No area of human effort is free from bad ideas and mistaken theories, but the quest to “reform” public education is particularly awash in misguided convictions. Concepts like “merit pay,” the scapegoating of teachers, and the alleged superiority of charter schools manage to stay alive as policy options despite clear proof that they don’t work.
Merit pay for teachers. Judging teachers’ merit—and pay—based on their students’ test scores is a particularly meritless notion that resurfaces regularly. A three-year experiment by the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University spent more than $1.7 million to give bonuses to selected teachers in Nashville, Tenn., schools, and found, overall, that students of teachers who didn’t get the money performed as well as students of teachers who did.
A similar three-year program in New York City—a beloved initiative of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg—spent $56 million in group bonuses, but was halted in 2011, after outside researchers found that it had had no effect on student performance. Texas dropped its merit-pay program in 2013.
Since no one becomes a teacher to get rich, it would be logical to assume that educators would not be strongly motivated by a financial incentive. But people for whom money is the ultimate reward—a description that fits much of the Wall Street/hedge fund “school reform” crowd—just won’t believe the truth, even when it is before their eyes.
Scapegoating teachers for schools’ poor performance. It is an axiom of the reform movement that teachers are to blame when a school is struggling, and that it is vital to get rid of a stubborn cadre of veteran instructors who can’t be fired and won’t leave. New York state has enshrined this notion in its policy requiring that all staff members of a group of “out of time” schools—the state education department’s designation for persistently low-performing schools—be interviewed with an eye toward pushing out the “unwilling or ineffective.”
But the United Federation of Teachers, which I lead, looked at personnel records for this group of struggling schools and found that the problem was exactly the opposite. Hundreds of teachers—two-thirds of these schools’ total instructional force—had fled the schools at the first opportunity. Of the more than 900 teachers who headed for the exits from 2010 to 2015, nearly half went to other public schools in the city, looking for better teaching conditions and more-effective leadership. The balance went to schools outside the city, left teaching entirely, or retired.
One school had only about 20 percent of its first complement left after five years. Another had only two veterans among its 40 teachers; except for them, the entire staff had turned over not once, but twice in the last five years.
The irrepressible fictions of the charter movement. No myth in the modern school reform narrative is more pervasive than the idea that charter schools have somehow solved the riddle of public schools and poor children.
The truth: Charters nationwide do not have significantly better test scores than public schools with similar populations. Charters in New York City—now 10 percent of the school population, thanks to Mayor Bloomberg’s devotion to their cause—overall score below the citywide average in reading.
New York City charters begin by “creaming” the parents, appealing to a self-selected group with sufficient motivation to search out the charters and enter their school lotteries. (In doing so, they have effectively undermined the Catholic schools in many poor neighborhoods, which have targeted the same families.)
In addition to this initial advantage, the more “successful” a charter school, the more likely it can be found to employ some or all of the following tactics:
• Enrolling significantly fewer of the highest-need students than neighborhood public schools, including the homeless, English-language learners, and those with the most serious physical and learning disabilities.
• Encouraging struggling students to leave. A recent New York Times investigation found that one Success Academy charter school in Brooklyn had a “got to go” list of students the principal was determined to get rid of; what’s more, as such students leave—by expulsion, counseling out as bad “fits,” or because the family is moving—some charters refuse to admit new children to replace them, a strategy that keeps scores up.
• Adjusting the definition of “poor.” While charter students tend to be poor, a close analysis reveals that in many successful charters a significant percentage of students are significantly less poor than the local average. Given the importance of family income in determining test scores, this gives them a marked statistical advantage over their peers in standardized testing.
More than 70 percent of the public school students in New York City are poor under federal guidelines. Tens of thousands of them are reading and doing math at levels equal to or exceeding those in charter schools. The only secret that charter schools seem to have discovered is how to charm the wealthy and well-connected, and how to promote themselves to people who would rather embrace the myth than carefully weigh the facts.