mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Education Reform: A Tale of Two Approaches

Two pieces in the Washington Post and the New York Times emphasize one of the core features of the education reform movement: while almost everybody wants big changes in American education, nobody is sure yet what will work. The two articles profile two very different visions of education reform:

The Washington Post discusses a new group of schools named “Rocketship” that are currently the hottest new thing in the charter school movement and receiving interest from Mayor Bloomberg, Washington, DC, and the Obama administration. Founded by Silicon Valley tech whiz John Danner, Rocketship’s program intelligently uses computers to handle rote teaching, freeing up human teachers to focus on the areas requiring creativity. Combined with a rigorous work environment and a school culture that emphasizes achievement and success, these schools have been able to significantly boost the achievement of children in lower-income communities. Perhaps most impressively, Rocketship has been able to accomplish this with minimal outside funding, relying on private donors only for startup costs, not regular operations.

There are still plenty of questions about the program. It’s too new to have reliable measurements in standardized testing, and success in a handful of schools does not automatically translate into a national breakthrough:

Already, Rocketship has experienced some growth pains. Standardized test scores for its oldest schools dipped slightly last year and the chain has been slowing its expansion schedule in California because it has had trouble finding enough principals.

But something is happening, and it is certainly worth seeing whether or not Rocketship can live up to its reputation.

Meanwhile, the New York Times profiles a completely different approach to improving education: tightening standards for entering teachers. Half of the 50 states are now planning to increase graduation requirements for schools of education, which have often been derided for emphasizing subjects like education history and theory over practical classroom experience. This new system, which makes use of the Teacher Performance Assessment developed at Stanford University, hopes to ensure that teachers enter the workplace with the experience they need to succeed:

“It is very analogous to authentic assessments in other professions, in nursing, in medical residencies, in architecture,” said Raymond L. Pecheone, a professor of practice at Stanford who leads the center that developed the new assessment. “In its most basic form, we collect authentic artifacts of teaching that all teachers use on the job.”

Under the system, a teacher’s daily lesson plans, handouts and assignments will be reviewed, in addition to their logs about what works, what does not and why. Videos of student teachers will be scrutinized for moments when critical topics — ratios and proportions in math, for instance — are discussed. Teachers will also be judged on their ability to deepen reasoning and problem-solving skills, to gauge how students are learning and to coax their class to cooperate in tackling learning challenges.

We don’t know whether these two approaches are complementary or not. We don’t know which of the two is more promising. But American education needs to innovate and experiment, and the enthusiasm for both of these approaches suggest that this experimentation is happening.

The status quo is unacceptable, and more and more Americans are unwilling to accept it. That is the good news in education.

Features Icon
show comments
  • Anthony

    Linda Darling-Hammond (Stanford University – Center for policy in Education) has focused on importance of teacher quality and its implication for elementary education outcomes in America’s classrooms for more than a decade and New York Times profile highlights her legacy effort at Stanford; she has long recommended via research substantial policy changes to discomfiture of status quo.

    Regarding Rocketship schools, as you have intimated they could be just lastest new thing; but if Rocketship schools have established definite and coherent curriculum undergirded by deep knowledge of schools and the purposes of schooling in a democracy their innovations may prove to be long standing – if not then they will represent lastest educational magic bullet since William Heard Kilpatrick.

  • Corlyss

    “receiving interest from Mayor Bloomberg, Washington, DC, and the Obama administration.”

    I mentioned in an earlier post the tactical concept of “the fatal embrace.” These three entities practice it as if by second nature. Their only purpose? To crush real reform in order to maintain their satellite constitutencies: minorities, teachers, unions. The minute the three get significant influence in the reform organizations, they will warp them to reflect the current state of affairs: the minorities kept in their place as clients, the teachers maintained as the first line of defense against real improvement for minorities (which improvement would take them out of the liberals’ reach), unions as the liberals’ principal fundraisers and ground troops.

  • thibaud

    Nanny state, meet the Nanny School.

    The whole point of Rocketship is forcing the parents to agree to push their kids hard, show up for parent-teacher meetings, read every night, sign off on homework etc.

    The Rocketship curriculum and approach is likewise nanny-ish. It’s basically an extended-hours variant of the public schools’ “RtI” (Response to Intervention) special ed program.

    In other words, there’s nothing magical or even novel about the school, the curriculum, or the teachers.

    It’s parental commitment that makes the difference. Everything else is trivial by comparison.

    Which merely reinforces what we’ve been saying all along: our big problems are cultural; the only way to turn around our educational fiasco is to CHANGE THE CULTURE OF THE HOME.

    Hence the need for what the libertarians sneer at as “nanny” solutions, like Rocketship.

    Here’s a sample “commitment letter” that each Rocketship parent is required to sign prior to enrolling their kids:

    p. 286

    Appendix U: Sample Rocketship Parent Commitment Letter

    Parents’/Guardians’ Commitment

    We fully commit to RS17 in the following ways:

    – We will always help our child in the best way we know how, and we will do whatever it takes for him/her to learn and prepare for college and life by
    supporting him/her and encouraging him/her to adhere to his/her “commitment to excellence.”

    – We will make sure our child arrives at RS17 on-time every day by 7:15 A.M. if they intend to eat Breakfast or 8:00 A.M. if they do not (Monday – Friday).

    – We will make arrangements so our child can remain at RS17 until 3:20pm (K) or 3:50pm (1st-2nd) or 4:00pm (3rd – 5th) Monday thru Thursday.

    – We will ensure that our child is reading or being read to every night.

    – We will check our child’s homework every night, sign his/her agenda, and we will read carefully and sign (if requested) all the papers the school sends home to us.

    – We will meet regularly with teachers to discuss our child’s progress, including home visits, sites off campus, and parent conferences and support their work to help our child excel.

    – We will participate in all school activities including parent/family meetings, exhibition nights, community meetings, open house nights, conferences, etc.

    – We will volunteer at least 30 hours per year for the RS17 community.

    – We, not the school, are responsible for the behavior of our child.

    X ________________________________________________

    Does this model scale? I don’t know.

    But it certainly conflicts with our libertarians’ insane belief that the parents should be in control of the school, the curriculum, and the operations generally.

    This is the exact OPPOSITE of the libertarian fantasy.

    No wonder it’s succeeding.

  • Mango

    “This is the exact OPPOSITE of the libertarian fantasy.”

    Thibaud, if parents like this educational approach, they can sign up for this school. If they don’t they don’t have to. THIS is the libertarian approach, exactly. The opposite approach is deciding that you know best, and having the government impose it in a one-size-fits-all way.

    Do you really find something this basic so difficult to understand?

  • David Eggleston

    It is good to see that the Rocketship program demands parent participation. The problem with our schools today has little to do with teachers and testing, and much to do with the lack of interest that lower-income parents take in education. Until underprivileged parents treat schooling as something more than government-subsidized daycare, we won’t see any significant improvement in poor school districts.

  • Ken Marks

    If you want to know what will work in improving our educational system, read “No Excuses, Closing the Racial Gap in Learning” by Abigail and Stephen Thurnstrom, both professors at Harvard. The biggest thing: get rid of incompetent teachers, tenure, and pay scales that don’t recognize differences in teacher performance. I doubt this will be suggested anytime soon by the liberal elites that control our educational system.

  • thibaud

    #1 and #2 above perpetuate the myths that those wicked teachers and even wickeder Democratic + Bloomberg elites are what’s ailing US education. #2 throws in “minorities” for good measure, fantasizing that “minorities” wish to be “clients.”

    Again, if one bothers to actually study Rocketship and other reform movements aimed at poor urban US schoolkids and their families, what becomes obvious is that the failure begins and ends in the HOME.

    The issue isn’t the teachers, or the union, or the curriculum, or the funding – all of which attain excellent results when you disaggregate the results by ethnicity.

    The issue that almost no one (except the Rocketship people and their parents and teachers) will discuss openly is that there’s not a damned thing that any teacher, any amount of funding, any curricular or operational school model can do so long as the kids involved come from homes where no one gives a damn about educational attainment.

    Rocketship to its great credit focuses like a laser on this, the most important problem by far. Solve it, and watch scores and achievement (and eventually US GDP growth) go up significantly. Fail to solve it, and no amount of experimentation, decentralization, charters etc will make any difference.

  • college management software

    Informative post. Thanks for sharing it with us.

  • Mark in Texas

    Bill Gates sponsored a study of American schools and found that the quality of the teachers made a big difference in how much kids learned. The good news is that the quality of teaching done by the average American teacher is pretty good. His recommendation was that American education would improve significantly if the worst 15% of teachers were fired and replaced with average teachers.

    Back when Bill Clinton was governor of Arkansas, he had all teachers in the state take a test in basic knowledge, the sort of thing that you would assume a graduating high school senior should know. He was horrified when half of the teachers in Arkansas failed the test and even worse, the failures skewed way disproportionately high for black teachers. Clinton’s solution was to lower the passing score to the point where only 10% of the teachers failed and then give the failing teachers several years and multiple opportunities to retake the test in order to pass. Clinton never tried anything like that again.

    Lots of luck trying to impose standards on teachers, particularly if those standards disparately impact black teachers. See Griggs v.Duke Power. Griggs does not prohibit testing but imposes the very high standard that the testing must accurately predict job performance and that if the testing does not stand up to that standard in court, the fact that it disparately impacts minorities will be taken as evidence of racial discrimination and suitable punishment (large fines, onerous restitution and public opprobrium)will be imposed. Do you really think that anybody in the education establishment is willing to risk that?

  • Joe

    I can’t for the live of me understand why we have an ‘Education’ major in the first place. How about teachers major in their subject of choice so they are experts in the field, and make the education qualification a 20-30 credit certificate or minor, with the addition of a semester of student teaching.

    As it stands, Education fills a lot of time with non-essential material, and inflates grades on a rampant scale. (If you look at a graph of average GPA’s by major, it’s almost unbelievable). Not only does this ill-prepare our competent teachers, it actually draws in subpar talent who go on to become the nightmare cases we all hear about.

    Furthermore, the current system makes it difficult for actual subject matter experts to cross over into teaching without a significant investment of time and money. If an engineer or scientist wants to step out of his/her career and into the teaching field at some point, (I plan on doing exactly this later in life) then a pay drop is already expected. Don’t make the prospect even more unlikely by requiring a demonstrably knowledgeable person to submit to a ‘Professional Education Program.’

  • thibaud

    Discussion of teacher quality needs to recognize how the labor market has changed. There is no longer a steady supply of highly educated, highly intelligent young women willing to work for wages that are 30-40% lower than what they could earn in industry (and 60-80% lower than what they can earn in the professions).

    This disparity is even greater In the really expensive coastal metropolitan areas of this country, where most of the underperforming schools are located.

    If you want to attract better graduates to the teaching profession, then you will have to either pay them significantly more money or give them extremely attractive benefits or some combination of both.

    Put your money where your mouth is, folks. Merely attracting recent grads seeking to stuff their resumes for a couple of years in Teach for America etc won’t cut it.

  • thibaud

    #4 Mango – fair point about choice. Choice is nice.

    But the problem’s far too big, the damage to our economy and our democracy far too great, to leave it up to the parents.

    Most US parents, and the vast majority of urban underprivileged parents, are not willing to push their kids to master basic skills. Putting them in charge, as the libertarians advocate, is putting the lunatics in charge of the asylum.

    What would help us move forward would be a top-down, centralized adoption by every large urban school district of the core elements of the nanny school approach:

    – extended school day, with heavy drilling and repetition via low-cost computer-based exercises each afternoon

    – intense efforts to get parents involved in prodding, monitoring, communicating with teachers about their kids’ progress.

    We can do it piecemeal, with an annual increase of maybe 0.01% of the target students affected, as per the Rocketship/charter school approach.

    Or we can do it on a mass scale by simply co-opting that approach across dozens of large urban districts.

    The first approach will make a slight difference to our economy and society in another 30-40 years.

    The second approach will make a significant difference within 10 years.

    Me, I favor the second approach.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service