On Sept. 24, Davis Guggenheim's new film, Waiting for 'Superman,' will be released in theaters. Guggenheim (who directed An Inconvenient Truth) is turning his attention to the question of reforming American schools. I was recently sent the companion book to the film (which is published by PublicAffairs), and have been enjoying reading it.
The film was inspired partly by guilt. Guggenheim, a good liberal, has spent years grappling with the fact that he drives past public schools in order to drop his own kids off at a private one. He did not think the local public schools were good enough for his own kids, though of course this raised the obvious question: why were they good enough for other people's children?
Waiting for "Superman" attempts to answer the question of why schools fail, and looks at the individual consequences for children who do not receive a great education. I'm sure the film will be quite moving, but here's why I like the book: it brings together some of the best thinkers about education from many angles. There are essays by Michelle Rhee (chancellor of the Washington DC schools), Bill and Melinda Gates, Eric Hanushek (my favorite education-focused economist!) and Jay Mathews (The Washington Post's education writer, and possibly the most linked-to person in Gifted Exchange history).
Over the next few weeks I'll look at different essays, but today I want to focus on an essay by Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. I greatly respect that the film's creators gave Weingarten a platform in their book because (spoiler alert!) teachers unions emerge as the bad guys in Waiting for "Superman." Weingarten, herself a former history teacher at Clara Barton High School in Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighborhood, notes (correctly) that "Many of those who weigh in on the state of our public schools do so from an ivory tower, a think tank, the opinion pages, or from in front of a television camera. Teachers have no such remove. They are in the classrooms every day, seeing what their students need, and doing the hard work to help them succeed."
She notes that most talk of reform has focused on "two kinds of outliers: bad teachers and difficult-to-replicate schools, the implication being that if you get rid of a few bad teachers and create a few boutique schools, you can solve all the problems of education. You can't."
For starters, "speaking from my own experience, there are very few teachers who are great teachers on their first day in a classroom. There has been a lot of talk about teacher quality, and about who is a 'good' teacher and who is a 'bad' teacher. Much of this talk seems to fall back on the assumption that teachers enter the profession as either one or the other -- good or bad -- and stay that way. The truth is that while wanting to teach may be innate, becoming a great teacher is a learned skill."
To this end, much of teacher assessment is not particularly useful. "Today, this is how teachers still are commonly evaluated: by an administrator sitting in the back of the classroom for a few minutes, a few times, in the first few years of teaching. The teacher then receives feedback at the end of the semester or the end of the year. It's like a football team watching game tape only when the season is over."
She goes on to say that "No teacher -- myself included -- wants ineffective teachers in the classroom." As she points out, "When a teacher is disengaged or floundering, there are repercussions not only for the students, but also for the teachers down the hall, who take responsibility for those students the next year." This is a point that has not been raised too much in the education debate: how much time good teachers spend cleaning up the messes that bad teachers create.
Weingarten suggests that because of this, teachers themselves have a great incentive to either work with under-performing colleagues to improve their skills, or to counsel them out of the profession. She describes the Peer Assistance and Review system in Toledo, Ohio, where teachers are assigned to work with and evaluate each other. Based on the consulting teachers' assessments, she reports, between 8-10 percent of new teachers opt to resign or don't have their contracts renewed.
She also raises some critiques of other standard school reform stories. The key lesson from the Harlem Children's Zone, she notes, should not be that charter schools work. It should be that when you surround families with cradle-to-college services, you can address the barriers that keep children from learning.
She does not come out against performance pay, but rather advocates performance pay on a school-wide basis, rather than just focusing on individual teachers. "This will allow them to do more than create pockets of excellence, class by class, but rather to develop schools of excellence, where everyone works together to make sure everyone improves," she writes. Certainly, research has found that teachers often don't want to be pitted against their colleagues, competing for a small number of bonuses. Like salesmen competing against each other for one trip to Hawaii, it can undermine the collegial relationships necessary for long-term improvement.
Anyway, it's an interesting read, though there are problems with Weingarten's take, too. She plays down the "rubber room" issue in New York (where teachers who were removed from the classroom continued to be paid for not working, often for years). She notes that the rubber rooms have been permanently shuttered, and so we should just all move on, but of course, shutting the rubber rooms doesn't remove the real issue, which is that teachers enjoy more job protections than the vast majority of other people these days. When you can't stop paying a teacher who's been accused of passing out drunk in the classroom, it sets a very low bar for everyone else.
It is true that there are problems with placing all the burden of student performance on teachers (especially since disadvantaged students often move frequently, in the middle of the school year, meaning that it's unclear which teacher is responsible for them in the first place). But given that there are schools which overcome barriers such as kids coming to school hungry (and isn't this what school breakfast is for, anyway?) this is a bit of a cop-out. As Hanushek's research has found, having a good teacher matters, and having several in a row can make up for one's socioeconomic status. The problem is that very few kids from lower income families get 3-4 great teachers in a row.