Sunday, February 15, 2009

Kristoff Gets It...Wrong, Mostly

When I first started reading Nicholas Kristoff's Op-Ed called Our Greatest National Shame, I thought he was on to something. He said that education, even more than health care, was the nation's greatest need. That part I believe is right.

But then he goes on to recite some of the same old tired "solutions" that have not and will not ever do any good. He cites the Perry Preschool program in Michigan and KIPP as examples of what we should do. To Kristoff's credit, he does state that scale matters: the Perry Program, for example, followed only 123 students, some of whom were given a high quality preschool environment with small class sizes while the others were offered no advantages. As you would expect, better educated students who started early and had small class sizes did better. What a surprise. The question is, are we willing to spend the money to give that sort of education to every student, or is this study just a way of blowing smoke about what we could do if we wanted to?

Kristoff then goes off on what we are "learning" about K-8 education. First, that good teachers matter (did he really just learn this?). He points out that the best teachers teach in the best schools, and the least effective teachers teach in the worst schools. I have no idea how he measures "best" beyond test scores, but there's surely one thing he forgot: a lot of these 'best' teachers work with the brightest, most highly motivated students. I remember a post from my fellow blogger NYC Educator, in which he stated that if you took top teachers from a good school and dropped them into an underperforming school, they suddenly wouldn't appear to be such good teachers anymore. That is right on target.

Kristoff's solution is to pay teachers more (good idea) but to pay teachers who work in bad schools more still (bad idea). The focus should be on fixing ALL schools. As long as schools are violent, broken down, overcrowded, and subject to the latest educational fads rather than effective teaching, shifting the teacher's chairs on the Titanic won't make much difference. Good schools have no difficulty attracting and keeping effective teachers.

Next, Kristoff points to a study that supposedly shows that it matters not whether a teacher is certified. Studies like these are, in my view, stupid, because they compare newly certified teachers with new TFA recruits or Teaching Fellows. The problem is that almost all new teachers struggle. Almost no one is a good teacher in their first year. I'd say it takes a minimum of five years before you even become aware of all the mistakes you've been making. Those who go the traditional certification route are the ones who plan to stay in the system. TFAs plan to cut and run as soon as their resume padding is completed. Experience DOES matter.

So I give Kristoff credit for recognizing the gravity of the problem, but he needs to listen to teachers more than he does studies. He is correct that throwing money at the problems in our schools today won't fix them, but neither will the proverbial bigger hammer. We need to be smart, which means doing what we know will work. We need to reduce class size, pay teachers well, involve parents, and create safe, nurturing school communities.

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