Brookings Papers on Education Policy 2004 (2004) 229-247
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The Elephant in the Living Room
Each year, when national and state assessments once again reveal alarming gaps between poor and rich, minority and white, most educators are quick to blame the problem on the children themselves or their families. The common refrains are that "the children are poor," "their parents don't care," "they come to school without an adequate breakfast," and "they live in difficult neighborhoods." As a profession, education has gotten so good at pointing the finger of blame that, instead of hearing these claims as the excuses they are, much of the public has come to accept them as fact. Poor kids, in other words, perform at lower levels because they are poor. Likewise, black or Latino kids perform at lower levels because they are black or Latino (and because they are also disproportionately poor).
No wonder folks around the country are shaking their heads in disbelief at the new federal mandate to close gaps between groups over time. They simply do not believe it is possible. And education leaders are shockingly outspoken on the subject. "They may as well have decreed that pigs can fly," said the president of one state's teachers association. 1 "I have difficulty with the standards because they're so unattainable for so many of our students. . . . We just don't have the same kids they have on Long Island or Orchard Park," said a New York district superintendent. 2
Research undoubtedly fed this view. Large-scale studies such as the Coleman Report issued in 1966told the nation that schools contributed little to students' academic achievement as compared with families. 3
More recent research, however, has turned these understandings upside down. Some things that schools do matter greatly in whether students learn, or whether they do not. And the thing that matters most is good teaching. [End Page 229]
A 2002 analysis of Texas data put it this way: "The issue of whether or not there is significant variation in education quality has lingered, quite inappropriately, since the original Coleman Report. This analysis identifies large differences in the quality of education in a way that rules out the possibility that they are driven by family factors." According to the authors, "Teacher quality is a very important determinant of achievement. Systematic teacher differences drive substantial differences in student achievement." 4
Although this Texas study focused on between-school differences, differences in teacher quality do not begin or end at the schoolhouse door. Even within schools, big differences in teacher quality exist from one classroom to another. 5 Moreover, in most states there are significant differences in teacher quality between school districts of different types. 6
The core problem is that all these differences—between districts, between schools, and between classrooms—have the same primary victims: low-income children and children of color. Almost regardless of where they live, such children are taught disproportionately by the least qualified teachers.
The pattern nationally is the same no matter which indicator of teacher quality one uses—certification status, years of experience, performance on licensure exams, academic major in field, quality of undergraduate institution, or even effectiveness in producing student learning. Typically, and this is the case across the country, students who are most dependent upon their teachers for academic learning are systematically assigned to teachers with the weakest knowledge and skills.
Despite overwhelming evidence of the negative effects of the current maldistribution of teacher talent on the most vulnerable children, getting much traction on the problem has been difficult. While policymakers are often interested, the levers they have at their disposal are awfully blunt—and in many cases their close ties with teachers unions make them fearful to act. While a majority of states provide bonuses of some sort—from signing bonuses for new teachers to bonuses for board-certified veterans—only a handful have targeted those bonuses toward service in high-needs schools. 7 But education leaders are no braver. In my experience, even the most reform-minded leaders generally prefer simply to...