Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Manifesto, Income Inequality & Credibility

On Friday, I wrote a blog item ('Misleading Manifesto') chiding a group of urban superintendents for misstating educational research in a 'manifesto' published in Sunday's Washington Post. Teacher quality *is* important -- but it does not matter MORE THAN family income and concentrated poverty.

I am convinced that too many educational reformers are happy to 'spin' the truth for rhetorical purposes. I think this is exactly what we saw in this manifesto. While this may help to simplify messaging, target solutions at a more narrowly construed problem, and focus in on what education leaders have direct control over, it carries an inherent policy danger along with it. That danger is two-fold: (1) teacher policy reforms may be set up for failure by overstating their potential impact; and (2) more comprehensive strategies desperately needed to combat rising income inequality and growing poverty in our nation may be discounted and ignored.

For me, this isn't an issue of setting low expectations for children from poverty. We must train and support our teachers to have high expectations and develop the potential in all children. But, from a policy perspective, which is the world in which I work, to not even discuss poverty and inequality -- even though the research evidence points to its preeminence -- is akin to taking it off the table as a policy priority.

Nor it is a lack of belief in the ameliorative benefits that sensible teacher reforms can have on student outcomes by expanding the recruitment pool of teacher candidates, improving initial training and on-going support of classroom teachers, improving teaching and learning conditions within schools, providing differential compensation to teachers for leadership roles, difficult assignments, shortage fields, and demonstrated effectiveness, and more....

For teacher quality specifically, as I argued in my previous post, playing fast and loose with the facts isn't necessary. There is a powerful argument to be made based on the fact that teachers are the most important school-based influence on student learning. That's exactly what my colleagues at the New Teacher Center have done. We've made careful and honest declarations about teacher quality being the most critical within-school variable, but haven't framed the issue in a way that would make us education-industry Pinocchios.

And this leads us directly to the question of credibility. While I am personally inclined to support elements of what the superintendents' manifesto calls for -- and inclined to support elements of broader education and teacher reform agendas -- I am disinclined to associate myself with a clarion call that is dishonest on its face and misserves the national need for a critical conversation and accompanying set of public policies to address issues of economic inequality. That need extends well beyond the education system and requires responses much broader than merely strengthening the teaching profession and overhauling human capital systems.

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich recently has been banging the drums challenging policymakers -- and Democrats, in particular -- to address our nation's historic levels of income inequality and rising levels of poverty. As reported by the Washington Post's Steven Pearlstein, since 1976 "virtually all of the benefits of economic growth have gone to households that, in today's terms, earn more than $110,000 a year." Further, UNICEF reports that the United States has the highest rate of childhood poverty among 24 OECD nations -- over 20% -- and the second-worst rate (barely ahead of bottom-dwelling Great Britain) of childhood well-being in the industralized world. Further, as Walt Gardner recently noted, a September 2010 U.S. Census Bureau report showed that the percentage of Americans below the poverty line in 2009 was the highest in 15 years. And the rise was steepest for children, with one in five affected. Think this has any bearing on U.S. students' relatively poor performance on international student assessments? Uh-huh.

So, let's talk about how to strengthen teaching and its central importance to student outcomes. But let's not fence ourselves in with self-serving rhetoric. Let's be honest in our communications and expansive in our thinking about policies needed to improve the lives of American children.

It's about education -- and a whole lot more.

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