Potential GOP presidential candidate Mitch Daniels gave a graceful–though, in my view, somewhat misguided–speech on education policy this afternoon at the American Enterprise Institute, the free-market think tank based in Washington.
You don't often hear Republicans use the words "social justice" or praise the Obama administration's domestic policy agenda, but Daniels did both those things today. He supported Race to the Top's focus on national curriculum standards and accountability for teachers, saying, "I salute the President and Secretary Duncan. … They've had the courage…to irritate their allies." (A veiled reference to teachers' unions.)
Daniels does not appear to be campaigning for the Tea Party's support when it comes to education. Indeed, the Indiana governor was at AEI to promote his accomplishment of signing four sweeping, top-down education reform bills into law over the past several months. "Many of us in Indiana are very uplifted this week," Daniels said, because the reforms "will make a significant difference in the economic prospects of our state if we can implement them well."
One goal, Daniels said, is to increase the percentage of Indianans who hold a bachelor's degree–currently 19 percent, compared to 24 percent nationally.
Some of the Indiana changes make sense; namely, allowing principals to conduct impromptu classroom visits, requiring districts to regularly evaluate teachers, and requiring teachers of grades 5-12 to have a college major in the subject they hope to teach. A number of the other Indiana reforms, however, are unlikely to improve educational outcomes, particularly those that seek to disempower unions and force schools to publicly shun teachers who receive "ineffective" evaluation scores.
Though Daniels claimed in his speech to believe that "collective bargaining has its rightful place–always will," his new legislation prevents teachers' unions from negotiating on curriculum, instructional practices, evaluation formulas, and all the other aspects of teacher employment that are not "wages and benefits." This is seriously counterproductive. There is a ton of research and anecdotal evidence that the healthiest school communities are those suffused with trust among adults, in which teachers feel respected by administrators and administrators feel respected by teachers. For this reason, it is a big step backward to cut teachers' representatives out of discussions on how to define professional standards and organize schools and classrooms.
Secondly, I'm concerned about the new law requiring schools to obtain parental permission for children to be placed in the classroom of a teacher rated "ineffective" two years in a row. Under this system, administrators will have an incentive to assign the most disadvantaged students to the worst teachers, knowing that poor students' parents are less likely to have the time and social capital to take advantage of opting-out.
And even if every eligible parent successfully pulled their child out of the "bad" teachers' classrooms, would this be an optimal outcome? I'd argue no. In many urban districts, about half of all teachers leave the classroom within the first five years. We also know that a teacher’s performance continues to improve until about year five according to some studies, or up until years eight and nine, according to others.
Given these realities, it doesn't make sense to shame and shun a second or third year teacher who is still struggling to improve his practice. If his school continues to employ him, one has to assume this teacher's labor is needed and his supervisors see in him some potential to grow. Since this guy has a job, at the end of the day he's going to be assigned some class of children; what's important is that he be given, to the extent possible, those students whom he is best equipped to teach at this particular point in his career. Most likely, these are exactly the same kids whose parents will loudly complain about their child being assigned to a so-called "ineffective" teacher.
It isn't hard to see the possible unintended consequences of this policy. Even if this hypothetical third-year teacher is fired because no parent will allow their child to attend his class, then where will the district find a new teacher? What's to guarantee that the new teacher will be any better than the old guy, whose weaknesses were at least known and understood?
Lastly, I want to fact-check Daniels' assertion that "teacher quality is not merely the leading variable in educational outcomes, but the dominant variable…20 times as important as what's in second place. Things like class size are trivial in comparison."
There is a broad research consensus that there are two dominant in-school variables that affect student achievement: teacher quality is one, and the other is student demographics–the percentage of a school community made up of children who are poor, for example.
But every serious education researcher also acknowledges that family background–an out-of-school variable–is the single biggest predictor of student academic success, responsible for between 60 percent and two-thirds of achievement outcomes.