Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Embracing the Evidence

Don't look now, but there seems to be something astir when it comes to the world of American public education. And it doesn't involve pouring more money into the system in vain hopes that this time the results will be different despite forty years of failure to realize improvements from increased spending. No, it involves real reform as more and more people finally seem willing to tackle one of the real roots of the problem.

On his radio show this morning, Bill Bennett was talking with Senator Jim DeMint. Near the end of the conversation--after covering health care and spending--Bennett (former Secretary of Education) asked DeMint for the opportunity to come before Senate Republicans and discuss some very simple and inexpensive steps that would improve education. The key reform would be to get rid of the bottom 5% of teachers. Bennett mentioned that there is now a wealth of research that shows how critical teacher quality is to student achievement. It seems like a obvious correlation, but it's one that the national teacher unions and their liberal allies in the Democratic party have been loath to address. Talking about teacher performance or removing teachers who aren't getting the job done had become the third rail of education. No one wanted to touch it.

But there are winds of change in the air. As Saint Paul noted last week even long-time liberals like film critic Roger Ebert are being forced to face up to the fact that money is not why our education system is failing, it's the quality of our teachers. And no group has done more to contribute to the problem or resist any attempts to fix it than the teachers unions.

More evidence of an emerging consensus on this aspect of education that crosses political boundaries was presented by Stephen Spruiell in the February 8th edition of National Review (sub req):

It is equally difficult to argue now that teacher quality and student test scores are not correlated. Empirical studies from groups such as the New Teacher Project, Teach for America, and the Brookings Institution have demonstrated that teachers matter, and that test scores are a reliably accurate tool for measuring how much they matter. A Brookings study of Los Angeles public schools published in 2006 concluded that "having a top-quartile teacher rather than a bottom-quartile teacher four years in a row would be enough to close the black-white test score gap."

As in the debate over free trade, liberal journalists and policymakers are increasingly embracing the evidence. I first learned of the Brookings study from a Steven Brill article in The New Yorker that absolutely eviscerated New York's United Federation of Teachers for blocking reforms that would make it easier for schools to use tests in teacher evaluations. Amanda Ripley of The Atlantic recently wrote about Teach for America's groundbreaking efforts to track test-score data, link it to each of the organization's teachers, and use it to assess their effectiveness. Bob Herbert, the New York Times columnist, wrote a column in January praising Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, for her grudging acceptance of the notion that standardized test scores should be part of the evaluation process. (The National Education Association, AFT’s much larger cousin, remains opposed.)

Roger Ebert, the Brookings Institute, The New Yorker, and Bob Herbert understand (at some level at least) what the problem really is. If President Obama actually wants to "pivot to the center," "reach out his hand across the aisle," and "work together in a bipartisan manner," this would be a golden opportunity. Taking on Sister Souljah was child's play compared to what President Obama would face in challenging his allies in the teachers unions, but the political payoff could be equally significant. So far his administration's talk on education has been much better than its walk. This is an opportunity to put it to the test.

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