Failing our children – WSJ

Failing Our Children

Posted By WSJ Staff On November 23, 2008 @ 6:28 pm In Uncategorized

Three education experts on what needs to be done in our schools, and why we haven’t done it

Most people agree: Our education system isn’t working. Too many of our kids aren’t getting through high school. Our students score poorly on international standardized tests. The teaching profession does not attract — or retain — enough of our brightest minds.

The trick is getting a consensus on how to fix it. To talk about solutions, John Bussey, the Washington bureau chief of The Wall Street Journal, sat down with three people who have spent a lifetime thinking about education: James Comer, a professor of child psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine Child Study Center; Joel Klein, Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education; and Louis Gerstner Jr., former chairman and CEO of IBM Corp. Here are edited excerpts of that discussion.

[1] JOURNAL PODCAST: Lou Gerstner, Jr., former Chairman and CEO of IBM Corporation, gives an overview of the priorities and recommendations made by the task force on education.

JOHN BUSSEY: Lou Gerstner, we have a multitude of school districts spread out over counties, cities, states, over diverse demographies. The federal government doesn’t have a lot of levers that it can pull. What should President Obama do? What would you recommend?

LOUIS GERSTNER JR.: The first thing I want to ask the president-elect to do is to ask the important question: Why? Why have we failed to reform the public schools after all this time?

The first possibility is that we don’t know what to do. Well, let me assure you, we know exactly what to do to fix the public schools. We need high, rigorous standards, we need great teachers supported by high compensation for the very best teachers.

Louis Gerstner Jr. Louis Gerstner Jr.

We need more time on task, we need a longer school day, we need a longer school year, and we need accountability and measurement in the system so we can constantly adjust what’s going on. That’s it, it’s all we need. So, the problem isn’t that we don’t know what to do.

Next possibility is, Well, maybe we didn’t work hard enough on it. Well, my God, have we worked hard enough on it. We have had millions of pages of reports, thousands of task forces, they just come out like the spring flowers. We have every kind of report, and we’ve studied it to death.

And by the way, along the way we’ve had some great successes. We’ve had some great heroes. People like Joel Klein are heroes in our country. The woman who’s running the public-school system in Washington –

MR. BUSSEY: Michelle Rhee.

MR. GERSTNER: — is a great hero. The guy running the school system in New Orleans is a great hero today. We’ve had lots of things that show that when we do it right, it works, but systemically, the system continues to fail.

Change the Model

MR. BUSSEY: How would you alter that system?

MR. GERSTNER: I’m going to say to the president-elect that the fundamental thing we have to do is change the governance model and accountability and execution model for education in this country. And what I’m going to suggest is that he convene the 50 governors, and the first thing they do is they abolish the 16,000 school districts we have in the United States. Sixteen thousand school districts are what we’re trying to cram this reform through.

Now, when I took over IBM I found I had 81 profit centers. Oh my God: How am I going to create change with 81 profit centers? How’d you like to create change with 16,000 profit centers? These organizations stand in the way of what we want to do.
Now, the governors could decide, we’ll keep them as advisory, we can keep them as community support, but they will not be involved in the fundamental direction of public education in America. Second, this group of governors will then select 50 school districts, plus I’d say 20 major cities, so we got 70 school districts. Seventy instead of 16,000.

They will within one year develop a national set of standards for math, science, reading and social studies. Twelve months after that they will develop a national testing regime, so that there’ll be one day in America where every third, sixth, ninth and twelfth grader will take a national test against a national curriculum.

Third, these governors and mayors will come together and develop a program of national certification for teachers. Teachers must have the capacity to teach, they must prove that they can teach, they must be tested that they can teach, and then we’re going to put a program in to pay the best teachers incredibly higher salaries — $40,000 to $50,000 more than they currently can make for the very best teachers.

And finally, we’re going to then allow all the school systems in the U.S. to innovate, to go out and figure out how to get it done. Let those principals and teachers in those schools figure out all the possible ways that they think they can meet those standards, and stop choking them with regulations and requirements. And so, we will do what we would do if we were trying to create a change in an organization. We would set very clear goals, and then we would free up our people to go and deliver, and if they don’t deliver we change them.

Those Who Can’t

MR. BUSSEY: Dr. Comer, it’s a business model for the school systems, you see economies of scale, standardization, reducing the profit centers. Does this work?

JAMES COMER: I agree with much of what was said. What’s missing, I think, is a focus on preparing teachers and administrators to be able to support the development of students, to create the culture that allows them to support the development of students. That’s not what they’re prepared to do right now. I don’t think we will reduce or improve the graduation rate in inner cities and in difficult environments unless teachers and administrators are able to do that.

We don’t prepare them to support the development of children in part because we have a model that is inappropriate. We’re using what is essentially a business model in schools, a manufacturing model. That works well if you’re dealing with inanimate objects, but when you’re dealing with children, young people, who are immature, underdeveloped, who must be moved from that underdeveloped state to well-functioning adults capable of learning, applying that knowledge at work, family members, citizenship, it’s a more complicated process.

MR. BUSSEY: How is it done? Is it through the training of teachers?

James Comer James Comer

MR. COMER: To get systemic change, you’re going to have to change the way teachers and administrators are trained in schools of education. And wherever they’re prepared, they will have to know how to support development, and how to create cultures where you can support development and help children grow. And how you embed the academic learning and material in the activities that you create to support their development; and simultaneously improve academic learning, to the point that they can meet the standards that we’re talking about. And at the same time improve the kind of non-academic learning that’s necessary to be successful in school and in life. And the kind that employers keep calling for — the education that will give them imagination, curiosity, personal discipline, responsibility, all of those things need to be built into the curriculum and instruction.

MR. BUSSEY: Does standardization work with this process?

MR. COMER: Sure it does. But in addition to standards, you have to focus on preparing teachers and administrators to be able to help the kids grow, so that they can meet standards.

The Federal Role

MR. BUSSEY: Joel Klein, what can the feds do to help?

JOEL KLEIN: There’s a reason why we’re still stuck in the same ditch. That doesn’t happen by accident. There are strong and powerful forces that maintain the system, because it works well for lots of people, just not the kids.
And if the president were to ask me, I would tell him there are two things that he ought to focus on, both mentioned by Lou. The first is national standards and national assessments. The tragedy is not simply how many kids aren’t graduating. The tragedy is how many kids are graduating wholly unprepared for anything that follows. The easiest way to improve the graduation rate in America is to lower the standards. And lots of people have done that, and as long as we keep doing that, we’ll delude ourselves into thinking we have a decent graduation rate, but in fact our kids will be wholly unprepared.

In New York City, and this is highly controversial, we put a letter grade on every school, based on progress. And we do that to make the system transparent and actually allow people to bring the house down on us. Because you put a letter F or a letter D on a school, and even middle-class schools that think, because they have a lot of bright kids there, they’re doing a great job, but they’re not remotely doing a great job.

Our kids in Ohio are not going to compete differently in a global economy than our kids in New York. It’s sort of silly to have all of these different standards and assessments. And also, it makes the attack on assessments easier because by having 50 different ones, you’re not really investing in getting the economies of scale.

The magic ingredient in the game I play is high-quality teaching. We don’t remotely have enough of it because we don’t reward it properly, we backload the pay scale. The real money goes into the people who are in the system a long time, gets rolled up in a defined-benefit pension plan, makes it very hard to attract new talent. We don’t reward excellence, we don’t give hardship pay, we pay the same thing for a science teacher and a math teacher that we do for a physical-education teacher. If any university did that, they’d go under.

I would repurpose almost all of the federal dollars that are now in it. That’s a lot of money, $30 billion to $40 billion. I would repurpose that to teacher excellence.

MR. BUSSEY: Is the system that exists now too cumbersome to remove teachers who are underperforming? Is that issue high on your list?

MR. KLEIN: I don’t think you’re going to get that until you have meaningful, widely accepted accountabilities. And then you tie it to teacher value added. But you can’t do everything from Washington. There are massive collective-bargaining agreements out there. But what you can do is make transparent how underperforming the system is.

And then let the cities, let the states, whoever’s going to be responsible, do the innovation, partner with the people that Jim is talking about, and others. And don’t try to micromanage from, much less from D.C., but not even from a large central school district. Give the people the accountabilities, make it based on progress. Don’t base it on what ZIP Code you’re in because those kids may start at a different level. Base it on progress.

MR. BUSSEY: Do you buy this idea of shrinking the number of school districts so that you can standardize the 50 state districts and maybe 10 or 20 of the big cities —

MR. KLEIN: It may be a good idea, but that seems to me the least politically feasible right now. On the other hand, national standards, done with governors, done with experts, benchmarking against what’s going on, that will set the framework. If you don’t have the right horizontal and the right vertical axis, it’s very hard to do the measurement.

Why Teachers Leave

MR. BUSSEY: Dr. Comer, back to the teachers for a second. Why is it that 46% of teachers parachute out of the plane before five years?

MR. COMER: Well, the No. 1 reason that they give is that the administration of the programs and schools that they’re in, there are problems there. And second is that they have no ability to influence what goes on in their buildings.

But the third reason is that they weren’t really prepared to work with children. And that is the one that I’m most concerned about. Learning really takes place in that interaction between the teacher and the child. And we can do all we want beyond that. If we don’t make it possible for that teacher to influence the development, promote the learning, then it doesn’t take place.

The teacher and administrators have to be able to create the culture that will support the development of children. Last month, I was in a school, a high school in Virginia, that had had five principals in seven years. Total failure. The last principal has now been there four years and has a terrific school. So when we talked about what went on, this was someone who believed in development, who brought in a staff that believed in development, and they created interactions among the teachers and the students that helped them grow. And because of that, they were motivated to learn and they were able to achieve at a higher level.

MR. GERSTNER: I think there’s something very important to understand here. Up until 1960-65, we had a captive labor force in our schools. Any bright, ambitious woman who wanted a career went into teaching or nursing. We had this incredible group of people that we underpaid and they taught our kids.

What have we done since then? We have to compete now to get teachers. And what’s it like to be a teacher? Well, first of all, you go to a teachers college, which are the backwaters of a collegiate place. They are awful. If you don’t get into any other things, you go to the teachers college, where they teach you teaching math. You don’t get math from the math department in the university, you get teachers math. And they don’t get the support, they don’t get the kind of training that Dr. Comer’s talking about.

And then what do they look forward to? They look forward to, on average, 20 years later they’re going to make $46,500 in the United States. And that’s the good news. Because the bad news is, they’re going to make $46,500 regardless of whether they’re good or bad, because everybody’s going to get the same. So which half do you think leaves in that first five years? The half that has choices.

And so, we have got to start what Dr. Comer said, to change the way we train teachers. We’ve got to make the profession one that’s respected again. We’ve got to pay them, the best ones, a lot more money. And then we’ve got to hold them accountable so that the teachers that are not performing get moved out of the system.

Joel Klein Joel Klein

MR. KLEIN: The countries that succeed, they tend to draw their teachers from the top quarter, top third of their graduating college classes. These are people who have been academically successful, who believe in assessment, because they’ve lived under it and it’s served them well. In the United States, we draw teachers from the bottom quarter of our college graduates, and our kids in high-poverty neighborhoods get the bottom quarter of the bottom quarter.

And all the incentives are misaligned. You wait for the 20 years, because then it’s actually when it starts to get good, because you’re getting across-the-board pay hikes. So whenever I pay a three-year, 10%, across-the-board pay hike, the people who are locked into the system are getting $8,000 and $10,000 and $12,000 raises, all rolled up in a defined benefit, which means that I’m not getting any return on that money. Whereas the people I’m trying to attract, the young kids who I want to stay in the earliest years, they’re getting the same 10% on $40,000 or $38,000.

So, in effect, we’re rewarding the wrong things. That’s why I think if the federal government were to come in, tied to a real accountability system and said, “This is what we want to reward in teacher performance, we’ll use federal dollars, and if you go to our most challenging schools, it’ll be 1.5X; and if you do it in math and science, it’ll be 2X.” And if it were to use the federal billions in a way that started to create excellence, you’d attract different people, they would be incentivized in different ways, and you would begin to create a culture of excellence.

MR. BUSSEY: You mentioned Michelle Rhee. She’s the chancellor of the Washington, D.C., school system. And she has approached the union with an idea of virtually doubling the pay of those excellent teachers, so long as the union was more willing to allow for firing of those teachers who fell below standards. And the union reaction to that was, “Look, you know, is it really fair to judge teachers who are performing poorly without considering the lack of resources that the school system provides them? And the lack of training?” So, there was immediate resistance there, and a kind of a regression to the status quo. Wouldn’t you run into that same problem with a broader — ?

MR. KLEIN: Sure, sure. But in the end, the same two teachers with the same kid get entirely different results. It’s no different at IBM, it’s no different at Yale, it’s no different in the New York City public-school system.

I will show you the same kids in two different schools, the very same kids, getting entirely different outcomes. The key feature of that is the quality of the teaching, the engagement with the students, the personalization, all of those things. And what we need to do is start rewarding that. So what Lou says, which half do you think is leaving: We want the people who are hitting the ball out of the park to play for our team.

MR. GERSTNER: We’ve got to do it. Thirty-eight percent of middle-school students in the United States, in urban settings, are taught a subject by a teacher that hasn’t even minored in the subject, let alone majored in the subject. Can you imagine? The American people go to an airport, and over the PA system comes an announcement, “Well, we don’t have any qualified pilots today, but we found these guys out here who have agreed to fly the airplane.” That’s what we do to our kids every day.

MR. KLEIN: And make no mistake, that’s directly correlated to poverty. The kids with the greatest needs don’t remotely get their equitable share. So, I have middle-class schools that find it quite easy for every vacancy to attract lots and lots of talent to those schools. And we have some of the best middle-class schools in the country in New York.

On the other hand, I’ve got high-poverty schools where each year I’m sending in 15-20 new people, and it starts this downward cycle that Lou is describing, and that’s another reason people leave, because they find it demoralizing. People want to be part of a successful culture.

MR. COMER: I want to make one more point about when we start trying to weed out the unsuccessful teachers: I don’t think we should wait until they’re teaching. We should be eliminating people who aren’t good teachers, or don’t have the potential to be good teachers, long before they ever get to the school. I’ve always said that about a third of the people are prepared to be teachers; about a third could, with better training, be teachers; but about a third should sell used cars, maybe, or something. But they just shouldn’t get in there in the first place, because they don’t relate to children well.

Published in: on December 8, 2008 at 11:51 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. Despite six years of the Klein administration’s misinformation to the public, there is sufficient data to prove that his reforms have been basically ineffectual and have produced no significant improvement in student achievement.

    The Klein administration claims of a 12 percent increase in Reading and a 19 percent increase in Math scores on the New York State Assessments are inflated. These results include the scores obtained in 2002-2003 well before the implementation of Klein’s reforms. Without the 6 percent increase in Reading and the 15 percent in Math in 2002 – 2003, the figures read a dismal 6.4 percent rise in Reading and only 4.2 percent in Mathematics.

    The only independent check on student achievement in New York City also shows a completely different picture from that claimed by Klein. The results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress administered by the US Department of Education, considered the gold standard in testing, show that student achievement in New York City has stagnated since 2003 with virtually no improvements for Black, Hispanic and low income students.

    We need real accountability and transparency, not Klein’s version of it. Mr. Klein’s public relations team has made sure assessment information is not accurately presented to the public. The failure of Klein’s reforms become all the more evident when we consider all assessment measures – declining SAT and High Schools Advanced Placement Subject Tests, one of the worst graduation rates in the country (43rd out of 50 large US cities), a 50 percent drop in students attending gifted programs in NYC, etc.

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