject. Value-added models are a type of growth model that statisticians use in education to estimate how much Teacher X added to the learning of her or his students over the course of a school year in one subject.

The most commonly used variant of VAM compares the average score of a teacher’s students (in, say, fourth-grade math) at the end of the school year to the average score of the same students at the end of the previous year in the same subject. The difference between the two scores is the “actual growth” of the teacher’s students. Their actual growth is then compared to what is called their “expected growth,” which is the average growth of a comparison group. For example, the actual growth of Teacher X’s students in fourth-grade math is compared to the average growth in fourth-grade math of all students in the state who are the same race and in the same income category as Teacher X’s students. The difference between the actual growth and expected growth of a teacher’s students is the teacher’s value-added score. Teachers with scores at the top of the distribution of all value-added scores are considered the best teachers; those at the bottom of the distribution are considered the worst. (In a slight variation, the end-of-the-year average score can be compared to a beginning-of-the-year average score in the same subject. This requires testing twice a year.)

VAM has serious flaws. First of all, the tests don’t account for the fact that the specific content in a subject changes from year to year. Here’s an illustration: a teacher’s value-added is calculated by comparing the scores on this year’s test in geometry to last year’s test in algebra. Or this year’s reading test heavy in comprehension skills with last year’s test heavy in phonics. Many researchers consider this kind of comparison meaningless. Instead, tests should track one type of content (say, reading comprehension) from year to year. Tests designed this way are “vertically scaled.” A briefing paper called “Problems with the Use of Student Test Scores to Evaluate Teachers,” authored by ten scholars and published by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), describes the problem this way:

Value-added measurement of growth from one grade to the next should ideally utilize vertically scaled tests, which most states (including large states like New York and California) do not use. In order to be vertically scaled, tests must evaluate content that is measured along a continuum from year to year.

Year-to-year scaling is extremely complicated even in a subject like elementary school reading. It’s impossible when the skill set changes from something like algebra to an entirely different skill set like geometry. So, in the real world, a teacher’s value-added score is usually calculated by comparing the percentage of her students scoring “proficient” on this year’s test with the percentage of the same students scoring “proficient” on the earlier test. The change in the percentage of proficient students is then compared to the change in the comparison group. But the concept of proficiency has no scientifically valid meaning: it’s just a score above an arbitrary cut-off point that separates failing from passing. As Richard Rothstein explains in Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right (2008), “There is nothing scientific about defining a standardized test’s passing score, and there are several methods for doing so. But all require subjective decisions by panels of judges…” This is how the panels (usually made up of teachers, members of the general public, administrators, and specialists) work:

One common method is to ask each judge to imagine what a barely proficient student can generally do, and then estimate, for each question on a test, the probability that such a student will answer the question correctly. The minimum test score (in percent correct) that a student must achieve to be deemed proficient is determined by averaging the judges’ probability estimates for all the questions.

This technique looks appallingly arbitrary and imprecise for deciding which teachers are “failing.” Politicians and state officials then make the “proficiency” calculation useless by changing the cut-off point at will—down if they want to show that their policies are succeeding, up if they want to create a sense of emergency about the poor quality of public schools. Think of New York City’s mayor declaring that his administration was working wonders in raising proficiency rates (I use examples from New York City because it has the largest and most comprehensive education-reform program and it’s where I live). It later came to light that the cut-off points for passing grades were embarrassingly low; the bar was raised in 2010, and proficiency rates plunged (New York Times, October 10, 2010).

VAM has still other shortcomings. How do you calculate the value-added score in team teaching? How do you account for the effects of outside tutoring that only some students receive or (depending on when the tests are given) the widely differing gains and losses in learning over the summer? How should students who transfer into a class midyear be counted? The EPI paper also analyzes unintended negative effects: disincentives for teachers to work with the neediest students, even more “teaching to the test,” less collaboration among teachers, and demoralization. On top of all this, many standardized tests are of poor quality to begin with. For most subjects, they don’t yet exist and will have to be developed on a rushed schedule because of new state laws.

As an accurate and therefore useful tool to measure teacher effectiveness, VAM fails. Regrettably, this gives reformers no pause.

The Political Triumph of VAM

The Bush Administration launched the era of federally mandated, high-stakes testing in public schools with its “No Child Left Behind” program in 2001. Schools not making “adequate yearly progress” in raising math and reading scores risked being re-staffed, replaced with charters, or shut down. This quickly produced predictable results: teaching to the test, narrowed curriculum, and incidents of cheating. But the next step—the federal drive to use student test scores to grade teachers—came exclusively from the Obama administration.

Obama chose ed reformer Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education, and Duncan, in turn, hired John Schnur, another reformer, as an advisor. Schnur came up with the idea of using the reform agenda as the core of a contest for federal grants. Called “Race to the Top” (RTTT), the contest offered states the chance to win funds if they pledged to mandate specific reforms, including test-based teacher evaluations in all subjects (for an account of RTTT’s genesis, see the New York Times Magazine, May 17, 2010). Desperate for funds, states accepted this micromanagement. Duncan announced the winners in 2010, and since then, those states have been passing laws to fulfill their pledges. Other states are following suit in large part because the reform movement has so effectively popularized the notion of holding every teacher accountable with “objective, performance-based” measures.

The following states have passed laws or have legislation in the works: Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, New Jersey, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Washington. Others are coming on board every month. Many of the new laws require test scores to count for as much as 50 percent of an evaluation (given the unreliable calculations, even 10 percent could distort an assessment); the rest is made up by a combination of “traditional measures” such as principals’ observations, reviews of lesson plans, and portfolios of student work. All the new laws weaken protections for teachers.

Florida’s new law, for example, requires the commissioner of education to come up with a value-added model that will determine 50 percent of every teacher’s and principal’s evaluation; the evaluations will decide salaries and dismissals. On April 4, 2011, Frederick Hess, director of Education Policy Studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and a tireless ed-reform advocate, wrote this about Florida’s law in his Education Week blog:

I’ll bet right now that SB 736 is going to be a train wreck. Mandatory terminations will force some good teachers out of good schools because of predictable statistical fluctuations, and parents will be livid. Questions about cheating will rear their ugly head. A thrown-together growth model and rapidly generated tests, pursued with scarce resources and under a new Commissioner, are going to be predictably half-baked and prone to problems.

Hess (whose work at AEI is supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) explained that he backed the law when it was proposed in 2010:

I thought it would knock down anachronistic policies governing tenure and pay—and problems with overreach and excessive prescriptiveness could be addressed later….However, a year passed, proponents had a chance to reflect and reconsider, and there’s no evidence that they improved their handiwork in any substantial way.

For most ed reformers, better a train wreck than no reform. They want as much change as possible as fast as possible in order to take advantage of momentum and the favorable political climate. The rush to pass state laws has provided their greatest opportunity so far. In response, they’ve skillfully built state campaigns, spending millions on organizers who advise lawmakers and legislative staffs, generate grassroots support, and run ad campaigns. A pipeline of private money—most of it from large private foundations—funds their state operations just as it funds almost all the ed reform movement’s activities. Two groups in particular—Stand for Children (headquartered in Portland) and Democrats for Education Reform (DFER, headquartered in New York City)–have played substantial roles by setting up branches in legislative battle states. Stand has a long list of contributors, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which donated $5.2 million between 2005 and 2010. DFER gets most of its money from financiers, especially hedge fund managers.

It’s difficult to overstate the role of the mega-rich private funders: look into any ed reform project—even those that appear to be individual or small local efforts—and you’ll likely come across the large foundations and financiers. This is typical: a small group of Indiana teachers campaigned successfully for their legislature to abolish seniority-based layoffs. They received media coverage but neglected to say that they had been recruited by Teach Plus, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based group that operates on a $4 million grant given to them in 2009 by the Gates Foundation (New York Times, May 21, 2011).

Evaluating Teachers: It’s Not Rocket Science and Shouldn’t Be

While ed reformers push a top-down technocratic procedure, the programs for assessing teacher performance that actually work take a radically different approach. They’re based on two assumptions: administrators and teachers should design and implement a program together, and it should incorporate “professional development” (showing teachers how to improve). One such program—“Peer Assistance and Review” (PAR)—is being used successfully in seven school districts around the country: in Toledo since 1981, Cincinnati since 1985, Rochester since 1987, Minneapolis since 1997, San Juan since 2000, Montgomery County since 2001, and Syracuse since 2005.

A PAR program has two main components: a district PAR Panel made up of seven to twelve members, half of them teachers and half administrators, and a corps of Consulting Teachers (CTs). Typically, teachers who want to become CTs apply to the panel. Those who are chosen take a leave of absence from their classrooms for three to five years and assume responsibility for a caseload of ten to twenty teachers who are either new or low-performing. The CTs observe “their” teachers at work regularly during the school year, provide intensive mentoring, keep detailed records of progress and problems, and report to the panel on each teacher’s development. They also recommend retaining, dismissing, or giving the teachers more assistance. The panel reviews reports and records, interviews each teacher, and makes a decision. The CTs receive extra pay during their term and then return to teaching (see “A User’s Guide to Peer Assistance and Review”).

Research on PAR programs shows that some teachers initially balk at being judged by their peers; some principals initially oppose giving up their authority over evaluations. Yet once the programs are in place, they get strong support. The advantages are many: more thorough assessments of teachers, more considered personnel decisions, speedier removal of ineffective teachers, opportunity for the best teachers to share their expertise, better trained first-year teachers, real improvement for some veteran teachers, and more time for principals to do their other work. Last but not least, the teachers’ union is a partner from the start, so a culture of cooperation develops between union and administration on evaluations. Sometimes cooperation grows strong enough to improve relations on other issues. Consider recent salary decisions in Maryland’s Montgomery County school system (New York Times, June 5, 2011):

Last year when Larry Bowers, the district’s finance director, said the schools could not afford a scheduled 5.3 percent raise, the teachers’ union agreed. “Saved us $89 million,” Mr. Bowers said.

Mr. [Doug] Prouty, the union president, said he knew Mr. Bowers was telling the truth. “We formulate the budget; we know where the money is, which makes us much more trusting,” said Mr. Prouty, whose members also agreed to forgo a raise next year.

PAR looks like a win for students, teachers, and administrators. Presidential candidate Barack Obama endorsed it in a November 20, 2007 education policy speech: “Teacher associations and school boards in a number of cities have led the way by developing peer assistance and review plans that do exactly this—setting professional standards that put children first.” So why haven’t ed reformers made PAR or similar plans the center of their project? Why have their reforms brought us Arne Duncan and Race To The Top instead of Obama’s 2007 thinking? Why should Maryland, a RTTT-winner, be obliged to mandate a teacher-evaluation program that might ruin Montgomery County’s excellent PAR plan (Washington Post, June 21, 2011)?

A Reform With No Appeal For “Reformers”

PAR-type plans don’t appeal to ed reformers for at least four reasons. First, although reformers claim they’re not anti-teacher, but simply want to get rid of bad teachers, their rhetoric doesn’t make distinctions: they end up painting public school teachers in general as lazy, greedy, and just biding time until they can collect their pensions. The movement has undermined respect for teachers to the detriment of everyone with a stake in public education, especially children. PAR-type plans do the opposite: they empower teachers as professionals who are able to mentor and assess their peers and, if necessary, pass judgment. Second, PAR has no mathematical bells and whistles to impress non-experts; it makes no pretense of being “scientific.” Paradoxically, the state laws backed by ed reformers leave at least 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation—the part composed of traditional, non-test-based methods—unimproved. PAR instead turns these methods into a rigorous procedure carried out by a trained staff. Third, standardized testing and value-added modeling are growth industries today with thousands of employees, many of them high-salaried. The new state laws greatly expand their markets; PAR doesn’t. Ultimately, the testing industry is likely to be the only beneficiary of the ed reformers’ effort to improve teaching.

Finally, there are the unions. A virulent anti-teachers’-union ethos pervades the ed reform movement: the unions quash reforms, period; success for reformers requires weakening or eliminating the unions. Once again, PAR-type plans do the opposite: they make teachers’ unions a partner; the plans depend on union-management cooperation.

Many ed reformers insist they don’t oppose unions in general, only teachers’ unions (“I’m a lifelong Democrat” is a common refrain). But some members of the broad ed reform coalition are fundamentally anti-union. For them—free-marketers, conservatives, Republican politicians and supporters—ed reform makes great sense politically. The National Education Association (NEA), with 3.2 million members, is by far the largest union in the United States; the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), with close to 1.5 million members, is the third or fourth largest. Together they account for over 30 percent of the nation’s 14.7 million unionists. Crippling such a large portion of the labor movement will debilitate the rest. It will also undermine the Democratic Party in elections. The NEA and AFT along with two other public sector unions (SEIU and AFSCME) constitute the strongest, most active component of the party’s institutional base, especially at the state and local levels. Until now, they’ve provided the party with ground troops and funds. Although the Democrats rely on corporate money almost as heavily as the Republicans, disabling the Democrats’ union-based, grassroots operation will serve Republicans well.

This is, of course, why Republican governors, galvanized by their 2010 election sweep, are going after all public-sector unions. Under the guise of budget shortfalls, they are rolling back not only salaries and pensions but also the rights of unions to bargain for members, collect dues, and raise funds for political work. With their relentless attacks on teachers’ unions, ed reformers have been immensely helpful—purposely or indifferently—to Republicans.

Where to Go from Here

With the zealots’ mix of certainty and fervor, ed reformers have made this a wretched time to be a public school teacher. Indeed, fewer and fewer people are interested in trying. In the last seven years, the number of Californians seeking to become teachers dropped 45 percent (California Watch, December 14, 2010). In 2011, due to declining interest, Yale ended both its undergraduate teacher preparation and certification program and its Urban Teaching Initiative, a tuition-free M.A. program for students committed to teaching in New Haven’s public schools. Teachers all over the country—in affluent districts as well as high-poverty schools—are dispirited. In New York City, 50 percent of all new hires leave after five years in the classroom.

Meanwhile, parents worry that obsessive testing is hollowing out the substance of learning; they rightly expect good teaching to offer much more than the largely meaningless higher scores that consume ed-reform thinking. In order to rescue their children’s public schools from state mandates, parents will need to organize themselves in large numbers as allies of teachers. There’s no other way to stop the damage being done.

And what about the schools that do need significant improvement? The good news comes from schools scattered around the country where teachers and principals have created successful models that shun the ed-reform approach. Each school has its own story, but they share these features: a talented principal, a teaching staff that signs on and helps design a plan that fits their students’ needs, experienced teachers who coach colleagues, regular meetings to assess and revise the plan, a concerted effort to engage parents, union cooperation, and understanding that improvement is an ongoing process.

Brockton High School in Massachusetts was once the kind of giant “drop-out factory” (over 4,000 students) that ed reformers insist on shutting down. Instead, the staff transformed the school dramatically with a program that emphasizes literacy skills, especially writing, in every subject, even physical education (see PBS, February 3, 2011, and the New York Times, September 27, 2010). Eight K-8 schools in Chicago’s lowest income neighborhoods transformed themselves using a program based on twenty years of research at the University of Chicago. Its award-winning parent engagement component includes workshops on what children will study, helping with homework, and parenting skills. Parents who’ve attended the workshops are then recruited and trained to lead them for other parents (see Education Week, January 5, 2010, and Strategic Learning Initiatives, the group behind the program).

I’ve mentioned just two examples, but there are others. Education reporters should be tracking down these stories: they comprise the mostly unknown, now threatened, but positive side of change. I’ll close with an observation about “reform” by George H. Wood, principal of a school in rural Ohio, from a June 16, 2010 blog post:

For the past eighteen years, I have worked as a high school/middle school principal alongside a dedicated staff and a committed community to improve a school. In that time, we have increased graduation and college-going rates, engaged our students in more internships and college courses, created an advisory system that keeps tabs on all of our students, and developed the highest graduation standards in the state (including a Senior Project and Graduation Portfolio).

But reading the popular press and listening to the chatter from Washington, I have just found out that we are not part of the movement to “reform” schools. You see, we did not do all the stuff that the new “reformers” think is vital to improve our schools. We did not fire the staff, eliminate tenure, or go to pay based on test scores. We did not become a charter school. We did not take away control from a locally elected school board and give it to a mayor. We did not bring in a bunch of two-year short-term teachers.

Nope, we did not do any of these things. Because we knew they would not work.

Joanne Barkan graduated from Bryn Mawr Elementary School and South Shore High School on Chicago’s South Side when the public schools belonged to Boss Richard J. Daley’s political machine. Her next article will be on the rise of education entrepreneurship.