Great Teachers Yield Excellence for Students
By Joel I. Klein
The past decade brought long-overdue accountability to public education and cast a spotlight on a shameful achievement gap that had gone unaddressed for generations. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (E.S.E.A.) — known currently as No Child Left Behind — rightfully demanded that all children, regardless of background, have access to a high-quality education.
There is widespread consensus that this legislation can be improved. Its focus on absolute achievement, instead of progress, labeled many schools as “failing” even when students made significant gains.
As Congress debates how best to reform E.S.E.A., however, it is essential that legislators do not abandon aspects of the law that have benefited students. In particular, we must resist the premise that we can never fix education until we end poverty. This is exactly backward: We will never eliminate poverty until we fix education.
It is easy to understand the appeal of claims that schools cannot overcome family circumstances, as it allows us to evade blame for the fact that so many schools are failing. But we have clear evidence that great schools can make an enormous difference for our children, and it is our moral responsibility to take the tough, and even controversial, steps necessary to ensure that all schools help students succeed.
Consider the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress math scores, which show significant variation among similar, high-need students in different cities. In Boston, Charlotte, New York and Houston, fourth-graders scored 20 to 30 points higher than students in the same socio-economic group in Detroit, Milwaukee, Los Angeles and the District of Columbia. To put this in context, 10 points approximates one year of learning, which means that by fourth grade, students in some urban districts are two to three years behind their peers in other cities. If these data were broken out for different schools and classrooms, that gap would likely grow.
Research clearly demonstrates that teachers are the most influential factor in student success. An excellent teacher significantly boosts student learning, and having three highly effective teachers in a row can actually eliminate the achievement gap. Meanwhile, a student who has three low-performing teachers in a row falls so far behind that it is difficult to make up that lost ground. Regrettably, students with the greatest needs have more limited access to top-notch teachers, and that is driving the achievement gap among districts, schools and students.
As Congress considers reauthorization of E.S.E.A., members should focus on strategies to attract and retain excellent teachers, ensuring that the most effective teachers are distributed equitably. Taking the following steps will go a long way to improving achievement nationwide, but especially among our highest-need students.
First, we must attract teachers who performed well in college. Countries that do best on international tests draw teachers from the top third of college graduates. In the United States, most teachers come from the bottom third.
Second, we must create sophisticated evaluation systems that reward excellence rather than seniority alone. We also must make it easier to remove ineffective teachers from the classroom.
Third, we must incentivize excellent teachers to work with high-need students and in high-need schools and shortage subject areas.
These are game-changing reforms, but they are grounded in common sense.
While poverty and difficult family circumstances present real challenges, our most talented educators help students overcome those challenges every day. As we reform E.S.E.A., we must have the courage to take on a status quo that puts the concerns of adults before the needs of children. We must adopt fundamental changes that — if done right — will transform students’ lives and advance the future of our nation. #
Joel I. Klein is the chancellor of the New York City Department of Education.