The Most Important Figure in School Reform We Never Talk About

It’s the principal.

Check out my new piece at Slate:

There is good reason for reformers and policymakers to pay much more attention to principals. When McKinsey surveyed top teachers on what it would take for them to move to a higher-poverty school, they responded that the biggest draw, even more important than a raise, would be a respected principal who created a positive school environment.

What makes a principal great? Historically, school leaders served as building and personnel managers while teachers made classroom-level decisions mostly on their own. Now principals are expected to do their old managerial jobs and oversee instruction, too—what and how students are learning. An effective principal begins her job by clearly articulating a school’s mission, whether it is project-based learning, “no excuses”-style strict discipline, or a curriculum oriented around the arts. That vision provides intellectual coherence for teachers. The next step in effective school leadership is familiarity with the research on how children learn each subject. Great principals know how to help teachers build specific pedagogical skills, from creating classroom assessments that push beyond multiple choice to showing students how to back thesis statements in essays with evidence.

When an excellent principal is hired at a high-poverty school, time for teacher training and collaboration increases, student test scores rise by 5 to 10 points annually, and ineffective teachers begin to leave—yes, even under today’s often overly restrictive tenure policies. When a good principal departs, the progress unwinds and student achievement drops. In short, principals have a unique power to multiply the effects of good teaching and help close achievement gaps.

And just a reminder: The Teacher Wars goes on sale today!

Why is Teaching the Most Controversial Profession in America?

Vox’s fabulous education reporter, Libby Nelson, was one of the first people to read The Teacher Wars, and was kind enough to publish this Q&A with me about the book.

Libby Nelson: We spend a lot of time talking about who should be a teacher, or why good teachers are important, in a way we don’t about other professions — even professions that play critical roles, such as doctors. Why are teachers so central?

Dana Goldstein: The first reason has to do with the role that we expect teachers to play in our inequality debate. We’re having this huge national conversation about socioeconomic inequality and, to somewhat of a lesser extent, about poverty, especially childhood poverty. And really we see teachers held up as people who can help us solve this problem.

Because we have a relatively weak social safety net, we’re asking them to close these gaps between life outcomes for middle-class kids and life outcomes for poor kids. We are, in a way, setting ourselves up to be somewhat disappointed. That’s not to say that teachers don’t make an impact. We know from the latest economic research that teachers do have a big impact on kids. But as big as the impact is, it is a secondary impact. The home, the parenting, the neighborhood and the socioeconomic status of the family are still the primary impact.

So that’s one reason why teaching is controversial and embattled.

The second reason has to do with the fact that teaching is a unionized profession. It really comes down to what [American Federation of Teachers President] Randi Weingarten says to me, that America looks at teachers as “islands of privilege.” Only 7 percent of [private sector] workers are in unions. So the fact that teachers have this strong body representing their interests, they have generous pensions they can look forward to, that they enjoy strong due process — these are things that make teachers unlike most workers. And it’s totally natural that Americans look at that and say, what’s going on? Why do teachers have so much more protection than the rest of us?

Much more here.

Check Out Alex Nazaryan’s Provocative “Teacher Wars” Review

Alexander Nazaryan, a journalist and former teacher, has written a sharp, intelligent, and kind review of my book for the Times Arts section, for which I am extremely grateful:

Ms. Goldstein’s book is meticulously fair and disarmingly balanced, serving up historical commentary instead of a searing philippic. A hate-read is nigh impossible. (Trust me, I tried.) … The book skips nimbly from history to on-the-ground reporting to policy prescription, never falling on its face. If I were still teaching, I’d leave my tattered copy by the sputtering Xerox machine. I’d also recommend it to the average citizen who wants to know why Robert can’t read, and Allison can’t add.

One of the adventures of writing a work of history was knowing that because the past is so rich and complex, people from across the political spectrum would find, within the book, evidence to bolster their own conclusions. Nazaryan focused in his essay on the shortcomings of teachers unions, which I do cover honestly in the book. Ultimately, however, I think my take on the unions is far more sympathetic than Nazaryan suggests. (It is especially important to realize that the unions were supporters, not opponents, of school desegregation.) I hope you will buy the book and draw your own conclusions!

Read the NY Times Book Review of “The Teacher Wars”

In the New York Times Book Review, Claudia Wallis gives The Teacher Wars a thoughtful read and a rave:

In “The Teacher Wars,” her lively account of the history of teaching, Dana Goldstein traces the numerous trends that have shaped “the most controversial profession in America.” Along the way, she demonstrates that almost every idea for reforming education over the past 25 years has been tried before — and failed to make a meaningful difference. … ideas about what to teach and how to measure learning are subject to politics and passing fads. …

One of the incidental pleasures of this book is discovering how many historic figures better known for other achievements logged time in the front of a classroom. These include Susan B. Anthony, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville and Lyndon B. Johnson. …

Stressing accountability, with no ideas for improving teaching, Goldstein says, is “like the hope that buying a scale will result in losing weight.”

Read the whole review!

What We Know About Michael Brown’s High School

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Normandy High is deeply racially segregated. It has a staggeringly high suspension rate. The school’s curriculum has little rigor. And Michael Brown was one of just 58 percent of his classmates who graduated.

After Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri on Saturday, his mother, Lesley McSpadden, said: “Do you know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate? You know how many black men graduate? Not many.”

We know Brown’s alma mater, Normandy High, has struggled to remain accredited, and that Brown was enrolled in a special program there to help at-risk kids finish their coursework. I was curious about the school’s curriculum and disciplinary strategies, so this morning, I checked out the federal Department of Education’s civil rights database.

In 2011, the last year for which data is available, Normandy had 1,064 students. Ninety-eight percent were black and 74 were percent low-income. Those deeply segregated demographics aren’t surprising. According to the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, while less than a third of the population of the St. Louis region is black, 73 percent of black children there attend schools that are 50 to 100 percent black, and more than half of black children are in schools that are over 90 percent black. Nationwide, only Pittsburgh has deeper black-white school segregation than St. Louis.

At Normandy in 2011, just four students took calculus, while 33 took physics. There was only one AP class offered, which 12 students enrolled in — but zero actually sat for an AP exam. And there were 476 students who received out-of-school suspensions, most of whom were suspended more than once. That means 45 percent of Normandy students were suspended in 2011; indeed, the school has the highest discipline rate in the St. Louis region.  We know schools that aggressively suspend have higher dropout rates and more students involved in the criminal justice system than schools that suspend less often, even when demographic traits are held constant.

Lastly, the graduation rate at Normandy High School is 58 percent, compared to an average of 80 percent in the state of Missouri.

 

Should it be Harder to Become a Teacher? Harder How?

Amanda Ripley has a thoughtful piece at Slate on how states are passing regulations that raise the SAT score/GPA bar for getting accepted into teacher training programs. I thought a lot about this as I wrote The Teacher Wars, which is a history of teaching in America (out Sept. 2! Plug plug!). It became pretty obvious to me that one of the original sins of our public education system was the normal school, a special school for preparing teachers — segregated from other higher education — which originally accepted only women, because women were cheaper to employ en masse as teachers. These normal schools, which began opening in the 1830s, were, at first, a substitute for academic high school. They sometimes accepted students with the equivalent of only a sixth or seventh-grade education. Later, the normal schools evolved into many of today’s non-selective regional state colleges. These colleges continue to prepare the majority of American teachers, who enter the classroom with undergraduate degrees in education.

As early as the 1850s, smart people who cared about public schools began to critique the “normals.” Susan B. Anthony, who began her activist career organizing her fellow female teachers to demand higher pay, believed teachers would never be respected until they were educated alongside other white-collar professionals. W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, “It was not enough that the teachers of teachers should be trained in technical normal methods; they must also, so far as possible, be broad-minded, cultured men and women, to scatter civilization among a people whose ignorance was not simply of letters, but of life itself.”

Like Amanda (a friend and colleague, whose book I loved) I believe teaching is difficult, highly intellectual work. But here’s what I found in my research. First, while a teacher’s intellectual capacity — measured through the size of their vocabulary, for example, and their writing skill – seems to drive increased student achievement, there is a much more tenuous connection between teachers’ own standardized test scores, their grades, the selectivity of their colleges, and student learning. (High school level math seems to be an exception; there, the teacher’s own achievement matters more.) Research on highly-rated teachers who stay longterm in the profession, and who are willing to commit to work in high-poverty schools, has found that although they have deep content knowledge, they are actually more likely to have been educated at non-selective institutions. And although we are currently over-producing elementary school, English, and social studies teachers in some major cities, we still need a lot of teachers every year, especially because teacher turnover is increasing. In some recent years, as many as 200,000 new teachers have been hired. High-poverty schools hire about 70,000 teachers annually. So we have to prepare teachers on a very large scale. Currently, only about 10 percent of teachers are graduates of selective colleges.

There is lots of room to improve teacher prep. And yes, it should be harder to become a teacher. But harder how? Working on my book, I came to believe, like W.E.B. Du Bois, that a first step would be to provide teachers with a broad undergraduate education, one in which they are fully and deeply introduced to the disciplines (math, science, history) they will teach in the classroom later on. For example, an education major would select a subject-matter concentration, such as biology, and take a sequence of classes equally rigorous to those of a biology major (there are some teacher prep programs where this is already happening). Secondly, as Amanda writes, teacher-ed students need to observe and then practice their skills in real classrooms. In my book, I report on one interesting model for doing that, the teacher residency, and look closely at the residency program in Memphis.

My hesitation is of a definition of intellectual or rigorous or selective for teachers that is too narrowly focused on standardized test scores or the grades teachers earned, as opposed to what trainee teachers have learned and done during their preparation. In some parts of the United States, such as in rural areas, there are teacher shortages, and we still need to cast a wide net to attract enough people to the profession. But overall, I agree with Amanda that teaching is difficult and we must conceive of teachers as intellectuals if we truly want to improve our schools. Beyond admission standards and training programs, this also means structuring the teaching job as one in which there is real collaboration and autonomy — in which teachers have the opportunity to rise into higher-paid mentorship roles, and in which they are empowered to help craft the curriculum. If we want teachers to be intellectuals, we have to give them some measure of intellectual leadership.

Much more on all of this in the book.

Discussing Teacher Tenure on “Melissa Harris-Perry”

Here is part of my conversation with Melissa Harris-Perry, teachers’ union president Randi Weingarten, accountability reformer Derrell Bradford, and Amy Goodman of “Democracy Now.” We squeezed in a lot (the full segment was 40 minutes), but I would have loved to add the following points: First, surveys show teachers themselves strongly support tenure, but believe it should take longer — about five years — to earn it. Second, a major challenge in high-poverty schools is not that too few teachers are leaving, but that there is constant staff turnover (and turnover itself decreases student achievement). Third, teachers say a great principal would be the number one draw to get them to take a job in a high-poverty school, more attractive than incentive pay.

There’s more on all this evidence in chapters 9 and 10 of my book.

Publishers Weekly Reviews THE TEACHER WARS

PW logoIn the first review of The Teacher Wars, Publishers Weekly calls the book an “immersive and well-researched history…Attacking a veritable hydra of issues, Goldstein does an admirable job, all while remaining optimistic about the future of this vital profession.”

Read the review here and pre-order the book via Amazon, BN.com, Powell’s, or your local bookstore. The Teacher Wars will be available on September 2.

How College Contributes to Inequality

Check out my Atlantic interview with political scientist Suzanne Mettler, who is doing some of the best thinking on exploding college tuition, student debt, and for-profit colleges. 

Should we pay attention to those studies about how little money liberal arts grads earn in their first year out of college?

With the liberal arts, there’s long-term payoff. By the time you are 40, you are doing much better. As a college professor, I could ruminate on that. There’s been a reframing of higher education in the media in the last few years. The media looks at higher unemployment among college grads and says, ‘Maybe a college degree is not worth it.’ That’s wrong. You’re always better off to try and get more four-year college degree recipients. But then of course, we have to look at what sector of education are people attending? Is it a valuable degree?

Your book suggests that in many cases, people are better off not going to college at all than attending a for-profit college. 13 percent of college students are now enrolled at for-profits, yet they make up nearly 50 percent of student loan defaults. The industry says this is because they take a risk on less well-prepared students. They blame the students themselves when they drop out or fail to get decent jobs. What did your research turn up?

No. That’s an inadequate explanation. To the contrary, there are various scholars who’ve looked at this. As I show in my book, students who grow up high income and have low test scores are about as likely as students who are low income with high test scores to graduate college. What I’m trying to emphasize is the financial part of it. The major reason why students drop out and don’t complete college has to do with finances and with their varied ability to stay enrolled and afford it. That’s true across the board, whatever kind of institution the student is attending.

At the for-profits, the graduation rates are 22 percent. We know schools with more low-income students are going to have lower graduation rates. Studies control for that factor and still find particularly low graduation rates at the for-profits. They don’t have student support services and they don’t emphasize learning. They charge very high tuition. You could get the same kind of degree at a community college or four-year public for a much lower cost.

Read the whole thing