Mayor Bloomberg, complying with a court order under a Freedom of Information suit, recently released the test scores and rankings of 18,000 New York City teachers, publicly listing their names. Rankings were based on their students’ performances in the standardized tests under the No Child Left Behind program begun during the Bush administration and continuing today. The list purports to identify effective and ineffective teachers. My daughter, Meg, now in her fourth year teaching in Harlem, posted a note on her Facebook page regarding this. She was not damaged in this listing, but fine, dedicated colleagues she well knows to be hard working teachers were. Here is an excerpt from her note addressed to Mayor Bloomberg:
“You do not consider the fact that many of these ‘ineffective’ teachers are attempting to teach children who enter their class severely deficient, are emotionally unstable, are living in shelters, are victims of domestic violence, have drug or alcohol addicted parents, are in the middle of child services cases or are even learning disabled, but are not yet labeled as such since the process to do so can take up to two years.
There are so many aspects that we, as teachers, deal with on a day to day basis. I’d like to see you come into some of the underperforming neighborhoods of Harlem, Brooklyn, the Bronx and teach for one day. You wouldn’t last an hour.
Why don’t you find out which children are failing these ridiculous tests that measures so little of their actual intelligence and ask their PARENTS why they continue to fail? Every teacher knows that in order for a child to succeed, there needs to be a pyramid of effort. The pyramid consists of the student, the teacher AND the parent.”
Since she took her job in NYC, Meg has related the horror stories to us of what her students face at home, if indeed, their domestic arrangements can be called a home. And what she deals with daily with classroom disruptions, appalling student behavior and bureaucratic foolishness. In her elementary school, NYPD police sit full time in the hallways – not security guards, but fully trained professional NYC cops. Three major studies looked at why students fail or succeed in the United States and illuminate these issues. These were cited in Dr. Charles Murray’s noteworthy book, “Real Education”.
The Coleman Report, resulting from a mandate of the 1964 Civil Right Act, was commissioned to determine the effects of inequality of educational opportunity. Dr. James Coleman led the most exhaustive study before or since, involving 645,000 students nationwide. Data were compiled about school history, parents’ socioeconomic statuses, neighborhoods, curricula, school facilities and teacher qualifications. He fully expected the study to document that the quality of the schools would correlate strongly with the academic performance of the students. What he found to his surprise was that teacher credentials, the newness and facilities of the schools, public money spent per student and the curricula were not critical to improving the learning of the students. What consistently correlated with student performance was family background. Not to say that great teachers and schools don’t make a profound difference in the lives of some individual children, because they do, but across wide populations, these do not consistently correlate with over all academic achievement. Innate academic ability, family situations and family support do.
The Title 1 program of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 spent and continues to spend billions of dollars each year to upgrade schools attended by children of low income families. Numerous studies were done to track Title 1 results. Irrespective of the fond expectations of those gathering these data, no significant effect in any analysis from the 1970s forward has demonstrated improvement in the academic achievement of students in the schools aided by this program. The most recent comprehensive study in 2001 by the Department of Education (Dr. Murray’s book was published in 2008) showed that from 1986 to 1999 (the period of the study), the gap between high poverty and low poverty schools actually widened.
Finally, there is the No Child Left Behind programs, passed with strong bipartisan support in January of 2002 and championed by strange bedfellows George W. Bush and Ted Kennedy. Everyone involved had the best of intentions. Despite deep changes in the country’s NCLB educational system and a firestorm around “teaching to the test”, the results have been inconclusive at best. After nearly ten years of effort, math scores for fourth graders at the 25th percentile (lowest 25% of tested academic ability) have risen three points; eight graders fell two points and seniors fell one point. The effective change in reading scores at all levels for the 25th, 10th, 50th and even the 75th percentile was zero.
There is far, far too much to cover in a blog. I strongly recommend reading Dr. Murray’s book. I can’t even begin to discuss the deleterious effects of teachers unions and bloated school department administrations. Dr. Murray’s book emphasizes four main positions:
- Abilities vary.
- Half of the children are below average.
- Too many people are going to college (especially four year liberal arts colleges).
- America’s future depends on how we educate the academically gifted.
Educational romanticism, which is sacrosanct today, keeps as dogma that all but intellectually disabled children are capable of greatly improving academic performance, if held to high standards by good schools and tough tests. While this view is lovely to contemplate, common sense and almost all developed data show it to be untrue. A false premise condemns good teachers fighting the battle every day and cruelly sets unattainable expectations for many, while neglecting in some cases those who would most benefit. Job specific technical training beyond high school needs to be strengthened and encouraged. The exceptional teachers persevering in their frustrating jobs should be recognized for the heroes and heroines they are.
“It really bugs me that someone will tell me, after twenty years of being educated, how I’m supposed to think.” Clarence Thomas