It’s true that schools with large numbers of low-income and English-as-a-second-language students don’t perform as well as those with lots of middle- and upper-middle-class students who speak only English. But the demonization of some schools as “dropout factories” masks an important achievement: The percentage of Americans earning a high school diploma has been rising for 30 years. According to the Department of Education, the percentage of 16-to-24-year-olds who were not enrolled in school and hadn’t earned a diploma or its equivalent fell to 8 percent in 2008.
Average SAT and ACT scores are also up, even with many more — and more diverse — test-takers. On international exams such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, U.S. elementary and middle school students have improved since 1995 and rank near the top among developed countries. Americans do lag behind students in Asian nations such as Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan on these tests, but so do Europeans. The gap in math and science scores may be an East-West divide.
2. Unions defend bad teachers.
Unions have proved amenable to removing the bad apples in their ranks — with due process. Montgomery County, for instance, implemented its Peer Assistance and Review program with union cooperation a decade ago. It requires every new teacher and those flagged as “underperforming” by a principal to be observed by a specialist over a school year. All teachers get support, advice and a chance to do better; then they are reevaluated.Those who fall short lose their jobs. Between 2006 and 2010, 245 teachers resigned or were dismissed. Many districts have similar programs, but, as a Harvard study pointed out, they are expensive.
Reformers who attack unions for school problems should mind their logic: Some school systems show better results than others, yet most have teachers’ unions. If unions are universally problematic, why are some students succeeding while others languish?
3. Billionaires know best.
Bill Gates, real estate developer Eli Broad and Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg have made massive financial contributions to public schools to promote pay-for-performance programs, which reward teachers with bonuses when their students do better on standardized tests. They argue that merit pay creates the same incentives for public-sector employees that bonuses do in the private sector.
But the emerging research on merit pay for teachers disputes that.
In a three-year, $10 million study released last fall, Vanderbilt University researchers found no significant difference in performance between students who were taught by middle school teachers eligible for cash bonuses and those who weren’t. That’s no surprise to most teachers; they know that teamwork is key to success. Individual pay-for-performance schemes create the opposite incentive, fostering competition, not collaboration.