The Battle over Education Reform

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The debate over how to improve K-12 public education in America has long been highly charged and contentious, but in recent years,  it’s taken on a polarizing either or  mentality. Charter schools or public schools? Eliminate teacher tenure or keep it?

Here’s a closer look at some of the ideas reformers have coalesced around: teacher reforms, charter school experimentation, character education and efforts to address non-school related factors.

Charter Schools

Charter schools are the fastest growing sector of American education, and for the past couple of years, they’ve been at the forefront of reform efforts.

Though they receive some public funding, charter schools are run by private groups and aren’t required to operate under the same laws or restrictions that govern public schools. Instead, each school sets a “charter” that details its mission, methods, goals and accountability procedures, subject to state law. Students, sometimes restricted by location, can apply for admission to a charter, and if demand exceeds supply, public lotteries determine which students are admitted. The idea, charter proponents argue, is to offer “school choice” that allows parents to opt for a better-performing public school than they might otherwise be assigned.

“One of the key lessons we’ve learned from charters over the last 20 years is that increased autonomy at the school level allows us to attract more entrepreneurial leaders, and allows them more room to innovate and design the schools that work for kids,” says Colorado state senator and charter proponent Mike Johnston.

Charters have strong support in Washington, where, in 2011, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill to expand charter schools across the country. President Obama called the schools “incubators of innovation” when declaring “National Charter Schools Week” last May. Additionally, his “Race to the Top” program, which allows schools to compete for federal money through an evaluation process, encouraged states to lift restrictions on the growth of charter schools.

Today, there are more than 5,600 charter schools across the country attended by more than 2 million students, about the same as the number of children who are home-schooled. In the 2011-2012 school year, enrollment in charter schools rose by 200,000 students compared over previous school year. But even with its rapid rise and prominent position in the education reform debate, less than 5 percent of American students are enrolled in charters.

Critics warn that charter schools shift limited district funds away from traditional public schools, resulting in teacher layoffs and programming cuts. Still, studies, like this one from Ball State University [PDF] and this one from the pro-charter group [PDF] the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, suggest that most charter students get on average less money than their public school peers.

Others are concerned about the potential for abuse in charter schools run by for-profit education management organizations (EMOs) and about increased school size as a result of EMOs seeking to grab more of market share.

Perhaps the most damning criticism of charters is performance: A much-cited 2009 Stanford University study found that 17 percent of charter schools provided a better education than local schools, 46 percent provided a comparable education and 37 percent provided a “significantly worse” education. A study by the Rand Corporation [PDF] in the same year found that charter schools produced “achievement gains that are, on average, neither substantially better nor substantially worse than those of local [public schools],” but also determined that the charters that had been operating longer had better results.

On the whole, research suggests that charters vary widely in performance by state and by type. “There are strong charters and there are weak charters,” says Johnston. “But charters represent a possibility for innovation that helps us find good practices we can adopt or scale.”

That variability leads some to some contend that the debate shouldn’t be about whether charter schools themselves are the best option, but about which policies charter schools experiment with that result in better performance.

But Johnston, a former district school principal, also points out that it’s not just charter schools that are experimenting today. In Colorado, there are innovation schools that are still district schools, “We’re seeing a whole spectrum for innovation,” he says.

Teacher Reforms

Questions about tenure, training, evaluation and how to better support educators have often pitted teachers and some reform advocates against each other, in perhaps the most divisive education policy debate.

High-profile teacher unions and other supporters of tenure — contracts that vary by state but essentially are intended to protect public school teachers from being unfairly fired — argue that it is simply a right to due process. Tenure opponents, including former D.C. public schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, say that existing tenure policies hurt students by giving teachers a “job for life” and making the process of firing ineffective teachers extremely difficult and long.

Facing union opposition, most opponents have not been able to eliminate tenure altogether, but have been able to pass state laws that establish a greater threshold for tenure. Last August, for example, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) signed a law that requires four years of teaching (rather than three) before a teacher can be granted tenure. It also enforces a ratings-based model to evaluate effectiveness for granting or revoking tenure.

Today more than two-thirds of states are currently in the process of transforming how they evaluate teachers, but there’s still a great deal of disagreement over how to — and who should — evaluate teachers for tenure or for dismissal. And despite years of testing new procedures in states like Tennessee, where schools have complained they bring more paperwork than they do results, there’s also little data to show whether student achievement is higher as a result.

Though she never succeeded in eliminating tenure within D.C. public schools, Rhee developed a teacher evaluation system based on students’ test scores that resulted in the dismissal of more than 100 teachers. The move won her acclaim, but also elicited strong backlash within D.C. and stoked a broader conversation about whether student test scores are a fair measure of teacher effectiveness or should be used to determine teacher pay.

Opponents cite research, like this study from the Economic Policy Institute [PDF], which they argue shows that student test scores alone, even when measured with the most sophisticated statistical applications, aren’t a sufficiently reliable or fair measure of teacher effectiveness. They also caution that tying test scores to dismissal could demoralize teachers and dissuade them from wanting to take work in schools with the most needy students.

“Focusing obsessively on test scores has predictable results: narrowing the curriculum (some districts and schools have dropped the arts and other subjects to make more time for testing); cheating; teaching to the tests; and distorting the whole education system for the sake of scores,” warns education scholar Diane Ravitch, one of the authors of of the EPI study.

She argues that if reformers are serious about improving schools, greater effort should be made to better train teachers and provide them with more support and better working conditions. Advocates like Ravitch point to high teacher turnover: 50 percent of entering teachers leave the profession within their first five years of teaching, often because of difficult working conditions, poor resources and stress.

In December, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, publicly proposed a “bar exam” of sorts that would test teachers at the end of education school on knowledge of their subject and of teaching. And just last week, the New York Education Reform Commission, which included Weingarten, issued a report recommending higher standards for admittance to teacher and principal preparation programs.

As for existing teachers, training and professional development programs have taken on an increasingly important role in schools across the country.

But though the federal government gives local districts more than $1 billion each year for training, there’s little independent research showing which kinds of training programs work.

“There is a sense that professional development in the teaching field isn’t very successful,” says Doug Lemov, who founded the charter network Uncommon Schools and is perhaps the most recognized advocate of teacher training. He says that’s because a lot of professional development programs are done “at teachers, instead of by them,” explaining that teachers often don’t participate in their design or development, and are likely to be driven by philosophical perspective rather than the relevant, practical problems teachers face. “One of the least acknowledged parts of the teaching profession is that it’s performance based, and while every other professional that does live work, like a surgeon or an athlete, practices before they go into the game, teacher professional development almost never involves practice,” he says.

Lemov argues the best way to solve the problem is by studying the best teachers, trying to learn from them and disseminate their methods. In 2004 he  set out to do that, using data sets to identify those teaching high poverty children who were also getting high results. His ensuing book Teach Like A Champion identifies 49 teaching techniques that he argues put students on the path to college. Among them are techniques that emphasize more student participation, students developing a habit of translating their ideas into writing and building a positive behavioral culture in the classroom. For example, “the cold call” technique encourages teachers to call on students whether or not they’ve raised their hands, which Lemov argues allows teachers to better evaluate how well a class is learning and builds a culture of engagement. And within Uncommon Schools, teachers are specializing techniques based on subject and grade level.

Lemov says his team at Uncommon Schools knows the techniques work, but are gathering data on where and how they work best through partnerships with the “New Teacher Project” in D.C., the Houston Independent School District and Roland Fryer’s Apollo 20 schools in Houston. But he’s also cautious. “My biggest fear for Teach Like A Champion is that people see input as the outcome,” he says. “I think the key thing is for teachers individually to still be accountable for their results to their principal, as opposed to being publicly published, and ultimately teachers will be the best judges for what gets them there.”

Character Education

Some of the most acclaimed charter schools, including Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) and Democracy Prep, emphasize what’s known as “character education,” or teaching non-cognitive skills like perseverance, respect, self-confidence, curiosity, self-control, grit and discipline. Though these skills aren’t measured by IQ or standardized tests, character education proponents tout a growing body of research that suggests these sorts of skills are critical to a child’s future success. The goal is to mold students to become positive contributors to society and lead engaged, purposeful lives.

Perhaps the most well-known exponent of character education is Paul Tough. In his book How Children Succeed, he explores experimental models that seek to teach these skills in the classroom. For example, Tools of the Mind, an early childhood program that Tough calls out as promising, focuses on teaching children to regulate their social, emotional and cognitive behaviors. Self-regulation, the organization believes, has a stronger association with academic achievement than IQ or entry-level reading or math skills.

Some schools are adopting these ideas on a much broader scale. The KIPP charter schools in New York City, which incorporate character development into the classroom, promote seven character strengths: zest, self-control, gratitude, curiosity, optimism, grit and social intelligence. Several times a year, students are evaluated based on their character development, which Tough says he observed serving more as a conversation piece than it does as a traditional report card.

Despite the buzz around character education, there’s evidence that existing models might not be working to raise student achievement. A recent study by the National Center for Education Research [PDF] found that none of the large-scale character education programs in the country affected student outcome.

Tough acknowledges there’s more research and work to be done. “I do think [these character skills] can be taught in the classroom,” he told The Washington Post. “But I don’t think we yet have an ideal model for exactly how to teach them in the classroom.”

Non-School Factors

What if the education problem isn’t just about schools or teachers? University of Washington economist Dan Goldhaber found that 60 percent of the differences in student test scores are explained by non-school factors like like family background and poverty, while the influences of school accounted for about 21 percent of student achievement.

Some reformers have been pushing for more public investment in low-income communities with low levels of student achievement. For example, the Harlem Children’s Zone, a charter network, provides social services to those within its 100-block neighborhood in Harlem, including one-on-one counseling to families, health clinics, community centers and an employment training center, whether or not they are affiliated with students in the schools. But this Brookings Institute report found that students who live outside the zone had the same outcome as those students living inside it, calling into question whether expensive community investment programs are the practical way forward.

But Colorado state senator Mike Johnston says we no longer have to wait to fix poverty to fix educational problems. “We know that fixing education depends mostly on highly effective teachers and highly effective leaders,” he told FRONTLINE. “We as adults just have to be able to build high expectations and support students as they try to reach those expectations.”

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