We are seeking to raise and enhance the capacities of teachers while, at the same time, placing ever greater burdens on them. But the inconvenient fact is that the nation needs nearly 4 million people to teach its children, and any number that large means the men and women who staff our schools and teach our children will be, by definition, ordinary people.
This essay is adapted from a collection titled Unlocking the Future: Next Steps for K–12 Education, that was published by Opportunity America and funded by the Walton Family Foundation.
When Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was visiting U.S. troops headed to Iraq in 2004, a soldier asked why his unit had to scrounge scrap metal in trash heaps to weld onto old Humvees to strengthen them against attacks. Rumsfeld memorably responded, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” Many thought he was being dismissive, to which he later responded in his memoir, “My response told a simple truth about warfare: As a conflict evolves, both sides adapt to the reality of the battlefield.”
Teaching isn’t combat, though education is often discussed using martial metaphors. Teachers are often said to be on the front lines or in the trenches. But there’s a lesson in Rumsfeld’s “simple truth” that can and should be applied to education: You go to school with the teachers you have, not the teachers you might wish you had. Education policymakers and administrators, however, have long been stubbornly reluctant to adapt their battle plans to the simple truths of classroom life, student readiness, and the changing labor market.
Decades of education policy have evinced unshakable faith that the way to raise student outcomes is to improve teacher quality, whether through training and certification, unlocking excellence through incentives, or by luring away the cognitive elite from more remunerative careers through some combination of higher pay or enhanced prestige. None of these strategies has been fruitful at scale, nor are they likely to be effective in the future. The inconvenient fact is that the nation needs nearly 4 million people to teach its children. Any number that large means the men and women who staff our schools and teach our children will be, by definition, ordinary people. There will never be a sufficient number of classroom saints and superstars to go around, nor enough hours in the day to meet the ever-spiraling demands we place on teachers to fulfill multiple roles, from instructional designer and deliverer to unlicensed therapist attempting to reach and teach the “whole child.”
In sum, there is a conceptual problem at the heart of our decades-long effort to improve teacher performance. We are seeking to raise and enhance the capacities of millions of teachers while, at the same time, placing ever greater burdens on them. We have known for several decades that some teachers are more effective than others. But identifying what makes them so has proven elusive. No consistent or clear relationship has been found, for example, between teacher credentialing or certification exams and classroom effectiveness. If achievable, sustainable progress is our aim, we should endeavor instead to make the job one that can be done with a reasonable degree of fidelity and success by the teachers we have, not the teachers we wish we had.
One concrete improvement to teacher effectiveness would be to reduce the burden placed on them by lesson planning, which tends to be incoherent, below standards, and incredibly time consuming, taking time away from potentially higher-yielding uses of their time and energy. Time spent creating lessons from scratch or culling them from disparate websites is time not spent analyzing student work, offering feedback, building subject matter expertise, cultivating strong relationships with parents, and other higher yield activities. While many educators argue, often strenuously, that their autonomy is sacrosanct, and for allowing teachers to build a curriculum around their students’ interests or customize their lessons to maximize their engagement, an even stronger argument can be made that the mere existence of an established curriculum allows the teacher to build expertise herself, leading to richer conversation and thoughtful questions, with deeper student thinking as a direct result.
In his 2016 book Leadership for Teacher Learning, Dylan Wiliam observes that when teachers are asked to identify something that they will stop doing or do less of to create time and space for them to explore improvements to their teaching, they fail miserably. “They go through the list of their current tasks and duties and conclude that there is nothing they can stop doing or do less of because everything that they are doing contributes to student learning,” he writes. “In my experience, it is hardly ever the case that teachers are doing things that are unproductive. This is why leadership in education is so challenging. The essence of effective leadership is stopping people from doing good things to give them time to do even better things.”
Wiliam’s insight deserves careful reflection among education leaders and policymakers alike. It is beyond the scope of this brief article to describe all the ways in which we have made teachers’ jobs unmanageable for “the army we have.” What is needed is a new approach to a persistent problem: Let’s not ask what more teachers can do. Ask instead what are the things that only a teacher can do. Everything else should be a job for someone else.
Education officials across America continue to make dumb decisions in the name of equity. This folly needs to stop.
Don’t worry, this is not another conservative screed blasting “equity” as opposed to “equality.” To be sure, I sympathize with those on the right who detest the drive for “equality of outcomes”—which “equity” has come to mean for some. Regrettably, that construction conjures the specter of race preferences in college admissions and hiring; redistribution of resources via a welfare state; and a doubling-down on identity politics.
But as an O.G. education reformer, I’m comfortable with “equality of outcomes” in some circumstances. After all, the whole point of No Child Left Behind and similar policies was to narrow the achievement gap. (Look at its first page: “An Act to close the achievement gap with accountability, flexibility, and choice, so that no child is left behind.”) We should be angry that achievement scores, graduation rates, college completion, and every other educational indicator are still so highly correlated with race and class, and we should continue to work to change that fact of American life.
In other words, I respect the equity impulse, the desire to bend our system toward the needs of our most disadvantaged students—students who are disproportionately poor, Black, and Brown.
But there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about this. Leveling up is the right way. Leveling down is the wrong way. Expanding access and opportunity is the right way. Lowering standards is the wrong way.
Guess which way is gaining steam?
Let’s look at a few recent examples:
- “To increase equity, school districts eliminate honors classes“
- “Changes in grading and homework policies are turning education upside down“
- “San Diego Unified parents to share concerns over ‘Restorative Discipline Policy’“
In each of these cases, public education leaders are trying to take the easy way out.
Start with mounting hostility to honors courses and other opportunities for advanced learning. There’s no doubt that Black, Brown, and low-income students are underrepresented in such classes, which is no surprise given the achievement gap that is apparent all the way back to kindergarten. Diversifying these classes is an important goal, and one that takes hard work. It means finding academically talented kids from underrepresented groups as early as possible—as in grades K–2—and nurturing their talents with robust “gifted and talented” programs, grade-skipping, after school enrichment—whatever it takes to help students stay on an advanced track. (No, we’re not good at this.) It also means looking for students—again, as early as possible—who may not yet test well but have the potential to be academic high-flyers with the right support.
Or districts can just get rid of honors courses.
The same thing goes for homework. Yes, it’s hard for some kids to do homework at home, given lackluster internet connections, unstable families, crowded homes, and so on. But there are obvious, age-old solutions, such as keeping schools open in the afternoon or building study halls into the school day. These could be staffed by teachers or aides and powered by schools’ robust internet access, so kids can do their homework at school—or at the Y or even in a church social hall—and get help from caring adults. But that takes finding the money, managing logistics, and convincing some adults to take on new roles or stay late.
So let’s just ban homework instead.
Likewise, with discipline. Racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions are similar in size to achievement gaps—not surprising since both stem from the same underlying cause: vastly different socio-economic circumstances. It makes sense to try to find more effective ways to correct student misbehavior than giving offenders a vacation from school. But again, there are no easy answers. Many misbehaving students need significant mental health supports, such as regular and intensive cognitive-behavioral therapy. The most violent children and teenagers need alternative placements, to keep themselves and others safe. These are challenging issues, which can bring great cost and controversy.
So instead let’s just tell teachers that they can no long send misbehaving students to the principal’s office.
Excellence is the answer
The easy-way-out approach to equity is a form of mediocrity. It’s like a high school football team that only runs the ball because it doesn’t have the skill to put together an effective pass offense. And mediocrity—not excellence—is the enemy of equity. As I wrote recently, excellence is the antidote to inequality—excellent teaching, excellent classroom management, excellent implementation, and a culture of excellence and high expectations.
Nor do the equity shortcuts work. Ban honors classes, and affluent tiger moms (of all races) will find advanced learning opportunities for their kiddos outside of school or bolt for private schools. Outlaw homework, and those same tiger moms will make their kids do Kumon or Khan Academy. Turn schools into unruly dystopias, and watch anyone with means escape the sinking ship.
And at the end of all of that, guess who suffers? The poor, Black, and Brown students that equity warriors supposedly worry about.
No more shortcuts. No more idiocy. Equity is not a good reason to lower standards—in academics, grading, homework, or discipline. There is no good reason to do those things—and none of them, in the end, advances equity.
Editor’s note: This was also published as an article in an edition of “Advance,” a newsletter from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute edited by Brandon Wright, our Editorial Director, and published every other week. Its purpose is to monitor the progress of advanced education (a.k.a. “gifted” education) in America, including legal and legislative developments, policy and leadership changes, emerging research, grassroots efforts, and more. You can subscribe on the Fordham Institute website and the newsletter’s Substack.
In the summer of 2015, I sat at my desk and Googled “health savings account providers.” At the time, I had been in states across the country advocating for creation of education savings account (ESA) programs. Arizona’s trailblazing ESA program had passed a few years earlier, Florida’s program was in its first year, and legislators in Mississippi, Tennessee, and Nevada had just enacted their own programs.
But there was low confidence in the sector’s ability to actually administer these things. The word on the street in Arizona, for example, was that the state department of education was having a hard time implementing its program—despite only serving around 1,000 students. Parents were frustrated while waiting for reimbursements, there was a huge backlog, and there was concern that some parents could be misusing funds.
What we needed were some technically savvy and experienced program administrators to come to the rescue.
Health Savings Accounts had been the analog we were striving to reach. HSAs were diffuse in the population, gave people more spending power, were fairly easy to use, and had a low incidence of fraud. So, with the help of Google, I scoured company websites and LinkedIn profiles, then shot off dozens of emails to unacquainted individuals in a sector I knew little about—all in the hope they could help our little programs.
A handful of people responded, a few informational meetings took place, and a couple HSA administration companies tried out ESA administration services. One company even put up some capital to build out services for Nevada’s ESA program—the first universal program enacted in the country. The program was sued, the state’s supreme court sided with the plaintiffs, and the nascent program was shut down before it could get off the ground. To say it was dispiriting is an understatement.
Plenty of ed-reform friends looked on with skepticism—as they still do today. School choice is fine—but full-on education choice? There just wasn’t the infrastructure to create a parent-friendly and fraud-proof system, let alone the infrastructure to support parents in making “quality” choices.
Many were undeterred and kept pushing. More suboptimal ESA programs were created. Skeptical lawmakers amended bills down so that something like maybe 100 kids across the state could actually use or benefit from the program. But we worked to expand and improve.
That work has paid off. Today there are twelve ESA programs, with the four that offer universal eligibility all having been enacted in the past couple of years. People have gone from confusing ESAs with Coverdell accounts to now using ESAs as shorthand for education choice in policy circles. Lawmakers and advocates on the ground are pushing for more of it, and other states are on the precipice of passing major ESA policies.
Many friends in the reform space are again urging caution. It’s too big, too soon, with not enough guardrails. Parents might make bad decisions. Bad press will lead to the programs’ demise.
Of course we want to keep programs functional and up and running. It’s fairly demeaning to assume we just woke up one day and didn’t think this through. We’ve been here talking about ESA accountability versus optionality for the past couple of decades. We have been investing time and treasure in a wide range of activities—creating communities of practice among program administrators, investing in parent navigation services and organizations, identifying and sharing lessons learned, improving rules and parent handbooks, creating parent review committees, and much more.
We’re far from implementation nirvana, but gone are the days of cold-calling random companies to explain the concept and beg them to help out. Today, at least five companies compete over state RFPs to help with the administration of ESA programs—creating a healthy, competitive market to make parent-friendly and accountable services that stand out from the pack. Parent support organizations are developing locally to help parents navigate options by connecting them to real humans to talk through options. Nonprofit organizations and philanthropies are getting the word out to disadvantaged communities to ensure that those with the least are armed with the most information.
But there is an important nuance. These efforts are not for regulators. They aren’t meant to slow growth to a pace that bureaucrats are comfortable with. And we’re not focused on limiting ESA expenses beyond those that are objectively inappropriate. The aim is to effectively move away from the precautionary principle that has dominated education policy for the past several decades, and towards a more permissionless approach that places far greater control with families and educators to determine quality.
The infrastructure is being developed because advocates continued to push for better-designed, functional programs that serve a larger population. They did not fall into the classic education-reform trap of leading with regulations to suffocate a market before it even starts to serve families. As the market grows, so will the demand for education navigators and counselors, platforms to streamline approved purchases, rating systems that capture the lived experiences of families so that others may benefit from their views—and maybe even HSA-like debit cards.
Will this work satisfy our interested but skeptical friends? I’m not sure. I look at the long list of subjective ESA expenses and think that’s great. Many have said it opens us up to attacks. But as Samuel Johnson once said, “Nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections must first be overcome.”
So my advice to ESA advocates is to not slow down. The wave of ESAs happening now was built on a decade of trial and error, with lots of error along the way. Had we heeded the warnings of those before, today’s wave would be a trickle.
The latest report from UVA’s Partnership for Leaders in Education is breathlessly upbeat about the opportunities for radical, disruptive changes in K–12 education.
The authors interviewed eighteen “strategically selected” superintendents, half of whom were connected with the partnership’s previous innovation and improvement work, and solicited feedback from another twenty-five individuals at various leadership levels. The focus was on opportunities to speed up Covid-disruption recovery with a goal of improved outcomes for students, among other things. The analysts synthesized their responses and identified four broad areas in which these leaders have been innovating to achieve “dramatically improved results.”
First up: innovative secondary models. This area largely focuses on how and how well high schools prepare students for a range of postsecondary options, including college and career. Areas of innovation include career and technical education specific to regional employment needs, improving access to early college courses, and increasing project-based learning opportunities.
Second: far-reaching academic acceleration. Actions highlighted here include reevaluating priority standards and pacing guides to squeeze more content into available time, extended day or year calendars, changing curricular materials away from those that have not worked, and a greater focus on social-emotional learning.
Third: creative staffing. Some examples include higher teacher pay to aid in retention, grow-your-own programs to boost recruitment, and new community partnerships to help diversify the adults working in all capacities in schools.
Finally: equitable resource reallocation. This means reviewing how dollars are allocated in districts and individual schools and making changes to prioritize real student needs.
How did these transformations—some of them very big asks indeed—get underway? Leadership, say the authors. Not through top-down edicts and sweeping revamps by newcomers, but by building teams and creating buy-in from large groups of individuals, and then investing in the training needed to equip the future doers to go forth and do. A number of district leaders are featured throughout, along with analysis of their impacts. However, details on the outcomes of most efforts are scarce, and the timelines indicate that many of them likely started before the pandemic. Given the effort required to start—let alone complete—these transformations, the Covid-era framing of the report seems unlikely and a bit too convenient.
This report is mainly sizzle with a little bit of steak, with absolutely no gristle allowed. For example, discussion of Cleveland Metropolitan School District’s “successful” luring of the Say Yes college scholarship program to northeast Ohio does not include the precarious funding gap that is only partially plugged by an unplanned infusion of one-time ESSER money from the city. This is not to impugn the efforts, the potential benefits, or the commitment of city officials, but implementation and cost realities are notably absent throughout this report.
America’s school leaders have certainly learned a lesson or two from the fallout of pandemic disruption, and most want to do things differently to dig out. But if entire entrenched bureaucracies have to give way before any such transformations can get started (let alone stick), then two other impacts of the pandemic—enrollment losses and a burgeoning of school choice—will be the actual guiding forces of transformation.
SOURCE: William Robinson, Amy Dujon, and Margaret Graney, “Exploring New Frontiers for K–12 Systems Transformation,” UVA Partnership for Leaders in Education (February 2023).
In recent years, research on the relationship between content knowledge and reading achievement has proliferated. Without sufficient background knowledge, analysts find, students struggle in reading—a pressing concern, as more than two-thirds of American fourth graders cannot yet read proficiently. Statistics are even more troubling for fourth graders from underserved groups: 79 percent of Hispanic students, 83 percent of Black students, and 89 percent of students with disabilities score below proficient on national reading assessments.
How, then, can we build students’ content knowledge, both for its own sake and to improve reading achievement? To this end, a new report from the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) investigates institutional gaps in preparing elementary school teachers to enter the classroom.
Since 2006, NCTQ’s Teacher Prep Review series has evaluated teacher preparation programs and made recommendations for better serving prospective educators and thus their future students. For this latest review, researchers studied university catalogs and course, program, and concentration descriptions for undergraduate-level elementary teacher programs at 437 institutions. They analyzed courses that covered the science and social studies topics most essential to elementary classroom instruction, since the early years are critical for building a knowledge base. Once students reach middle and high school, it may be too late for them to “catch up” with knowledge-wealthier peers.
Overall, NCTQ found that most teacher preparation programs offer enough courses to cover most of the science and social studies content that their candidates need to know. Yet only 3 percent actually require their prospective educators to pursue this range and depth of study. In many cases, teacher candidates receive insufficient guidance about what courses will best prepare them. At one school, for example, the irrelevant course option “Sports History and American Character” counts toward the same credit as “American Government.” In other cases, requirements compel candidates to choose between equally important topics. A prospective teacher might have space in her course load to take Introductory Biology or Earth Science, but not both.
Further, a handful of key topics—world history, economics, and engineering—are not available at all to most candidates. At first glance, engineering might not seem like vital knowledge for a first grade educator, but the report highlights the benefits of classes like Drexel University’s Teaching Engineering Concepts to Children, pointing out that interest and background knowledge in STEM fields should start early.
Accompanying NCTQ’s digital report is its Content Coverage Tool, which allows users to explore detailed findings for the institutions included in the study. A course analysis page for each institution features a table of relevant courses and key topics they address. At Auburn University, for instance, Dynamic Earth partially covers the Earth & Space Sciences knowledge base that NCTQ considers crucial for elementary school teachers. Then, on each institution’s personalized recommendations page, NCTQ identifies its “most aligned” courses, calculates how much recommended content could be studied by a teacher candidate, and offers key recommendations for improving content coverage.
Although many teachers-to-be are not currently developing the knowledge base they need, NCTQ explains, institutions can do more to promote relevant courses, as well as revise and add courses to address missing content. And if preparation programs are truly serious about better preparing future educators, they may want to go further than the report’s recommendations by actually changing coursework requirements. Equipping young people with stronger content knowledge will not only improve reading achievement, but also better prepare them for college, career, and citizenship—and the steps outlined in NCTQ’s report offer a good place to start.
SOURCE: Building Content Knowledge, National Council on Teacher Quality (February 2023).
On this week’s Education Gadfly Show podcast, Michael Horn joins Mike Petrilli and David Griffith to discuss what schools can do to protect kids’ mental health and whether social media is making it worse. Then, on the Research Minute, Amber explores why schools seem to make more progress on math tests than reading tests.
- Michael Horn’s latest book, From Reopen to Reinvent: (Re)Creating School for Every Child
- “Teen girls report record levels of sadness, C.D.C. Finds” —New York Times
- “How to help young people limit screen time—and feel better about how they look” —NPR
- “Is politics making kids depressed?” —Wall Street Journal
- Jonathan Haidt’s Substack, After Babel
- The study that Amber reviewed on the Research Minute: Evan Riehl and Meredith Welch, “Accountability, Test Prep Incentives, and the Design of Math and English Exams,” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management (September 26, 2022)
Have ideas for improving our podcast? Send them to our producer Nathaniel Grossman at [email protected].
- Americans should oppose Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s “anti-woke” power grabs in education because they counter the left’s illiberalism with the right’s. —The Bulwark
- Arkansas joins a growing list of red states in passing a universal ESA program. —American Federation for Children
- “Unaccountable philanthropy” can take risks and lean into the “messiness of innovation and failure that is inherent in progress.” —Andrew Rotherham
- Louisiana State Education Superintendent Cade Brumley has proposed an across-the-board $2,000 teacher pay raise with another $1,000 for highly-effective teachers. —The Advocate
- Increasing school autonomy is not a silver bullet for improvement, so we shouldn’t expect districts to function like charter schools. —The 74
- “Schools still pouring money into reading materials that teach kids to guess.” —The 74
- Many schools are failing to inform parents that their children are struggling with learning loss. —AP News
- One newspaper wants to water down Governor Mike DeWine’s proposal to make science of reading the cornerstone of Ohio’s schooling. —Cleveland.com
- “Why smartphones might make adolescents anxious and depressed.” —Freddie deBoer
- For certain students, a high-pressure school culture of achievement can lead to anxiety and depression. —Atlantic
- “The strange death of education reform, part one.” —Matthew Yglesias
- Chicago’s mayoral run-off election will pit a veteran school reformer against a teachers union organizer. —Chalkbeat Chicago
- The culture war is less pervasive than we think: “most Americans...agree on a shared collection of practical education issues.” —Bruno V. Manno
- A new survey shows that teachers are still struggling with the surge in student misbehavior that began during the pandemic. —Chalkbeat
- An American education company provides detailed lesson plans to teachers in developing nations, aligning their instruction with best practices. —Economist