Monday, July 16, 2012

The Solutions Noone Wants to Discuss

Almost everything I read in the area of education reform seems directed at efforts to reform the schools themselves. The “solutions” invariably focus on ways to improve the performance of teachers. I certainly don’t disparage these efforts, as teachers in the inner city are often "cheated" out of having quality administrators or appropriate professional development to improve their performance. Given that empirical data indicate most of our teachers have come from the lowest quartiles of college graduates, and that the best of these graduates seem to gravitate to our better suburban districts, anything that can be done- short of a complete turnover of a school’s faculty and administration- would be a step in the right direction.

The problem, however, is that even though exemplary teachers can provide some appreciable improvement in student performance, they can only do so much. The real solution to student performance has to do with the students themselves; what we need is a complete transformation of the demographics in the inner city with the goal of increasing the diversity- cultural, socioeconomic, and racial- of families in our urban areas.

To me the “beginning of the end” in urban education began in the late 1950’s with the development of our interstate system. A consequence of this massive public project was the flight of middle and upper class families out of the inner city to the safety and tranquility of the suburbs, which at that time was essentially a new addition to our nation’s landscape. This socioeconomic flight, first undertaken by whites but now including minorities, has devastated our cities. When you combine this flight with the appearance in our suburbs of new middle class citizens, what you have left in the city is a preponderance of working poor and poor that are essentially dependents on the State. One important fact about poverty among minorities is that it is highly concentrated, much less diffuse than with whites.

This flight to the suburbs has been compounded by another enormous societal shift, first identified by Senator Daniel Moynihan in the late 1960’s, in the composition of families in America. The stigma attached to single parent families has all but disappeared in the US, and now the percent of “non-traditional” households now outnumbers the so-called traditional nuclear family. There is no doubt in my mind- and I will gather the empirical evidence- that these two shifts have helped decimate the inner city schools.

There are a plethora of ancillary and tangential issues that exist as a result of these shifts, including those dealing with home ownership, the presence of neighborhood role models, and the at-home support given to children living in the inner city. Programs like the Harlem Children’s Zone seem to acknowledge and affirm these problems.

I will touch on these issues in more details in subsequent posts, but there can be no doubt that unless we treat the situation in the inner city as no less than a domestic threat to our national security, we will never be able to make the inroads we need to change the outcomes produced by our schools. I’m not suggesting that we “get rid” of the students attending our schools and the families that rely on these schools, but I am suggesting that we need to add to the population, essentially “flipping” suburban flight on its head. It is only then that we will have the type of change that will best assure that our youngest citizens will have true opportunities to improve their lives.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Dangers in the New Teacher Evaluation System

The recent vote in the legislature to introduce a new teacher evaluation system is long overdue. The current system and metrics have failed to have any noticeable impact on teacher performance and was an inadequate system for identifying subpar teachers and acknowledging exemplary work. Hopefully the new metrics will serve as a precursor to creation of a new system of remuneration based on performance rather than years of service. However, before our political and education leaders start patting themselves on the back over this new law, there is one great danger and one potential unintended consequence of the legislation that must be considered.

I am extremely skeptical and concerned about the power given to principals in this new evaluation system. Schools, like most other workplaces I suspect, are full of drama, and principals, being human (at least we assume so) are just as prone as others to be driven by emotion and prone to making decisions based on personality and their own perception of what makes a good teacher, even though my experience and conversations with other teachers confirms my belief that many principals were not particularly good teachers, hence their interest to go into administration. With tenure now tethered to the outcome of performance reviews that were once perfunctory but now extremely consequential, the lack of any real countervailing power to that of principals should raise a red flag to any outspoken, unconventional, or “different” teacher that does not “fit the mold” in the eyes of the principal.

This leads me to a second concern, which is the risk aversive nature of the new evaluation system. I am extremely concerned that the new system will discourage innovation and risk taking on the part of teachers, especially in the inner city where such behaviors are needed but where the pressure on principals to “catch” poor teachers is extremely high. What if the attempt at “trying something new” doesn’t have the payoff the teacher intended? He or she will certainly learn from the experience, but why take the risk of getting a bad evaluation, which will trigger even greater scrutiny and place the teacher on a path to tenure revocation? Without some affirmation from principals that innovation and risk taking are to be encouraged and supported, I suspect that most teachers will refrain from such actions.

It is critical that principals set clear expectations for the faculty, and that it be made clear those teachers will not be punished for trying new things- as long as they have valid educational objectives- in the classroom. I would also hope that principals, will, on their own initiative, will create a framework for evaluation at their school which voluntarily sets up a “check” on their evaluations so that teachers are not intimidated and otherwise discouraged from taking risks, being outspoken, or just “being themselves” because it doesn’t comport to what the principal sees as being the “proper kind” of teacher.

It’s great that we are moving forward in the area of evaluation and accountability, but let’s not be too sanguine. There is great potential for missteps.