Teachers key to school reform
Last updated February 12, 2008 5:12 p.m. PT
MICHAEL HUREAUX AND ROBERT FEMIANO
The trouble with education, we are told by school reform pundits, is the teachers. Often composed of business and legislative leaders, these "reform" platforms begin by claiming the teacher is the most predictable factor of student success. From this they infer the reverse to be true: If students do not succeed, it is the teacher who needs fixing. One high-profile example of this thinking is the No Child Left Behind Act, which calls for "highly qualified" teachers in every classroom. If a school does not "perform" under NCLB, eventually all teachers can be replaced. The euphemism is "reconstitution."
But the feds are not alone in placing the blame on teachers. Educational consultants argue similarly, including the company recently hired by the Gates Foundation for Seattle Public Schools, McKinsey and Co. In their 2006 Report to Ohio Board of Education, (also funded by Gates) the consultants focused their proposals to "address the single-most important factor affecting student achievement: teacher quality." The teachers' union, the Seattle Education Association, recently voted against participating in the audit.
If teachers are the problem, logical suggestions for fixes include market driven solutions, such as merit pay and demotions. Other remediation might require district training, instructional coaches, teacher-proof curricula and tougher evaluations. These fixes assume teachers are lazy, uncaring and incompetent and ignore the fact that most teachers want the best for their students and are motivated out of concern and professionalism, not fear and money.
What about the role of curriculum? Can its impact on student achievement be minimized?
Teacher wisdom would echo the garbage in, garbage out parlance. For example, if a district mandates a curriculum that is a mile wide and inch deep (as in many exploratory math programs), is it reasonable to expect a thorough understanding? Some curriculums go further and dictate the method of teaching as well as content. More and more districts are adopting scripted programs for reading and math and even science kits. Under such circumstances where a teacher's professional judgment is usurped by the publisher's lesson plan, or a district's pacing guide, it would seem illogical to insist the teacher is the most important catalyst in student achievement.
Teachers long have asserted the most significant factor in helping students is class size. In a classroom of 27 second-graders, some are just learning English, some have special education requirements, some qualify for gifted programs, some have unresolved emotional issues resulting in periodic disruptive behaviors or withdraws, one is homeless and another is awaiting the provision of free eyeglasses. With such a caseload, just how effective can one teacher be in challenging each student to reach his fullest potential?
Contrary to what reformers suggest, there is reliable research in support of the adage "as the twig is bent, so grows the tree." The most important study, the Tennessee STAR project, followed the effect of small classes in the first three grades. The findings suggest small classes (17 pupils) are more effective academically than larger classes (22+) overall with the greatest advantage seen for urban minority students. This 12-year longitudinal study show that the early gains lasted through the high school years. Similarly, a 1999 federal education publication What do we know about class size? notes, "a consensus of research indicates that class size reduction in the early grades leads to higher student achievement."
Gov. Chris Gregoire's recent Washington Learns Commission report also placed emphasis on lowering class size for K-3 grades. In Seattle, the philanthropic funding of the district's "New School" has created Washington Learns class sizes and both test scores and parent demand show it is working. Last month, the SEA passed a motion urging the governor's Funding Review Commission to identify the funding stream to implement the class size reductions in this upcoming biennium, as directed by the 2007 Legislature.
It is time to stop blaming and start trusting teachers. Along with the prescription of Washington Learns for smaller class sizes in the early years of schooling, give us the ability to tailor curriculum to the learner and watch families flock back to public schools.
Michael Hureaux has taught in public and private schools in numerous urban areas. Robert Femiano, Washington State Presidential Math Teacher of Year 2002, has taught in Seattle public elementary schools for 24 years.
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