Reformers currently focus much of their policymaking on what teachers do. Constructing accountability systems has been a primary goal for reformers such as Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein. And though these systems should certainly exist (not least because they can also be a source of support and feedback when implemented properly), we should really be thinking harder about who we ask to become teachers and, by extension, administrators. The truth at the heart of the push for teacher accountability is the importance of high-quality teaching, but one has to wonder if the prescriptions of accountability systems can only go so far without getting at the root of what affects teaching quality, namely the level of talent walking in the door. And as the system stands, we should have some doubts that we really are pulling in the best people we can.
While some of the strongest performing countries share the fact that their teaching forces pull from the tops of graduating classes, our teaching force comes largely from the bottom 60 percent of its class. More unnerving still is the fact that, as John Chubb notes, the Common Core State Standards envision students reaching levels of proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress that are equivalent to just under 1200 points on the SAT (using the old scoring system). And this, one might argue, is a perfectly reasonable, rigorous standard for students. But it also puts into perspective the average SAT score of high school teachers, which is just over 1000. As Chubb explains, “In effect, our public schools are asking teachers to help students reach standards that are far above the standards that they have achieved themselves.” This is one example of the limits that might exist on our policymaking if we don’t account for what it will take to improve the prestige, pay, and lifestyle of teachers in order to attract the best talent to implement those policies.
2. We should all stop and recognize that the way we fund schools is totally crazy.
School funding in the United States is a mixture of state, local, and federal funding, with the first two sources easily accounting for the largest share of funding. And especially at the local level, where school funding depends on local property tax revenue, this funding setup can lead to big disparities in funding for schools because poorer areas of town have lower property values and thus, less of a tax base to draw money from. This leaves the kids who need extra resources at school the most with the least access to such resources. And, as the Center for American Progress points out, the increasing role of state governments in the funding of schools hasn’t improved matters much.
Certainly many schools and districts have proven that they can make scarce resources go a long way, while others have shown how easy it is to squander abundant resources. But all else equal, funding schools serving poor students at lower levels than those serving rich ones doesn’t make much sense, and it is unlikely to help students with the least resources at home catch up to their better-off peers. And yet, this fact of our school system largely goes ignored and under-discussed.
3. We should work together and put more focus on the things we all agree on.
School funding is just one example of many on which the two sides of the reform debate might reasonably find shared goals. While we spend a lot of time debating accountability and charter schools, there are plenty of things on which we might all agree and make progress if we worked hard to find consensus issues. This wouldn’t have to mean giving up on the many important debates shaping the education discussion, but it would mean putting them aside in the moments where a common goal can be found. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has shown just how these consensus education issues can succeed, even as bitter fights take place over more controversial aspects of education policy. From helping combat the undermatching problem in higher education to working to make sure all kindergartners have access to a free, full-day class at their local public school, there are many issues on which the many sides of the reform debate can work together to improve schools.
If one thing unites these three, it’s the fact that the most important policy changes don’t always take place in the most exciting or obvious of places. Whether it’s the intricacies of state funding schemes or the challenges of figuring out how to make teaching more appealing, the importance of the things we often overlook because they are boring or hard shouldn’t be ignored. Let’s speak up for the boring, agreement-filled policy changes that deserve more of our time.
CJ Libassi, a former teacher, is a public policy graduate student at the University of Michigan. Reach him via email or Twitter.