Now, more than ever, America needs better schools and teachers. But they alone cannot redeem an unequal society. America must first end poverty.
The nation needs to recruit, support, and retain great teachers. But even the greatest teachers and school principals in the world cannot reduce inequalities and end poverty. They can make a colossal difference in the lives of their students. Unfortunately, the corporate education reform movement expects them to work miracles in the face of rising poverty and income inequality.
Like the No Child Left Behind reform effort, Race to the Top assumes that test results are the way to grade and reward or punish teachers, schools, and administrators as well as students. As a former test publisher, this writer knows that standardized assessments are developed to measure student performance, not teacher and school quality.
Reduce Poverty, Improve Student Achievement
Ask those who develop standardized tests, such as the people working at Educational Testing Service in Princeton, New Jersey, whether their assessments show a correlation between low scores and poverty. Consider their SAT. The highest SAT scores are recorded by students who come from the most affluent families. Those who test from the poorest backgrounds score the lowest.
Children from impoverished families need more than good schools. They crave safe neighborhoods, economic security, better diets, health clinics, first-rate early childhood education and facilities, arts programs, and rewarding after-school activities that keep kids from working single parent, latchkey homes off the streets. How can teachers and schools possibly provide all those necessities?
Look to Finland
This article demonstrates how Finland’s public school system succeeds by rejecting the constant testing foundation upon which the American reform system is built. In Finland, it is difficult to get into teaching. Entry is limited and competitive. Standards for new teachers are high. The profession is highly esteemed.
The American reform model, Race to the Top, is based on the corporate free market. Students are the products. Parents are the consumers. Teachers are the laborers. Teachers’ unions are the obstacles to efficient management. In Finland, however, all teachers and principals are members of the same union. Together, they work with the Ministry of Education to negotiate salaries, benefits, and working conditions in order to achieve one goal: best possible education.
Finland would never allow government officials, law makers, and corporate reformers to decide how to measure the quality of those who practice the teaching profession. Why? Because those people may be professionals, but they aren’t teachers. Teaching is not the profession of an accountant or a bank manager. As a true profession, teaching is expected to be self-regulating. Administration must be left to the practicing professionals.
To improve the profession, success in Finland tells us to raise entry standards, upgrade teacher education, and increase salaries. Demand academic excellence, a master’s degree, and certification from new teachers. Refuse to reinforce education’s low status as a profession by recruiting bright but barely-trained novices at low pay for a mere two-year commitment.
Teach for America, a Good Idea, But . . .
Like the Peace Corps, the students coming from the best universities and colleges who want to make a difference, especially in the lives of poor kids, are drawn to TFA. They commit to teaching for two years in distressed urban and rural schools.
Hundreds of millions of dollars have been raised to support TFA since it was founded by Wendy Kopp, a Princeton student who developed the model as her Princeton senior thesis in 1989. The U.S. Department of Education recently awarded $50 million to TFA, the conservative Walton Foundation gave another $49.5 million, and $100 million more has been raised from other foundations and donors.
Every year, thousands of eager young students are selected and trained for five weeks. Then, off they go to teach America’s most vulnerable children and earn a starting salary. School districts reward TFA with about $5,000 per new teacher.
Can a Few Thousand TFA Members Transform a Profession of More Than 3 Million Teachers?
A few thousand college graduates who work for two years cannot cure the inequities in American society. Yes, the Peace Corps volunteers also serve poor communities for two years, but not as professional Foreign Service officers.
What has TFA achieved? They boast about model cities where their teachers have achieved improvements as measured by test scores. In Washington, D.C., TFA alumni Michelle Rhee was named chancellor in 2017, four years after federally sponsored tests began to be administered to assess performance. Test scores did indeed improve, but the district’s achievement gap between black and white schools continues to be the largest in America. In fact, it is two times greater than most other big city schools, according to the federal government.
They also brag about New York City achievements. A state investigation in July 2018 proved that tests had somehow become easier. New York City test scores and the achievement gaps between ethnic and racial groups collapsed back to 2002 levels.
The third TFA model city, New Orleans, is presented as proof that nonunion charter schools are the wave of the educational future. Public schools there were wiped out by Hurricane Katrina. Today, about 70 percent of New Orleans students attend charter schools under the instruction of TFA teachers. The State of Louisiana reports that 79 percent of the state’s charter schools received grades of Ds and Fs.
Also, most big city public school districts cannot be replaced by a few, scattered charter schools operating union-free under the management of different entrepreneurs, boards of directors, investors, and usually with no transportation and extra-curricular services.
To improve American education, the federal, state, and local governments might do well to recall the words of John Maynard Keynes: “The important thing for Government is not to do things which individuals are doing already, and to do them a little better or a little worse; but to do those things which at present are not done at all.”
And where should the federal, state, and local officials begin? As the late Tony Judt said, “Of all competing and only partially reconcilable ends that we might seek, the reduction of inequality must come first.”