Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Failure of American Schools

Joel Klein has a piece in The Atlantic that will ruffle some feathers, mine included. Some of his points are undoubtedly well taken - the schools are used for political patronage to the detriment of the students, for example. But after all this time and debate on the issues, some of the core matters still don't get a good enough analysis. Below is my little critique.

The big deal issue for Klein is that the payment structure, including pensions, is heavily seniority based. Percentage salary increases are awarded across the board which, given the seniority structure, means the big absolute pay increases are given to the very senior teachers. Pension payments are also heavily skewed to seniority with a big step up in benefits after the 24th year of service. The system as a whole has over promised benefits (this is a point where I do agree and it is true for all government employees, not just school teachers).

As a consequence of the pay and pension structure, teachers who are in mid career (say with 10+ years in the system) become locked in. Such lock in is to the employers' advantage if the employees are highly productive, because then it reduces costly turnover. But such lock in is expensive to the employers if the employees have low productivity and yet have tenure. Klein argues that this is the case for a significant number of teachers because they have "burned out." Klein would like to see a different system where the employees are rewarded for their productivity and where separation occurs when that productivity has waned sufficiently. On the surface, that sounds appealing. I will drill down further on these points, because I believe the arguments don't survive that scrutiny.

Look at the entire teacher life-cycle

We know, as is, that many new teachers wash out early. Let's focus on those who don't wash out early. Do we want a system that encourages those teachers to separate when they start to burn out? Or do we want a system that encourages the teachers to make teaching a lifetime career? If somebody has been a teacher starting in their mid to late twenties and done that for 15 years but becomes washed up in that job, now in their early forties what other employer wants to hire this person? If it is realistic to assume that the person will have a tough time on the job market after leaving teaching, which seems to me to be the case, and if washout in teaching has a reasonable likelihood, as Klein himself argues, then going into teaching would seem like a big crap shoot. Why is it an attractive career in this case even if the up front wages are reasonable?

This argument is essentially unaddressed by those who argue for market based reforms in the schools. The argument would fail if teaching were viewed as good preparation for other work or if it signaled productive qualities in the individual teacher that would translate into being a valuable employee elsewhere. So Teach for America teachers might do well after they leave teaching. But there initial commitment was short term and they don't leave teaching because they are burned out. They leave because it is time to do something else. It is hard to imagine that either of these factors would be at work for long-time teachers who have burned out.

In other words, either you have to design the system so the vast majority of teachers make it a lifetime career or you have to expect that many who become teachers do so fully expecting to leave the system early for non-work related reasons. In the latter case teacher experience will be in short supply and churn will be the rule, not the exception. If those really are the two alternatives, and I think they are, let's compare them for their desirability. Let's not envision we can have it both ways, which is what I believe the market reformers insinuate.

Why do teachers burn out?

I haven't taught in an inner city school so I can't comment on the particulars. But I was part of a large IT organization on Campus where many of the staff had burned out. So on the general issue, I certainly can offer an opinion. I believe there are several causes that work in concert.
  • Having previously put in a lot of energy into the work without seeing a commensurate reward, not in personal recognition but in delivery of product, which depends on the entire machine where the individual is but one small part.
  • Having taken initiative and subsequently experiencing blame for bad outcomes.
  • Having a disconnect with leadership who seem remote and uncaring.
  • Lacking sufficient discretion with respect to one's own work.
  • There is little to no learning in the work being done. It becomes repetitive and is itself not sustaining.
I'm sure others could add to this list. It suffices for my purposes. I want to make a different point here. If the vast majority of experienced workers do not burn out but a handful do, then rightfully that can be treated as an issue with the employee. However, if a significant number do burn out, that is a management problem. We should be asking what management can do to keep the employees engaged and productive. That question also doesn't seem to arise with market reformers.

Applying these issues to school teaching, one should ask (thought it is rarely if ever done) whether the measuring performance via standardized tests is neutral in regard to teacher burnout or if it might be a contributing factor. Klein argues in his piece for accountability. What about individual teacher discretion in the classroom? Is promoting that important? How does one encourage it?

Are good teachers born or made?

My sense is that it is a bit of both. The born part is that you have to want to be a teacher. The wanting part has to come from somewhere and it is has to logically be prior to teaching or even prior to teacher training. Wanting it, however, is not sufficient. One needs an empirically informed sense of what good teaching is like. That takes a repeated cycle of training, classroom experience, and reflection. It also takes high personal commitment.

I also believe that a culture of good teaching in a school can help all teachers be better. The question then is what does a culture of good teaching look like and how does one go about instilling such a culture? The discussion on market reform, however, doesn't really ask this question. It assumes it as an outcome, something competition will produce, but doesn't explain why to expect it.

Cherry picking and whether good reforms will scale

In the diffusion of innovation literature, we use the language coined by Everett Rogers, and distinguish between innovators, early adopters, and majority users. As someone himself who was and perhaps still is an early adopter with regard to learning technology in teaching, it has been a constant source of frustration for me over the years that majority users (my fellow faculty at the University of Illinois and non-tenure track instructors) tend to implement technology in a dull way, typically as a means to reinforce traditional practice rather than to make new practice. In the later 1990s and early 2000s, as an example, we naively but earnestly felt that the introduction of technology itself would create significant improvements with teaching and learning. So all the campuses across the country that I am aware of put time and energy into implementing a learning management system and supporting it well. But the benefits have been second order - mostly in terms of convenience for the participants - not fundamental in changing how learning occurs. The fundamental change that we hoped for might happen if teaching itself became an experimental practice as the norm. That is what early adopters do in their teaching. But it isn't what most instructors do, at least not without strong prodding from the institution, prodding that isn't present.

I use this to make an analogous argument for the reforms bundled under the label "charter school." Some very good things may happen for student learning at some charter schools. This could be because the students are themselves within a highly motivated minority, it could be because the teachers themselves are in the upper tail of the teaching distribution, or it could be that simply a different method for organizing teaching and learning has been found that would work at all schools.

Ask yourself what type of outcomes you might observe depending on which of these explanations is right. Klein is harsh on Diane Ravitch in this piece; I believe unfairly so. He points to the fact that some charter schools do quite well to argue that there is a scalable way to reproduce their results. The conclusion doesn't follow from the premise. Unfortunately, we don't know whether the conclusion is right or not.

Further one needs to ask whether the competition that Klein wants is capable of producing diploma mills, as seems to have been the case with for-profit higher education. If diploma mills are possible, then he needs to argue that they aren't likely and won't crowd out the more earnest performers. He makes no case of that sort at all.


I went to decent NYC Public Schools, graduating from Benjamin Carodozo H.S. back in 1972. That school was in a middle class neighborhood and had a significant number of students bused in. I believe the school did reasonably well by the middle class kids, less well for the kids who were bused in. There was a tracking system in place. Virtually all my classes were honors classes. My graduating class had almost 1200 students but the Arista students were a much smaller subset, perhaps 200 in total, a school within a school so to speak. There were also different types of diplomas then - Academic, Commercial, and General. So there may have been several schools within the school.

Klein argues that public schools actually work for middle class kids. The problem then isn't public schools per se. The problem is public schools in poor neighborhoods with no middle class kids. Somehow "choice" is the magic elixir that will fix the problem.

We should stop believing in magic. Tough nuts may be cracked, but let's not assume it will happen. There was some regular amount of violence at Cardozo back then. The threat of violence has to be much higher in and around the poorer neighborhood schools. I haven't lived in New York for a long time. One of the reasons why I live in a small college town now is that I didn't like growing up in an environment where violence seemed always a possibility. Klein doesn't mention it because he doesn't want to have an excuse for not educating the inner city kids. Not wanting an excuse is laudable. Denying reality is not. This discussion needs to become much more nuanced to achieve that end. I hope we will get there eventually but I'm not sure we will.

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