Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Special report: He was the son of a teacher, man!

INTERLUDE—ANDREAS THE GIANT (permalink): Heaven help the poor American school child! This morning, a high-toned European bureaucrat has leaped to his/her defense.

The Euro in question is Andreas Schleicher, reporting live and direct from a tufted pillow in Paris. Even worse, Schleicher is on his way to this country, where he plans to expound. Sam Dillon has a few of the details in today’s New York Times:

DILLON (3/16/11): To improve its public schools, the United States should raise the status of the teaching profession by recruiting more qualified candidates, training them better and paying them more, according to a new report on comparative educational systems.

Andreas Schleicher, who oversees the international achievement test known by its acronym Pisa, says in his report that top-scoring countries like Korea, Singapore and Finland recruit only high-performing college graduates for teaching positions, support them with mentoring and other help in the classroom, and take steps to raise respect for the profession.

“Teaching in the U.S. is unfortunately no longer a high-status occupation,” Mr. Schleicher says in the report, prepared in advance of an educational conference that opens in New York on Wednesday. “Despite the characterization of some that teaching is an easy job, with short hours and summers off, the fact is that successful, dedicated teachers in the U.S. work long hours for little pay and, in many cases, insufficient support from their leadership.”

Oh good grief! That’s all we need—help from Andreas the giant! “U.S. Is Urged to Raise Teachers’ Status,” the New York Times headline says.

What seems to be wrong with Schleicher’s report? Let’s note three areas, starting with the least significant:

Teacher pay: Direct from Paris, Schleicher enters the current debate about American teacher compensation. Some of his data may be instructive, but given the way our politics works, his advice-from-abroad may well be unhelpful. “The fact is that successful, dedicated teachers in the U.S. work long hours for little pay,” Schleicher says from his Paris salon, thoughtfully setting his Dickens aside. A bit later, Dillon fleshes out some of the relevant data:

DILLON: Raising teachers’ status is not mainly about raising salaries, the report says, but pay is a factor.

According to O.E.C.D. data, the average salary of a veteran elementary teacher here was $44,172 in 2008, higher than the average of $39,426 across all O.E.C.D countries (the figures were converted to compare the purchasing power of each currency).

But that salary level was 40 percent below the average salary of other American college graduates. In Finland, by comparison, the veteran teacher’s salary was 13 percent less than that of the average college graduate’s.

Say what? American teachers “work long hours for little pay.” But their pay turns out to be substantially higher than the OECD average!

Please note: The OECD includes several countries which are fairly poor. Beyond that, the fact that American teachers’ salary level is “40 percent below the average salary of other American college graduates” should be duly noted. On the other hand, it might be better to use median salaries, given the way our salary structure now includes massive compensation for a fair number of lucky duckies. And of course, we all know by now that compensation includes more than mere salary—it also involves pension and benefits.

What’s the truth about American teachers’ pay as compared to the rest of the world? We don’t know, but Schleicher’s scolding comments from Paris may not be especially helpful in the current debate. By the way: The next time you hear the well-scripted point about the way Finland values its teachers, remember the figure above, if it’s accurate. We’re constantly told that Finland “recruits only high-performing college graduates for teaching positions.” We’re usually told that Finland’s teachers are drawn from the top third of all college grads—but it seems they get paid less than the average college graduate.

Those infernal common standards: All good bureaucrats know they must cite the need for common standards, whatever that might turn out to mean. Schleicher’s report may even be clear. Dillon’s synopsis is not:

DILLON: The “five things U.S. education reformers could learn” from the high-performing countries, the report says, include adopting common academic standards—an effort well under way here, led by state governors—developing better tests for use by teachers in diagnosing students’ day-to-day learning needs and training more effective school leaders.

“Make a concerted effort to raise the status of the teaching profession” was the top recommendation.

Do we need “common standards” for all 50 states? Or do we need “common standards” for all students in a given grade? Dillon doesn’t explain, though he assures us we’re well on the way to achieving the goal. Who knows? Schleicher may even make some sense on this point, though we think that’s highly unlikely. By now, everyone praises “common standards,” though no one ever seems to explain how this works within the American context, where many kids are doing quite well and many kids are way behind traditional norms. What’s wrong with “common standards” in the American context? Here’s Ronald Wolk, founder of Education Week, in a recent column:

WOLK (3/9/11): The brunt of [American educational] failure falls on poor and minority children, who are on the wrong side of an unyielding achievement gap. It is no coincidence that the gap is between white and most minority students. More than half of all African-American, Hispanic, and Native American students reach the 9th grade without being able to score proficient on reading and math tests. These students are more likely to fail the high-stakes tests and to drop out. They are least likely to attend college, and, if they do, they are most likely to leave without a degree.

To assume that these students fail because of “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” as President George W. Bush suggested in making the case for the No Child Left Behind Act, is preposterous. Their failure is due to the hard bigotry that generations of these kids have suffered. And high common standards won’t rectify that. Indeed, they divert attention away from the real problem by creating the illusion that things will improve if students and teachers are held to even higher standards.

In our view, Wolk makes many puzzling claims in this piece; for one example, that achievement gap hasn’t been “unyielding.” (Though substantial gaps still exist.) But in this particular passage, Wolk is right on the mark. Why would “higher common standards” help deserving kids who may be years behind their middle-class peers? How would “common standards” work in our schools at all, given our wide achievement gaps? Should kids who are years below grade level be taught the same things as our highest achievers? We first raised this question in 1989, in the Baltimore Sunday Sun. From that day to this, we’ve never seen the question addressed. But even bureaucrats in Paris know they must author this plea.

Has Schleicher ever set foot in a low-income American school? Or do his hands remain scented and clean?

Helpful collaboration: It gets worse. Schleicher isn’t doing all this on his own. He has an American friend:

DILLON: Mr. Schleicher is a senior official at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or O.E.C.D., a Paris group that includes the world’s major industrial powers. He wrote the new report, “What the U.S. Can Learn from the World’s Most Successful Education Reform Efforts,” with Steven L. Paine, a CTB/McGraw-Hill vice president who is a former West Virginia schools superintendent, for the McGraw-Hill Research Foundation.

If one were to take the comedy angle, one of the pair is straight from Paris, the other is from Cabin Creek! But let’s resist that obvious approach, while noting another that’s equally obvious. Paine may be a smart, well-intentioned person. But CTB/McGraw-Hill is a major corporate player in the world of education, especially in the part of that world which revolves around constant testing. We favor annual testing ourselves; we’re also intrigued by the idea that we need “better tests for use by teachers in diagnosing students’ day-to-day learning needs.” But it’s amazing to see how routinely apparent conflicts of interest arise in our corporatized world.

A Parisian giant is coming to town; he plans to denounce our Dickensian ways. Does he know what he’s talking about? Not likely. If his partner makes a few bucks in the process, how could that really be bad?

Tomorrow—part 2: Why does it fall to the New York Post to explain the latest scam?