Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Susan Neuman's comments on Race to the Top, and mine

Here is an excerpt from Susan Neuman's comments on Race to the Top. Neuman, now a Professor at the University of Michigan was formerly the Asst. Secretary of Education under George W. Bush:

Teachers work on the basis of incentives, rather than disincentives. It would be wiser to focus on guidelines that ensured teacher decision-making; quality professional development; smaller classes; smaller teacher-child ratios in hard to staff schools; and quality improvements in facilities. Compensation might be appreciated but even more important are the conditions of schooling which allow teachers to be successful or not. These guidelines place undue emphasis on teachers as the agent of change without any regard for what might make teachers more effective. As documented in numerous papers and research, it becomes difficult to do the job when there are no books, no desks, no paper, and no pencils.

These guidelines, to date, seem like a grand and very expensive experiment, with little research or experiential evidence to suggest that it will work. Having experienced the last eight years in attempting to improve quality teaching without evidence, we need to support innovation and research before resorting to these new federal efforts.

It is striking that we now have a US Department of Education with apparently no sane, rational voice like hers. My full comments are posted here. They are similar, but perhaps not so artfully expressed. Here is the conclusion:

Rather than focus our efforts on encouraging the proliferation of charter schools, and/ or tying teacher pay to standardized test scores, both of which could have the unintended negative consequences of worsening the supply of experienced, effective teachers, research suggests that it would be far better to directly address the substandard conditions in our large urban districts that lead to high teacher attrition and low student achievement, namely their overcrowded classes, full of students who badly need the attention that only a smaller class can provide.

Not only would improving classroom conditions by reducing class size work directly to narrow the achievement gap, by providing at-risk children with a better opportunity to learn, but in the long run, this would also likely lead to a more effective, experienced workforce. Instead of the chronic frustration that too often causes teachers to flee, they would now be offered a real chance to experience the job satisfaction that can only come from success at their chosen profession.

Finally, as a public school parent and head of a parent advocacy group, I strongly object to the following statement in the proposed regulations: that states should be rewarded with these funds to the extent that they show support from the following stakeholder groups:

“The State’s teachers’ union(s) and charter school authorizers; Other State and local leaders (e.g., business, community, civil rights, and education association leaders); Grant-making foundations and other funding sources; and LEAs, including public charter schools identified as LEAs under State law.”

This list egregiously leaves out public school parents, the most important stakeholder group of all.

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