I just watched the second half of Fareed Zakaria’s CNN special on fixing American education, and I read his long piece in Time last week on the same topic. In his defense, he’s not an educator, and he’s a bit awestruck by famous faces. In the special, Bill Gates gets the most face time, and while he’s got good intentions , his foundation continues to spread a false gospel that poverty can be fully surmounted for all children through good teaching, and that closing the minority achievement gaps is easily in our reach, also through good teaching. This gospel originates from Michelle Rhee, former Washington, D.C., superintendent of schools and current media talking head. I just want to analyze one little piece of what she’s spouting, so you can see how unquestioning the media have become of education “reformers.”
When it comes to the “achievement gap” that exists between white test scores and those of African-Americans and other minorities (though, curiously, not Asians), Rhee believes that the gap can be erased in about five years of excellent teaching. Here’s her evidence: The top 20% of teachers (as judged by student test scores, a very unreliable way to grade teachers) take their students a few months more than one full year’s worth of achievement in one school year. On the other hand, the bottom 20% only take their kids ahead 7 or 8 months in a full school year. Therefore, she extrapolates, over about 5 years, the crippling gap between whites and most minorities can be completely erased if we just ensure that the minority students have excellent teachers. For you who don’t do math, don’t get glossy-eyed and give up here. That’s as hard as the math gets.
First, understand that the “excellent” teachers Rhee likes to talk about are a very fluid group. The teachers whose students score in the top 20% one year are very likely to not be in that group next year, I guess meaning they’re no longer “excellent.” Meanwhile, among the dregs this year whose kids score in the bottom 20%, lots and lots of them won’t be in that category next year, and some will even magically become “excellent!”
But more importantly, though, let’s give Rhee the benefit of the doubt, and let’s agree that her analysis of the teachers is correct. So, with good teaching, if a student can move ahead five extra months per year than they would have with poor teaching, can we really assume they’ll continue that same rate over five years? I play golf, and when I get on a hot streak and shoot 95 instead of my customary 100 (an improvement rate of 5 strokes per round), can I then assume I’m just five rounds away from shooting 70, and one more round beyond that from joining the PGA tour? If I can sprint 40 yards in 6 seconds (120 feet per second), is it fair then to assume that my time in the mile will be just 76 seconds, if I were to bother to actually try it? Or intellectually, if I read an extra book per month, and my IQ score improves by a point, am I just a few hundred books away from making Stephen Hawking look a bit dim? I’ll challenge Michelle Rhee right now: Show me one kid, just one, who has made that journey and closed the gap in five school years, using just good teachers in a regular classroom in a regular school day, and I’ll write an apology to her.
So what’s the takeaway for parents with kids in the schools? The reformers make a lot of noise and get lots of media, but then frontier towns were captivated by snake-oil salesmen with their traveling wagons full of miracle cures! There is, right now, a ton of money to be made in being a critic of the schools, because it plays on parents’ most basic fears for their children. Don’t give in to the panic. In most schools, there is a good education to be had for those who want it. There are teachers who don’t give in to the pressure to pass kids on no matter what, teachers who bring their unique creative energy to their class every day and help their kids understand the world. Seek them out, make some noise, get your kid in their classes. And then watch them achieve!
For those who wish to learn more, see Diane Ravitch’s book The Death and Life of the Great American School System. Much of the basic data I used here is found in the book.