Monday, April 30, 2007

NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF: Gold Stars and Dunce Caps

In this presidential campaign, we need somebody who wants to address the question President Bush once raised: “Is our children learning?”

International testing shows that U.S. schools do a lousy job teaching math and science, in particular. And far too many American students aren’t going to college or even completing high school, undermining our competitiveness for decades to come.

Moreover, the U.S. education system reinforces the gulfs of poverty and race. Well-off white kids tend to go to good schools that propel them ahead, while many poor black and Hispanic kids attend bad schools that hold them back.

For inspiration, presidential candidates might look at this bold three-part plan for improving American schools:

End requirements for teacher certification.

Make tenure more difficult to get so weak teachers can be weeded out after two or three years on the job.

Award $15,000 annual bonuses to good teachers for as long as they teach at schools in low-income areas.

Those ideas are cribbed from a provocative report on education from the Hamilton Project, which is affiliated with the Brookings Institution. The report was prepared by Robert Gordon of the Center for American Progress, Thomas Kane of Harvard and Douglas Staiger of Dartmouth, and it fits in with a burst of other research pointing in similar directions.

In the past, we tried to ensure the quality of teachers through certification procedures. But that has failed. Growing evidence indicates that certification requirements limit the pool of potential teachers — and discourage midcareer switches into teaching — without accomplishing much else.

“Teachers vary considerably in the extent to which they promote student learning, but whether a teacher is certified or not is largely irrelevant to predicting their effectiveness,” concluded a report last year for the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The reality is that paper credentials can’t predict who will be an effective teacher. A half-dozen studies have found that teachers with graduate degrees aren’t any better than teachers without them. Other studies show that teachers who did well on their own SATs, or went to selective colleges or had high G.P.A.’s, don’t make significantly better teachers, either.

Yet teachers still vary tremendously in their effectiveness, as the Hamilton Project study found when it examined results in Los Angeles schools. It looked at the 25 percent of teachers who raised their students’ test scores the most, and the 25 percent who raised students’ scores the least. A student assigned to a class with a teacher in the top 25 percent could expect — after just one year — to be 10 percentile points higher than a similar student with a bottom-tier teacher.

“Moving up (or down) 10 percentile points in one year is a massive impact,” the authors wrote. “For some perspective, the black-white achievement gap nationally is roughly 34 percentile points. Therefore, if the effects were to accumulate, having a top-quartile teacher rather than a bottom-quartile teacher four years in a row would be enough to close the black-white test score gap.”

The Hamilton Project study recommends that the weakest 25 percent of new teachers should be denied tenure and eliminated after two or three years on the job (teachers improve a lot in the first two years, but not much after that). That approach, it estimates, would raise students’ average test scores by 14 percentile points by the time they graduated.

“There’s no decision that school districts make that’s more important than the decision regarding who is going to stand in front of the classroom,” Professor Kane said. “Yet most districts spend more time choosing textbooks than they do reviewing the performance of teachers on their first few years on the job.”

School reform could also play a major role in fighting poverty and spreading opportunity. One sound proposal is to pay substantial bonuses to get the most effective teachers into schools with low-income students. It’s simply unfair for America’s neediest students to be continually assigned to the weakest teachers, perhaps consigning them to another generation of poverty. Higher pay will help recruit and retain excellent teachers.

Neither Democrats nor Republicans have offered much leadership on education. Democrats have been too close to teachers’ unions to rock the boat, and Republicans don’t invest in education — so Mr. Bush’s No Child Left Behind effort has ended up as an underfinanced mess.

What we need now is for a presidential candidate to seize these ideas and run with them. Any takers?

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