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Education Under Attack ©Rodney H Clarken, 9/27/201385

Education Under Attack: What Schools Can and Cannot Do and How Popular Reforms Hurt Them

Rodney H Clarken

© May 2, 2012 Edition

Copyright © 2012 by Rodney H Clarken

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems, without proper citation and permission in writing from the author. The only exception is by a reviewer, who may quote short excerpts in a review.

Published by Rodney H Clarken


1401 Presque Isle Ave, Marquette, MI 49855

The latest version of this book is available at /published-works/. First draft version posted: March 1, 2012.

Please send comments and suggestions to rclarken@nmu.edu

Current version: May 2, 2012

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Pending

Clarken, Rodney, 1951-

Education under attack/ Rodney H Clarken

Includes bibliographic references

ISBN -------

  1. Educational reform. 2.------



Education Under Attack 5

How I Came to Write This Book 5

The Michigan Attack 6

Like Soldiers Under Attack 7

Demoralization of Teachers and Education 8

Ideological Attacks 9

Ideology and the Media 10

How A Nation at Risk put Education at Risk 11

What Teachers and Schools Can and Cannot Do 14

Schools and Teachers as Parts of a Larger System 14

Teachers as Heroes 15

Factors That Affect Achievement in School 16

What About the Students 18

The Unique Capabilities of Students 19

Teachers, Students, Diversity and Beauty 20

Schools as the Solution to Society’s Problems 21

Pre-School Variables 22

The Role of the Family 23

Changes in Women’s and Individual Rights 25

Economics and Education Reform 26

Financing Education 27

Role of Teachers and Teacher Education in American School Reform 30

Myths About Low Academic Standards of Teachers 30

Criteria for Teachers 31

What Should Teachers Know and be Able to Do 33

Evaluation of Teacher Candidates and Teachers 34

Criticisms of Teacher Education Programs 36

Evaluating Popular Reform Proposals 39

Standards for Evaluating Reforms: Three-Way Test 39


Motivation and Reform 40

Accountability and Incentives 42

Merit Pay 45

Value-Added Modeling 48

High Stakes Standardized Tests 51

Class Size 55

International Comparisons 57

Alternative Routes to Teacher and Administrator Certification 60

Conclusion 63

Reform Agendas 63

Education Reform Perspective 64

Appendix A: Letter to the Governor and Legislators of Michigan 67

Appendix B. Resolution on High-Stakes Testing  69

References 71

Education Under Attack

I believe that all reforms which rest simply upon the enactment of law, or the threatening of certain penalties, or upon changes in mechanical or outward arrangements, are transitory and futile.

John Dewey

Those who can't teach, pass laws about how to evaluate teachers.

Diane Ravitch

How I Came to Write This Book

I began writing this book on April 27, 2011. At the time, I was only sharing some reactions with the teacher education faculty at my university to Michigan governor’s special message on education reform. Though his message was just another in a series of attacks on education by politicians from around the country, this one was from my governor and these policies would hurt my students and the teachers and schools with whom I worked. I had felt for some time that what was being said about education was untrue, unfair and showed a lack of respect and disregard for educators. The political and paternalistic rhetoric assumed educators were not doing their jobs, the education system was “broken” and that certain reforms were going to “fix” it.

I did not feel the evidence to support the critics claims that education was broken and that their policies would fix it existed; therefore, these reforms did not meet the standard of truth. I did not feel their efforts were motivated by compassion and a sincere concern for our children and their proper education; therefore, they did not pass the test of love. Moreover, I did not feel their policies increased the likelihood of fairness for all people in our society; therefore, failing the criterion of justice.

One problem was that many of these reform proposals work against what their proponents claim to be supporting and that they subvert the best interests of education and society. It was my hope that educators--given their experience, expertise, dedication, loyalty, wisdom and commitment to excellence in education--would be provided with a greater voice on these matters of vital concern to the welfare of our nation and world. As an educator, I felt a moral obligation to do what I could to contribute to raising that conversation to a more reasoned, civil and balanced discourse.

As I shared my views with others, I was encouraged share them with a larger audience to speak to the ill-founded education policies that were being vigorously promoted and pursued by officials. Many critics of education stated purpose has been to create the best schools, teaching, teachers and teacher education, but I do not believe many of these policies are in the best for education or our society, and I question the motivations behind them.

The Michigan Attack

Though the Michigan governor’s rhetoric of “the traditional methods, mindsets and goals of Michigan’s education system can take us no further” and “as we stand at the threshold of the New Michigan” (Snyder, 2011, p. 13) may have been inspiring, the policy reforms were not. A growing list of governmental educational policy reforms being proposed to “realign our educational values” (p. 13) give the appearance of improving education, while portraying educators as unwilling or unable to improve themselves. Such statements as the education system “must be reshaped,” “is not giving our taxpayers, our teachers, or our students the return on investment we deserve,” (Snyder, 2011, p. 1) and that we must “jettison the status quo that has too often accepted mediocrity and, at times, resulted in failure for our children and state,” (p. 2) illustrate this attitude.

Governor Snyder stated, “Michigan’s future is absolutely dependent on making our education system a success for our students, our teachers, our parents and our economy” (p. 1). I believe that is true. However, I think it is equally true that Michigan’s future is also dependent on making our political, economic, social and moral systems a success. All of these systems greatly influence education, and improving them would go far to helping our educational systems be successful. Fixing education alone will not solve our problems, but it can help create the foundation for improving all of the other systems if given the proper support. The decisions currently being made by the politicians will inhibit the ability of teachers and schools to perform their functions in our society, as will worsening political, economic, social and moral conditions in our state.

I also believe in this statement by the Governor: “Change does not have to create adversaries; it can create partners committed to a better future. The vast majority of Michigan educators and teachers are hard-working and committed to a prosperous future for their students” (p. 2). Those hard-working and committed educators want to collaborate with state government to help create a better future and the best education system in the world, but most feel they are being treated as adversaries, not as partners. I wrote the governor and state legislators asking to work with them to help improve education (see Appendix A).

I agree with the governor’s statement, “Great teaching starts with getting the best and brightest into teaching, and making sure their education equips them to succeed at inspiring students in the classroom” (Snyder, 2011, p. 9), but not with his ideas on how best to realize that. How do we get the “best and the brightest into teaching,” when our policies create low salaries and status for teachers? The best and brightest in America are encouraged to pursue careers that earn the most respect and money, and teaching does not afford much of either as reported in the 2012 MetLife Survey.

How do we legislate an education to equip teachers “to succeed at inspiring students in the classroom,” (Snyder, 2011, p. 9) when the laws and regulations dictate practices that destroy the spirit of both the students and the teachers? Inspiring teaching starts with wise, caring and trustworthy teachers, but also requires societal support to be successful. It is hard to inculcate these virtues. We cannot buy or easily develop them. They require years of training and cultivation, starting from an early age. We can and must constantly refine them, but if they do not exist to an adequate degree in a teacher, it will be very hard to develop them. Now teachers are being challenged to maintain them in the face of attitudes and policies that actively discourage them.

We educators take our responsibilities very seriously and want the best for our students and communities. If there are educators or schools who do not and who are not fulfilling their duties in a responsible manner, we should work together either to improve them or, if needed, to replace them. Ineffective teachers and schools need to be dealt with honestly, responsibly and justly, but to castigate all teachers and schools and jettison the system without sound or justifiable cause is not a wise or judicious use of governmental powers. The educational policy reforms are not based on the best we know about education.

Like Soldiers Under Attack

Educators are beginning to feel like soldiers under attack, and we are not prepared for the attack we are receiving, as it is coming from the very government we have pledged ourselves to serve. While we are dedicating our efforts to our mission to educate all children, our support systems are being cut off and the standards and training needed to be successful in our mission are being curtailed.

As an educators of teacher, I have been on the front lines of seeing that teachers are well prepared to fulfill their duties to the state and its citizens. Teacher educators are also under attack. We have been doing our jobs with integrity and to the best of our ability, preparing teachers to be effective in the schools and classrooms, but now find politicians and reformers undermining our efforts, and therefore limiting the effectiveness of our candidates in the field and endangering future lives and our mission.

Teaching, like military service, is a mission-focused team effort. Though we may have heroes and moments of heroic activity, the success of our missions depends on the collaboration and competence of all members of our school or unit. We want some assurance that the teachers and administrators in our schools have been well prepared for their jobs and that they are being well provided to do what they have been trained to do in the mission of educating our young people. If they do not measure up in battle, they are made able to do so or are reassigned. If they cannot rely on the other the teachers, administrators and personnel in their school, their effectiveness is greatly limited.

If they cannot trust the government, which they are serving, to keep their best interests at heart, their morale and effectiveness will be harmed. We as teacher educators, who have prepared these teachers and administrators for the classrooms and schools, feel a special duty and responsibility to make sure that those we have prepared to serve their state and nation are given the support they need to be effective. Otherwise, we have done a disservice to them. Without the support needed, we can see that our mission of quality education for all will fail. We have not given of our talents and lives in order to fail, and we cannot sit idly by while others dismantle the years of building we have done.

There is more to military service, teaching and leading than meets the untrained and inexperienced eye. I implore critics to listen to those educators who have the training and experience before they make decisions that will have a negative impact on our state’s welfare for years to come. Many proposed reforms do not honor teachers, value teaching or assure the best and brightest will get high quality training.

Our children matter. They deserve the best teachers and support we can give them. Many of the reforms proposed will erode that possibility as they realign our education standards downwards and create environments that are not conducive to good teaching or learning. We must do our best not to let that happen.

Demoralization of Teachers and Education

Educators and educational institutions are being demoralized. Not only has their morale been eroded, but their morals are also being challenged. Medical doctors, lawyers, bankers and the institutions they work in have also been demoralized. These professionals and their professions are to be guided by the high ideals of service to the common good, but more and more they are being corrupted by self-interest, greed and bad practices.

Good doctors, lawyers or bankers would not do anything unethical or against the standards of their profession. They would put the best interests of their clients, community and profession above personal interests. Traditionally, if practitioners violated these principles, they were looked down upon by others in the profession and institutional means were often available to correct or remedy such violations.

Outstanding practitioners in any of these fields might gain fame and fortune, but that should not be their purpose. It came as a by-product. When pursuing power and wealth replaces pursuing health, justice or well-being, then these professions lose their integrity and society suffers. We are experiencing this breakdown today. Not only have immoral actions demoralized these professions; they are threatening to do the same to education and other institutions in our society.

What we have seen happening to these professions is in danger of happening to teaching. Teaching and educational institutions have been largely protected from this danger because the opportunity for individual or institutional gain has been limited and external pressures have not been strong enough to corrupt and move them from their mission. However, many reforms are creating a climate that is not healthy.

In one of the most dramatic findings of the report, teacher satisfaction has decreased by 15 points since the MetLife Survey of the American Teacher measured job satisfaction two years ago, now reaching the lowest level of job satisfaction seen in the survey series in more than two decades. This decline in teacher satisfaction is coupled with large increases in the number of teachers who indicate that they are likely to leave teaching for another occupation and in the number who do not feel their jobs are secure. (MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, 2012, p. 5)

When teachers sacrifice the best interests of their students and communities for such short term and shortsighted aims as high stakes standardized test scores or merit pay or praise from external sources, we begin losing the soul of education. When teachers put self-interest, money, power or fame above providing good learning opportunities for their students and when our institutions support or promote these destructive practices, we are in trouble. Many reform proposals aimed at improving education are instead demoralizing it and are moving our society toward increased trouble.

Ideological Attacks

Ideology is defined as 1. The body of ideas reflecting the social needs and aspirations of an individual, group, class, or culture, and 2. A set of doctrines or beliefs that form the basis of a political, economic, or other system (American Heritage Dictionary). The current educational reform efforts seem to be more driven by ideology—certain philosophical, social, economic and political positions—than a sincere search for what is best for students and society. I question the assumptions and positions of the ideologies supporting many of the policy changes recommended for education. Education is being treated unfairly and dishonestly.

Those who promote political and economic agendas and who seek to silence and discredit different views are seeking power, rather than truth or justice. Indeed, the modern age initiated

the ‘age of ideology’; almost all of the great revolutions and change wrought in human society since the sixteenth century had a more or less explicit ideological (or ideational) motivation—vide the American and French revolutions, the rise of constitutional democracy in the West and of socialism in the East, and the rise and fall of national socialism and fascism in Europe. …such ideas have now become more effective in propelling change and commanding allegiance than pecuniary rewards and the threat of punishment—the carrot of wealth or the whip of power. (Laszlo, 1989, p. 44)

Ideologues use their power to influence whoever does not conform to their views. An example is the area of charter schools.

As so often happens with competing ideologies, the empirical evidence on charter schools has not yet settled the theoretical arguments about their existence. We need better research on charter schools, it is true, a non-controversial recommendation endorsed by blue ribbon commissions. But we should not be overly optimistic that better data will settle the charter school debate. Future research will be of varying quality, the data will be mixed and difficult to interpret, and the findings subject to different interpretations. Just as it is unreasonable to expect charter schools to solve all of the problems of American education, it is unreasonable to expect research to settle all of the theoretical disputes about market-based education and school choice. (Loveless & Field, in Ravitch, 2010, p. 143)

Ideology is similar to worldviews and paradigms, but is more connected to social, political and economic systems attempting to affect how we see reality and whose subtle and overt influence induces us to conform to their normative views. Theses persuasive and negative views of schools dominate the conversation about education reform and affect how people think, especially those who lack firsthand knowledge.

Ideology and the Media

One such ideological narrative is the failure of U.S. schools. If we look at the perspectives of U.S. parents of children in K-12 schools, 80% of them are satisfied with the quality of education their oldest child is receiving and 19% dissatisfied. These numbers have changed very little in the last decade. On the other hand, only 43% of adults without children in school were satisfied with the quality of education, with 54% dissatisfied (Gallup Poll, 2010).

Why would 80% of parents with children in school be satisfied with the quality of education that K-12 students receive while only 43% of adults without children in school were satisfied? It might be that the parents with children in schools have first-hand experience upon which to make their judgments, whereas the others are dependent upon the negative judgments promoted by politicians and the media. When an influential source speaks authoritatively on a subject, the people often accept what they say as true. Many are either unwilling or unable to question cogently the veracity of their statements and to see the ideological influences on them.

Conflicts of interests, ideological biases and questionable practices to influence the adoption and acceptance of programs, such as Reading First, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the Common Core Curriculum have been exposed (Coles, 2003). For example, the US Department of Education (DOE) Office of Inspector General Final Inspection Report (September 2005) found that several grant recipients of the DOE, including the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), improperly used funds to publish several newspaper columns to praise NCLB and attack its critics. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) wrote the following concerning the DOE’s contracting to have news stories published supporting NCLB:

In the course of our review of the contract and its deliverables, we learned that the Department, through Ketchum, had contracted with the North American Precis Syndicate (NAPS) to write a newspaper article entitled “Parents want Science Classes that Make the Grade.” The article reports on a study that the Department conducted regarding parents’ views on the declining science literacy of students. According to the documents provided to us, this article, which appeared in numerous small newspapers and circulars throughout the country, failed to disclose the Department’s involvement in its writing. Our case law, including the two recent opinions enclosed, has consistently held that materials produced by or at the direction of the government that fail to identify the government as the source of the materials constitute covert propaganda. (Kepplinger, 2005, p.1)

Ideological propaganda, formulas and studies are being used with increasing vigor and success across the United States to attack all levels of education. They measure schools and the students on what the assessors’ value and condemn those who do meet their own ideological standards as wrong and deficient. Critics of education, claiming some authority, use the media to express their views. Because the media thrives on bad news, they give those attacking education a forum to influence the thoughts and attitudes of large numbers of people. Politically driven and ideologically funded experts, commentators and think tanks receive a disproportionate share of the media attention. In one 2007 study, advocacy-oriented think tank studies were 14 to 16 times more likely to be mentioned in Education Week, the New York Times and the Washington Post than non-advocacy academic studies (Yettick, 2011).

How A Nation at Risk put Education at Risk

More and more education is largely seen as an economic concern: it is to help the individual and society compete economically and advance materially (Covaleskie, 2010). As part of this view, education is blamed when the economy is poor or the United States appears not to be competing well globally (Berliner & Biddle, 1995; Bracey, 2001, 2007; Covaleskie, 2010). Though education is blamed and criticized in poor economic times, it does not receive comparable praise when the economy is doing well and when the United States’ role in the global marketplace is perceived as strong.

For the last decade, U.S. presidents, corporate leaders, and critics blasted public schools for a globally less competitive economy, sinking productivity, and jobs lost to other nations….Why is it now with a bustling economy, rising productivity, and shrinking unemployment, American public schools are not receiving credit for the turnaround? (Cuban, 1994)

The need for education to prepare us for economic superiority and global competition are familiar refrains in both state and national reform policy statements, stating that, though we were once the wealthiest and greatest nation on earth, because of inferior education, we are losing our competitive edge and first place status. Examples of these themes can be found in most national reform proposals from Sputnik to A Nation at Risk to the current No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Race to the Top legislation.

Let us briefly consider A Nation at Risk, released in 1983 by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, as an example. This reform document is well known and recent enough to be relevant to current policy proposals, but old enough to be examined within some historical context. The dramatic rhetoric in this politically and ideologically driven policy statement is still echoed and influential in today’s thinking and reform agenda. The title itself suggests that the failure of schools and education had put our “nation at risk.”

Like today, the early eighties were a time of economic hardships and recession with similar problems caused by corruption and mismanagement in several political and financial institutions. Like today, instead of blaming bad corporate, political and financial decisions for the problems, bad schools and education were made the scapegoat for our “committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament” (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983, p. 1). Bracey accurately predicted this in his 17th Report on the Conditions of Education in 2007

In 2007, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Center for American Progress, the National Center on Education and the Economy, the Broad Foundation, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have set up the public schools once again. If the subprime mortgage debacle sends us spiraling into recession, educators can expect to take the hit. (p. 124)

A Nation at Risk was convened and its members chosen by Terrell Bell, then President Reagan’s secretary of education. It had a decidedly conservative and political agenda. The document used the provocative language of war in such statements as

Our Nation is at risk . . . . The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people . . . . If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war . . . . We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.

This kind of threatening rhetoric has been common in statements and policies that call for educational reform since then.

Though the documents get-tough, back-to-basics message suggested that education had lost its way and standards were collapsing under liberal approaches, no evidence was given to support these claims. It was but one more of the many ideologically driven reports created by conservative policy makers to tell and sell their story. The story line is familiar—“they” have failed and our policies are going to fix it. In fact, the evidence told a different story altogether. Instead of the failed system dramatically portrayed in the document, actual data told a different story.

The Sandia report of 1990, Perspectives on Education in America, commissioned by the US secretary of energy, reported steady to slightly improving trends on nearly every performance measure of educational achievement. The findings did not support the government’s reform agenda and the government never publically released report, but researchers did eventually publish the findings (Carson, Huelskamp & Woodall, 1993). The statements in earlier drafts that suggested the government reforms were misguided and did not focus on the real problems were dropped. “The analysts were supposedly told that the report ‘would never see the light of day’ and that ‘they had better be quiet’ about it” (Stedman, 1994, p. 133).

As we look back now, we find those unprepared children in those failed schools in A Nation at Risk went on to make a mockery of that report as the United States’ economy became the most productive in the world in the next sixteen years, long before any of their proposed reforms could be imposed. Interestingly, while America was in this time of unprecedented prosperity and growth, no statement was made in praise of the schools and their contribution to building up the nation and its economy.

Though the statements in A Nation at Risk were not supported by evidence and later evidence contradicted its claims, its rhetoric did not lose its power over the people or politicians. It lives on in today’s mythology of failed schools failing our nation (Covaleskie, 2011). I am employing a similar metaphor and language when I talk about education being under attack; however, unlike the authors of A Nation at Risk, I will provide the evidence to support my views. However, the evidence can be interpreted and analyzed several ways, as has been done with the data in the 1990 Sandia report (Stedman, 1994).

This pattern of reformers blaming the educators is being played out again. It has become a political mainstay.

Why is it that, whenever someone points out that the sky is not actually falling, they are accused of alleging that everything is “just fine,” accused of being advocates of complacency, spokespeople for the status quo? This blatant non sequitur is often trotted out to dismiss those who would stem the rising tide of fear mongering (Bracey, 2007, p. 127).

Reforms are implemented, but when they fail to bring the promised results, educators are blamed and excuses made. Critics do not offer clearly better or more viable alternatives. We need to build the capacity of all children to be able to be of service to society and create systems that allow that to happen.

What Teachers and Schools Can and Cannot Do

When a quality education is denied to children at birth because of their parents’ skin color or income, it is not only bad social policy, it is immoral.

Arthur Levine

The richest nation on Earth has never allocated enough resources to build sufficient schools, to compensate adequately its teachers, and to surround them with the prestige our work justifies.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Schools and Teachers as Parts of a Larger System

Schools, teachers and teacher education can and should improve, but they should not bear the blame for the economic, social, moral and political problems we are currently facing. The wrong-headed fixes being put upon education by external reformers will do little to help and much to harm the educational process. Our educational system is part of and influenced by the society’s economic, social, moral and political systems. These systems are not working as they should, individually or collectively.

These systems are like the various systems or organs of the body. The health and welfare of one affect the others. Even if education is made perfect, the problems of the society and its institutions will not be solved, partly because these evils are endemic in the body of “the competitive life of a capitalistic state” (Covaleskie, 2010, 84). As these systems are reformed, transformed and healed to work harmoniously together, rather than to compete with one another, education will also get better and play an increasing role in positively influencing the other aspects of the connected body of society and life.

Reformers imagine that it is easy to create a successful school, but it is not. They imagine that the lessons of a successful school are obvious and can be easily transferred to other schools, just as one might take an industrial process or a new piece of machinery and install it in a new plant without error. But a school is successful for many reasons, including the personalities of its leader and teachers; the social interactions among them; the culture of the school; the students and their families; the way the school implements policies and programs dictated by the district, the state and the federal government; the quality of the school’s curriculum and instruction; the resources of the school and the community; and many other factors. When a school is successful, it is hard to know which factor was most important or if it was a combination of factors. (Ravitch, 2011, p. 137)

Reformers are focusing on education, schools and teachers, avoiding the more pressing and frightening reality that our overall system needs to be transformed--that we as a society are sick and need to change our ways of living if we are to get better. Our social-economic-political-moral orders are diseased, and a healthy dose of truth, love and justice would go far toward remedying it. We are not doing the job we need to have a prosperous, secure and healthy nation and world and to live up to the ideals framed in our founding documents or set forth by the founders of our religions. As Rothstein observes: “the achievement gap can be substantially narrowed only when school improvement is combined with social and economic reform” (2004, October, p. 2).

Class backgrounds influence relative achievement everywhere. The inability of schools to overcome the disadvantage of less-literate homes is not a peculiar American failure but a universal reality. The number of books in students' homes, for example, consistently predicts their test scores in almost every country. (Rothstein, 2004, p. 3)

The kinds of changes called for to address our current problems are significant. It is interesting that the people most closely related to the economic and social problems we are facing continue to prosper financially while others, notably teachers and schools, are blamed and punished. The current order of things with its injustices and prejudices is defective. It will need to be replaced with one based on the sounder principles of truth, justice and love.

An example of the lack of care and injustice in our society infecting schooling and education has been the unfair screening, sorting and selecting of individuals for life opportunities and advancement. The system is rigged in favor of the powerful and successful to maintain their advantages in society, the economy and marketplace.

Schools and educators are just part of that system, and, as much as I have believed and wanted to believe that education could save the world, I now realize the world is a much bigger and more complex place than I previously thought. I continue to do my part in seeing that my work and efforts as an educator contribute in whatever measure possible to the betterment of humankind, yet realize that there are much stronger currents, which I am powerless to alter and that I am being swept along with the rest of humanity. My writing this book is but one of my many attempts to do what I think I can to make things better.

Teachers as Heroes

Some movies and books tell the stories of teachers who overcame huge obstacles to help their students succeed despite the tremendous odds against them. These stories of teachers and their students are inspiring. I have been privileged to meet and know such teachers; however, most of their stories remain unknown outside those directly affected by them, and even many of those did not recognize the greatness they encountered. I celebrate these teachers and their selfless service to their communities, schools and students. I hope that you know at least one yourself.

Countless stories tell of teachers transforming students’ lives through tremendous dedication, effort and talent. These are exceptional individuals, who like great athletes or artists inspire us with their accomplishments. However, for every star in these fields, thousands of others aspire to these high levels of performance, but do not attain it to the point that they are recognized by others. Yet all will have moments of accomplishment and greatness in their lives that keep them at their endeavors.

Most teachers experience such moments when a student or a class becomes excited about learning. These moments bring hope, joy and satisfaction to teachers as their students realize more of their potential. It is one of the big rewards of teaching: serving in the awakening and unfolding of another’s possibilities. These accomplishments often come after days and weeks of struggling and striving. The more significant and enduring the endeavor, the more time and effort generally required in realizing the full results. Often the fruits of a good teacher’s labor do not become apparent until many years later.

Being considered great depends on many qualities and circumstances, as well as our perceptions. Many teachers and their students are living heroic lives all around us, struggling against all sorts of injustices and wrongs, yet we do not see or appreciate it. They are not given the appreciation or support they deserve. Teachers who are working in the worst schools and with the neediest students are deserving of praise and assistance, but often receive criticism and cutbacks instead. Working in such challenging circumstances trying to overcome poverty, hopelessness and despair takes tremendous fortitude and dedication, and is not something most people can sustain over a lifetime career.

Factors That Affect Achievement in School

A good teacher can be instrumental in helping young people succeed in school, but other things can override that influence. The 1966 report, Equality of Educational Opportunity (Coleman, et al.) attributed much of the difference in school achievement to non-school factors, such as the family’s socio-economic status. They measured variance in student achievement that could be attributed to such factors as school facilities, curriculum, teacher qualities, teacher attitudes and student body characteristics and found all only accounted for about 8% of the variance among ninth graders’ verbal achievement score, with only 1% of that being teacher qualities (Coleman, et al., 1966). This study found that the “differences among schools in average were not nearly as great as expected, and the impact of school resources on student achievement was modest compared to the impact of students’ family backgrounds” (Gamoran & Long, 2006, p. 3).

The production function methodology and findings of the Coleman report have been contested and further research conducted to try to understand better the effects of teachers and schools. Because of the complexity and interrelationship of contributing factors, several different approaches have been used to try to identify these factors and the degree to which they lead to achievement. One method compared learning during school to learning during summer vacations and found students from disadvantaged backgrounds lost ground over the summer, suggesting schools performed some equalizing function (Heyns, 1978; Entwisle, Alexander, & Olson, 1997; Downey, von Hippel, & Broh, 2004).

Another approach, the school fixed effects model, finds differences among schools but it is less clear on which attributes account for the variation. Hanushek, Kain, and Rivkin, who use this approach, found “lower bound estimates suggest that differences in teacher quality explain at least 7.5 percent of the total variation in measured student achievement, and probably much more” (1998, p. 32).

Other researchers estimate that 60-80 percent of achievement can be attributed to student and family background. Schooling factors are considered to make up about half the remaining variance, with about half that being attributable to the teacher. The remaining half is unknown or unexplained. Nye, Konstantopoulos and Hedges found a range from 7 to 21% in student achievement gains attributed to teachers in the 17 studies they analyzed (2004, p. 240). In short, most of the achievement differences are attributable to factors outside of schools and classrooms. Further, “it seems clear that assertions about the magnitude of teacher effects on student achievement depend to a considerable extent on the methods used to estimate these effects and on how the findings are interpreted” (Rowan, Correnti, & Miller, 2002, p. 9). 

Current U.S. policy initiatives to improve the U.S. education system, including No Child Left Behind, test-based evaluation of teachers and the promotion of competition, are misguided because they either deny or set to the side a basic body of evidence documenting that students from disadvantaged households on average perform less well in school than those from more advantaged families. Because these policy initiatives do not directly address the educational challenges experienced by disadvantaged students, they have contributed little -- and are not likely to contribute much in the future -- to raising overall student achievement or to reducing achievement and educational attainment gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students. Moreover, such policies have the potential to do serious harm. Addressing the educational challenges faced by children from disadvantaged families will require a broader and bolder approach to education policy than the recent efforts to reform schools. (Ladd, 2011)

All of these studies have limitations, which are beyond the scope of our exploration here (see Peterson, 2012 for an excellent critique of Ladd’s findings), but clearly the limited variance among schools and teachers, difficulty in obtaining clear data and connections and the varying analytic approaches make it hard to find significant differences or draw strong conclusions.

But most reviewers of this literature agree that it is difficult to interpret the relation of school or teacher characteristics and achievement, even after controlling for student background, because they may be confounded with the influences of unobserved individual, family, school, and neighborhood factors. (Nye, Konstantopoulos, & Hedges, p. 238)

Most importantly, research reveals that gains in student achievement are influenced by much more than any individual teacher. Others factors include:

• School factors such as class sizes, curriculum materials, instructional time, availability of specialists and tutors, and resources for learning (books, computers, science labs, and more);

• Home and community supports or challenges;

• Individual student needs and abilities, health, and attendance;

• Peer culture and achievement;

• Prior teachers and schooling, as well as other current teachers;

• Differential summer learning loss, which especially affects low-income children; and

• The specific tests used, which emphasize some kinds of learning and not others and which rarely measure achievement that is well above or below grade level (Darling-Hammond, Amrein-Beardsley, Haertel, & Rothstein, 2012, p. 8). We will explore most of these factors further later in the book.

What About the Students

If you want to improve the learning in schools, the best and surest way to do so is to get better students, not better teachers. Good teachers can encourage the development of the students’ faculties and capacities, but the students must be able and willing to act in response. Talented, intelligent, committed and motivated students are the most important variable in learning. Though good teachers are extremely valuable, they can only do so much. If you have both a good teacher and good students, the learning will be greatly increased.

We cannot overcome the effects of poverty and deprivation and other differences among students that are highly related to achievement through improved teachers and schools alone, yet we are currently being called do just that by the federal government in the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) (2002). All subgroups of students are to be rated as proficient on standardized tests by 2014. The reality of all schools failing in this charge becomes more apparent with each passing year. This failure could have been predicted from the start, and many believe it was set up to portray schools failing so they can be privatized. In addition, the resources and support that might improve the chances of success are being withdrawn from teachers and schools.

Gifted and dedicated individuals have and will continue to arise out of deplorable conditions to overcome the odds. We need to support and should celebrate such accomplishments, recognizing the courage, will, determination and talent it takes to rise to this level; however, it is not reasonable to expect such heroic endeavors all the time from all students, schools and teachers. We should not punish those who, for whatever reasons, are not able to surmount the impediments and obstacles that keep them from such laudable accomplishments.

Schools and teachers have to accept the physical, intellectual, social, moral, emotional and psychological conditions of each student who shows up at their door. Unlike private schools, public schools cannot turn away the students they are given to educate. Our schools can and should help each individual to realize his or her fullest potential. Nevertheless, in developing their students’ physical capacities, schools and teachers are largely limited to providing proper nutrition, physical training and environments for that development. The National Research Council’s Institute of Medicine reported,

The inextricable transaction between biology and experience also contributes to a better understanding of developmental disorders and the effect of early intervention. Hereditary vulnerabilities establish probabilistic, not deterministic, developmental pathways that evolve in concert with the experiential stressors, or buffers, in the family, the neighborhood, and the school. That is why early experiences of abuse, neglect, poverty, and family violence are of such concern. They are likely to enlist the genetic vulnerabilities of some children into a downward spiral of progressive dysfunction. By contrast, when children grow up in more supportive contexts, the hereditary vulnerabilities that some children experience may never be manifested in problematic behavior. Understanding the co-action of nature and nurture contributes to early prevention. (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000)

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