Jay Mathews
Jay Mathews

School reform at odds with itself

Education reformers contradict themselves every day and don’t seem to know it. This includes President Obama, Mitt Romney and many mayors, scholars and activists who all say we need more charter schools, more systems that evaluate teachers based on student test scores and more merit pay.

The Obama administration’s Race to the Top program encouraged states to promote charters and assess teachers by student performance. Romney applauds this, saying U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is doing a good job. Many urban school districts, such as D.C., agree.

Jay Mathews

writes a weekly column about education and the Class Struggle blog.


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Then why do the charter schools they praise avoid the teacher evaluation systems they recommend? The best charters don’t use the assessment systems that reformers want regular schools to use. One charter network official told me his principals evaluate and reward their teachers any way they want. “You have to choose a great leader, give her powerful tools . . . and then pair real accountability with autonomy,” he said.

Another charter school leader said she dislikes the teacher bonus systems popular with reformers. She said her school is so effective it already attracts the most motivated teachers, “so using money to motivate them is investing money where it’s not needed.” The funds are better spent on more planning time and higher base salaries for the people she most wants to keep, she said.

Why then do so many policymakers embrace both charters and teacher assessments that charters don’t use? Is it because some come from business backgrounds and don’t comprehend school cultures? Are they so used to traditional schools that they don’t see the importance of teamwork in charters, and how it can be ruined by divisive assessment and merit pay rules? Don’t they understand that the best charters succeed because their principals are carefully trained and selected, and have the freedom to build their teams their way?

Nope, that’s not it, said influential reformers I consulted. They know that autonomous principals make charters succeed. But they see no way to give regular school principals such freedom, so they support new evaluation and merit pay methods as the closest they can get to what charter schools do.

“The reality is that while charter principals can just fire teachers they don’t think are moving student achievement, traditional principals cannot,” one prominent reformer said. “They must meet a very high burden of proof that shows that it’s fair, objective, transparent, etc.” Having teachers evaluated by student performance allows them to “start moving in some small way” toward what charters do, the reformer said. The worst teachers at least can be identified.

Another experienced reformer said he supports giving principals the authority to compensate teachers creatively to get the best people handling hard-to-staff subjects, to persuade a star teacher to stay or to recognize a teacher who put in many extra hours on a vital project. Such payments “are verboten under most collective bargaining agreements,” the reformer said. Union-free charters do them. Regular schools can’t.

Brookings Institution education expert Tom Loveless said “some of the teamwork and collegiality that charter staffs experience is because they see their administrator-teacher relations as simple human interactions, rather than as the interactions of management and labor.”

Teachers’ unions resist sanctioning charter-like powers for traditional school principals, with good reason. They tell vivid stories of school leaders grossly misusing the few powers they have, like scenes from “The Caine Mutiny.”

But if principals are recruited, selected and trained as carefully as the best charter principals are, and if they are subject to removal for bad results, teachers who are members of unions might find them to be agreeable bosses. Why can’t a traditional district school board, and its teachers’ union, let a few of its schools give that system a try?

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