Tuesday, July 29, 2008

In Need of Alteration

I saw an opinion piece in the latest issue of Newsweek yesterday that I caught my attention. In it Johnathon Alter offers some thoughts on what's wrong with and should be done about education in the United States.

I'm always glad when education gets more attention in the mainstream media, and Alter raises some valid points, but the piece leaves an awful lot to be desired. If you haven't yet read it, it's short and it's worth a glance. To those of you who read the education blogs regularly, I don't think you'll see anything particularly new.

To paraphrase, he essentially argues that unions are ruining our schools, that we need to hold teachers more accountable, make schools more like KIPP schools, and that Obama should go against the unions and find ways to bring and keep better teachers in our school.

Unfortunately, Alter makes a few errors. Perhaps most grievous, at least to those of us with research training, is his false statement about how students are selected for KIPP and other charter schools. He says that students are "randomly selected" to attend. Random selection is a technical term meaning that the sample (in this case the students attending KIPP) was selected completely at random and, therefore, no person should be more likely to be included than any other person. This is simply not how KIPP works. Parents and students have to apply in order to enroll. Yes, students are admitted from the pool of applicants by lottery -- but this does not constitute random selection because they were randomly chosen from a non-random group.

Alter acknowledges that KIPP schools aren't fully replicable, but not necessarily for the right reason. He argues that there simply aren't enough effective teachers to go around. That may well be the case, but I hardly think that KIPP has a monopoly on effective teachers or that "effectiveness" is necessarily what sets KIPP teachers apart from teachers at other schools. As far as I can tell, a large number of teachers at KIPP and other similar schools are young and without families and, therefore, willing to essentially devote their life to the school for a few years before moving on. What we really lack is enough people who are willing and able to do this in order to run all schools like KIPP.

I must also take issue with his overly strong statement that "we know what works to close the achievement gap." Some people appear to have done it, and we have some good ideas -- but that doesn't mean the solution is just sitting out there waiting for everybody to latch on.

I'll give Alter credit for arguing that we need to devise ways to measure how well teachers teach rather than simply arguing that we need to measure them and then hold them accountable.

Perhaps the most ridiculous thing that Alter writes -- and the statement that gives away the ideological underpinnings of his argument if anybody wasn't already aware -- is that unions "still believe that protecting incompetents is more important than educating children." Unions are far from perfect, and this is far from the most inflammatory rhetoric that I've read about them, but it's still sheer and utter nonsense. Alter disagrees with unions, so he essentially resorts to exaggerating their misdeeds and calling them names. Though more polite, it's the intellectual equivalent of calling somebody with whom you disagree a Nazi or a terrorist.

If I were a union leader, however, I would mull over Alter's final point. He argues that unions should "change their focus from job security and the protection of ineffective teachers to higher pay and true accountability for performance." The statement is a bit over the top, but the general idea that unions could view submitting their members to more scrutiny in exchange for higher pay is something on which both sides might find some common ground.


caroline said...

My blog comment on the Alter column, to which he has responded, is on www.examiner.com -- direct link:


Dustin Cornelius said...

The column was interesting, but I don't agree with his KIPP program comment about the length and number of school days. I can see how sending lower socioeconomic students to school longer may be beneficial. However, I do not think lengthening the school day will be of benefit to students of other socioeconomic status, because there are other worthwhile after school activities available to them. So, the KIPP program may be closing the achievement gap between rich and poor, but it may not be enough to close the achievement gap between us and other countries.

More educational discussion at
Thoughts on Our Education

Anonymous said...

Caroline: I read your blog comment on Alter's post and agree with you wholeheartedly.

The KIPP selection process is NOT random - only students (and parents) willing to abide by the KIPP contract are welcome to attend. And only those students and parents who are motivated enough to apply are even in the lottery pool for possible acceptance.

From my understanding, the KIPP contract includes standards on behavior, attendance, homework, and agreeing to the longer school days and Saturday classes.

Most struggling, low-income students do not have the dedication to follow a schedule like KIPP's - that's part of the reason they are struggling. Only the most motivated students and parents will have the motivation and knowledge to apply to this program, let alone stick with it for all four years.

From my reading of Eduwonkette's blog, there is a very high attrition rate at KIPP. From 5th grade to 8th grade many students (especially boys) leave. This impacts the "college attendance" rates: Apparently, those students graduating in the 8th grade are only a fraction (about 60%) of the students who began in 5th grade.

All in all, I hardly think that the success of a few students at KIPP schools is reason to castigate all teachers and advocate for the demolition of teachers' unions.