Correction to This Article
This article misstated a finding from a 2007 survey by the Council of Urban Boards of Education. More than two-thirds of the teachers surveyed said that they would, not wouldn't, benefit from more professional training.

5 Myths About Education Reform

Sunday, February 22, 2009

To borrow from the old quip on giving up smoking: Fixing public schools is easy -- we've done it hundreds of times. Even with the billions of dollars in economic stimulus aid, public schools stand no chance of getting better until we dispel some empty theories about how to help them.

1. We know how to fix public schools; we just lack the political will to finish the job.

Wrong. For the past 25 years, K-12 education has been at or near the top of most politicians' domestic agendas. Candidates vie to become the "education" president, governor or mayor. The public cries out for better schools and is even willing to pay higher taxes to get them.

There is no shortage of strategies for education reform, either. The most famous (or infamous) is the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), with its federal mandates for rigorous student testing. School districts across the country have been flooded with other initiatives, too. Conservatives generally advocate breaking up teacher unions and privatization, while liberals call for more money, less testing and greater teacher autonomy. But nothing has succeeded. In 2006, experts at the Harvard-based Public Education Leadership Project concluded that all these efforts, including NCLB, "have failed to produce a single high-performing urban school system."

2. Teachers know best how to teach kids; policymakers should leave them alone.

Not necessarily. Sure, teaching can be an art. But educators should also approach their profession as a science when empirical evidence proves certain methods to be more effective than others.

Many teachers "subscribe to an extremely peculiar view of professionalism," as school management expert Richard Elmore has written. When the Council of Urban Boards of Education surveyed American teachers in 2007, more than two-thirds said that they didn't need more professional training. An education professor in Maryland criticized the state board of education's expectation that local school districts should use more state funding on teacher training: "I am sorry," she wrote in the Baltimore Sun, "that the board doesn't seem to recognize that our teachers are educated professionals, not 'trained' laborers."

This resistance to research is drummed into educators at teacher colleges, which devalue scientific findings. Coursework often encourages teachers to do their own thing in their own way -- and even presents the decision about how to teach reading "as a personal [one] to be decided by the aspiring teacher," according to the National Council on Teacher Quality.

But if we set boundaries on what and how teachers teach, won't we slide down a slippery slope to the nationalization of research-backed practices? Yes, we might. But that isn't a bad thing -- see Myth No. 3.

3. The federal government meddles too much in the affairs of local schools.

Actually, the feds don't go far enough. Even NCLB, attacked as an effort to wrest power from local government, allows all 50 states to set their own standards. But really, why should a passing math score vary from one school district to another? Because of NCLB's loopholes, many states have dumbed down tests to make their schools look better than they are.

The United States is one of only a few developed nations clinging to the idea of local control over education. Most European countries, as well as Japan, have national standards and curriculums. Their schools also rely mainly on national funding, while ours receive less than 10 percent of their revenue from the federal government. With the stimulus package, that share will probably top 15 percent by 2011 -- a sizable increase, but not one that will eradicate the "savage inequalities," as author Jonathan Kozol called them, between the opportunities available to impoverished children in large cities and those offered to kids from richer communities. U.S. education officials need to use federal funding to reward districts that raise standards and help put American schools on a par with their international competitors.

4. Teacher unions are the enemy.

Okay, they're not without fault. But neither are they the villains in the tale of school failure.

Many politicians and educators would have you believe that unions are politically powerful institutions that protect incompetent teachers. Former U.S. education secretary Rod Paige went so far as to call the National Education Association, the largest teachers union, a "terrorist organization." Political conservatives are attracted to charters, vouchers and privatization in part because they would break the unions' power, and even some liberals have grown critical of the groups' influence; Barack Obama mildly rebuked the unions during his presidential campaign for their opposition to merit pay for teachers and limits on tenure.

But the evidence doesn't support the harshest allegation: that union contracts make it nearly impossible to fire unsatisfactory teachers. School administrators have plenty of disciplinary authority, but surveys of principals show that they often don't exercise it -- not because of union rules, but out of a sense of collegiality and because of bureaucratic inertia. Last year, the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute analyzed the contracts in the nation's 50 largest school districts. For most of them, the institute concluded, "the depiction of [collective-bargaining agreements] as an all-powerful, insurmountable barrier to reform may be overstated." What's needed is less scapegoating of unions and more gumption on the part of education policymakers and administrators.

5. There's no place in education for politics.

In fact, politicians are exactly the people who should take charge of struggling public schools. Historically, mayors have hidden behind elected or appointed school boards, afraid of being blamed for the dreadful condition of their cities' classrooms. But the school boards' "non-political," insular governance has been a disaster. The system must be changed, with mayors put in charge and school boards abolished.

That is what has happened under mayors Michael R. Bloomberg in New York City and Adrian M. Fenty in Washington. They were behind legislation eliminating or weakening the local boards and assumed hands-on leadership, bringing in non-traditional superintendents and challenging teacher unions. It's too soon to say whether their school systems will be transformed. But things are changing fast, and the mayors are getting good marks for overturning the status quo. That's the first step toward replacing myths about school reform with real success stories.

Kalman R. Hettleman is a former commissioner on the Baltimore City school board.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company