A study of the Los Angeles public schools published in 2006 by the Brookings Institution concluded that “having a top-quartile teacher rather than a bottom-quartile teacher four years in a row would be enough to close the black-white test score gap.” But, in New York and elsewhere, holding teachers accountable for how well they teach has proved to be a frontier that cannot be crossed.
Steven Brill, The Rubber Room, The New Yorker, August 31, 2009
A week ago, I posted at length on the cancer of public sector unions and, in particular, teachers' unions. There is much more on those topics in the news today. Newsweek has come out with a series of articles on the topic, while the Dept. of Education has opted to address the racial aspects of public school education not with a major effort to get better teachers, but rather to launch a series of civil rights investigations. This from Newsweek's "Why We Can't Get Rid Of Failing Teachers:"
The relative decline of American education at the elementary- and high-school levels has long been a national embarrassment as well as a threat to the nation's future. Once upon a time, American students tested better than any other students in the world. Now, ranked against European schoolchildren, America does about as well as Lithuania, behind at least 10 other nations. Within the United States, the achievement gap between white students and poor and minority students stubbornly persists—and as the population of disadvantaged students grows, overall scores continue to sag. . . .
. . . [I]n recent years researchers have discovered something that may seem obvious, but for many reasons was overlooked or denied. What really makes a difference, what matters more than the class size or the textbook, the teaching method or the technology, or even the curriculum, is the quality of the teacher. Much of the ability to teach is innate—an ability to inspire young minds as well as control unruly classrooms that some people instinctively possess (and some people definitely do not). Teaching can be taught, to some degree, but not the way many graduate schools of education do it, with a lot of insipid or marginally relevant theorizing and pedagogy. In any case the research shows that within about five years, you can generally tell who is a good teacher and who is not. . . .
Nothing, then, is more important than hiring good teachers and firing bad ones. But here is the rub. Although many teachers are caring and selfless, teaching in public schools has not always attracted the best and the brightest. There once was a time when teaching (along with nursing) was one of the few jobs not denied to women and minorities. But with social progress, many talented women and minorities chose other and more highly compensated fields. One recent review of the evidence by McKinsey & Co., the management consulting firm, showed that most schoolteachers are recruited from the bottom third of college-bound high-school students. (Finland takes the top 10 percent.)
At the same time, the teachers' unions have become more and more powerful. In most states, after two or three years, teachers are given lifetime tenure. It is almost impossible to fire them. In New York City in 2008, three out of 30,000 tenured teachers were dismissed for cause. The statistics are just as eye-popping in other cities. The percentage of teachers dismissed for poor performance in Chicago between 2005 and 2008 (the most recent figures available) was 0.1 percent. In Akron, Ohio, zero percent. In Toledo, 0.01 percent. In Denver, zero percent. In no other socially significant profession are the workers so insulated from accountability. The responsibility does not just fall on the unions. Many principals don't even try to weed out the poor performers (or they transfer them to other schools in what's been dubbed the "dance of the lemons"). Year after year, about 99 percent of all teachers in the United States are rated "satisfactory" by their school systems; firing a teacher invites a costly court battle with the local union. . . .
In the past two decades, some schools have sprung up that defy and refute what former president George W. Bush memorably called "the soft bigotry of low expectations." Generally operating outside of school bureaucracies as charter schools, programs like KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) have produced inner-city schools with high graduation rates (85 percent). KIPP schools don't cherry-pick—they take anyone who will sign a contract to play by the rules, which require some parental involvement. And they are not one-shot wonders. There are now 82 KIPP schools in 19 states and the District of Columbia, and, routinely, they far outperform the local public schools. KIPP schools are mercifully free of red tape and bureaucratic rules (their motto is "Work hard. Be nice," which about sums up the classroom requirements). KIPP schools require longer school days and a longer school year, but their greatest advantage is better teaching. . . .
It is difficult to dislodge the educational establishment. In New Orleans, a hurricane was required: since Katrina, New Orleans has made more educational progress than any other city, largely because the public-school system was wiped out. Using nonunion charter schools, New Orleans has been able to measure teacher performance in ways that the teachers' unions have long and bitterly resisted. Under a new Louisiana law, New Orleans can track which ed schools produce the best teachers, forcing long-needed changes in ed-school curricula. (The school system of Detroit is just as broken as New Orleans's was before the storm—but stuck with largely the same administrators, the same unions, and the same number of kids, and it has been unable to make any progress.)
The teachers' unions—the National Education Association (3.2 million members) and the American Federation of Teachers (1.4 million members) are major players in the Democratic Party at the national and local levels. So it is extremely significant—a sign of the changing times—that the Obama administration has taken them on. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is dangling money as an incentive for state legislatures to weaken the grip of the teachers' unions. To compete for $4.3 billion in federal aid under the Race to the Top program, states get extra points for getting rid of caps on the number of charter schools (a union favorite, since charter schools are often nonunion) and allowing student scores to be used in teacher evaluations. Measuring teacher performance based in part on the test scores of their pupils would seem to be a no-brainer. New Orleans uses student scores to measure teacher effectiveness. But it's prohibited by law for tenure decisions in states like New York, where the teachers' union has long been powerful. . . .
Newsweek also has several related articles. In A Second Rate Secondary Education, the author suggests some far ranging changes to our educational system. Why Teachers Can't Control Their Classrooms gives a window into the changed teaching environment and how "teacher's colleges" do not prepare teachers to control their classrooms. Also read the Rubber Room story quoted at the top of this post. It is a few months old, but it gives a very detailed look at the dysfunctional NYC public school system and how teachers' unions are at the center of it all.
While public sector unions - wedded to Democrats - are breaking the national piggy bank, they are the kiss of death to public education. These conjoined issues can and should be perhaps the central issues for the right looking to 2012. As I wrote here, Juan Williams has called improving public education the "civil rights" issue of our time. Thomas Sowell has said that improving public education is the number one issue for blacks - and thus, in addition to being a morally imperative issue, presents a golden opportunity for conservatives to regain a substantial portion of the black vote.
So how is the Obama administration going about addressing the civil rights aspect to public education? We got the answer today. It is not to break the back of the unions - its to break the backs of the schools using civil rights laws and the disparate impact theory. This from the Washington Post:
Education Secretary Arne Duncan plans to announce Monday that his agency is ramping up enforcement of civil rights laws in schools and colleges, a move that seeks to draw a contrast with the policies of his Republican predecessors.
In a speech drafted for an appearance at a civil rights landmark in Selma, Ala., Duncan said the department's Office for Civil Rights expects to issue a series of guidance letters to educators to address "issues of fairness and equity." He said the department will also announce in coming weeks and months several enforcement actions to ensure that students have equal access to a college-prep curriculum, advanced courses, and classes in math and science.
"The truth is that, in the last decade, the Office for Civil Rights has not been as vigilant as it should have been in combating gender and racial discrimination and protecting the rights of individuals with disabilities," Duncan said in the draft speech. "But that is about to change." . . . .
Ali said in an interview Friday that "we are weaving equity into all that we do" and that her office would examine potential cases for evidence of discrimination through "disparate impact" against certain classes of students on the basis of race, ethnicity, sex or disability.
Ali said the department plans to initiate 38 compliance reviews this year. There were 29 initiated last year, she said, and 42 in 2008. But she said the depth of the reviews will be "much greater than in the past."
What makes this particularly outrageous is the use of disparate impact theory. To quote Roger Clegg at NRO:
Disparate-impact cases are not really discrimination cases at all, in any real-world sense, because they do not allege that a challenged practice is discriminatory by its terms, in its intent, or in its application. All that is alleged is that it leads to politically incorrect racial and ethnic results.
This is one the right needs to take up - with a vengance. It may well hold the key to ending the incredibly destructive hold on power of the left.