Monday, March 30, 2015

Closing The Educator Equity Gap

Because we don't have enough gaps to talk about in education, Kevin Zimmer at TNTP would like to talk about the educator equity gap. It would be a conversation worth having, if we were going to have it honestly. Unfortunately, that's not the case.

Where's the gap?

We all know that highly effective teachers can have a lifelong impact on students. But we also know that too often, the students who need great teachers the most are the least likely to get them.

Yes, that link takes you to the entirely bogus Chetty research (incidentally, have any independent researchers ever checked or replicated that study?), but you know what? I'm going to go ahead and stipulate to the idea that having a good teacher is a Very Good Thing.

Unfortunately, we're not talking about Very Good Teachers. We're talking about highly effective teachers, and the definition of a highly effective teacher is "one whose students score well on the Big Standardized Test." And as long as we focus on that measure, this is a gap that can never be closed.

We know that the higher the poverty level, the lower the test scores. That means that any teacher teaching in a high poverty school will not be, by definition, a highly effective teacher.

Zimmer is referencing the newest in a long series of deadlines for states providing a plan for how they will shuffle teachers around so that highly effective teachers are in high poverty schools. Let's skip over the question of how this could be done (cash bonuses? trickery? rendering?) because it can't actually be done! 

Here's a classroom with no roof over it. Maybe it collapsed and nobody wanted to fix it. Maybe we saved money by never building it in the first place. But every time it rains, the water pours right into the classroom and the teacher and the students get soaked. "Well, there's your problem," says some bureaucratic wizard. "The students are wet because the teacher is wet. Get a dry teacher in there and everything will be super-duper."

And yet it doesn't matter how many fresh, dry teachers you put into that roofless classroom-- every time it rains, everybody gets wet. You can find the driest, most arid, most highly dehydrated teacher in the country, but when you set that teacher in your roofless classroom, she'll still end up drenched.

Could the gap be real?

Is it possible that high-poverty low-achieving schools really do have a lower quality teaching force? Although there's no real serious data, it would make sense that if you offer some teachers a job at a shiny well-funded school that offers strong teacher support, plenty of resources, and the teacher autonomy to make a real difference-- well, they might choose that over a job at a school where they'll be underfunded, provided insufficient supplies and books, and stripped of any autonomy. It seems intuitive that any professional would prefer a situation where they're given all the tools and support needed to be successful.

Of course, one might also argue that teachers who choose to teach in tough schools in a high-poverty setting would have to be highly motivated teachers who had no intention of just coasting along. So maybe our high poverty schools are actually housing the best teachers in the nation-- we just can't see it because a) they are hamstrung by bad management and funding and b) all we're looking at are BS Test scores.

But I do know this-- offering incentives to teach at high needs schools makes more sense than offering penalties. But penalties are what policymakers are offering when they advance ideas such as using test scores to punish or even fire teachers who don't make their numbers. It's hard enough to find volunteers to teach in the roofless room; if you add that we'll start penalizing any teacher who is found to be soggy, teachers have even fewer reasons to want to teach in the roofless room.

Zimmer has some other ideas about how to close the gap.

Staffing flexibility. He cites Memphis, home of the ASD that promised to turn the bottom 5% into the top 25% and has so far failed to do so. Principals in those bottom schools are given extra budget and first pick as a way to recruit and retain top teachers. I actually like these ideas. The problem, of course, is that topness is still rated by test scores. Principals are also free to hire and fire at will, a policy that is only as good as the principal using it.

New school structures. I have mixed feelings here. If we're talking about allowing public schools to play with structure and format, that's a great idea. Schools could be reconfigured to meet the particular needs and concerns of their community. However, if we're talking about letting charters float new marketing ideas, I'm not a fan. And if we're talking about restructuring that comes top-down, you're wasting time. And that includes, especially, telling a community that their definition of success must be "better test scores." But mostly, notice that this idea doesn't really have anything to do with getting higher-quality staff at all-- this is just a full on test score improvement strategy.

Promote data transparency and establish rewards and consequences for districts to eliminate their equity gaps. Ah, carrots and sticks. And data, as if the local school community has no idea what is going on within its walls. And the childlike belief that "equipping district and school leaders with data and empowering them to take action tailored to their unique context should help close equity gaps over time." Because weighing the pig always makes it heavier.

Share innovations. Zimmer likes Georgia's online portal for dialogue between districts. "States should serve as a clearinghouse for tools, resources and ideas." Again, even Zimmer can't keep straight the distinction between raising test scores and teacher quality. This is all about the former, not remotely about the latter.

So what should we be doing?

Well, fixing the roof is huge. Some reformsters try to slip this by declaring, "Why do you always blame the roof? Are you saying that kids in this room can't be as dry as rich kids is nice fully-roofed schools?" And they have part of a point-- we won't stop teaching just because it's raining. There has to be a two-pronged attack. We cannot wait for the roof to be fixed in order to start teaching, and we can't ignore the missing roof just because teaching is going on.

To close the teacher equity gap, I'd first look for a useful tool for measuring it. Checking test scores is not that tool. The BS Test doesn't measure anything except test-taking skills, which are directly tied to affluence, and we cannot pretend that the goal of educating students, especially our poorest students, is to make them good at taking standardized tests. Right now, we know nothing, really, about the teacher equity gap.

Stop assuming teachers are widgets. One of the great ironic pieces of white paperiness is TNTP's Widget Effect, which says that we have a problem with treating teachers like interchangeable widgets, but then proposes that they are, in fact, interchangeable widgets whose single distinguishing factor is how well their students do on tests. Reform has by and large ignored every other characteristic of teachers. This gives us features like the "reform" of New Orleans schools that principally seems to involve moving native, local African-American teachers out of the system and replacing them with transient white teachers with no knowledge of or investment in the community.

In truth, different teachers are better suited for different school settings. Zimmer seems to think that we could take a great 9th grade teacher from a small rural school and that teacher would be equally awesome in a 12th grade classroom in a large urban school.

But teachers don't teach in a vacuum; they teach in relationship with their students and community. It makes no more sense to say that a person would be a great teacher in all possible school settings that it makes to say that an individual man would be a great husband no matter which woman in all the world is his wife. Sure, there will be some exemplars for whom this is true, but for most ordinary humans, context is absolutely key.

It's a poor workman who blames his tools, but it's a terrible manager who does not give her workers the tools they need to be great. It's a lazy manager who says, "I won't try to help anyone become great. I'll just do a random measurement every six months and fire the bottom 10%." Any idiot can walk into the roofless room and fire the wet widget standing in front of the class. It takes considerably more gifted leadership and considerable resources to build a roof, hold an umbrella, and help the teacher be great.

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