A defense of teacher unions

January 27, 2007

Diane Ravitch comes to the defense of the much-maligned teachers’ unions in the AFT’s journal, American Educator (here). Ravitch, an unpredictable thinker who typically has interesting things to say about the state of schooling, points out that teachers too often take the blame for the failures of others. As Ravitch says,

Some academics blame the unions when student achievement remains stagnant. If scores are low, the critics say it must be because of the teachers’ contract, not because the district has a weak curriculum or lacks resources or has mediocre leadership. If some teachers are incompetent, it must be because of the contract, not because the district has a flawed, bureaucratic hiring process or has failed to evaluate new teachers before awarding them tenure.

We can’t let unions completely off the hook for what’s wrong in schools today. There are simply too many examples of unions fighting educational changes that would benefit kids. But Ravitch’s article is a good corrective to some of the thoughtless union-bashing that has become commonplace in some school reform circles.

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Many people, including me, have looked at how students at charter schools compare with those at traditional public schools. My article is here Charters and Public Schools (pdf). One of the consistent findings from the research has been that charters serve a disproportionately large numbers of African-American students (this is something of a surprise, given that when charter schools originally came on the scene many people–including me–worried that they would draw the most advantaged students from the public system). But much less attention has been paid to the question of the racial composition of charter school leadership. Fortunately, that is beginning to change, and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools is looking at the lack of people of color from all levels of charter school leadership (including state charter associations, charter management organizations, and charter authorizers). When I’ve asked around about this question, I’ve heard a variety of explanations–industry practices that exclude (either intentionally or unintentionally), difficulty getting access to capital, ineffective recruitment strategies, etc. I’m working on this project, and I’m curious to see whether we can make a difference.

More on Charles Murray

January 25, 2007

Charles Murray recently had a 3 part series in the Wall St. Journal on education. I’ve already commented here on what’s wrong with Murray’s first column. For responses to Murray’s 2nd and 3rd installments, see Whitney Tilson’s blog (copies of Murray’s Op Eds are there as well) and Dead Reckoning.

Shameless Family Promotion

January 19, 2007

Today’s New York Daily News (of all places) has a story on my step-father, Terry Weber, a math teacher at Urban Academy in New York City. Urban is a high-performing alternative school with a superb teaching staff and a commitment to a progressive approach to pedagogy.

For more on why teacher quality is what matters most, consider the Jan./Feb. Atlantic Monthly story on New Orleans schools. Reading, Writing, Resurrection, by Amy Waldman gives us a glimpse at the charter school revolution in that city. Much of what is going on is good: schools are freed of bureaucratic restrictions, school leaders can hire and fire their staff, district-wide open enrollment helps overcome residential segregation by allowing kids to go to any school in the city . . . . But, it turns out there are not anywhere near the number of decent teachers (or principals, counselors, etc.) to make the schools work. The result is a disaster. As Waldman writes,

But human capital, on many levels, was complicating Huger’s experiment. Brand-new, and filled with children from across the city, Lafayette Academy had neither history nor community to draw on. The principal seemed unhappy, the chief administrative officer tentative, and the lines of authority between them unclear. Two teachers had already quit by mid-October. And on the third floor, home to the unruly sixth and seventh grades, staff morale was sagging. The older children had come up through a school system that combined social promotion with an absence of socialization. Some of their teachers, in turn, had little or no urban teaching experience. The result was an endless clash of wills between students and staff, and what teachers described as a profound lack of respect. Nothing worked—not lectures, not phone calls to parents (themselves often indifferent), not detention.

Post-Katrina New Orleans reinforces the key point: Until we solve the human capital issues in schools, improvements will be marginal at best.

Kate Boo has a terrific article in the Jan. 15 New Yorker on the efforts of Michael Bennet to reform Manual High in Denver. (Full disclosures: Michael Bennet was in law school with me, and I have known Kate Boo since she was a reporter for the Washington Post many years ago.) Manual has received much press because it is one of the early Gates Foundation initiatives that did not work well. There is tons here of interest, but I thought the most novel insight was Bennet’s efforts to approach school drop-outs the way candidates treat voters. Faced with a potential drop-out crisis, Bennet and his team went door to door. Their aim: meet with students and families and help them find their way back to traditional or alternative schools. As Boo writes, Bennet was engaged in a “systematic pursuit of the sort of student who lowered aggregate test scores and teacher morale.” This is revolutionary stuff–a school superintendent trying to find the kids who schools often avoid!

As Boo puts it,

the fight to reclaim the former Manual students had no precedent in the age of No Child Left Behind. Out of panic, and of motivations that involved personal vanity as well as social justice, a safety net was being strung under a school system’s hardest cases–one involving parents, mentors, fast-food restaurant managers, United Airlines executives and city-council members who knocked on doors, an engrossed media, nonprofit organizations, and student leaders like Julissa Torrez. Meanwhile, Bennet had persuaded foundations to donate staff and funds to keep the tracking effort going for three years, after which the effort’s impact would be studied for application in other Denver schools, and in other cities, too. The notion of high expectations for poor children had been converted from the rhetorical to the specific and pragmatic, and a rescue effort that once seemed a sinkhole of time and effort began to look like a prototype.

Let’s keep watching whether this works.

Charles Murray is at it again, arguing in the Wall St. Journal that native intelligence plays a greater role than anyone admits in distributing educational outcomes.

What is interesting, in my view, is how little traction Murray’s claims get today. Murray was once at the forefront of social policy, arguing that welfare creates a culture of dependency. His arguments laid the foundation for the rejection of welfare in the 1980s and 1990s. And his arguments about education and intelligence have a long historical pedigree. For centuries we based education policy on the assumption that some people were just smarter than others, and therefore deserved more resources and opportunity. Murray’s claims about native intelligence (and their correlation with race) have, for most of our nation’s history, been explicity or implicitly accepted by most people. But today Murray is increasingly viewed as somewhere between wrong and just plain wacky. As Whitney Tilson writes in his periodic e-mail, Murray is wrong because:

The key is what happens AFTER birth. There are countless factors that determine where a child ends up (both intellectually and otherwise) and it would be unfair to place the entire burden on schools, but my observation over many, many years and seeing dozens of highly successful schools is that a great school, filled with great teachers, can make an ENORMOUS difference.

Tilson’s arguments, not Murray’s, are the ones that hold policy center-stage today. And the importance of that fact should not be overlooked. Because as long as Murray’s view held sway we could simply write off the “less intelligent.”

I have some differences with Tilson. For example, I would place more emphasis (he places some, I would place more) on what goes on around schools, in homes and communities, to support kids academic and overall health and growth. But that said, I agree completely about the role that schools can play in promoting achievement. So let’s take a moment and celebrate the declining signficance of Charles Murray.