(Preface: if you, sensibly enough, want to avoid my rambling and get straight to the point, just go and read Richard Rothstein on the Rhee/Klein manifesto now. Update: a nice related post, which will now be followed by interesting discussion, at Laura’s).
I’ve managed to resist seeing Waiting For Superman so far. The trailers promise me that I won’t like it much. My wife gets a free showing on Wednesday, so she can report to me. Ironically, the book on which it is apparently based, Paul Tough’s Whatever It Takes, is really not at all bad. It is true that, as a friend of mine said, “He has drunk the Kool-Aid”. But unlike many Kool-Aid drinkers (and there are a lot of them, I gather), he displays pretty clearly all the evidence you need in order to judge its toxicity. His account of the social science around low-end academic achievement is pretty careful, and entirely readable, and the narrative is well paced, and the story informative. For Tough, urban school districts need more Promise Academies and KIPP schools. I tend to be in the, “lets try it and see if it works” camp myself, though with an emphasis on actually trying to figure out whether it really does work. More than any academic study I have seen, Tough’s book makes me sceptical. He makes clear that Geoffrey Canada, the CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, became obsessed with driving up test scores. Remember “test scores” means “math and reading test scores”. From a low base it is not that difficult to drive them up—simply restrict your attention to driving them up and allow math and reading to be the more or less exclusive focus of the curriculum. This is what he did, with modest effects on reading scores (which are harder to manipulate by teaching to the test) and greater effects on math scores. It really may be that for these kids improving their math skills somewhat and their reading skills slightly is the best thing for them (though, whereas there is a correlation between test scores and later success, we don’t have any evidance that improving children’s test scores improves later outcomes, and we have lots of evidence that these bumps in test scores from grade-specific interventions typically fade pretty quickly). Maybe, maybe not. Whether any child in that school actually learned more, or anything more useful, as a result of this, we have no way of knowing.
Back to the movie.
It has certainly become the catalyst for debate, which I suppose could be good. Last week saw the publication of the Klein/Rhee manifesto, much of which is a lightly coded version of a call to get rid of the teacher’s unions, and the promulgation of a standard narrative that all we need are good teachers to save these children from educational disaster. Beyond the obvious question—once you’ve gotten rid of the teachers’ unions what are you going to do about the school boards and administrators who have been signing contracts with them for decades and who, unlike the unions, actually have managerial responsibility and authority?—there are many others. Last Thursday Richard Rothstein responded extremely quickly, and devastatingly, to the manifesto. Because his writing is so tight there’s nothing dispensable—you have to read it all. Here’s a representative paragraph:
Even the president’s more careful statement — that teacher quality is the most important in-school factor — is actually without solid foundation in research. It is true that some studies have found that variation in teacher quality has more of an influence on test scores than do the size of classes or average district-wide per pupil spending. In other words, you are better off having a good teacher in a larger class than a poor teacher in a smaller class. But that’s it. It is on this thin reed that Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee are mounting a campaign to make improving teacher quality, and removing teachers whose students’ test scores are lower, the centerpiece of national efforts to improve the life chances of disadvantaged students.
There are plausibly many other in-school factors, not quantified in research, that could have as much if not more of an influence on student test scores than teacher quality. Take the quality of school leadership. Would an inspired school principal get better student achievement from a corps of average-quality teachers than a mediocre principal could get from high-quality teachers? Studies of organizations would suggest the answer is yes, but there have been no such studies of school leadership. Take the quality of the curriculum. Would average teachers given a well-designed curriculum get better achievement from their students than would high-quality teachers with a poor curriculum? A very few research studies in this field suggest the answer might be yes as well.
Or take another in-school factor, teacher collaboration. Even when elementary school students sit in a single classroom for most of the day, several teachers influence their achievement. Teachers can meet to compare lesson plans that worked well and those that didn’t. Teachers in lower grades can successfully align their instruction with what will be most helpful for learning in the next grade. Teachers of the arts can reinforce the writing curriculum, and vice-versa. Will average-quality teachers who work well together as a team with the common purpose of raising student achievement get better results than higher-quality teachers working in isolation? Plausibly, the answer is yes. Will promising to pay individual teachers more if their students get higher test scores than the students of another teacher reduce the incentives for teachers to collaborate? Again, a plausible answer is yes.