The Romney Education Plan: ‘Get the teacher unions out’

by Christopher Paslay

Mitt Romney’s school reform plan calls for confronting unions, ignoring class size, and discounting teacher experience.    

Mitt Romney’s new message on the education front is his pledge to take on teachers unions in an effort to—cue the Michelle Rhee drum roll—put students first!  “We have got to put the kids first and put these teachers unions behind,” Romney said recently on Fox News Sunday.  “. . . I want there to be action taken to get the teacher unions out and to get the kids once again receiving the education they need.” 

If I didn’t know any better, I’d think Romney had just finished watching Waiting for Superman.  His belief that teachers unions are stopping public school children from receiving proper educations scores a “10” on the cliché meter and shows just how lazy he’s been when it comes to rolling up his sleeves and doing some real, evidence-based research into the many challenges facing America’s public schools. 

Teachers Unions: The Root of All Evil?

Since Romney deals in clichés (and fails to acknowledge all the good things teachers unions have done over the past 150 years, like improve conditions in schools, upgrade curriculum and teacher credentials, and make it so every child can learn to read and write, regardless of race, social class, and gender) let’s analyze the three most fashionable criticisms of teachers unions: that they give bad teachers a lifetime appointment in the classroom; that they receive cushy contracts from politicians in exchange for political support; and that they stand in the way of progress.               

As I’ve written about before (see “Ending the Myth That Tenure Protects Bad Teachers,” 3/20/12), public schools are self-regulating: teacher turnover is costing America over $7 billion annually; 17 percent of all of public school teachers quit every year; 56 percent of America’s new teachers quit within five years; and over one-quarter of America’s public school teachers have five years experience or less.  Where is the “lifetime appointment”?      

Here are the numbers behind the “cushy contracts” garnered by unions: the median salary of kindergarten teachers in 2011 was $31,500; for elementary school teachers it was $49,200; and for high school teachers it was $52,700.  As for benefits, most public school employees contribute to their pensions and medical insurance (teachers in Pennsylvania contribute 7.5 percent of every check to their pension).  This can hardly be considered “cushy”.               

As for standing in the way of progress, teachers unions opposed No Child Left Behind (but this didn’t stop it from being passed), a school reform bill that has been criticized by educational policy experts across the political spectrum for it’s over reliance on flawed test data and the narrowing of school curriculum; Romney himself said it needs to be significantly changed and reauthorized.  NCLB has been in place since 2002—over a decade—and the racial achievement gap hasn’t changed, nor has the achievement gap between the rich and the poor; the wealth gap has gotten bigger.

Teachers unions also oppose taking public tax dollars and putting them into privately operated charter schools (but this hasn’t stopped every state in America from doing it), a practice that has gotten mixed results at best. Charter schools perform no better academically than traditional schools, yet have the luxury of removing failing or disruptive students.  Financial mismanagement and lack of oversight are recurring problems for charters, and growing research is showing they are not equitable—English language learners, special needs students, and minorities are being weeded out.

Is this the “progress” critics of unions are talking about?   

 Teacher Pay: Old vs. New

Romney wants to pay new teachers more.  “We should pay our beginning teachers more,” Romney said at a recent campaign stop in Illinois. “The national unions are too interested in benefits for the older teachers.”

By “older teachers” does Romney mean the ones with the most skills and experience?  The ones that have dedicated their entire careers to their students and survived the poorest neighborhoods with the least amount of resources?  The ones that have for years paid out of their own pocket for classroom materials, endured the insanity of misguided school reform, forged lasting relationships with their students, and saved the lives of some of America’s most troubled youth?  Those “older teachers”?             

By “beginning teachers” does Romney mean the ones with less than five years experience?  The ones that studies show are still learning their craft and struggle with instruction and classroom management?  By “beginning teachers” does Romney mean the ones who enter the profession through Teach for America, over half of which quit in two years?  Or those who enter the field via the traditional route, over half of which quit in five years?    

 Class Size

Romney doesn’t think class size matters.  In other words, he doesn’t feel the need to increase educational funding, or worry about per pupil spending.  “I studied [class size],” Romney said in Illinois.  “There was no relationship between classroom size and how the kids did.” 

Really?  So there’s no difference between teaching a class of 33 or 23?  No difference in classroom management?  No difference in the amount of time for individualized instruction?  No difference in time for grading papers and contacting parents?  Or the money needed for resources and supplies?  Money for paper?  Books?  Laptops?  Field trips?  No difference between 23 and 33, huh?             

There is, of course, plenty of research that says class size does matter, like the U.S. Department of Education’s report analyzing the multitude of benefits achieved via Bill Clinton’s National Class Size Reduction Program.  And then there’s the State of Tennessee’s STAR report.    

From his recent remarks on the campaign trail it’s become obvious that Mitt Romney has limited knowledge of public education in America, and is simply using talking points to pander to his base.  Either way, he’s alienating millions of hard working school teachers across the country, and putting politics ahead of the educational interest of our nation’s children.

Clearing the Record: Abington School District was Not Named in 2009 PSSA Audit

In my 3/14/12 Philadelphia Inquirer commentary, “Is city a scapegoat in cheating probe?” I mistakenly named Abington as one of 39 districts cited on the forensic audit of the 2009 PSSA exam for possible cheating.  The correct school district should have been Abington Heights in Lackawanna County.  This same mistake was made in my 3/3/12 blog post titled, “State Has Double Standard When It Comes to PSSA Cheating.”  Again, the school district should have been Abington Heights, not Abington in Montgomery County.  The post has been updated to reflect the correct district.  The Inquirer article has also been corrected and updated.          

I apologize to the Abington School District and its community for the misunderstanding.

Christopher Paslay

Is city a scapegoat in cheating probe?

“The word is out: Philadelphia’s teachers and school administrators are cheaters. Or so state Department of Education officials believe, which is why their investigation into suspicious results on state standardized tests has been expanded to include 56 city schools.

But is the state treating all school districts equally? Or is it shining a spotlight on Philadelphia in an effort to downplay the hanky-panky taking place elsewhere in the state? . . .”

This is an excerpt from my commentary in yesterday’s Philadelphia Inquirer, “Is city a scapegoat in cheating probe?”  Please click here to read the entire article.  You can respond or provide feedback by clicking on the comment button below.

Thanks for reading.

–Christopher Paslay

Let’s Flunk School Testing and Save Our Kids’ Futures

THE RUBRIC for the very first standardized test that Todd Farley scored seemed simple: one or zero. If the fourth-grade student provided just one example of bicycle safety in a drawing—wearing a helmet, both hands on the handlebars or stopping at a red light—he’d get a one. No examples—zero.

But for Farley, author of Making the Grades: My Misadventures in the Standardized Testing Industry, it wasn’t that simple. The student had indeed included one example: the rider in the drawing was wearing a helmet. He was also doing an Evel Knievel-like leap over a chasm spewing flames. Baffled, Farley consulted his supervisor; he was told that the rider was wearing a helmet and that that was enough to indicate that the child understood the basics of bicycle safety. Score: One.

Farley encountered many answers that did not quite fit the rigid set of rubrics in his 15-year career. One high school girl who wrote a beautifully moving and well-constructed essay about “A Special Place” could only rate a three out of four because her piece did not include the words “a special place.” Farley also cites a number of questionable practices by the testing company, including hiring scorers not fluent in English, requiring workers to mark one essay every two minutes for eight hours a day and little cross-checking of scores. . . .

This is an excerpt from Lisa Haver’s commentary in today’s Daily News, “Let’s flunk school testing and save our kids’ futures.”  It is an excellent analysis of the limitations of No Child Left Behind and standardized testing, and is an apropos rebuttal to Dom Giordano’s recent article “Let’s start grading teachers.”

Giordano asked for a debate, and he got one.  I hope you’re listening Dom!  You can respond or provide feedback by clicking on the comment button below.

Thanks for reading.

The Haves and Have Nots of State Exams

by Rainiel Guzmán

Not all students are required to take the PSSA exams.  Money and politics play a role. 

As the headwinds of standardized tests fast approach with all the anxiety and stress that announce their arrival—I have often wondered, are there students who may opt out of taking state mandated tests?  Believe it or not, some may.

Surely students who are learning English as a second language may opt out from taking state mandated tests. Unfortunately they cannot. ELL students are required to participate in standardized testing. Nonetheless, many states in recognition of the challenges ELL students confront exempt their test scores for the purposes of their school’s AYP status. Yet, the exemption is partial and limited.

In Pennsylvania, ELL students are excused from taking the Reading and Writing portions of the PSSA in their first year of schooling. However, they are required to participate in the Math and Science portions. Their scores are not a factor but their participation is a determinant in their school’s AYP status. One might ask, why then given this Byzantine rational is so much stress placed upon ELL students? 

Authoritative studies have demonstrated the timeframe required to acquire a second language. For example, students between 8 – 11 years old with 2 – 3 years of native language education take 5 – 7 years to test at grade level in English. Moreover, the formal education or lack of formal education prior to arriving to the United States is a major determinant in the acquisition of English as a second language.  Students with little or no formal schooling, who arrive before the age of eight, take 7 – 10 years to reach grade level norms in English language literacy.

These convoluted exemptions are married to an equally complex set of accommodations.  For example, ELL students may use a word-to-word dictionary as long as it does not provide definitions or illustrations. Likewise, its use is limited to the Math and Science tests yet it is not permitted for the Reading and Writing portions. Lost in this whirlwind of parameters is the fact that many of these exemptions and accommodations hinge greatly on the first year classification.

What happens to ELL students in their second year of schooling? They are required to take all of the tests portions. Enter the Byzantine rationale once again. The following is an excerpt from the PSSA Accommodations Guidelines:

“The USDE guidance also provides flexibility in determining who can be included in the ELL subgroup for purposes of making AYP determinations. Because ELL students exit the ELL subgroup once they attain English language proficiency, schools and districts may have difficulty demonstrating improvements on state assessments for these students. The USDE allows schools, districts, and states to include in the ELL subgroup those students who have exited anESL/bilingual education program within the past two years. AYP is determined using monitored students (former ELLs) if necessary.”

Let’s keep in mind the stress and anxiety that high-stakes tests inflect on native English students. Now try to imagine the levels of stress and anxiety in a student of English as a second language, especially those in their initial years of English language acquisition. Fortunately, exemptions do exist for some students from these levels of stress and anxiety. Yes, private, religious and home schooled children may opt out of high risk, high stress and high anxiety testing (20 U.S.C. § 7886 United States Code / § 7886. Private, religious, and home schools).

Surprised? You shouldn’t be.

Why are they exempt? you may ask. The answer is simple: private and religious schools generally operate under their own independent charter and more importantly do not receive public funds. These facts enable them to opt out of mandated state tests. Many private and religious schools opt out of state mandated assessments due to philosophical and pedagogic reasons as well. Their numbers are not to be dismissed.

In Pennsylvania there are 1,400 private schools. Nearly half of these are religiously affiliated; 530 Roman Catholic schools, 39 Jewish schools, 26 Friends schools, and 8 Episcopal schools. A uniting criterion among these schools is their belief that a child’s education should be individualized rather than standardized. Likewise, these schools cater to parents who seek out these programs and values for their children.              

I sincerely applaud these parents. However, I cannot ignore the present irony. The students with the greatest means are able to opt out. While the most vulnerable of students and with the fewest means are compelled to take assessments that ignore research and their humanity.                                                                                                                                       

As the headwinds of 2014 (100 percent proficiency under NCLB) fast approach with all the anxiety and stress that precede their arrival—I have often wondered as well, given that private and religious schools may be exempt from state mandated standardized tests and thus unencumbered with AYP, do they fall under the statutes of NCLB? The answer is simply, no. Surprised? Unfortunately, there is no exemption for your astonishment.      

Rainiel Guzman is a 2011 Lindback Distinguished Teacher Award winner.  He is an adjunct professor at Eastern University, and teaches art at Swenson Arts and Technology High School in Northeast Philadelphia.

State Has Double Standard When It Comes to Cheating on PSSA

by Christopher Paslay

The Pennsylvania Department of Education’s investigation into possible cheating on state tests has been less than transparent.  Its handling of the situation indicates a bias against Philadelphia public schools.    

The Pennsylvania Department of Education has a problem on its hands—cheating. Not just minor cheating, but cheating on a grand scale that brings into question the validity of state exams and the integrity of many highly regarded suburban districts. 

In July of 2009, a “Data Forensics Technical Report” flagged 39 districts and 10 charters across Pennsylvania (a total of 89 schools, 28 from Philadelphia) for having highly suspicious results on the 2009 PSSA exams.  According to the report, there was a 1 in 10,000 chance of these testing irregularities happening by accident.

This was troubling news for the state.  School districts like Pennsbury, Abington Heights, and Wallingford-Swarthmore were on the report, and this was not good.  The state handled this problem by burying the report and hoping it would go away; the PDE sat on it for two full years.  Then, in July of 2011, the Philadelphia Public School Notebook uncovered the report and blew the state’s cover.         

The news went viral.  Suddenly, the state was forced to address the problem of widespread cheating and the integrity of suburban schools, so State Education Secretary Ronald Tomalis ordered that investigations be conducted at all 89 schools flagged for possible cheating on the 2009 forensic data report.  He also ordered a similar forensic audit of the 2010 and 2011 PSSA tests, with special attention being paid to Philadelphia.     

On August 15, 2011, the Philadelphia School District announced the results of its internal investigation and concluded that only 13 of the 28 schools listed on the 2009 forensic report warranted further inquiry.  The state ignored these findings.    

In September of 2011, the audits of the 2010 and 2011 PSSA exams were completed and delivered to the state.  PDE spokesperson Tim Eller confirmed this in an interview with the Notebook.  Interestingly, the state refused to release this information, even after the Notebook filed requests under Pennsylvania’s Right to Know law for the information; the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records denied the requests, arguing the audits were exempt from public disclosure because they were not part of a criminal investigation.           

In January of 2012, after additional requests for the results of the 2010 and 2011 PSSA audits, PDE spokesman Tim Eller changed course and wrote in an email to the Notebook that the “PDE does not have the [2010 and 2011] forensic audits.”  It was right around this time—January 12th, to be exact—that the state cleared 22 districts and six charters of cheating, announcing that no further inquiry was needed; Pennsbury, Abington Heights, and Wallingford-Swarthmore were all cleared.  The Philadelphia School District was not cleared, and no information regarding the decision was provided by the state.

In February, as the list of suburban schools to be investigated dwindled to almost nothing, the PDE widened its inquiry into cheating on the PSSA exams to include 50 Philadelphia School District schools.  This decision was based on the 2010 and 2011 forensic audits of the PSSA tests, which the state now apparently had in its possession, but which they still had not released to the public.  No data from these reports was given to the Philadelphia School District, either.

In late February, because of cheating allegations, the state announced its decision to prohibit school teachers from Philadelphia, Hazelton, and three charter schools from administering the upcoming PSSA exams to their own students.    

Nothing exposes the state’s double standard more than its decision to place PSAA proctoring restrictions primarily on Philadelphia. If the PDE truly wanted to crack down on possible cheating, they could have made it a state-wide mandate that all districts in the state be prohibited from allowing teachers to administer state exams to their own students.  Or, they could have placed this restriction on any district previously flagged for possible testing irregularities; at the very least, the state could have applied this mandate to the 15 school districts across the state—in addition to Philadelphia and Hazelton—that are still under investigation for cheating on the 2009 PSSA exams.

But the state did not do this.  Why?  First, the state would face too big an opposition from the above communities if they forced these districts to restructure their testing schedules and logistics two weeks before the 2012 PSSAs.  Second, and more importantly, it behooves the state to turn up the spotlight on Philadelphia public schools—and downplay the involvement of districts in the rest of the state—in regards to the PSSA cheating debacle. 

In other words, it’s good for the state to send the message that cheating isn’t widespread after all, that it’s primarily Philadelphia public schools and their teachers that can’t be trusted.  This is truly an injustice, being that 200 Philly public schools—80 percent of the district—have never been implicated in anything.

The lack of transparency displayed by the state is, quite frankly, outrageous.  How many schools have been flagged for suspicious testing results on the 2010 and 2011 PSSAs?  What suburban blue-blood districts are on the list?  Why haven’t these forensic audits been made public?   Why haven’t the internal district investigations of the 89 schools flagged for cheating on the 2009 PSSA been made public?  Why have some schools been cleared and why do others require further inquiry? 

A closer look at the actual PSSA “Data Forensics Technical Report” compiled by the Data Recognition Corporation in July of 2009 shows some interesting results.  For example, on the 11th grade PSSA, under the forensic category called AYP1 (which determines if the changes in test scores have improbably changed across years), Penn Wood High School registered 6 flags, but was cleared by the state.  Frankford and Northeast high schools had 5 flags, but were not cleared as of January.  Cheltenham, Connellsville, Pleasant Valley, Strath Haven, and Strawberry Mansion high schools all had 4 flags—and all were cleared by the state, save for Strawberry Mansion.

One of the most confusing “clearances” was that of Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School—which had multiple flags across multiple grade levels (3 flags 5th grade, 3 flags 6th grade, 3 flags 7th grade, 3 flags 8th grade, 3 flags 11th grade).  Yet the state concluded there was no further inquiry needed into possible cheating.  This is quite surprising, considering instruction takes place at PA Cyber Charter at home and in cyberspace.    

The Pennsylvania Department of Education must be held accountable for their inconsistent handling of cheating on state tests.  Forensic audits of all PSSA exams must be made public, and clearances based on internal investigations must be adequately explained and justified.

Administering Standardized Tests Are Standard for Everyone—Except Philly

by Christopher Paslay

Although dozens of school districts across the state are under investigation for cheating, it appears the Pennsylvania Department of Education has singled out the Philadelphia School District for special treatment.    

The Philadelphia Public School Notebook writes:

“In the wake of concerns about cheating on state exams, the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) has prohibited Philadelphia teachers – but apparently not teachers in other districts across the state – from administering the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) test to their own students.”

This stinks for three reasons:

  1. The Philadelphia School District is being singled out, despite the fact that numerous school districts across the state are under investigations for cheating.
  2. These special restrictions on Philadelphia schools violate the uniformity of the administration of the tests and therefore keep them from being genuinely standard.
  3. The fact that the state waited until two weeks before the tests to make this announcement is unacceptable.  The logistical planning and training for the administration of these tests has been going on for weeks.  Now, Philadelphia public schools will be forced to change plans and procedures, and this may very well result in unforeseen organizational issues that could compromise the efficiency of the testing environment.  Was the state not aware of these restrictions before now?

Philadelphia School District officials, and perhaps even Mayor Nutter, must bring these equity issues to the attention of the state as soon as possible.  The city must demand that its schools be treated fairly, and not allow the state to make-up rules as it goes along.

Bloomberg Makes Teacher Rankings Public, Nails Names to Church Door

by Christopher Paslay

The Bloomberg administration has made public the performance rankings of its city schoolteachers, despite limitations of the data and flaws in the evaluation system.   

It’s official: The New York City Education Department has won the legal right to make public the performance rankings of its teachers.  An article in Friday’s New York Times summed-up the situation:   

“After a long legal battle and amid much anguish by teachers and other educators, the New York City Education Department released individual performance rankings of 18,000 public school teachers on Friday, while admonishing the news media not to use the scores to label or pillory teachers.

The reports, which name teachers as well as their schools, rank teachers based on their students’ gains on the state’s math and English exams over five years and up until the 2009-10 school year. The city released the reports after the United Federation of Teachers exhausted all legal remedies to block their public disclosure.”

The fact that the New York City Education Department felt the need to warn the media not to use the scores to ridicule teachers is interesting because it provides a window into what is truly on their minds: The public shaming of city schoolteachers. 

Bill Gates, who has donated tens of millions of dollars to public education, agrees.  In a New York Times opinion piece headlined “Shame Is Not the Solution,” he wrote:

“Many districts and states are trying to move toward better personnel systems for evaluation and improvement. Unfortunately, some education advocates in New York, Los Angeles and other cities are claiming that a good personnel system can be based on ranking teachers according to their “value-added rating”—a measurement of their impact on students’ test scores—and publicizing the names and rankings online and in the media. But shaming poorly performing teachers doesn’t fix the problem because it doesn’t give them specific feedback.

Value-added ratings are one important piece of a complete personnel system. But student test scores alone aren’t a sensitive enough measure to gauge effective teaching, nor are they diagnostic enough to identify areas of improvement. Teaching is multifaceted, complex work. A reliable evaluation system must incorporate other measures of effectiveness, like students’ feedback about their teachers and classroom observations by highly trained peer evaluators and principals.

Putting sophisticated personnel systems in place is going to take a serious commitment. Those who believe we can do it on the cheap—by doing things like making individual teachers’ performance reports public—are underestimating the level of resources needed to spur real improvement.”

Dennis M. Walcott, Chancellor of New York public schools, said his goal isn’t to shame teachers.  “I don’t want our teachers disparaged in any way, and I don’t want our teachers denigrated based on this information,” he said.  But if this is true, why make the information public?  Isn’t it enough that teachers, principals, and other school administrators in the city have access to the data to improve instruction?

Interestingly, on top of the controversial “shame” factor associated with the public rankings, there are other problems with this cost-cutting teacher evaluation system.  Here are several:

  • Only teachers of reading and math get rated, as do those who teach grades 4 – 8. 
  • The rating system—which is based on a score of 1 to 100—has an incredibly large margin for error, according to city education officials and statisticians.  On average, a teacher’s math rating could be off by as much as 35 percentage points, and in reading by 53 points. 
  • Some teachers are being judged on as few as 10 students.
  • One teacher received a ranking for a semester when she was on maternity leave.
  • Some teachers who taught English were ranked for teaching math.  
  • City officials said 3 percent of teachers have discovered that their reports were based on classes they never taught.
  • The rankings follow a predetermined bell-curve that dictates 50 percent of teachers must be ranked “average,” 20 percent must be ranked “above average” and “below average,” and 5 percent must be ranked “high” and “low”.       

But still, the data can be used to improve instruction, right? 

Probably not.  First, the data is nearly two years old and no longer relevant.  Students have moved on to new classes and teachers have new cohorts of students.  Second, a portion of the data has been discredited by suspected cheating.  Third, only 77 percent of the 18,000 teachers ranked are still employed by the Education Department, and a number of those people have taken new jobs outside the classroom.              

So how do others in the education community feel about the newly developed public rankings?  University of Wisconsin economist Douglas N. Harris, who works at the school where the rankings were created, said that making the data public “strikes me as at best unwise, at worst, absurd.” 

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan loves the idea.  “Silence is not an option,” he said.    

Noted education scholar Diane Ravitch, although acknowledging the need for strong teacher evaluation systems, wrote that the rankings exist primarily to pin society’s problems on teachers, the universal scapegoat.    

“Of course, teachers should be evaluated. They should be evaluated by experienced principals and peers. No incompetent teacher should be allowed to remain in the classroom. Those who can’t teach and can’t improve should be fired. But the current frenzy of blaming teachers for low scores smacks of a witch-hunt, the search for a scapegoat, someone to blame for a faltering economy, for the growing levels of poverty, for widening income inequality.”

It’s still unclear how a flawed rating system that will ultimately shame many schoolteachers and hurt morale is going to effectively improve instruction.  Although the New York City Education Department insists otherwise, it seems apparent the new high profile evaluations exist primarily to satisfy the public’s urge to place schoolteachers in the stocks and nail their so-called “sins” to the church door.

The mighty testing juggernaut

“There’s an old saying that weighing a cow doesn’t make it fatter. When it comes to educational testing in Pennsylvania, however, Gov. Corbett may beg to differ. His proposed 2012-13 budget calls for a 43 percent increase in funding for educational assessments, to $52 million, even as it keeps school funding generally flat and cuts spending on state-related universities.

The timing of this increase is interesting. Last year, a forensic audit of the 2009 state exams flagged 38 school districts and 10 charter schools for possible cheating; nearly half of them are still under investigation. This prompted state Education Secretary Ron Tomalis to order audits of the 2010 and 2011 tests and to require the Philadelphia School District, which had 28 schools flagged for suspicious results, to conduct an internal investigation. . . .”

This is an excerpt from my commentary in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, “The mighty testing juggernaut.”  Please click here to read the entire article.  You can respond or provide feedback by clicking on the comment button below.

Thanks for reading.

–Christopher Paslay

Historically, U.S. Education Secretaries Have Been Disconnected From The Classroom

by Christopher Paslay

Most will agree that No Child Left Behind is a flawed education reform policy.  U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told Congress this spring that the “law is fundamentally broken, and we need to fix it this year.” 

President Obama believes this to be the case, which is why he is has directed the U.S. Department of Education to grant waivers to districts that fail to meet annual benchmark standards. 

When President Bush enacted NCLB, he insisted it was a sound policy that would improve education in America.  The reality of the situation, of course, is that good policy doesn’t always translate into good practice.  Those writing policy—scholars, researchers and politicians—are not always plugged-in on the ground floor; few have substantial experience teaching at the K-12 level. 

A top-to-bottom review of those responsible for writing much of America’s education policy reveals interesting results.  Arne Duncan, President Obama’s education secretary, has no experience teaching in a K-12 public school classroom and holds no license to teach in one.  Although Duncan was the chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools, and was involved in a number of education foundations, his experience working directly with children stems from his time helping his mother run a tutoring program in Chicago, which he spoke about in a speech called “A Call to Teaching” at the Rotunda at the University of Virginia in October of 2009:

“My mother ran an inner-city afterschool program in a church basement on the South Side of Chicago, and raised my sister, brother, and me as part of her program. Every student in her afterschool program was African-American and came from a low-income family. Many of the students had to overcome tremendous adversity every day just to be in that program. When I was little, the older students tutored me. When I got older, I tutored the younger students. That is her philosophy—the 15 year-olds tutor the 10 year-olds, the 10 year-olds tutor the 5 year-olds, and the 5 year-olds help to clean the tables. I saw in that program, day after day and year after year, that a well-run tutoring program is a good thing. But I learned that a good tutoring program run by a caring adult was a great thing. The students my mother tutored felt that she understood them, and they knew that she cared deeply about what happened to them. The sense of connection that great teachers create is second only to a parent’s love in its power to transform lives.”  

Secretary Duncan’s stint helping his mother tutor a small group of urban children in a church basement was no doubt inspiring, but this experience hardly mirrors the challenges facing fulltime teachers in inner-city classrooms.      

Margaret Spellings, George W. Bush’s second-term education secretary, also had no experience teaching in a K-12 public school classroom.  Spellings graduated from the University of Houston with a bachelor’s in political science.  Her experience prior to working for the White House involved writing educational policy at the university and state level.  According to her bio on the U.S. Department of Education’s website, Spellings was the first mother of school-aged children to serve as Education Secretary, so she had a “special appreciation for the hopes and concerns of American families.”

Rod Paige, Bush’s first Education Secretary who received a doctorate in physical education from Indiana University, worked with students as a teacher and a coach, although not at the K-12 level.  Richard Riley, who served as Clinton’s Secretary of Education for both terms, was a lawyer and politician and never taught in a K-12 classroom.  Lamar Alexander, Bush Sr.’s secretary, was a politician and professor and also lacked any K-12 teaching credential.  In fact, the only Education Secretary who ever taught fulltime in a K-12 school was Terrel Bell, Ronald Regan’s first Education Secretary, who taught at the high school level in 1946-1947    

Much of the same holds true at the local level.  Mayor Michael Nutter’s chief education officer, Lori Shorr, has no K-12 teaching experience or licenses.  Although Dr. Arlene Ackerman, superintendent of Philadelphia public schools, has experience as both a K-12 classroom teacher and principal, only one of five members of Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission has any experience teaching in a K-12 school.               

In order for education policy to be sound in theory and practice, the realities of everyday K-12 classrooms—and the voices of those teachers working in them—must be accounted for.  When policy is not balanced with feedback from instructors it can in some cases do more harm than good.