Strip Miners in Our Schools

By 04/26/2010

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(This post also appears on Rick Hess Straight Up.)

In a new forum in Education Next, Education Trust honcho Kati Haycock and Stanford economist Rick Hanushek address the issue of whether and how to more “equitably” distribute teachers (full disclosure: I’m an executive editor of Ed Next). With characteristic passion, Haycock calls for efforts to focus on attracting good teachers to high-poverty, low-performing schools. I strongly support what Haycock has to say in the exchange, but I worry about the possibility that some of her allies may take her suggestions too far.

In Ed Next, Haycock argues, “We know it is possible to bring high-quality teachers into urban schools…Districts can move up timelines for teacher resignations and transfers and give principals in hard-to-staff schools first dibs on new entrants and transfers. States and districts can establish a policy of ‘mutual consent’ that gives principals the right to choose their own teachers…States and districts can eliminate seniority-based layoffs, which should consider effectiveness instead, and make it easier to transfer or remove ineffective teachers who cannot improve.”

Moreover, Haycock cautions, “Nobody thinks forced reassignments are a good solution and nobody is seriously proposing it. Every once in a while, district leaders become frustrated and make noises about the possibility of forced reassignments. But…a better solution lies in a creative combination of targeted incentives for teachers and policies that empower administrators and school leaders to recruit and retain effective educators.” What Haycock suggests is eminently reasonable. I’m all in favor of win-win strategies to expand the pool of talented educators. These include reducing licensure barriers, improving the quality of professional development and teacher preparation, luring and retaining good teachers by recognizing and rewarding them, and so forth.

What worries me, however, is that some enthusiasts have taken the push for more equitable distribution of teachers in a more ominous direction, banging the drum for ham-handed measures that start to sound a lot like efforts to strip mine teachers from high-performing schools and classrooms so that they might be marched into high-poverty, low-performing schools and classrooms. And, honestly, if one believes that our educational agenda should be primarily defined in terms of the racial and socioeconomic “achievement gap,” you can see how this kind of strip mining might have a certain appeal. But, if you think that all kids, low-performers and high-performers alike, have a right to good teachers, this is an unsatisfactory solution–and a downright destructive one if (as I’ll argue tomorrow) it risks shrinking the pool of good teachers.

I get especially concerned when well-intentioned enthusiasts start talking about “equitable” distribution without much seeming to care about unintended consequences. The Race to the Top guidance, for instance, blithely attached points to states for “ensuring equitable distribution of effective teachers and principals” and to their having “ambitious yet achievable annual targets to increase the number and percentage of highly effective teachers…in high-poverty schools.” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has bluntly asserted, “We’re still waiting to get great teachers and principals into underperforming schools…We’re still waiting and we can’t wait any longer.” Truth be told, Haycock hasn’t always been as careful to reject strip mining as she is in the Ed Next exchange. She once wrote in a column for the Organization of American Historians stating, “Actually, if we had our druthers, we would push for a policy requiring that, for the next two decades or so, [poor and minority] students should systematically be assigned our best teachers.” And more than a few proposals for NCLB reauthorization regarding Title I allocations and teacher quality start to tread dangerously close to encouraging strip mining.

Even if one agrees with the sensible premise that we need to be more aggressive to get more good teachers into low-performing schools, there are reasons to be leery of the strip miners. For one thing, it’s not clear the problem is as cut-and-dry as the strip miners presume. Hanushek cautions in Ed Next that the evidence that low-performing schools are systematically shortchanged on teacher talent isn’t as clear as Haycock asserts. He points out, “Unfortunately, direct evidence on the distribution of teacher quality and its impact for disadvantaged students is hard to come by. Researcher Marguerite Roza and others have produced considerable evidence that teachers in schools serving the most-disadvantaged students have lower average salaries…[and] there is also evidence that these schools tend to have more teachers with emergency credentials and without regular certification…The problem is that these readily measured attributes of teachers have virtually nothing to do with teacher effectiveness.” (Mike Petrilli tackled this issue last week in a controversial post).

Democrats for Education Reform board member Whitney Tilson denounced Hanushek’s take as “nonsense,” arguing that “the dirty little secret of American education” is that the “top one-third of students” get the “best one-third of teachers” (see here and here). We’ll just set aside this peculiarly high-handed dismissal of a measured assessment by one of the nation’s most accomplished education economists.

Tilson cited data from Illinois and Tennessee to show that teachers working with high-achieving students are far more likely to be flagged as effective by state value-added systems and performance metrics. He also pointed out that University of Virginia researchers studying first-grade classrooms found low-income and nonwhite students were more likely to be in “lower overall quality classrooms” (which isn’t quite the same thing as having lousier teachers). Me, I’m not entirely sold. Strikes me that that there’s a serious specification issue and potential tautology involved in asserting that the “top one-third of students” get the “best one-third of teachers,” especially when the gauge of teacher quality is student performance. I think Hanushek’s sensible caution is the smart stance here.

This post is already a long ‘un, so I’m going to cut the cord and get to the potentially destructive impact of strip mining tomorrow.

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