Schoolhouse Rock
Fixing the education system.

Sept. 11 2008 12:12 PM

The Divide

The debate I wrote about yesterday , between the teachers-union wing of the Democratic Party and the pro-charter-school education-reform wing, is in some ways a symptom of a even deeper divide between two competing approaches to public education today.

On one side, you have people who think that the most important determiner of educational success is demographic. I've heard from a lot of teachers these past two weeks who have voiced this feeling: Low-income students come to them from broken homes and dangerous neighborhoods with poor reading skills and a slack work ethic, and it's just not fair to expect teachers to achieve high-quality results with those students.

On the other side, you have people who say that talk like that is nothing more than a convenient excuse for continued educational failure, a way to perpetuate an unaccountable school system. They say there's lots of evidence, especially coming out of some new and innovative charter schools, that we can make a huge dent in the problems of poor kids using extended class hours and intensive teaching methods.

There are two new advocacy groups that more or less represent the two sides of this debate. On one side you have a group of scholars and social scientists who call themselves the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education . They call for increased spending on early-childhood education, health care, and other social supports instead of an emphasis on school reform alone.

On the other side, you have the Education Equality Project , led by Joel Klein, the New York City schools chancellor, and the Rev. Al Sharpton. They call for legislative changes that would enable the people who are creating those successful experiments: more charter schools, the kind of teacher-pay reforms I wrote about last week, increased school choice.

These two groups announced their formation on consecutive days in June, and ever since, they've kind of been at one another's throats.

There are many people I admire on both sides of this divide. Geoffrey Canada, the subject of my new book , signed on to the Education Equality Project; James Heckman , the economist whose work I hold up in the book as the most persuasive evidence that the Harlem Children's Zone could have a transformative effect in the lives of poor children, signed on with the Broader, Bolder Approach. Wise scholars like Glenn Loury and Christopher Jencks and William Julius Wilson are on the Broader team; innovative superintendents like Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee and Michael Bennet are on the Equality side.

There doesn't seem to be much common ground.

So, I'm going to suggest a compromise.

To those in the Broader camp: Let's admit that our public schools could be serving poor kids much, much better than they are today, and that in order to do that, they need a radical overhaul right away. Let's agree that the best charter schools, like KIPP and Achievement First and Green Dot , have found a whole new way of educating disadvantaged children, and that it works. So, why not embrace looser contracts like the one proposed in D.C. and the one adopted in Denver . Help persuade teachers to give up some job security in exchange for more pay. Help the school systems get rid of poor-performing teachers—not just a few of them, but a big swath, the whole bottom tier. And to replace them, let's create alternative certification programs and encourage unconventional career paths that will attract the kind of committed young overachievers who actually want to teach in the most challenging classrooms but can't stand the thought of slogging their way through a couple of years of education school.

To those in the Education Equality camp: Let's admit that alone, even the best charter schools can't fix the crisis in the nation's worst urban neighborhoods. Let's agree that if we truly want to be data-driven, we should accept the data that say that the most effective time to intervene in a poor child's life is in infancy, before that child ever gets into the school system. So, why not apply some of your intelligence, passion, organizational talent, and financial resources to building out-of-school supports like prekindergartens, parenting programs, and family counseling? Let's figure out how to take the accountability methods and organizational structures you've brought to middle schools and apply them to preschools. Let's figure out how best to provide poorly educated and overstressed parents with new strategies for preparing their kids for school. Let's build a new kind of no-excuses school, one that is integrated with an early-childhood program and a strategy to improve the surrounding community.

It may be wishful thinking, but that's where I believe Obama is trying to push his party. And I do think it's a path toward a real solution to some of the problems that seem most unsolvable—not only in our schools, but in our inner-city neighborhoods as well.

Sept. 10 2008 10:27 AM

Obama Speaks

Speaking of the country's education debate: In Dayton, Ohio, yesterday, Barack Obama delivered a major speech on education reform.

Last weekend, I wrote in the Times Magazine that Obama was facing a schism in the Democratic Party over education, with the teachers unions on one side and a new, accountability-focused group of education reformers on the other. Each camp, I wrote, was trying to claim Obama for their own, parsing his speeches and policy pronouncements, looking for clues that he favored their approach.

To me, yesterday's speech sounded more like the words of a pro-charter reformer than a union loyalist. Obama pledged to double federal funding on charter schools and to make teachers more accountable for the success of their students, saying, "Teachers who are doing a poor job will get extra support, but if they still don't improve, they'll be replaced."

But union folks, it seems, liked what they heard as well. Just after Obama's speech, I spoke with Randi Weingarten , the president of the American Federation of Teachers, and she told me she thought the speech was "very important." She pointed to Obama's support for a measure that would make it easier to close failing charter schools and said she admired his plan to increase the number of high-school students taking college-level or AP courses. The speech, she said, "had a balance of a great tone—even though there were things we disagreed with—along with some serious, concrete proposals."

For someone (like me) who finds the politics of education generally depressing and dysfunctional, what really stood out in the speech was its scope, the recognition that the system needs big, big change: not just charter schools or vouchers or better teacher pay but a complete overhaul. As Obama put it :

We need a new vision for a 21st century education—one where we aren't just supporting existing schools, but spurring innovation; where we're not just investing more money, but demanding more reform; where parents take responsibility for their children's success; where our schools and government are accountable for results; where we're recruiting, retaining, and rewarding an army of new teachers, and students are excited to learn because they're attending schools of the future; and where we expect all our children not only to graduate high school, but to graduate college and get a good paying job.

It's time to ask ourselves why other countries are outperforming us in education. Because it's not that their kids are smarter than ours—it's that they're being smarter about how to educate their kids. They're spending less time teaching things that don't matter and more time teaching things that do. Their students are spending more time in school, and they're setting higher expectations.

I think there are people on each side of the standoff within the Democratic Party who know that the eventual solution is going to require both sides to give something up. But neither wants to be the one to go first. And so for now, the debate feels stuck. It's exactly why I think a broad vision of reform like the one Obama laid out is potentially important—it might serve as something of a peace treaty, a chance for both sides to lay down their arms and figure out the real solutions to the country's education crisis.

Sept. 10 2008 10:03 AM

Whatever It Takes

My interest in education and schools came about in sort of a roundabout way. In 2003, I started reporting on what was then a fairly modest social-service agency in upper Manhattan called the Harlem Children's Zone . That reporting turned into an article  in the Times Magazine about the project and its founder, Geoffrey Canada, an ambitious and charismatic man in his early 50s who had come up with a unique approach to combating poverty. He had selected a 24-block neighborhood in central Harlem and was saturating the children who lived there with educational and social supports. His goal was to get them all to college and to transform the neighborhood in a single generation.

Usually when I get to the end of reporting a big magazine article, I'm pretty sick of the subject. But this time, the article felt like the beginning of a story rather than the end of one. I wanted to keep following the experiment that was unfolding in Harlem. And so I decided to write a book about it. The result, Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest To Change Harlem and America , goes on sale today, a little more than five years from the first time I sat down in front of Canada and turned on my tape recorder.

There's some background on the Harlem Children's Zone in this review by Sara Mosle last week in Slate . And then, you know, there's always the book itself .

So, how did my Harlem reporting get me into writing about education? Two months after the Harlem article  came out in the Times , Geoffrey Canada opened his first charter school, the Promise Academy . When the middle school opened, the administrators gave every sixth-grade student a diagnostic test. They expected that many of the children would be behind grade level; most kids in public schools in Harlem are. But when they got back the results, they were shocked by just how far behind grade level the kids were. Fifty-seven percent of the sixth-grade class was reading at a third-grade level or below.

And Geoff Canada had just promised to get them all to college.

I wanted to find out why those kids had fallen so far behind—and whether anyone had yet figured out a way to do what Canada wanted to do: take disaffected 10-year-olds who had till then received only the most threadbare education and accelerate them to a point where they were on par with their middle-class peers.

Those are some of the questions I explored in my book and which I've been blogging about, in one way or another , here on Slate for the past two weeks. Over the next few days, I'm going to write more about what I found during my time in Harlem—and why I feel it has the potential to change the terms of the country's education debate.

Sept. 9 2008 12:39 PM

The View From the U.K.

Sometimes it takes the perspective of an outsider to put a thorny issue like school funding into perspective.

Michael Barber was Tony Blair's chief education adviser, and he helped push through a major overhaul of Britain's public-education system. Now he's an educational consultant with an increasingly high profile in the United States. When I was reporting in New Orleans earlier this year, Paul Pastorek , the Louisiana superintendent of education, told me Barber's ideas had had a big influence on him. And as Sam Dillon reported in the Times last year, Joel Klein, New York City's school superintendent, is also a fan of Barber's; he "asked Sir Michael to address hundreds of New York principals at Lincoln Center about school improvement strategies."

In an interview with Education Sector, a Washington think tank, Barber listed some of the problems he saw in the American education system, including this rather jumbo-sized one:

The other fundamental flaw that I think is absolutely devastating in the U.S. is that because so much of the school system depends on very local taxation, the distribution of funding is inequitable. You can see how it originates in 19th century American history, but it is a big problem. Even the best education laws are only leveling up to the same funding per pupil so that high-poverty areas have funding on par with other communities. Whereas, in any sensible system you'd spend more money per pupil in a high-poverty area than another area. The Conservatives [in Britain] were in power from 1979 to 1997, and they never questioned that. They always thought it was absolutely right to spend more on areas of high poverty than other areas.

It seems so clear and straightforward (you can almost hear the British accent): Poor kids need more help in school than rich kids, so the government should devote more resources to their education. Let's do it! But a plan like Barber's would require a complete rethinking and reorganization of our approach to funding public education. And that doesn't seem likely to happen any time soon.

Sept. 9 2008 11:16 AM

Free the Chicago 1,400

An unusual act of civil disobedience last week in Chicago: To protest inequities in Illinois' system of school financing, James Meeks, a Baptist minister and state senator, organized a boycott of the first day of school by 1,400 Chicago public-school students, almost all of whom were black. The twist: That morning, he bused them all to Northfield, a wealthy, mostly white Chicago suburb , to the lavish campus of New Trier Township High School , a public school with four orchestras , a rowing club , a course in " kinetic wellness ," and AP classes in French, Spanish, German, Japanese, Latin, and Chinese. You know, your basic American public school. The Chicago kids lined up and tried to enroll for classes—symbolically, at least.

To their credit, the administrators at New Trier, as well as a few parents and students, welcomed the visitors with signs, snacks, and cool drinks. Every Chicago student who took part in the protest was invited to register at the school, but none of them will in fact be able to enroll because of New Trier's residency requirements. No house in the suburbs, no spot in the school.

Mayor Daley fulminated , calling Meeks's protest "very selfish." But it was a peaceful demonstration and by all accounts a successful one ("This is civil disobedience at its finest," one New Trier parent said ).

As the Chicago Tribune reported : "At issue is how much money schools spend per student. In a funding system fueled largely by local property taxes, New Trier Township spent nearly $17,000 per student in 2005-06 ... while Chicago Public Schools spent an estimated $10,400 per pupil."

It's one of those basic facts of American educational life that seem inevitable and yet impossible at the same time. On the one hand, of course the wealthy burghers of Northfield are going to spend more on their public schools than the poor residents of inner-city Chicago. On the other hand: We're really going to send rich white kids to excellent, well-funded public schools and send poor black kids to substandard, poorly funded public schools? That's our plan for fixing public education in America?

Sept. 8 2008 12:36 PM

Nuclear Option

Today's paper brings the news that Michelle Rhee , the superintendent of the D.C. public schools, has come up with a Plan B to use if the D.C. teachers union refuses to accept her proposed new contract.

Plan A, as I wrote last week, was a contract under which teachers could give up tenure in return for large pay increases. Plan B, essentially, is a system in which teachers lose tenure and don't get large pay increases. Rhee says she and the state superintendent could also change the licensing requirements for the district's teachers so as to require them to demonstrate classroom performance—the kind that would have earned them big bonuses under the contract—merely to keep their jobs.

The story in the Washington Post suggests that Rhee is not only aware of the city's generation gap among teachers, she also plans to take advantage of it.

Rhee's ultimate goal is clear: to weed the District's instructional corps of underperformers and remake it, at least in part, with younger, highly energized graduates of such alternative training programs as Teach for America, where she began her career. Unlike many tenured Washington teachers, those emerging from such programs are unlikely to invest their entire working lives in education. But they will, in Rhee's estimation, be more inclined to embrace her core message: that children can learn no matter what economic and social conditions they face beyond the classroom and that teachers should be held directly accountable for their progress through test scores and other measurements.

What we're hearing from Rhee and other superintendents is that urban school systems as they are currently constructed simply can't be made to work for the disadvantaged children who need their help the most. They need a complete overhaul.

In New Orleans, they had Hurricane Katrina to wash the old system away. In D.C., Michelle Rhee is trying to do it herself.

Sept. 8 2008 10:34 AM

Teachers Inverted

Last week's posts on teachers, compensation, and unions provoked a lot of mail from readers, and I thought I'd kick off this second week with two suggestions.

One reader, K.B., wrote in with a few more examples of what she thinks are promising experiments in teacher pay:

In your discussion of teacher quality and merit-pay programs, I was disappointed that you talked about the failed Florida bonus program but didn't talk more about some of the innovative "second generation" merit-pay (or performance-pay, as they're more often called) programs that are being tested in school districts all over the country. These programs, which include Minnesota's QComp , the TAP program, Oregon's CLASS Project , and many of the individual TIF sites, as well as the Denver ProComp program you cited , are attempting to learn from the mistakes of programs like Florida's. Instead of basing compensation on test scores alone, they are working to develop more nuanced measures of teacher quality, often in collaboration with both individual teachers and teachers' unions.

Another reader, R.C., suggested an intriguing inverted approach to a teacher's traditional career path:

Here's the situation now: a new graduate comes out of ed school and is looking for a job. It is very hard to get into the good suburban districts without experience, so she ends up in an urban or urban-ring district with high-needs kids. Let's say this teacher is a reasonably decent teacher. In three years (about the time when studies say teachers really start to know their stuff), the odds are she is going to either quit teaching altogether or hop to a suburban district that now values her experience - because the high-needs school has burned her to a frazzle between the demands of the kids and the incompetence of the system.

Here's what SHOULD happen: a new graduate comes out of ed school and finds a job in a good suburban district. In three years, this teacher is good and is hitting her stride. Wouldn't it be nice to have her in an urban school? Why not come up with a program that allows her to go to an urban school, with merit pay, for a few years with a guarantee that she will have a job in her old district? There are VERY few good, dedicated teachers who can put in an entire career under the conditions found in most urban districts right now.

Sept. 5 2008 1:56 PM

Teaching Limits

For the debut week of this blog, I concentrated on teachers,in part because that's where much of the political debate seems to be focusedright now. (Last night, John McCain told his fellow Republicans, a little menacingly, that he wanted to "help badteachers find another line of work," to raucous cheers.)

But as Slate readers have commented in the Fray ( here , forexample) and in the email messages they've sent me, there are some issues that are difficult if notimpossible for teachers to deal with alone. Funding inequities oftenshortchange the school districts where low-income students live, and after thelast bell rings, those students often return to chaotic communities andtroubled home lives, both of which make it harder to succeed in school.

That's the other big political debate in education right now- what can and should schools do differently in order to improve the lives ofdisadvantaged students - and that's what I'm hoping to get into next week. Fornow, thanks for reading, and to all the teachers, students and parents outthere, congratulations on surviving the first week of school.

Sept. 5 2008 12:59 PM

Generation Gap

One striking phenomenon revealed by the Denver negotiations was a generational split among teachers. Younger teachers were generally in favor the deal being offered, and older teachers tended to oppose it. (Some veteran teachers told the Denver Post that they felt "dissed.")

A similar generational divide has appeared in D.C. , where, as the Washington Post reported last month,

many of the District's 4,000 public school teachers are locked in a heated debate over Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's proposal to offer salaries exceeding $100,000 for those willing to give up job security and tie their fates to student achievement. ... The split in the teaching corps largely, but not exclusively, is occurring along generational lines, with younger teachers more willing to accept the risks and older ones often questioning the proposal.

The Post story mentioned an anonymous young teacher-blogger, " D.C. Teacher Chic ," who is a fan of Chancellor Rhee and is decidedly in favor of her new deal (under which teachers could choose a "green plan" that would trade tenure for a higher salary or a more traditional "red plan"). Her blog—often funny, usually outraged—offers a great insight into the mind of a teacher on the young side of this growing generational divide.

At the beginning of August, when it seemed that George Parker, the president of the D.C. teachers union local, was going to turn down Rhee's offer, D.C. Teacher Chic blew a gasket :

I am going to cry. Seriously. And then I am going to start looking for another school system.

I cannot believe George Parker is supporting scraping this entire contract and going for a more "traditional agreement." Clearly, not only does he not represent me, but he is also taking money right out of my pocket!

I understand that shitty teachers who have been working in the system since 1952 don't want to give up tenure. Fine. I get it. So choose the red plan! I don't understand opposing the entire proposal, unless you just haven't read it.

On a school-by-school level, a generational war can't be very productive. (Why are all the young teachers sitting together in the cafeteria?) But the split is important in the big picture. According to a recent study , incoming teachers now are better educated than incoming teachers were 10 years ago. (In the mid-'90s, only 27 percent of prospective teachers taking a national licensing test had a GPA of 3.5 or higher; by the mid-'00s, the figure had jumped to 40 percent.)

So: a new generation of better-educated teachers interested in reform? That's a powerful force, one that in the coming months and years might push both management and labor toward a new kind of arrangement, one in which teachers really are treated like professionals.

Sept. 4 2008 3:17 PM

Denver Nuggets

There’s another city that spent the summer locked in high-stakes negotiations over teacher compensation: Denver.

Three years ago, voters there passed a levy to fund something called the Professional Compensation System for Teachers, or ProComp, designed to increase teacher pay and to reward the best teachers doing the hardest jobs. So far, ProComp has pumped $50 million into the city’s education system.  

In May, Denver’s ambitious and reform-minded young school superintendent, Michael Bennet (the subject of an excellent piece by Katherine Boo in The New Yorker in 2007), proposed changes to ProComp that, he said, would make it more attractive to teachers, especially to the young teachers whom he wanted to bring into the system.

The leaders of the local teachers union didn’t like the changes. The basic dispute boiled down to this: The union wanted to take the extra ProComp money and distribute it more or less evenly throughout the system, so that every teacher would get a generous raise. Bennet wanted to use it to increase bonuses for teachers who taught in a high-poverty school, took a hard-to-fill job teaching math or science, or boosted their students’ test scores significantly. Under the old contract, teachers could receive $1,000 bonuses for each of those categories; Bennet wanted to increase each bonus to $3,000.  

So if you were a successful math teacher at a high-poverty school, under Bennet’s proposal you could make an extra $9,000 a year. The problem, as the union saw it , was one of fairness: If you were, say, an English teacher at an affluent school, you would have no shot at two of the bonuses.

Which, Bennet replied, was the whole idea: to convince those teachers that they should come teach where they are really needed.