- The Washington Times - Friday, March 19, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

With feature-story treatment from the Atlantic, the New York Times magazine and Newsweek and now listed among the top five priorities in the Obama administration’s education reform blueprint, teacher training has hit the big time. Reformers nationwide are making much ado about how to recruit and develop a new generation of “all-star” teachers.

The push to improve teacher training is driven by research showing that having an effective teacher is the most important school-based factor affecting a child’s academic achievement. That may sound stunningly obvious, but for years, school reform has all but ignored teacher effectiveness. In its provocative report, “The Widget Effect,” the New Teacher Project shows how the public education system acts as if teachers were widgets - undifferentiated, interchangeable parts that are equally effective and thus should all be treated with the same pay and policies.

But teachers are not interchangeable, and there is a wide range of talent and effectiveness, not only among high-income (and generally high-performing) schools and their low-income (and generally low-performing) counterparts, but also within schools. For a variety of reasons, from pay to administrative support to working conditions, top teachers cluster in well-off schools, leaving the most disadvantaged students with the least effective teachers.

There should be no doubt: if we want to improve our schools, we must hold teachers accountable to higher standards and fire incompetent teachers. But as we prepare to hop aboard the latest educational bandwagon, we should be fully aware of the limitations of placing so much emphasis on teacher quality as the secret to academic success.

First, the practical problem: How can we find enough great teachers to fill our classrooms? Though it would be wonderful if every classroom could have an all-star teacher (and if all students could be “above average”) the simple fact is that we need more than 3 million teachers nationwide, including 1 million new teachers by 2014. Countless low-income districts already face chronic teacher shortages, and firing all the bad teachers would only compound the problem. As we seek to develop better teachers, we also must figure out how to get more teachers without sacrificing quality.

One way to attract more and better talent to the education field is to raise teacher pay, a perennial item on the reform wish list. Raising pay is important, but salaries would have to increase dramatically to have the desired effect of recruiting and retaining top talent. If teachers were to earn six figures, as some reformers propose, state education budgets would balloon by tens of billions of dollars. Even in the best economic circumstances, that is a tough sell.

If we could find the money to pay teachers better, we then would face another question: How do we measure great teaching? Reformers swear by “data-driven” teaching and continuous assessment, but there is a misguided faith in the reliability and accuracy of the standardized tests that determine how much students have (or have not) achieved. In “Margins of Error,” education sector researcher Thomas Toch noted that developing accurate, high-quality tests is difficult and expensive, and many states opt for cheaper multiple-choice measures that are notoriously inaccurate.

At the educational enrichment program I used to run in Mississippi, I learned how unreliable standardized assessments could be. When we tested out students, we gave them the same standardized, commercial assessment twice in the same day. Student scores fluctuated wildly, sometimes by as much as three or four grade levels in reading. Though assessment tools continue to be refined, there is an unwarranted assumption that the numbers that pop out of the computer are truly accurate measurements of student achievement.

Using test scores to measure student achievement and then basing personnel decisions on those scores raises a larger, philosophical issue: Who is responsible for student achievement? The current drift of education reform essentially places that responsibility squarely on the teacher’s shoulders - teachers would earn their degrees, get hired, get paid and rise through the ranks based primarily on how well their students perform on standardized tests.

But when we insist that teachers are solely (or primarily) responsible for student achievement, we turn students into widgets - interchangeable pieces that rise or fall depending on the skill of the teacher in the room. An all-star teacher plopped in front of any collection of kids will be able to produce results. The message to students is powerful and pernicious: If you fail (or if you succeed), it’s not your fault (or your credit). Your achievement is not a consequence of your own effort, but rather the effort of the teacher in your classroom. That is a condescending and ultimately counterproductive lesson to teach young people.

Yes, we need better teachers and more of them. But let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that all-star teachers alone can win this game.

Chris Myers Asch teaches history at the University of the District of Columbia and coordinates UDC’s National Center for Urban Education.

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