Waiting for School Reform

Thanks to the highly hyped documentary Waiting for Superman, and President Obama's recent plug for education, making over our country's troubled schools is the topic du jour. Problem is, there's no one formula for success.

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Paying Teachers What They're Worth

We already know that teachers are underpaid. The average teacher in the United States made $51,329 in 2008, though salaries vary greatly by state. The big question remains: How can we increase teacher salaries and student achievement at once? Recently, merit pay, or performance pay, has gained attention as a possible solution. One highly visible advocate is D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who argued that merit pay could help teachers earn more and increase student achievement. Unfortunately, the most comprehensive study to date from Vanderbilt's National Center on Performance Incentives found that merit-based pay did not increase teacher effectiveness. In fact, the study's authors said, "It simply did not do much of anything." Paying teachers more across the board could attract talented individuals into the teaching profession in greater numbers.

Getting Paid to Study

Teachers are not the only ones who are part of the "pay to perform" movement. Children in multiple cities have been offered incentives for increased test scores. The most ambitious of these projects has been led by Roland Fryer, a Harvard economist and chief equality officer for the New York City Department of Education. The basic idea is that middle-class students are routinely rewarded for high academic performance and thus are encouraged to work their hardest and get their best-possible grades.

To approximate this reward system, Fryer paid students when they did well on tests. The experiment ran in more than 250 schools in Dallas, New York City, Chicago and Washington, D.C., with the goal of raising student achievement. Despite high hopes, Fryer found that incentives had little to no effect on student achievement. However, he found that incentives did increase the time spent reading or doing other positive academic-related practices, but still had little to no effect on shifting students' performance. Despite not improving students' scores, though, this is promising, and importantly reveals that students are not underachieving because they lack effort. Rather, their performance represents real gaps in skills that come from struggling communities and schools.

The payback for investing in education must be made clear to all students, but this will take more than short-term rewards. Children continue to see the struggles of the U.S. economy and wonder if there be work available when they complete school. The curriculum that we use in our school and the methods we teach must endow students with a belief that education is still the most consistent gateway to greater opportunity.

Promise Neighborhoods

Canada's model has generated a watershed of press and an even greater deluge of private donations, leading to an endowment of $145 million. Unfortunately, Promise Neighborhoods are governmentally sponsored, and budgetary issues put into question how long such funding will be available. The first set of Promise Neighborhood grantees was announced last week; it'll be quite some time before we will see results from this approach.

From Superman to Solutions

Urban education has been failing for more than 30 years. In 1983 the National Commission on Excellence in Education released its "A Nation at Risk" report: The report raised national concern that U.S. public education was underpreparing students for international competition. In response, cities and businesses collaborated to reform education. While there were glimmers of hope, as there are now, systemwide change failed.