Rhee-dux or deja vu?

I’ve passed this way before; and I’ve felt this pain before… (as sung by Jimmy Ruffin, 1966)

Some of the education “news” recently has a too familiar tune.

For example, the recent Time cover article on Michelle Rhee included this:

“Each week, Rhee gets e-mails from superintendents in other cities. They understand that if she succeeds, Rhee could do something no one has done before: she could prove that low-income urban kids can catch up with kids in the suburbs. “

Aside from being sloppy journalism, this is just plain wrong. First, there is no doubt that low-income urban (or rural for that matter) kids can catch up, even surpass their suburban peers. Second, there are many teachers, schools, even a few districts that have done exactly that–and have done it repeatedly. Problem is we are much more likely to hear about the efforts of a brassy, Ivy-League zealot than we are the diligent, gutsy, truly heroic work of veteran educators around the country, many working under conditions of great duress and with little support.

Claus von Zastrow makes this point very well in his article The Tortise and the Hare. Zastrow’s website, Public School Insights: What is Working in Our Public Schools is one of just a precious few sources that feature and examine the successful work being done in public schools (EdTrust‘s “Dispelling the Myth” is another). Recognizing these efforts is important if we are serious about improving the quality of education for all children. Or, am I the only one who thinks it makes sense to take examples from within similar demographics that are working and learn from them, rather than jettisoning the entire enterprise and starting from scratch, at the expense of many hard-learned lessons (not to mention many personal sacrifices).

For more (much more) on what my colleagues and I here at TLN think about Rhee’s work and the media frenzy around it, visit our TLN Voices blog. However, it’s not just about Rhee, who is admittedly tackling a very tough job, but more about larger issues of how to approach and achieve real education reform. It’s time we moved past the simplistic and inaccurate notion that what’s wrong with public education are lazy, lousy teachers protected by entrenched union contracts and tenure. If that were true, then we should see significantly higher student performance from schools and districts, such as those here in the Deep South, where collective bargaining and teacher strikes are illegal, and there is no such thing as tenure–for anyone in education, including administrators. In fact, the opposite is true: student performance measures tend to be higher for areas that have teacher unions. For example, according to several studies, scores on college admissions tests, actually correlate positively with teacher salaries, which are generally higher in unionized areas. Blaming unions is fashionable, but that’s shooting at a symptom, not at the problem.

Teacher quality matters; and the conditions under which teachers do our work directly affects student achievement. Right now, the performance of U.S. students as highlighted in the 2007 TIMMS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) is getting much media and blog attention. But I remember what we should have learned about teacher quality from that report’s predecessor (the Third International Mathematics and Science Study) in the early 1990’s. In their wonderful study and book, The Teaching Gap, James Stigler and James Hiebert concluded:

So instead of assuming that teachers do not want to improve, we take a different view. We believe that the real problem lies in the teaching, not the teachers, and in the absence of resources available to help teachers improve how they teach (172).

The problem of how to improve teaching on a wide scale is one that has been seriously underestimated by policymakers, reformers, and the public in this country….To really improve teaching we must invest far more than we do now in generating and sharing knowledge about teaching…Compared with other countries, the United States clearly lacks a system for developing professional knowledge and for giving teachers the opportunity to learn about teaching (13). 

Helping all teachers teach better is a task to which sincere education reformers have dedicated themselves, and to which more of our energies, resources, and media attention should be directed.