Charter-mania, high-stakes testing and teacher-bashing: Can Rhee's approach be stopped?

As a new lawsuit seeks to radically transform teaching conditions, an expert warns of our nation's education shift

Published April 2, 2014 12:30PM (EDT)

Former DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee
Former DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee

Final briefs are due next week in Vergara v. California, an under-the-radar billionaire-backed lawsuit that could transform teaching conditions in the largest state. Citing the constitutional rights of its public school student plaintiffs, the suit seeks to overturn state laws that schedule tenure consideration after two years of teaching, dictate the use of seniority when budget cuts force layoffs, and impose due process rules on teachers’ terminations. It very well may succeed; the president of one of the statewide unions fighting the suit warned L.A. Weekly that Judge Rolf Treu’s more aggressive questioning of his side “unfortunately … may be quite telling about where he’s going.” And it could inspire copycat efforts across the United States.

“It’s certainly not going to improve education,” said Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond, who co-directed the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future, directed President Obama’s 2008/2009 education transition team, and last month testified for the Vergara defense. In a Monday interview, Darling-Hammond disputed Students First’s claim to the mantle of Brown v. Board; argued for “another War on Poverty” to transform “apartheid schools”; and said Obama has offered “a continuation” of the George W. Bush approach to “high-stakes testing without investing.” A condensed version of our conversation follows.

Angelia Dickens, the general counsel for Michelle Rhee’s group Students First, wrote that “The Vergara case is a logical extension from Brown” v. Board of Education, because it would help “move our country towards educational equity.” Why do you disagree?

I can’t understand why anyone would agree. To me, it’s completely unrelated to the agenda from Brown, which was about getting equal access to educational opportunities for students -- you know, initially through desegregation, but the heritage of Brown is also a large number of school finance reform lawsuits that have been trying to advocate for equitable resource distribution between districts and schools. And Vergara has nothing to do with that …

Even if you got rid of teachers’ due process rights for evaluation, you would do nothing to remedy the inequalities in funding and access that students have. And in fact you might exacerbate the problem.

Is it true that poor students and students of color are getting worse teaching than their richer and whiter counterparts? And if it is, who’s to blame?

There are lots of ways to look at that question through a research lens.

There have been a set of studies done out of John Hopkins University that track student gains in learning over time, and they find that in general the slope of learning gains for low-income kids and more affluent kids in this country is pretty equivalent between September and June of every school year. And the big disparities in achievement are a function of differences that exist before kindergarten … and the summer learning loss that occurs in between the school years.

And in fact, they find that low-income kids gain a little on higher-income kids during the school year. That kind of evidence would suggest that teachers are about equally effective. Maybe the teachers of low-income kids are a little bit more effective in closing the gap when they have them in school. But we have a lot of inequalities in access to education outside of school -- as well as what exists, you know, inside the school.

Now, there are other studies that would indicate that -- depending on the state that you’re talking about, and the district that you’re talking about -- there are differences in the allocation of teachers to students, by the qualifications of those teachers in terms of experience levels, in terms of education levels, and things like that. And that certainly has been true in some districts, although not always true in California, at moments in time where the research was done.

If the goal is to improve the instruction going on in classrooms, should we be more concerned about making it easier to get rid of teachers, or about making it easier to hold onto them?

First of all, just to be clear: It is extremely easy to get rid of teachers. You can dismiss a teacher for no reason at all in the first two years of their employment. And so there is no reason for a district ever to tenure a “grossly ineffective” teacher -- as the language of the lawsuit goes -- because you know if a teacher is grossly ineffective pretty quickly, and it’s negligence on the part of the school district if they continue to employ somebody who falls into that classification when they have no barriers to [firing them]. And districts that are well-run, and have good teacher evaluation systems in place, can get rid of veteran teachers that don’t meet a standard and [don’t] improve after that point.

But in fact, the ability to keep teachers and develop them into excellent teachers is the more important goal and strategy for getting a high-quality teaching force. Because if what you’re really running is a churn factory, where you’re just bringing people in and, you know, firing them, good people don’t want to work in a place like that. So it’s going to be hard for you to recruit. Second of all, you’re likely not paying enough attention to developing good teachers into great teachers, and reasonable teachers into good teachers.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t get rid of a bad teacher if you get one. But you ought to be very careful about hiring and development – that makes that a rare occurrence.

If the plaintiffs win, what will be the impact on public education?

It’s hard to know what the impact will be. It’s certainly not going to improve education. Now, whether it will have negative effects, I don’t know …

There’s a long history in education of teachers being able to be dismissed -- and in fact, that’s still the case in many states which don’t have due process protections -- for reasons other than competence. And that can include, you know, politics -- not working for the right school board member in the elections. It can include getting pregnant or married, and the school board deciding you’re not going to give as much time [to work]. It can include teaching the wrong book, et cetera. And I think if we end up in a place … where we have no protection against firing for reasons other than competence, teaching -- which is already a fairly unattractive occupation because of all the teacher-bashing that’s going on -- will become an even more unattractive occupation.

I think it’s also possible that – having watched a lot of school districts over the years – not having a moment at which you have to make a tenure decision could allow districts to just keep fairly mediocre teachers along, without doing the due diligence of making a decision in the early years that would protect kids from teachers just kind of hanging on.

So … it could, around the margins, make a negative difference. But I don’t think it will in any way improve the equitable allocation of teachers to students who have been traditionally under-resourced in their schools.

You’ve warned that “a new form of redlining is emerging” in public education, and called out “a growing number of apartheid schools populated almost entirely by low-income African-American and Latino students in our increasingly race- and class-segregated system.” What should be the agenda to make good on the promise of Brown v. Board?

First of all, we have a dramatically unequal allocation of wealth in the society, which is getting much worse … We need another War on Poverty … Because we have a quarter of our kids in the country, and more than half in the public schools of California, living in poverty.

And so that’s No. 1: We need to do what other developed nations do, which is ensure that kids have healthcare, housing and a context in which they can grow up healthy – in communities which still have the kinds of recreation facilities, public libraries and other supports, [including] early childhood education, that would continue to allow children to come to school ready to learn.

Then we need schools that are equitably funded, with more money going to the students who have the greatest needs. I’m proud to say that in California, we’ve just passed a school funding law that is probably the most progressive in the nation, and that will actually, over the next years, allocate more money to each child that is living in poverty, is an English learner, or is in foster care than to other children. And we will begin to redress some of the profound inequalities that exist today … Cities in California typically are spending much less right now – before this kicks in -- than affluent districts. That’s the real thing -- if we were litigating the successes of Brown -- that’s the real thing that would be first on the agenda to correct.

And then beyond that, I think we have to be sure that the state builds a high-quality teaching force, well-prepared for all candidates. If we were a highly developed nation that is high-achieving, we would be offering free teacher education to everyone that wants to teach, in high-quality [preparatory programs] … and getting rid of the [programs] that can’t meet the bar, so that everyone comes in ready and competent.

Then, the task in the teaching force would be to continue to develop the skills that are already there, rather than to compensate for the inadequate preparation and mentoring and working conditions that render some teachers much less effective …

You’ve got some districts that for many years, during the budget cuts and so on, hired a lot of teachers who were not even completed with their preparation -- sometimes had not even started any preparation – assigned them disproportionately to schools serving low-income kids, [and] continued to allow those schools to operate with outrageously poor working conditions. Class sizes of over 40 have been the case in Los Angeles. Shift schedules where you’ve got to squeeze in twice as many kids into a building as can fit there, by putting them on shifts, and having the teachers, you know, teach for three months, and close down a classroom for a month, and then open it for three months. Crazy stuff. Only in the high-poverty, high-minority schools -- making them very unattractive places to teach. Throwing these people in without having had the kind of preparation and mentoring they need. And then turning around saying, “Well, gee, we’ve got a lot of incompetent teachers we haven’t paid much attention to, and now we would like to be able to fire them more easily.”

It’s a fundamental problem of the red-lining … around those schools, that allowed them to become such poor places for teaching and learning. That is the real problem that has to be addressed.

There are also urban districts that have not done that: that have, like San Francisco, put more money into the schools serving high-need kids with a weighted student formula; that have really worked to have a better, stronger hiring process; that have put in place induction [mentoring], and stronger feedback, and teacher evaluation systems. And they don’t have the dreadful conditions that … are really the source of the problem that I think is at issue in Vergara.

Diane Ravitch argued to me last month that the Obama administration “basically has the Republican agenda” on education. Do you disagree?

No, not much.

I don’t disagree a lot. I think that the Obama administration has done some things that the Republicans previously had not done. But with respect to the agenda that began with No Child Left Behind, which has been sort of high-stakes testing without investing, and very little investment in teacher training and capacity, and so on, I would say that these last six years have been a continuation of the eight years that preceded them.

With respect to investing in higher education and improving Pell grants … that area of work, I think we’ve made very strong strides in the Obama administration. But it has been a mixed bag.

Did you foresee the administration taking this direction when you were part of the Transition Team?

No. In fact, in the campaign and in the transition, the concerns about redirecting from, you know, a system managed by test-based accountability, the plans were to really move in a much more investment-oriented direction. And I think, you know, for a variety of political reasons the trajectory of reform has not changed.

And the results are in. On PISA, which is the international assessment, the United States has flat-lined in both scores and rankings. In fact it has dropped between 2000 and 2012. So the approach to federal policy, which has been simply organized around high-stakes testing and punitive sanctions -- for schools, and teachers, and kids in many cases -- just hasn’t worked. So it is time for a change.

Why do you think that this approach continues to be taken by the administration?

Well, I’m not able to speak to that …

I do think we have the additional problem that the Congress is broken. And No Child Left Behind was an unpopular law in 2008, which all of the candidates discovered when they went out on the hustings. And it is even more unpopular now, to the point where there has not been any way to get an agreement about how to reauthorize it. And to get such an agreement, one would have to really propose a new approach, and build a lot of common ground around that. And that simply has not yet been done.

It’s shocking to have a law that for … all these years has been unable to be reauthorized.

And so here we are in 2014, the year which 100 percent of kids were supposed to be proficient on the standards. And you know, we’ve got 90 percent of the schools in the country that are now declared quote, you know, “failing” – which some people thought was the goal of the law to begin with. But we really haven’t made strides on meeting a 21st century learning agenda, because we’ve driven all of the instruction around low-quality multiple-choice tests.

By Josh Eidelson

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