Up For Discussion

Educators, Get Ready to Fight

What Policy Battle Matters Most to the Future of American Schools?

Everyone knows that schools in the United States have been struggling for years. Expenditures rise, but test scores fall. There are many competing lines of thought about problems and remedies in contemporary education, but only some of these disputes lead to all-out policy battles. And some of these policy battles are more important than others. So, in advance of Steven Brill’s visit to Zócalo to discuss the future of America’s public schools, we asked education experts what policy battle matters most to the future of American education.

The most important battle is over bringing about minimal equality of educational opportunities

If the recent furor surrounding the Occupy Wall Street movement has proven anything, it’s that Americans are finally beginning to get frustrated with the level of inequality in our nation. By now we are all familiar with the statistics: the top one percent of Americans possess more wealth than the entire bottom 90 percent. Moreover, the median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households.

How did we let things get things get so out of whack? How can we restore balance? According to the great 19th-century American educator Horace Mann, education was supposed to be “the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery.” Clearly, our education system is not succeeding at this task.

I do not bring this up in order to blame the schools for all of America’s problems, but rather to serve as a reminder that the inequalities plaguing our country are a reflection of the inequalities that have long defined our public schools. The frightening statistics regarding wealth disparities have equally frightening corollaries in the education system, where economic and racial achievement gaps remain cavernous. Low-income and minority students are learning less, graduating high school at lower rates, and attending and completing college at lower rates than their more advantaged peers. These disparities have serious implications for individuals’ labor-market outcomes and quality of life. They also have serious implications for the health of our society.

If we are serious about reducing inequality in this county, we need to get serious about ensuring that our children are receiving equal educational opportunities. In my opinion, this means equalizing resources, ensuring that disadvantaged students have access to experienced, high-quality teachers, and taking steps to reduce the segregation that produces schools of concentrated poverty and concentrated privilege.

Miya Warner is a Ph.D. candidate in the Sociology & Education program at Teachers College, Columbia University.


The most important battle is over how to produce teacher evaluations that work

The policy battle that matters most for the future of education in America focuses on improving the quality and usability of teacher evaluations. Specifically, local, state, and federal policymakers are deciding the extent to which teacher evaluations should include measures of student achievement and whether those evaluations should factor into teacher placement, retention, and compensation decisions.

In most schools across the country, teacher evaluations are based on principal observations of classroom instruction and an assessment of that instruction based on a rubric or some other kind of scoring sheet. While some principals may be well-suited to judge the quality of a teacher’s instruction, few are able to dedicate the time and attention needed to make these types of evaluations truly comprehensive. As a result, these evaluation systems lack nuance and allow ineffective teachers to remain in the classroom.

Luckily, a new movement is afoot in teacher evaluations. Some schools have begun to implement more thorough evaluation systems using peer reviews, self-assessment, and even measures of student achievement from test scores or other measures. Naturally, these evaluations are controversial and constantly evolving. It’s an imperfect science, but a vast improvement over the current system. And while these types of evaluations are in their infancy, they represent a new approach to measuring teacher effectiveness that will provide a better sense of how successful teachers are in their classrooms.

But even if all teachers were evaluated using robust systems like those described above, these new systems will only matter if schools use them to improve the overall quality of the teaching force. Toward that end, districts, states, and schools are deciding whether the outcomes of these evaluations should be used to ensure that low-income and minority students have access to high-quality teachers, that the most effective teachers are compensated accordingly, and that struggling teachers are either provided the support they need or removed from the classroom. Ultimately, the future of education depends on what happens in the classroom, and teachers are the greatest determinant of that success.

Jennifer Cohen is a senior policy analyst with the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation.


The most important battle is over how we approach math

“Math is the great equalizer.” (Escalante, Stand and Deliver) Yet children in America rarely have opportunities to experience mathematics in a positive way. Their opportunities to learn mathematics are limited, because their teachers’ opportunities to learn are limited, especially with respect to developing deep understanding of K-12 math content.

One common assumption is that math majors have a deep understanding of the K-12 topics. This assumption has been challenged by math educators like Deborah Ball at the University of Michigan and mathematicians like Heng-Hsi Wu at UC Berkeley. Ball also did some empirical studies that called into question the assumption that a major in math corresponds to a deep understanding of K-12 math topics. And one of the exploratory studies I did with my graduate student researchers at UC Berkeley also shows that the assumption is questionable.

The implication of these studies is that we need to provide future teachers with explicit training in mathematics topics that they are expected to teach at the K-12 level. The mathematics content in college math courses has little to do with what educators are expected to teach down the road. In terms of this, to the best of my knowledge, the UC Berkeley math department is the only math department that offers math content courses specifically focusing on grades 6-12 for math majors who are interested in pursuing teaching as a career. We need policies to promote college math departments’ involvement in the training of future math teachers. Otherwise, math majors, when they become teachers one day, will resort to the methods by which they were taught as K-12 students.

Xiaoxia Newton is assistant professor at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Education.


The most important battle is about standardized testing and its limitations

The “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) law, formerly known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, mired the public education system in a world of unsatisfactory results. It made standardized test results the primary measure by which to determine whether or not students and schools were making “Annual Yearly Progress.” All schools, including sub-groups of students such as bilingual and special education students, were expected to achieve 100 percent proficiency on standardized reading and math tests, or they would face a series of sanctions culminating with the firing of staff, state takeover of the school, or the privatization of the school. Nothing in NCLB accounted for individual student growth or the individual student’s social state, nor did anything in the law account for the unique socio-economic forces acting on the students or the school community. In addition, the testing narrowly emphasized only what was easily measurable in standardized tests of math, reading, and science rather than more complex critical thinking skills. The law ignored current research into multiple intelligences and the values of subject areas that are not easily tested, such as the arts and music.

The legacy of NCLB continues to haunt current educational policy on both the state and federal level. Current drafts of President Obama’s “Race to the Top” (RTTT) initiative continues to emphasize standardized testing as the central means for evaluating educational progress in the United States. Despite the President’s awareness of the over-reliance on standardized testing, RTTT continues to emphasize standardized testing to the detriment of many other important factors. And while there will no longer be punitive sanctions against schools for failing to make AYP, the focus has shifted to punitive sanctions against teachers whose students do not make adequate progress on standardized reading and writing tests. These policies are currently moving forward on the national and state level, where New Jersey is currently piloting this method for assessing teachers in nine school districts. These initiatives are moving forward despite a lack of any known means to correlate a teacher’s classroom behaviors to outcomes on standardized tests. To be sure, RTTT is proposing to reduce the amount of standardized testing that students will face and trying to work off of a more realistic definition of student growth that will attempt to account for the variety of factors that affect student learning. Nevertheless, current state and federal educational policy still steers schools away from studies in music, fine and practical arts, technology, vocational education, and critical-thinking projects that are at the heart of the problem-solving skills students need to face the ever-changing economic landscape of the 21st century.

The standardization movement has been sold to the American people as the means for making the United States more competitive in the world economy. Ironically, countries like Finland that have de-emphasized high-stakes testing consistently outperform the United States in international comparative assessments. High-stakes testing moves schools and teachers away from concentrating on the broad array of experiences that help students to develop their creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills.

Leon Alirangues teaches English at Livingston High School in Livingston, New Jersey and earned his doctorate in educational theory and policy from Rutgers University.

*Photo courtesy of quacktaculous.