Richard Rothstein on what’s wrong with school reform

By Diego Ruiz

Richard Rothstein, a leading education policy scholar and former New York Times education columnist, spoke to over 100 people at the first annual Education and Advocacy Lecture on November 3rd. Rothstein talked with The Mac Weekly about why he believes education reformers that rely on test scores are misguided, why there is not a teacher quality crisis in urban schools, and the “perverse design” of programs like Teach for America. You’ve been a prominent voice criticizing the approach of school reformers like Joel Klein [the former chancellor of New York City schools] and Michelle Rhee [the former superintendent of Washington D.C. schools]. What do you think they’re getting wrong? There are two things I’m focused on primarily. The first is, the most important contributor to variations in achievement of children who go to predominantly low-income schools, and predominantly affluent schools, is their social and economic conditions, not the quality of their schools. And that’s for many reasons. Children who have less literate parents don’t come to school as prepared to learn as children with more literate parents. Children who are in poor health because they don’t have routine medical care are absent from school more. There are many aspects of this. So the notion that Klein and Rhee and the other reformers espouse, that schools alone can close the achievement gap, is, in my view, absurd. That’s not to say that schools can’t be improved – every institution can be improved. But the expectation that you can get the same average achievement from children coming from very low social status as you can from children who come from very privileged and advantaged status is on its face absurd. There’s no country in the world that doesn’t have an achievement gap between children of different social classes. Variations of academic achievement are a function of social class, they’re an expression of social class, just as people from lower social classes have poorer health, and poorer employment outcomes, they also have poorer academic achievement. So, to set up expectations that schools alone can eliminate these differences is to set up schools for failure for the inability to do the impossible. That’s the first basis of my criticism, that the achievement gap cannot be closed by schools alone. It can’t be closed, period. It can be narrowed by improving a wide range of institutions, but you would get much more power by trying to narrow the social inequalities that children come to school with, then you can by school reform. The second major area that I think is doing great harm, that they’re adovacting, is holding schools with a variety of goals accountable for only some of those goals. If you hold any human service institution accountable for only some of its goals, you will inevitably distort the production of some of those other outcomes. Schools are accountable for teaching math and reading, but also sciences, history, social studies, arts, music, physical education, character development and civic participation. If you say that we’re going to hold you accountable for only your math and reading scores, you set up incentives for schools to minimize the attention they pay to all these other areas in order to do the things for which they’re held accountable. So the reforms that Rhee, Klein and the other reformers are espousing have resulted in a terrible narrowing of the curriculum in American education, and the curriculums were narrowed primarily for disadvantaged children, because those are the children with the lowest test scores, for the first set of reasons that I talked about, and therefore those are the ones subject to being given a narrow curriculum in order to try to artificially boost their test scores. So on both counts, by ignoring the socio-economic determinants of student achievement, and by an obsession with quantifiable outcome measures – test scores – I think that these reformers are doing enormous harm to American public education. You’ve written that there is not a crisis of teacher quality in schools. Could you explain that idea? The reality is that student achievement has been improving dramatically over the last generation…..On a national basis at elementary school level, black students now have higher achievement than white students did just a generation ago. It’s a phenomenal rate of improvement. The test score gap hasn’t narrowed very much because white students have also improved. The critics of public education only want to talk about the test score gap as though this is an indictment of schools. The reality is, if you look at the growth, you’d see that something phenomenal is happening. Nobody knows what the causes of this phenomenal growth have been. I think nobody studies it because no one pays attention to it. But I think the one thing that I’m pretty confident about saying, is that these improvements are not consistent with the notion that we have a teaching corps that doesn’t care, that is incompetent with children, that has low expectations, that is being corrupted by the security of union contracts and counting the days until they can collect a pension and so forth. You could not get these results with the kind of teaching force that’s conventionally described by these policymakers. So, I am not saying that teacher quality isn’t important. And I’m not saying that it shouldn’t be improved. And I’m not saying that there aren’t some teachers who should be removed. All of that is true. But the notion that there’s some systematic problem with teacher quality in this country, particularly with teachers serving disadvantaged children, is inconsistent with the facts. What are your thoughts on programs like Teach for America? I certainly wouldn’t discourage anyone from applying to Teach for America. My criticisms of Teach for America have to do with its explicit and implicit policy, not with the students who actually join it. When Teach for America was first founded in 1991, there was a national teacher shortage. Because students in schools serving disadvantaged children are so much more difficult to teach, teachers tended to shy away from those and qualified teachers tended to be concentrated in schools serving middle-class children, and schools serving disadvantaged children were being filled up with substitutes and uncertified teachers, untrained teachers. In that situation, recruiting idealistic, but untrained Ivy League and other elite college graduates, to teach in places where there are these vacancies was a good thing to do. But, what the evidence shows, and what was certainly predicted at the time, was that no matter how good a college student’s SAT scores are, if they haven’t been trained as a teacher, they’re not going to be a good teacher. And, if they’re replacing other untrained teachers who don’t have high SAT scores, that’s fine. But in today’s environment there’s no teacher shortage. In fact, there are many certified teachers who have been through a full teaching program, who’ve done practice teaching under supervision, and who in this reform wave are being let go in order to make room for untrained Teach for America students. The design of the program now is, in my judgment, quite perverse. You cannot learn to be a good teacher in five weeks of a summer training program. Typically, good teachers spend two or more years before they reach their capacity. Well, Teach for America is designed to only keep people in schools for two years. People who are idealistic, who may have high SAT scores themselves but who are untrained, unprepared, replacing students who may have had lower SAT scores, but who are well-trained and experienced — I don’t think it’s helping. The data show is that the outcomes of Teach for America students are better than outcomes of students of uncertified emergency credential teachers, but not better than students with fully certified teachers, which is expected. I’m not saying that from a current college student’s point of view, Teach for America is not something they should do. It’s not their fault that under the influence of Joel Klei
n and Michelle Rhee that they’re going to fire a lot of good teachers to make room for them. It’s a good experience, they’ll learn a lot. Hopefully a few of them, even if not many, will make a career of it and will become good teachers.