Tuesday, May 27, 2008

LEARNING FROM PARASITES

SAM SMITH, PROGRESSIVE REVIEW To understand the war on public schools, it helps to think of the Defense Department where our national security has been turned over to a mass of private contractors that make billions under the pretext of improving our national defense. There are no standardized tests at the Pentagon, the closest parallel being war itself, one of which we haven't won against a comparable enemy in over 60 years. A fair description of how the Defense Department works is that it is government by parasites.

Something similar is happening to our public schools under the guidance of an arrogant and aggressive coterie of educational bureaucrats like the much touted Michelle Rhee of Washington DC. There have always been commercial parasites hovering over public education, but the opportunities exploded with No Child Left Behind, basically a government subsidy to every firm that designs tests, the books that help students pass them, or provides untested consultant or administrative services to public officials who once knews how to run a school system without so many deals on the side.

One popular way to make your school system look better, for example, is to dump some of your regular teachers and replaced them with smart recent college graduates from Teach for America. The local media eats this up because, in fact, TFAers are bright and earnest and by the time they leave after their two year stint the story will be stale and no one will notice that the problem remains.

As it is, TFA - while getting a lot of headlines - reaches only a tiny percentage of urban schools even if you assume - as many wouldn't - that rotating teachers on two years shifts is a good idea.

TFA has gotten a lot of good publicity, some of its deserved as there is nothing wrong with using bright and earnest in the classroom much as the Peace Corps has used them overseas. The problem is when worthy assistance is overblown and treated as a solution. As any EMT can tell you, we still need doctors.

There are a lot of reasons why TFA is not a solution. For example, the program skims the cream of the crop of bright college grads. It is not unlike having a program called Coach For America in which only college varsity athletes get to do the job. Sure, it may work on a case by case basis, but what about all the teams Coach for America can't handle?

According to a recent Urban Institute study, TFA teachers produce better results on tests than the traditional certified ones. But as Eduwonkette writes, "An advantage of .04 standard deviations over teachers with 3-5 years experience in the same school is not going to significantly close the achievement gap. This is not an advantage over teachers in the nearest suburb or the best schools in the city that don’t staff TFA teachers, and is hardly a convincing rationale to permanently staff tough schools with a revolving corps of academically talented 2-year teachers." She adds, "I’m all for Teach for America as a stopgap, but the achievement gap claim is fanciful thinking. Why? By comparison, the black-white gap in NAEP math achievement in grade 12 is approximately 1 standard deviation (and is likely larger because many black students have left by grade 12)."

Even more significant is what hasn't been reported in the media about this study. If you break down the TFA teachers' results by level of mastery of a subject you get a strikingly different story.

For example, 31% of the students taught Algebra I by traditional teachers had superior performance as opposed to only 15% of the TFA teachers. Even novice traditional teachers produced 26% with superior results. At the other end, the difference was far less: 4% of the TFA students had insufficient mastery as opposed to 6% for the traditional teachers.

Here are the superior performance rates for TFA, traditional teacher and traditional novice for the various subjects.

Algebra II: 15-35-29
Biology: 6-17-13
Chemistry: 15-31-22
Geometry: 7-24-20
Physics: 16-41-36
Physical Science: 7-11-10
English: 13-31-27

In other words, the TFA teachers had a minimal edge on average, but were way behind traditional teachers in producing superior results. This is not cause for embarrassment, but it's not cause for a parade, either.

One of the real keys to changing public education may lie not so much at the school level but in the education courses where teachers are trained. But there is little talk of reform here, because, after all, what's in it for the new educational-industrial complex? The kids will just have to suffer awhile longer.

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