Civil Rights, Community-based Groups Signal New Education Consensus; MCAS study finds ‘teachers are not to blame’

Three timely and significant reports have been released in the past few weeks that signal a promising change in the public debate on education. A coalition of major national civil rights groups and another of community-based organizations have issued statements and recommendations strongly critical of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top initiative, signaling a growing consensus that it’s time for a change in direction from the education policies initiated by President Bush and continued by Duncan and President Obama. And a new MCAS study reported in Commonwealth Magazine undermines the idea that we simply need to get rid of bad teachers to turn around “failing schools.” All three are worth reading and supporting.

The civil rights groups’ statement, titled “”Framework for Providing All Students an Opportunity to Learn” says, in part:

“The Race to the Top Fund and similar strategies for awarding federal education funding will ultimately leave states competing with states, parents competing with parents, and students competing with other students….. By emphasizing competitive incentives in this economic climate, the majority of low-income and minority students will be left behind and, as a result, the United States will be left behind as a global leader.”

and there’s this:

“There is no evidence that charter operators are systematically more effective in creating higher student outcomes nationwide….Thus, while some charter schools can and do work for some students, they are not a universal solution for systemic change for all students, especially those with the highest needs.”

A news release and the full civil rights group report are here. A link to their web site is here.

The Communities for Excellent Public Schools web site describes their report this way:

“The report, and our accompanying proposal for Sustainable School Transformation, critique the Administration’s school turnaround policies for focusing too much on who runs and works in schools and not enough on what needs to happen within classrooms and school buildings and for lacking an adequate research-base in formulating policy options. The top-down choices that school districts are given are too restrictive and the timeframe for making decisions–a few months–is far too short for a comprehensive, thoughtful and inclusive process. These policies have their basis in top-down prescriptions sanctioned by No Child Left Behind. Sustainable and successful school reform requires a different approach, which is why CEPS has developed the Sustainable School Transformation proposal.”

Finally, I recommend a new article in Commonwealth Magazine by Edward Moscovitch, titled “Teachers are not to Blame.”

The author looked at MCAS scores in more and less affluent schools and found that low-income students in both settings continue to struggle, despite the overall higher or lower performance of the schools, as always, tied to demographics.

So the “good” teachers who are succeeding with most of the kids in the affluent schools, often look more like “bad” teachers when it comes to the low-income children in their classes.

In both wealthy districts and urban districts, there are stronger teachers and weaker ones. Some of the differences between individual students are undoubtedly the result of these differences in teacher ability. The point here is that the difference in average scores across districts as a whole have far more to do with differences in demographics than differences in teacher quality.

He concludes the answer is not to “broom out” the “bad” teachers, as the Globe and so many others often suggest. The answer is to develop the current work force, as you so wisely suggest, so that all teachers have better strategies and knowledge about working with the most challenging students.

Far from minimizing the importance of good teaching, these findings underscore the importance of helping teachers learn the pedagogies that can move their students forward. Whether they are in Weston and Lexington, on the one hand, or in Holyoke and Lawrence, on the other, the vast majority of teachers do not have the tools necessary to meet the needs of low-income and minority students. As we’ve seen, scores of low-income black and Hispanic students in wealthy districts are far lower than scores of non-poor whites in those districts-and only barely higher than the scores of low-income minority students in the inner cities. The need for this kind of help is particularly important in the inner-city schools not because teachers there are somehow poorer teachers or care less, but simply because so many of their students are so very needy.The problem with today’s popular remedies-like merit pay, charter schools, and firing teachers-is that they are about carrots and sticks, not about giving teachers better tools to meet student needs.