President Barack Obama had more homework than usual this week. In the wee hours of Monday morning, Obama surprised administrators at Washington’s Sidwell Friends Academy, where his two daughters attend school. He and his wife showed up for the quarterly ritual known as the parent-teacher conference. After hearing about Malia and Sasha from their teachers, Obama stopped by Viers Mill Elementary School in Maryland, where he led a group of local students in chants of “read, read, read, read!”
The whole first family has been focused on education. The first lady penned an op-ed in U.S. News and World Report in which she sang the praises of the men and women who are training the next generation of America’s leaders: “We all remember the impact a special teacher had on us—a teacher who refused to let us fall through the cracks; who pushed us and believed in us when we doubted ourselves; who sparked in us a lifelong curiosity and passion for learning,” she wrote, citing data that shows “the single most important factor affecting students’ achievement is the caliber of their teachers.”
Michelle is right: A 2006 Brookings Institution report notes that “having a top-quartile teacher rather than a bottom-quartile teacher four years in a row would be enough to close the black-white test score gap.” In the face of distressing recent reports that the racial achievement gap is as wide as it has ever been, that is an important statistic.
But is any teacher a good teacher? Is a smaller class a better class? That’s been the subject of a fierce debate in education-policy circles for years.
Lawyer and media mogul Steven Brill jumped into the fray with a lengthy screed about bad teachers last month in New Yorker magazine. He argues that teachers’ unions are too powerful; that the political cost of firing bad teachers is so great that the city of New York tolerates enormous monetary costs just to avoid doing it. One such teacher, “Patricia Adams,” was found passed out in her classroom: ‘There were 34 students present in [Adams’s] classroom,’” Brill reports. “When the principal ‘attempted to awaken [Adams], he was unable to.’ When a teacher ‘stood next to [Adams], he detected a smell of alcohol emanating from her.’ ”
Needless to say, this doesn’t describe the teachers at posh Sidwell Friends. And the Adams case is an extreme example of incompetence. But what is to be done about the bad apples teaching the 50 million school-aged children, including the majority of black children, in the nation’s public school system?
Obama’s first instinct has been to protect teachers from being fired—not as ideology, but as economic stimulus. State budgets slashed as a result of the ongoing recession put thousands of firefighters, police and educators on the chopping block. The president and new Education Secretary Arne Duncan have tried to stop the bleeding. In a new report released by the Domestic Policy Council, some 250,000 teaching positions have been created or saved as a result of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. Why is this good? “Fewer teacher jobs, without fewer students, may lead to larger and often unacceptable class sizes,” read the study.
But merely keeping a warm body in front of children is not enough to “prepare them for a 21st century economy,” as Obama has urged. Bad teachers, according to a recent study by McKinsey and Company, send their students into what’s essentially a permanent economic depression—with fewer career opportunities and less earning potential over the course of the working lives. And when the New Teacher Project surveyed veteran educators from across the country, asking them to name the proportion of their colleagues whom they thought provided poor instruction, the teachers said 3-8 percent. “That’s lots of teachers, lots of classrooms, and that’s lots and lots of kids who don’t get to take the 3rd grade over,” says Daniel Weisberg of the NTP. “They only get one chance to learn how to read, or do fractions, or write an essay.”
The correlation between good teachers and development for children is solid, but there is still no agreement on how to create a good teacher in the first place. Charter schools, where teachers enjoy greater latitude, less bureaucracy and are typically not protected by unions, only outperform regular public schools 17 percent of the time. George W. Bush’s 2001 “No Child Left Behind” law enacted tough accountability standards, but made few concrete strides toward improving teacher quality. And that, ultimately, has to be the point.
The Obama administration has been cheered across the education policy spectrum for recognizing that teachers matter. At a teachers’ graduation ceremony earlier this month, Duncan called educators “the unsung heroes of our society.” But what happens when the administration’s admirable policy of implementing “rigorous college- and career-ready standards and high-quality assessments that are valid and reliable for all students” runs into a teacher like Adams?
Increasingly, school districts are exploring new ways of teaching altogether. The Obama administration’s recently announced Investing in Innovation (I3) fund, with $650 million of government backing, seeks to encourage the development and expansion of fresh models to improve student achievement from kindergarten through high school. One World Education, a peer-learning program started by teachers at the SEED Charter school in Washington, D.C., is trying to be that model. “Just about every other curriculum out there starts with teachers and end with students,” says Eric Goldstein, founder of One World. “We’re doing the complete opposite: It starts with students and ends there, too.” The program, which has spread to nine area schools, teaches children with material written by students in their age range, and has been shown to improve behavior. “Classroom disruptions are decreased and more students can participate and learn,” Goldstein says. Similarly, Washington’s KIPP charter schools staff teachers who are mandated to be on call—reachable by cell phone for homework questions at all hours. Both teaching techniques are the type of program Duncan and Obama have sought to encourage with the Investing in Innovation fund.
And both programs, incidentally, have their roots in Teach for America, the education training corps that has since 1992 graduated tens of thousands of committed young people into KIPP, SEED and underserved public school systems across the country. While Teach for America has been criticized as a sort of farm for bright young students who work in inner cities for a few years and then head for law school, it’s become one of the top career choices for black Harvard graduates—no small feat in a country where under 2 percent of teachers are black men.
If teachers are essential to student performance, the long-term problem may be how few students are choosing to enter the teaching ranks to begin with. Supporters of Teach for America also maintain that the program can fill the teaching gap in less populated fields like math and science, special and bilingual education. Before alternative certification programs like TFA or city-run Teaching Fellows programs began, poor students were more likely to have teachers “who have little experience, graduated from less-selective colleges and possess fewer credentials,” according to the Center for American Progress. Perhaps because of the influx of TFA’s non-traditional teachers, education experts from five universities found that the qualification gap has largely closed in New York City.
The Department of Education projects that by 2014, up to 1 million grade-school positions will be filled by new teachers. Nevertheless, “It’s a tough profession,” says Friedrich, a graduate of TFA’s training program who left 15 years of nonprofit work to join the Baltimore public schools system. “So how you recruit and keep top talent is the gazillion dollar question.” Obama supports merit pay for the best teachers and has proposed a national “Teacher Recruitment Program” in response to the problem of poorly performing teachers, often concentrated in poor black and Hispanic neighborhoods. Going forward, says Weisberg, the brightest, most energetic young teachers may be the best bet for the next generation. “It may be a valid model to build it around the expectation that people will only stay for 5 to 8 years,” he says.
Obama, with a broad coalition, appears to be doing his homework. One summer meeting at the White House produced a memorable photo op: Rev. Al Sharpton, former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich and President Obama, looking thoughtful as they pledged, in Gingrich’s words, to make education “the No. 1 civil right of the 21st century.”
Dayo Olopade is Washington reporter for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.