September 9, 2010 at 9:39 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Schools: The Disaster Movie

A debate has been raging over why our education system is failing. A new documentary by the director of An Inconvenient Truth throws fuel on the fire.

The Harlem-based educator and activist Geoffrey Canada first met the filmmaker Davis Guggenheim in 2008, when Canada was in Los Angeles raising money for the Children’s Defense Fund, which he chairs. Guggenheim told Canada that he was making a documentary about the crisis in America’s schools and implored him to be in it. Canada had heard this pitch before, more times than he could count, from a stream of camera-toting do-gooders whose movies were destined to be seen by audiences smaller than the crowd on a rainy night at a Brooklyn Cyclones game. Canada replied to Guggenheim as he had to all the others: with a smile, a nod, and a distracted Call my office, which translated to Buzz off.

Then Guggenheim mentioned another film he’d made An Inconvenient Truth and Canada snapped to attention. I had absolutely seen it, Canada recalls, and I was stunned because it was so powerful that my wife told me we couldn’t burn incandescent bulbs anymore. She didn’t become a zealot; she just realized that [climate change] was serious and we have to do something. Canada agreed to be interviewed by Guggenheim, but still had his doubts. I honestly didn’t think you could make a movie to get people to care about the kids who are most at risk.

Two years later, Guggenheim’s new film, Waiting for Superman, is set to open in New York and Los Angeles on September 24, with a national release soon to follow. It arrives after a triumphal debut at Sundance and months of buzz-building screenings around the country, all designed to foster the impression that Guggenheim has uncorked a kind of sequel: the Inconvenient Truth of education, an eye-opening, debate-defining, socially catalytic cultural artifact.

Superman affectingly, movingly traces the stories of five children all but one of them poor and black or Hispanic and their parents as they seek to secure a decent education by gaining admission via lottery to high-performing charter schools. At the same time, the film is a withering indictment of the adults in particular, those at the teachers unions who have let the public-school system rot, and a paean to reformers such as Canada and Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public schools, who has waged an epic campaign to overhaul the notoriously dysfunctional system over which she presides.

Among leaders of the burgeoning education-reform movement, the degree of anticipation surrounding Superman is difficult to overstate. The movie is going to create a sense of outrage, and a sense of urgency, says Arne Duncan, Barack Obama’s secretary of Education. New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein concurs. It’s gonna grab people much deeper than An Inconvenient Truth, because watching ice caps melt doesn’t have the human quality of watching these kids being denied something you know will change their lives, Klein says. It grabs at you. It should grab at you. Those kids are dying.

The education-reform crowd is not alone in waiting for Waiting for Superman though for those on the other side of the ideological fence, it would be more accurate to say that they are bracing for Superman. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers and a character in the film, complains that it is unfair, misleading, and potentially dangerous. Indeed, not long ago, United Teachers Los Angeles posted on its website a flyer describing Superman as scathing and attacking U.S. teachers and calling for volunteers to appear in a TV ad to give the other side of the story.

The excitement and agitation around Superman might seem hyperbolic, overblown. Yet both are symptomatic of a signal moment in the annals of American education, when a confluence of factors a grassroots outcry for better schools, a cadre of determined reformers, a newly demanding and parlous global economy, and a president willing to challenge his party’s hoariest shibboleths and most potent allies has created what Duncan calls a perfect storm. It’s a moment when debates are raging over an array of combustible issues, from the expansion of charters and the role of standardized-test scores to the shuttering of failing schools and the firing of crappy teachers. It’s a moment ripe with ferment and possibility, but also rife with conflict, in which the kind of change that fills many hearts with hope fills others with mortal dread and which gives a movie like Superman a rare chance to move the needle.

Davis Guggenheim had no intention of starting a fight with his movie. At first, in fact, he was about as interested in making Superman as Canada initially was in appearing in it. After An Inconvenient Truth, Guggenheim was deluged with offers to take on every conceivable cause: cancer, Africa, the oceans, you name it. Guggenheim just shook his head and his reaction was no less negative about tackling education: I don’t think it can be done, he said. It’s a storytelling quagmire.

Guggenheim knew whereof he spoke. The son of legendary documentarian Charles Guggenheim and an accomplished director of fiction (Deadwood, 24, NYPD Blue) and nonfiction (It Might Get Loud, the Barack Obama biographical short at the 2008 Democratic convention), he had already made an education documentary. Entitled The First Year, the film followed five public-school teachers during their initiation to the classroom and was consigned to irrelevance when it made its debut on PBS five days before 9/11. But even had the timing been less miserable, Guggenheim believes that The First Year had no chance to have much impact. It was vérité, as pure as it gets, but it preached to the choir, he says.

What caused him to reconsider taking another run at the topic was the experience of driving his children to school in Venice, California. At 46, Guggenheim is an unrepentant liberal and supporter of the public schools. And yet here he was, passing three of them every day on his way to the private institution that his kids attend, betraying the ideals I thought I lived by, as he puts it in Superman.

This cascade of lefty-yuppie guilt led to Guggenheim’s first epiphany: to put himself in the film as its narrator, which would let the piece take, he says, the tone of an op-ed. His second was to make in effect two separate movies, welding them together only at the last minute. Movie No. 1 would be the story of the kids and the charter-school lotteries, while Movie No. 2 would deal with what Guggenheim calls the folly of the adults from the parade of presidents of both parties pledging fundamental change but delivering none, to the administrators shuffling bad teachers from school to school, to the union bosses chanting It’s all about the kids while working feverishly to protect their members’ every contractual right and privilege.

I would compare it to the muckraking of the early-twentieth century, says former New York City Council member and current Harlem and Bronx charter-school operator Eva Moskowitz. But the thing that distinguishes this film from a simple exposé is that it gets at the political underpinnings of why we’re in the crisis that we’re in.

In the run-up to Superman ’s release, however, it’s precisely the political dimensions of the film that have been causing unending angst for Guggenheim. Here’s what I’m scared of: that the movie will be misperceived as a pro-charter, anti-union piece, he says. The movie isn’t anti-union; it’s pro-kids. And to be pro-kids, I have to be tough on all of the adults, starting with myself. And the movie’s not pro-charter. It’s just that lotteries happen at a lot of charter schools, and the lottery is the central metaphor in the movie. It’s like, you could have the American Dream if you win the lottery. The lottery is a metaphor for what we do to our kids.

For the combatants in the war over the future of education, of course, charter schools are more than that: They are among the conflict’s most brutal battlefields. Publicly funded but autonomously operated, accountable for results but largely free of government oversight and entirely free of union rules such as lockstep pay and lifetime teacher tenure, charters now serve more than 1.5 million students across the country. To reformers such as Duncan and Klein, they hold fantastic promise: of empowering principals, slicing through red tape, creating competition for mainstream public schools. But to critics, charters are a chimera a faddish panacea that represents much of what’s wrong with Superman and the ed-reform movement writ large.

That Guggenheim is right to be worried that his film will be seen as taking sides in the charter debate was evident one night in July, when I tagged along with Canada to a screening in Washington for education-policy wonks and activists. At the Q&A session afterward, a woman raised her hand and said, My main concern is that the documentary seems to send the message that all charter schools are successful. As you know, there are a minority  that are very successful, but way too often they are no better than the neighborhood schools.

This is really about good schools, whether they are charter schools or public schools, Canada said, immediately conceding the point that many of the former are lousy.  But here is the issue in public education, he went on. Those charter schools [that are performing well] are seen as a threat. It’s like, If only we can find out a reason why they don’t really work, then we’ll all feel better’ … What I mean is that as long as we’re all failing, then there’s nothing you can do.

Among the reformers in Superman, Canada emerges as the brightest star: His blend of intelligence, charisma, and moral urgency is impossible to resist. As the founder and the guiding hand of the Harlem Children’s Zone, Canada is engaged in a vastly ambitious social-development project, an attempt to transform 97 hardscrabble square blocks of the city with a comprehensive set of services for the poor, from a baby college for new and expectant parents to two charter schools though he is no charter purist.

I didn’t want to do charter schools, Canada tells me. What he wanted was a chance to run the public schools within the HCZ in partnership with Klein, to hire his own principals, fire poor teachers, pay the better ones more and the inferior ones less. Klein laughed at him: It ain’t gonna happen. If you want in on this game, the only thing you can do is start a charter school.

The performance of Canada’s charters which saw some of their test scores decline appreciably when the state recently toughened up its grading system is a subject of furious, as-yet-inconclusive debate. But the argument Canada makes for charters doesn’t rest on the success of his or anyone else’s endeavors. The whole point of charters is that you can close the ones that fail, he says. I’m all for it! You close them and constantly innovate, and things get better.

Canada’s mention of innovation gets me thinking about a recent front-page article in the New York Times that reported on the mediocre or dismal performance of many charter schools. To critics, this is proof that the charter movement is a washout, when the data actually demonstrate no such thingfor as any student of technology will tell you, innovation is built on failure. The point of letting a thousand flowers bloom isn’t that they will all survive. It’s that most will die but a few will flourish, and those hearty varietals are the ones that should be cloned and planted elsewhere.

Exactly, Canada says. But this is what drives me crazy. Folks are absolutely furious that we want to innovate. This guy wants to say public schools are failing!’ Well, they are. He wants to say some teachers are lousy and should be fired.’ Well, they are and they should be. The fact that people get mad when you say that stuff, it’s amazing to me. People have no intention of having this business change. None.

Nobody wants to call a baby ugly, says Education Secretary Arne Duncan. This movie is like calling the baby ugly. It’s about confronting brutal truths.

Among those to whom Canada is referring are superintendents, politicians, and the people who run schools of education. But Canada makes it clear that he believes the biggest impediments to innovation are the teachers unions. During the session in the theater, he noted drily, I’m sure there are things the unions have done to help children. I just can’t think of any.

But Canada is too sharp not to know that the story is more complicated. In recent months, the AFT has taken a series of steps that were once unthinkable, and that might open the door to the types of innovations for which Canada pines. The steps have come haltingly, reluctantly, but they have come largely as a result of one of the most complex characters in education or politics today.

The character in question is the AFT’s Randi Weingarten. If Canada is among the heroes of Superman, Weingarten comes across as its villain. Though Guggenheim would dispute the characterization, a reviewer for Variety wrote that the movie renders the union boss as something of a foaming satanic beast.

In person, Weingarten doesn’t bear the slightest resemblance to Linda Blair in The Exorcist. The longtime head of New York City’s United Federation of Teachers before taking over the national union in 2008, she is relentlessly precise, wicked smart, more a hardheaded pragmatist than a wanton ideologue and also a shrewd and crafty pol keenly attuned to her own image. As one friend of hers observes, Randi wants to be seen as the inheritor of the mantle of Albert Shanker, the heralded AFT president from 1974 to 1997 who was an early and apostatic proponent of charter schools. She wants her legacy to be that of a reformer.

Weingarten has always been willing to talk the talk of reform, and of late she has done so forcefully, urging her members to accept more-stringent evaluation systems and declaring that the unions shouldn’t be in the business of protecting awful instructors. Teachers don’t want to teach with bad teachers, she tells me flatly.

Weingarten’s increasing willingness to walk the walk of reform has been even more impressive. The most vivid instance has been in Washington, where in July 2008 Michelle Rhee placed on the table a daring contract proposal: In exchange for giving up lifetime tenure and linking their pay to student performance, teachers would have been able to earn as much as $130,000 a year. (Alternatively, they could have kept their job security along with salary ceilings about two-thirds as high.) How did the D.C. teachers union react? As Superman shows in devastating detail, it refused even to allow a vote on the plan.

But in April of this year, the two sides at last came together, in no small part because Weingarten had become enmeshed in the negotiations. To the reform crowd, the D.C. contract looks like a revolution and a template, complete with pay for performance, an end to seniority-based layoffs, and what amounts to the demise of tenure: If a teacher is rated ineffective, he or she will be canned immediately; a minimally effective rating two years in a row earns the same result.

Most astonishing to Rhee was how easily the contract was finally approved. The entire time the union was fighting us, they said, Our members are never gonna accept this’ then it passed by an 80 to 20 percent vote! she exclaims.

Without Weingarten’s imprimatur, of course, the vote never would have happened at all. Even more unexpected and courageous was her role in the passage of a new ed-reform law in Colorado that would make at least 50 percent of teacher evaluations dependent on test scores. The law was enacted despite the adamant opposition of the National Education Association the larger of the two national teachers unions, and also the less urban and more retrogradebut with the endorsement, after a few minor amendments, of Weingarten’s AFT.

Given all this, you might think that the self-styled unionist reformer would be taking a victory lap. You would be wrong. Instead, Weingarten has been poor-mouthing the D.C. contract. Over breakfast in Washington, she was at pains to argue that, all appearances to the contrary, the union had made no large concessions, that  tenure was preserved intact, that the contract isn’t the breakthrough that New Yorkers and others think it is. (When I put these claims to Klein, he fairly snorted: If there are no concessions in there, give it to me! I’ll take that concession-free contract tomorrow!)

On other matters, too, Weingarten’s tone is anything but conciliatory. When it comes to those she ritually describes as so-called reformers a group she says is populated mainly by elitist Democrats she argues that they find it fashionable to demonize teachers and scapegoat the union. Her dyspeptic attitude toward Superman, she says, boils down to her belief that it will give license to that kind of demagoguery and takes us in the wrong direction, toward the idea that all you have to do is put in an iconic figure [such as Canada] and everything will be fine.

Many of Weingarten’s arguments here don’t remotely pass first inspection. Whatever its flaws, Superman casts no aspersions on teachers, only on their unions. (The idea that criticizing the latter isn’t the same as knocking the former cuts no ice with her: Teachers and their union are essentially the same, she says.) More to the point, her contentions fly in the face of the progress in which she has had a hand.

What explains Weingarten’s apparent schizophrenia is the balancing act she is forced to pull off by a membership split between moderates and militants. (Asked by Politico, Proust-questionnaire style, to name her favorite body part, she said, Legs because I have to walk a tightrope most of the time.) In her stint at the UFT in New York, she honed a signature style whereby her substantive compromises were coupled with rhetorical ferocity. Now, on a grander stage, she is doing the same thing again, attacking reformers and Superman, and even distancing herself from her own achievements, to maintain her authority with her people while at the same time giving herself space to move in the direction of reform.

For some of the Superman co-conspirators, this is one of the main values of the film. It gives Randi cover to say to her membership, Guys, if we don’t concede on some of this stuff, we’re going to lose a lot more,’  Canada says. One of his allies makes the same point differently: Everything is Hegelian here, and the dialectic has to be driven by pushing her hard. When Davis’s film comes out, people will get agitated, and she’ll have to tack even more to the center. Randi knows how fast the ground is shifting under her feet.

Superman may indeed be the cause of some of the tectonic rumbling beneath Weingarten’s pumps. But the epicenter of the ed-reform earthquake isn’t in Hollywood it’s in Washington, at the White House.

When Obama took up occupancy there, neither side in the ed-reform debate was sure what to expect. For decades, Democrats at the national level had been a wholly owned subsidiary of the unions. But Obama was booed on the campaign trail for supporting merit pay, and secured his party’s nomination without the support of the AFT, which sided with Hillary Clinton. His choice of Duncan, who’d run the Chicago public schools with a penchant for consensus between reformers and the unions, to lead the Department of Education was seen as a signal that Obama would seek to chart a middle course.

Yet over the nineteen months of his term, Obama has done nothing of the kind. Rather, he has unfurled an education agenda that has delighted reformers, upset the unions, and in the process delivered more on his promise of transcending partisan divisions in the service of pragmatism than he has on any other issue.

The splashiest element of that agenda has been Race to the Top. Capitalizing on lean economic times and scarce tax revenues, RTTT employed a meager sum $4.3 billion, less than one percent of the total of all federal, state, and local education spending to create a competition among the states to adopt a series of reformist measures, from expanding charters to tying teacher evaluations to test scores to boosting curriculum standards. A frenzy of activity ensued, as more than 40 states took part, with two winning the first round in March and nine more, including New York ($700 million), and D.C. scoring in the second in August.

Those states were ecstatic with the injection of cash into their depleted coffers, but Duncan believes that the reforms instigated by RTTT will outlive the momentary windfall and are likely to stick even in states that didn’t finish in the money. My prediction is that when the last [RTTT] dollar is spent, you’re not gonna see states dumbing down their standards again, he tells me. I think we’ve crossed the Rubicon.

Equally salutary in the eyes of reformers has been Obama’s willingness to defy his party’s education orthodoxies in other ways. Perhaps the most notable example involved an appallingly underperforming high school in Central Falls, Rhode Island. When the school’s board of trustees decided to sack all of its 77 teachers after the local union rejected a plan that included a longer school day and after-school tutoring, Obama supported the mass firing. If a school continues to fail its students year after year after year, if it doesn’t show signs of improvement, then there’s got to be a sense of accountability, he said.

You cannot overestimate or overstate the power that comes with a Democratic president saying things like, Choice and competition are good,’ and, We should put more money in charter schools,’ and, If teachers are ineffective, we should fire them,’  exults Rhee. Never did I expect in my lifetime to hear a Democratic leader saying that, let alone a president.

The positive fallout from Obama’s policies and his new vernacular has been tangible. When we rolled out our new teacher-evaluation program last year, we said 50 percent of the teachers’ evaluations would be based on how much student growth they saw, Rhee says. People went nuts. How is that possible? Why 50 percent? How are you gonna measure it?’ Now stuff like that is taking place all over the country. Two or three years ago, if you had said that would happen, people would have told you that you were high on crack. But here we are. And that’s huge.

Yet what Rhee and other reformers understand (though they are sometimes loath to admit it) is that more-rigorous evaluations, higher standards, and greater accountability will only get you so far. Toward the end of Superman, in a quiet moment, Guggenheim intones, The one thing those who work in the trenches know is that you can’t have a great school without great teachers.  Look past all the noise and the debate, and it’s easy to see: Nothing will change without them.

Years of research has shown that Guggenheim is right, that no variable is more critical to the success of students than terrific teachers. But maybe the most inconvenient truth when it comes to education reform is that the ability to fire bad teachers, or identify those who require help, or pay more to entice those who are superb to deploy their skills in the venues where they’re needed most, will change the quality of the teacher corps only on the margin. A real revolution in education will require a more foundational change one that addresses the way in which the nation goes about turning people into teachers in the first place.

The ridiculousness of how we do it now is a bugbear of Geoff Canada’s. We say to these young people, We’re going to make a deal with you,’  he explains.  We are not going to pay you a lot of money, but we are going to give you a lot of time off. You’ll always get home before dark. You won’t work weekends, and you’ll have every summer off.’ It’s a terrible message we’re sending that these perks come with their job. What kind of people does that attract to the profession?

The answer to Canada’s question is distressing and depressing. Whereas the best public-school systems in the world Finland, Singapore, South Korea recruit all of their teachers from the top third or better of their college graduates, in America the majority come from the bottom two-thirds, with just 14 percent of those entering teaching each year in high-needs schools coming from the upper third. And the numbers may be getting worse. According to a recent survey conducted by McKinsey, a meager 9 percent of top-third graduates have any interest in teaching whatsoever.

The McKinsey survey is part of an important study that the consultancy will publish later this month, based on its work in school systems in more than 50 countries. For a long time, there has been debate about what, if any, kinds of financial incentives would help create a better talent pool for K12 teaching in America. The debate has been intense with the unions arguing simultaneously for fatter salaries and that money isn’t the primary motivator for those who enter the profession but hypothetical. The McKinsey study attempts to move the discussion into the realm of the empirical, by using market research to estimate what it would take, money-wise, to induce top-third grads to overcome their reluctance to teach, especially in high-needs schools.

The answers are surprising. To start with, the report makes clear that in the countries with the best schools, teacher quality is a national priority: Educators are paid competitively; education schools are highly selective; jobs are guaranteed for those credentialed; and professional development is ample and subsidized. In America, none of that holds true: Schools of education are largely open admission; credentialed teachers often can’t find jobs; professional development is pitiful; and the pay is lousy and, more important, it is seen as lousy by top-third graduates. Most of them think they could earn more as a garbage collector than as a teacher, says Matt Miller, a senior adviser to McKinsey and one of the study’s leaders.

Changing that perception would mean changing the reality, but the payoff would be dramatic. According to the study, a Rhee-style compensation package starting salaries of $65,000, top salaries of $150,000 plus funding for teacher training could raise the percentage of top-third grads among new teacher hires in the one-in-six neediest schools from 14 percent to a whopping 68 percent. The cost at current teacher-student ratios: just $30 billion a year, or about 5 percent of total K12 education spending.

By nature, such research is imprecise and imperfect, and there is no data proving that hiring teachers from the top third would boost student achievement. For some American-education gurus, those weaknesses may be a cause to doubt McKinsey’s work an attitude that policymakers in Singapore or Finland would find dumbfounding. You want data, we’ll give you data, they would say: Take a gander at our kids’ stratospheric proficiency in math, reading, and science; how’s that for data?

For the United States, the issue of teacher recruitment isn’t just important. It is pressing. Of the roughly 3.3 million teachers nationwide, roughly half are baby-boomers approaching retirement in the coming decade. Our ability to attract and retain great talent over the next few years is going to shape public education for the next 25 or 30 years, says Duncan. It presents some challenges, but it also presents an extraordinary opportunity.

The same can be said of all of the issues raised by Superman. They are urgent and difficult, unquestionably, but also far less intractable than they seem or that we’ve made them seem.  We know what works, says Guggenheim.  What works is pragmatism. You go into a school, you hire good people, you have good leadership, and you fix it.

Such comments will provide ample fodder for Superman s critics. Already an assortment of academics, think-tankers, and blockheaded bloggers are lining up to pummel Guggenheim as a dilettante and an agitprop peddler, and his movie as sensationalistic and simpleminded. What’s needed here, the critics say, is reasoned, careful discussion: more data, more study, more learned convocations, maybe even a blue-ribbon commission.

Guggenheim shrugs at such sentiments, for he’s heard them all before. The chief obstacle for An Inconvenient Truth was the environmentalists, who’d become smug and complacent and had no idea how to tell their own story, he says.  It’s the same with the education wonks. They’re gonna pick apart this aspect and that aspect of the movie, and they’re gonna totally miss the point.

But the rest of us shouldn’t. For decades, the conversation about our schools has been the preserve of the education Establishment and the result has been a system that, with few exceptions, runs the gamut from mediocre to calamitous. Waiting for Superman is no manifesto. It offers no quick fixes, no easy to-do lists, no incandescent lightbulbs to unscrew. What it offers is a picture of our schools that isn’t pretty, but that we need to apprehend if we’re to summon the political will necessary to transform them.  Nobody ever wants to call a baby ugly, says Duncan.  This is like calling the baby ugly. It’s about confronting brutal truths.

Looking squarely at those truths will cause the blood of some viewers to reach a roiling boil. Fingers will be pointed, and they should be directly at the adults who have perpetuated the grotesqueries that consign generation after generation of America’s children to failure. If that leads to some hellacious donnybrooks, so much the better.  If you want to change public education, you have to do something that feels like a threat to the status quo, says Canada. If we don’t fight about this, if we can shake and be friends, we ain’t going to change. And if we don’t change, huge numbers of kids ain’t going to make it. There is no Superman coming to save them. All they have is us.



September 6, 2010 at 1:46 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

September 1, 2010

When Does Holding Teachers Accountable Go Too Far?


The start of the school year brings another one of those nagging, often unquenchable worries of parenthood: How good will my child’s teachers be? Teachers tend to have word-of-mouth reputations, of course. But it is hard to know how well those reputations match up with a teacher’s actual abilities. Schools generally do not allow parents to see any part of a teacher’s past evaluations, for instance. And there is nothing resembling a rigorous, Consumer Reports-like analysis of schools, let alone of individual teachers. For the most part, parents just have to hope for the best.

That, however, may be starting to change. A few months ago, a team of reporters at The Los Angeles Times and an education economist set out to create precisely such a consumer guide to education in Los Angeles. The reporters requested and received seven years of students’ English and math elementary-school test scores from the school district. The economist then used a statistical technique called value-added analysis to see how much progress students had made, from one year to the next, under different third- through fifth-grade teachers. The variation was striking. Under some of the roughly 6,000 teachers, students made great strides year after year. Under others, often at the same school, students did not. The newspaper named a few teachers — both stars and laggards — and announced that it would release the approximate rankings for all teachers, along with their names.

The articles have caused an electric reaction. The president of the Los Angeles teachers union called for a boycott of the newspaper. But the union has also suggested it is willing to discuss whether such scores can become part of teachers’ official evaluations. Meanwhile, more than 1,700 teachers have privately reviewed their scores online, and hundreds have left comments that will accompany them.

It is not difficult to see how such attempts at measurement and accountability may be a part of the future of education. Presumably, other groups will try to repeat the exercise elsewhere. And several states, in their efforts to secure financing from the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program, have committed to using value-added analysis in teacher evaluation. The Washington, D.C., schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, fired more than 100 teachers this summer based on evaluations from principals and other educators and, when available, value-added scores.

In many respects, this movement is overdue. Given the stakes, why should districts be allowed to pretend that nearly all their teachers are similarly successful? (The same question, by the way, applies to hospitals and doctors.) The argument for measurement is not just about firing the least effective sliver of teachers. It is also about helping decent and good teachers to become better. As Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, has pointed out, the Los Angeles school district has had the test-score data for years but didn’t use it to help teachers improve. When the Times reporters asked one teacher about his weak scores, he replied, “Obviously what I need to do is to look at what I’m doing and take some steps to make sure something changes.”

Yet for the all of the potential benefits of this new accountability, the full story is still not a simple one. You could tell as much by the ambivalent reaction to the Los Angeles imbroglio from education researchers and reform advocates. These are the people who have spent years urging schools to do better. Even so, many reformers were torn about the release of the data. Above all, they worried that although the data didn’t paint a complete picture, it would offer the promise of clear and open accountability — because teachers could be sorted and ranked — and would nonetheless become gospel.

Value-added data is not gospel. Among the limitations, scores can bounce around from year to year for any one teacher, notes Ross Wiener of the Aspen Institute, who is generally a fan of the value-added approach. So a single year of scores — which some states may use for evaluation — can be misleading. In addition, students are not randomly assigned to teachers; indeed, principals may deliberately assign slow learners to certain teachers, unfairly lowering their scores. As for the tests themselves, most do not even try to measure the social skills that are crucial to early learning.

The value-added data probably can identify the best and worst teachers, researchers say, but it may not be very reliable at distinguishing among teachers in the middle of the pack. Joel Klein, New York’s reformist superintendent, told me that he considered the Los Angeles data powerful stuff. He also said, “I wouldn’t try to make big distinctions between the 47th and 55th percentiles.” Yet what parent would not be tempted to?

One way to think about the Los Angeles case is as an understandable overreaction to an unacceptable status quo. For years, school administrators and union leaders have defeated almost any attempt at teacher measurement, partly by pointing to the limitations. Lately, though, the politics of education have changed. Parents know how much teachers matter and know that, just as with musicians or athletes or carpenters or money managers, some teachers are a lot better than others.

Test scores — that is, measuring students’ knowledge and skills — are surely part of the solution, even if the public ranking of teachers is not. Rob Manwaring of the research group Education Sector has suggested that districts release a breakdown of teachers’ value-added scores at every school, without tying the individual scores to teachers’ names. This would avoid humiliating teachers while still giving a principal an incentive to employ good ones. Improving standardized tests and making peer reports part of teacher evaluation, as many states are planning, would help, too.

But there is also another, less technocratic step that is part of building better schools: we will have to acknowledge that no system is perfect. If principals and teachers are allowed to grade themselves, as they long have been, our schools are guaranteed to betray many students. If schools instead try to measure the work of teachers, some will inevitably be misjudged. “On whose behalf do you want to make the mistake — the kids or the teachers?” asks Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust. “We’ve always erred on behalf of the adults before.”

You may want to keep that in mind if you ever get a chance to look at a list of teachers and their value-added scores. Some teachers, no doubt, are being done a disservice. Then again, so were a whole lot of students.

David Leonhardt is an economics columnist for The Times and a staff writer for the magazine.

Alex Sink’s thinking about education (Miami Herald, September 1, 2010)

September 1, 2010 at 1:50 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
The Miami Herald

Alex Sink unveils plan for school changes

Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink envisions an education system in Florida where at-risk students have incentives to stay in school, better-trained teachers get performance-based raises and school buildings become community centers.She also wants to use technology to enhance school curriculum and wants FCAT scores to not be the only measure of a school’s success.

Those are the core elements of the wide-ranging education reform plan Sink will unveil Wednesday at a campaign event at Miami Dade College. Her Republican opponent, Rick Scott, has not announced his education plan.

Sink told the Herald/Times that her plan emphasizes returning control of the school system to local communities “instead of the top-down system of micromanagement and unfunded mandates that we have seen for too long from Tallahassee politicians.”

“Local school boards and support from parents and teachers at the local level are in the best place to make the education decision for our children,” she said. “It’s a matter of Tallahassee not assuming total control.”

Sink’s plan retains much of the foundation of the current school accountability system — a hallmark of Republican governors for the last 12 years. But she proposes significant changes that include considering other factors that influence a child’s learning when grading schools, using test scores as a road map to help prepare students, and allowing parents to see detailed test results.

Sink, a former banking executive, said the cornerstone of her reform plan is to reduce Florida’s “abysmal” graduation rate, in which one in four high school students drop out, and “work backwards from that.”

“Education is at the core of getting people back to work,” she said. “If we don’t have a firm education system, I’m not going to be able to take Florida where we need to go.”

Sink acknowledges her proposals will cost money, but she’s not ready to raise taxes to do it.

“We need to be more creative in funding for education,” Sink said. Her plan assumes there is duplication and unnecessary expenses in every school system and proposes an oversight and review team to help school districts trim costs.

Sink, who graduated from Wake Forest University with a degree in mathematics, touts her experience in education. She taught math for three years and served on the late Gov. Lawton Chiles’ blue-ribbon Commission on Education. As a parent, she was a member of her daughter’s high school PTA. Sink’s two children graduated from Florida public schools.


She has been endorsed by the Florida teachers’ union, but not all of her proposals are supported by the union. Her support of a constitutional amendment to offer flexibility for the class size amendment and teacher pay incentives tied to performance are at odds with the union, said Kyra Jennings, Sink’s spokeswoman.

Sink will make her announcement on the Miami Dade College campus that houses the New World School of the Arts, the Miami performing arts high school, which Sink helped establish when she was based in Miami for Nationsbank.

Among other highlights of her reform plan:

• Pre-kindergarten. In an attempt to reduce the $300 million spent each year on children repeating pre-K through third grade, Sink proposes creating a standard curriculum for all pre-k programs. She also wants to put a teacher in every pre-k classroom with at least a bachelor’s degree and revamp the school-readiness exam.

• Drop-outs. Sink proposes revamping school curriculum to encourage kids to stay in school, including specialized high school diplomas that recognize technical and vocational skills and offer associate degree credits. She wants to create a statewide data system for tracing students at risk of dropping out and develop community-based prevention plans. College counselors would work with high school students on career options and peer mentors would work with struggling students in high school, in exchange for credit and scholarship opportunities.

• Curriculum. Sink wants schools to focus more attention on science, technology, engineering, math, economics, civics and the arts. The focus would extend to after-school and summer programs as schools become year-round community centers.

• Funding. As the economy improves, Sink wants to increase the state share of the education budget from the current 53 percent to the pre-Lottery levels of about 61 percent. She does not explain how to pay for this, but relies on an improved economy.

She proposes greater use of technology, such as linking schools and classrooms via teleconferencing. “Let’s go back and re-think things. Do we need to buy seven new textbooks every year or it is available for students to carry around in a Kindle, like I do?”


• Teachers. Using innovations from other states and countries, Sink wants to develop training programs and mentors aimed at improving teachers’ classroom skills to make them better, more effective teachers.

The training programs would be paid for with still-to-be-identified private, federal and philanthropic dollars. High-performing college students who commit to teaching in Florida schools for five years should receive forgiveness on some of their students loans.

Teachers would also be paid based on performance and recognize the additional demands of teachers working in under-performing schools or with poorer-performing students.

• FCAT. Sink wants to grade schools on student progress throughout the year, not on “high stakes” test scores.

• Community centers. Sink wants to transform schools into after-hours neighborhood activity centers that include after-school programs, parenting classes, adult GED, financial literacy, job skills and wellness programs. She would try the idea with pilot projects.

“The facilities are there and we ought to set a goal of using those facilities the maximum amount of time, delivering consolidated and more cost-effective services.”

• Financial literacy. Sink wants to require students to complete a course in financial literacy in order to graduate from high school.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at

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