Education Opinion

Opportunity Knocks

By Nancy Flanagan — May 05, 2012 4 min read
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Here’s a new one for the ol’ Reformy Thesaurus: the “Opportunity Culture” in education.

Sure sounds good, doesn’t it? Who doesn’t want our American kids to have more opportunities in life? Except--oops--this campaign, rolled out by Public Impact, is actually about opportunities for “teacherpreneurs” to make more money by teaching oversized classes--and of course, for school districts to seize that same opportunity to save money through “innovative” staffing models.

How did this exciting window of opportunity emerge? Public Impact explains:

Only 25 percent of classes are taught by excellent teachers. With an excellent teacher versus an average teacher, students make about an extra half-year of progress every year--closing achievement gaps fast, leaping ahead to become honors students, and surging forward like top international peers.

That’s a whole lot of leaping and surging. Unfortunately, it’s based on a faux statistic, sitting triumphantly on a pyramid of dubious research, prettied up with some post-modern infographics. Like other overhyped blah-blah of “reform"--the “three great teachers in a row” myth, for example, or nearly every “fact” in Waiting for Superman--it’s a triumph of slick media slogans over substance. A quick look at the Opportunity Culture Advisory Team tells you what the real purpose of the OC is: cutting teachers, privatizing services, plugging charters and cultivating a little astroturf to cover the scars.

The Opportunity Culture’s bold plan begins with a policy recommendation: Schools should be required by law to identify the top 25% of their teachers. Then, once that simple task is completed, OC suggests ten exciting new models for staffing schools, beginning with giving these excellent teachers a lot more students (plus a merit pay carrot) and ending with enlisting “accountable remote teachers down the street or across the nation” who would “provide live, but not in-person instruction while on-site teammates manage administrative duties and develop the whole child.”

I’m trying to imagine how that would work in, say, a third-grade classroom. Let me explain fractions on the screen while you “solid but not excellent” teachers take attendance, deal with irate parents and have actual caring relationships with kids.

I have some questions for Public Impact about this opportunity culture thing:

• How--precisely--do we identify the “excellent” teacher? Using test data? Leaving aside the invalid nature of determining teacher quality through standardized test data--fewer than half of all teachers’ efforts are currently quantified by any statistical models. How do we determine whether kindergarten, music or history teachers are “excellent"--or doesn’t the opportunity culture extend to them?

• Does that dubious 25% figure apply to any given school? Since we know that #1) teachers aren’t particularly effective in their first two years of teaching (I read that in their report) and #2) kids in poverty have the least experienced teachers--wouldn’t the number of excellent teachers be higher in schools with stable, experienced teaching forces and lower in poor schools (or here-today/gone-tomorrow charters)?

• What if a school is made up of 50% excellent teachers and 50% solid teachers, due to some deft hiring, professional development and excellent school leadership? Won’t the merely good teachers feel like discouraged lesser lights? What if an urban school has only 10% excellent teachers? More remote teachers and larger classes for them? Are you aware of how technology-poor districts in poverty are? Does this then become an opportunity culture for Public Impact’s funder, the Gates Foundation?

• Just how many kids can one teacher be responsible for and still be an “excellent” practitioner? Might the truly gifted teacher who has 20 first graders find her efficacy somewhat diluted if she was working with 34 6-year olds?

• A lot of the opportunity culture seems based on glorifying remote delivery of content by dynamic lecturers who are being paid more than the people who are actually in the room with students. Is Public Impact aware that this is not a particularly engaging way for many students to understand and apply what they’re learning?

• Are they also aware that lots of districts have been making these on-site staffing compromises all along, to balance their budgets: Giving experienced teachers more responsibilities, tougher students, paid leadership roles? Looking at the staff they’ve got and creatively finding the best uses for their skills? Do we need legislation mandating a top-quartile identification program and little cartoon teachers to make the most of the resources we have right now?

Finally--even if it were true that only 25% of teachers are excellent, wouldn’t the logical goal be making more excellent teachers? Public Impact disparages that as an “existing strategy,” claiming that we’ll never fill our three million classrooms with excellent teachers using such an ineffective plan.

That’s not the way Finland addressed the challenge--and opportunity--of building a world-class teaching force, however. They recruited the best candidates, they trained them very well, including field experience and masters degrees, they let them monitor and mentor their own ranks, and they gave them full autonomy in the classroom. And they have achieved what Public Impact thinks is impossible in America, through long-term investment in teaching.

How often do teachers get that opportunity here?

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land 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.