One thing I learned from meeting Gov. Dannel P. Malloy last Friday is that the lawyer-turned-politician requires evidence when confronted with a dissenting opinion. As a columnist and citizen of the state of Connecticut deeply concerned with matters of education, I do too.
Let’s take a controversial plank of the education reform bill. “Since 2009, 31 states have enacted tenure reform, including our neighboring states of New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. It’s time for Connecticut to act.”
I’m reminded of something my parents used to say: “If (insert name here) were going to jump off a cliff, would you do that, too?”
I’ve been searching since last week, and have been struggling to find any studies that provide hard evidence that reforming teacher tenure improves student performance.
If tenure were indeed one of the main stumbling blocks to teacher effectiveness and student success, one would expect charter schools, which currently have the dual “advantage” of not offering tenure or being required to provide a “free appropriate education” to populations with learning and emotional disabilities, would significantly outperform their public school counterparts.
One of the governor’s favorite talking points on the tenure reform issue is the teacher “everyone knows” who they don’t want their kid to have – or maybe that alcoholic teacher he had as a youth who was allowed to remain teaching. But as one irate teacher pointed out: “Since ‘everyone knows’ that poorly performing teacher who stayed employed, where was that teacher’s administrator, and why doesn’t the governor also put blame on the evaluator who left that teacher in place rather than facilitating help?”
It appears the governor has set the particular course of action his administration decided upon for education reform, whatever evidence there might be to the contrary. But it’s important to look at some of that evidence – in fact, a lot of it – before we jump off the proverbial cliff.
A study by Carrie R. Leana, George H. Love Professor of Organizations and Management at the University of Pittsburgh, “The Missing Link in Education Reform” published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review sheds some interesting light on the flaws in the education reform thinking that so many, including our governor, seem to have embraced with open arms.
Leana discusses the three major planks in current reform thinking:
1) Accountability model – what we get when we look at schools as an economic model – exemplified in the value-added metrics. Such metrics are meant to assess annual increments in each student’s learning derived from standardized tests in subject areas like math and reading which are then aggregated to arrive at a “value added” score for a teacher. According to reform thinking, if schools can increase their “human capital” through the accountability model, then much of the problem will be solved.
2) Bring in outsiders – hence the curriculum consultants, allowing quick routes to certification without educational experience. Perhaps the most disastrous example of this was Mayor Bloomberg’s decision to appoint Hearst Magazines Chairman Cathie Black as Chancellor of New York City Public Schools when she had no teaching experience or background in education. “ A natural extension of the belief in the power of outsiders is the notion that teacher tenure is the enemy of effective public education.” Leana writes… Implicit in such arguments is the assumption that the ranks of senior teachers are plagued by incompetence and that the less experienced would do better in their place.”
3) The principal is viewed as the “instructional leader” who is responsible for developing and managing the school and its teaching practices. “In the language of business, the principal is a line manager expected to be a visible presence in the classroom, ensuring that teachers are doing their jobs.”
What her research determines is that these ideas are based on politics, not, as the governor requires of the rest of us, actual evidence.
These three beliefs—in the power of teacher human capital, the value of outsiders, and the centrality of the principal in instructional practice—form the implicit or explicit core of many reform efforts today. Unfortunately, all three beliefs are rooted more in conventional wisdom and political sloganeering than in strong empirical research. Together they constitute what I call the ideology of school reform. And although this, like all ideology, may bring us comfort in the face of uncertainty and failure, it is unhelpful and perhaps dangerous if it leads us to pursue policies that will not bring about sustained success.
What reformers are missing, Leana found, is the value of teacher social capital – how teachers work collaboratively. “When a teacher needs information or advice about how to do her job more effectively, she goes to other teachers. She turns far less frequently to the experts and is even less likely to talk to her principal. Further, when the relationships among teachers in a school are characterized by high trust and frequent interaction—that is, when social capital is strong—student achievement scores improve.”
Teacher stability is important to building this within a school. What’s particularly compelling about Leana’s research is the double whammy students suffer when an experienced teacher leaves:
We found social capital losses to be highly detrimental to student achievement. … the higher the teacher turnover rate at the school, the lower the student achievement gains the following year. But it also mattered which teachers left, in terms of their levels of human and social capital. When teacher turnover resulted in high losses of either human or social capital, student achievement declined. But when turnover resulted in high losses of both human and social capital, students were particularly disadvantaged. These results show that teacher tenure can have significant positive effects on student achievement.
As we pointed out earlier this week, we are already losing some of our best and most experienced teachers because of the rigidity imposed by NCLB. Gutting tenure, as the governor’s proposal seeks to do, will only exacerbate the problem. How will that improve education?
The teachers unions appear open to reducing the time and expense the appeals process takes. If the objective is truly to get rid of the underperforming teachers and not to penalize the good ones, it would behoove the governor to look at the evidence and consider compromising, instead of trying to pull a Chris Christie.
Sarah Darer Littman is a columnist for Hearst Newspapers and an award-winning novelist of books for teens. Long before the financial meltdown, she worked as a securities analyst and earned her MBA in Finance from the Stern School at NYU.