Education Opinion

Clueless on Wall Street

By Anthony Cody — November 25, 2009 4 min read
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It is appropriate that the latest slap at America’s teachers is published in the Wall Street Journal. Authored by former congressman Harold Ford, Jr, former IBM chief Lou Gerstner, and real estate billionaire Eli Broad, this editorial encourages President Obama to “hang tough” on performance standards and competition in the Race to the Top.

They warn:

Already the administration is being pressured to dilute the program's requirement that states adopt performance pay for teachers and to weaken its support for charter schools. If the president does not remain firm on standards, the whole endeavor will be just another example of great rhetoric and poor reform.

First of all, we have to keep in mind some sense of proportions before we get too excited in any direction about the Race to the Top funding. Although $4 billion is a tremendous pile of money, when you spread over the whole country, even unevenly as this trio would like, it just will not go that far. California is currently contemplating changing our laws to allow unrestricted growth of charter schools, and encouraging the use of test data in evaluating and compensating teachers for an eventual award of perhaps $500 million at the most. California has more than six million K-12 students. This breaks down to a little less than $80 per child - for one year only. So not only are educators asked to sell out our principles, we are only offered a pittance in exchange.

According to them, competition among states for government dollars is the key to success in school reform. They offer as a model the following:

Grants from the National Institutes of Health are awarded to scientists who have advanced their research to a stage where there are promising returns. By setting a high qualifying bar and requiring a record of past performance, the president is instituting a similar system for allocating education dollars.

To me, this is a bit bizarre. We are talking here about a basic social service, not a set of scientific investigations. If the Department of Education wants to set up a process by which schools can demonstrate particularly effective means to get students to learn, then I suppose that might be equivalent to this NIH model. But here we are distributing supplementary dollars to entire states, and their governors and legislators are expected to cook up reform plans in a few short months. There is nothing scientific about this political process.

Furthermore, many of the guidelines within Race to the Top are completely contrary to recent solid research and empirical data, as pointed out by the National Academy of Sciences Board of Testing and Assessment. For example, the requirement that restrictions on charters be removed is not supported by recent research that shows that charters are very uneven in their success, and are, on the whole, actually LESS effective than public schools working with similar populations. And the emphasis on “holding teachers accountable” by basing evaluation and compensation on student test scores has, in practice, yielded paltry results, as was seen in the recent Texas experience, where $300 million was spent on test score bonuses with no actual effect on student performance.

But the heart of this mean-spirited campaign is revealed by this passage:

For decades, adult interests have been at the forefront of public education. Reform has been derailed by adults who wanted to protect the status quo and enjoy lifelong benefits. This time the focus will be on learning in the classroom. What's important is that the administration is demanding that every child receive an education that prepares him or her for college or for work. Without that we will continue to be sidetracked by insignificant issues.

For these multimillionaires, job security and health benefits should be considered an “insignificant issue.” According to Forbes Magazine, when he left IBM, “Lou Gerstner got a 10-year consultancy contract worth up to $2 million annually, plus expenses and full use of IBM facilities and services, such as office, cars, aircraft and financial planning. He only has to work one month out of the year.” I think even we greedy school teachers might be satisfied with job security like that!

It is absolutely deplorable, in my view, to set security and benefits for teachers in opposition to student learning. Of course there are a small percentage of teachers who do not belong in the classroom. We need effective processes for continual renewal and growth so that this number is kept to a minimum. We need to have effective evaluation procedures that elevate quality and promote growth, and identify and remove those unable to improve. But this process is kept honest when schools have actual procedures to follow, that include clear guidelines and evaluations, and teachers have a right to due process. Our unions have worked to negotiate such processes, and help provide some stability to the profession.

The best way to strengthen teacher quality is to expand trust within each school. The greatest barrier to improvement is isolation and defensiveness. We need powerful learning communities where teachers are not afraid to open their classrooms to their administrators and peers; where expertise is shared and we are all willing to learn from our mistakes. The best way to undermine it is to make teachers compete by basing our pay on how much better our test scores are than those of our peers. Or to believe that we can drive reform by scaring people with the threat of firing if they do not increase test scores.

These three business and political leaders have been successful in their arena. And both Gerstner and Broad have been active in education reform for many years. Unfortunately, in this case, their ideas do not measure up to the world-class standards that our schools need. The real impetus for school change will not come from the millionaire’s clubs. It will come when our policymakers realize that students, teachers and principals are the real agents of change, and begin to listen to us.

What do you think of these ideas? Should Obama “hang tough” on standards and competition? Or is there a better way?

UPDATE on the Teachers’ Letters to Obama project:
On November 2nd, I posted an Open Letter to President Obama in this blog. I also created a Facebook group: Teachers’ Letters to Obama. That group has now grown to 493 members, and the first batch of 96 letters was mailed to President Obama and Secretary Duncan on Monday. These letters are profound expressions of teacher knowledge. Letters can still be contributed, and next week I will post a downloadable file of them all, and Teacher Magazine will launch an online discussion to discuss the perspectives that are emerging.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.