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Lessons—Decrees on Fixing Schools May Fail the Reality Test

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These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.

[ THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES ON OCTOBER 3, 2001  ]

Decrees on fixing schools may fail the reality test

By  Richard Rothstein

CHICAGO — When airliners crashed into the twin towers, President Bush was giving a speech in Florida urging Congress to hurry and get an education bill to his desk. Versions passed by the House and Senate have been stalled in a conference committee since June — for good reason. They try to enact changes that are more slogans than practical solutions.

For example, the bills would require a district to intervene if a low- scoring school’s test scores did not rise enough each year. District officials would have to replace teachers, change curriculums, appoint outside experts, reduce a principal’s authority or lengthen the school term.

Such steps could turn out well or badly. When Washington decrees such detail, it may not be able to control the result.

Here in Chicago, such interventions have been tried since 1996, when some schools were put on probation. The changes were often superficial and sometimes silly. For example, schools on probation had to post a common “word of the day” in every room. This did little to improve students’ vocabularies.

When probation failed, schools were, in the official word, reconstituted. All tenured teachers had to reapply for jobs. Some judged to be performing poorly were not rehired, but some skilled ones were also let go. Snap judgments about teachers can be flawed, especially under pressure to assess so many at once.

Test scores still lagged, so reconstitution was replaced with a new term, re-engineering. Nothing much came of this, so five Chicago high schools were then put in another new program, intervention. Newly assigned principals had to observe teachers five times each and recommend if any should be removed.

Seven teachers were rated unsatisfactory last year, perhaps deservedly. But many good ones were insulted by the implicit claim that low scores at schools beset by poverty were due solely to poor teaching.

So 85 other teachers, some of whom were excellent, left these schools voluntarily. Most of them ended up at sites not on intervention where teachers would not be blamed for conditions beyond their control. To take their places, inexperienced teachers were hired. Not surprisingly, scores failed to rise again.

The plan had another flaw. Schools were identified for intervention because of test scores alone, so teachers directed disproportionate efforts to a few students whose scores were barely below passing. By bringing these up a few points, an entire school could be freed from intervention without much change at all.

Arne Duncan, the new chief executive of Chicago schools, has agreed that intervention, too, will be ended.

Similar changes have been tried elsewhere, sometimes with better results. Replacing entire staffs apparently improved some San Francisco schools, but results were so mixed that the district ended the policy.

In New York City, intervention takes the form of placing low-scoring schools under the chancellor’s direct control. Some then improve. But many stay in the Chancellor’s District for years, with little change in achievement of the students.

It is puzzling why Congress and the president think they should order takeovers of schools when this has had such uneven success.

It is only one of several overly prescriptive provisions in the bills. Another is contradictory demands for annual testing on achievement of state standards, and that results must be reported by year’s end.

Because scoring takes time — especially if tests have writing as well as multiple-choice items — the results can be ready by spring only if tests are given in winter. With standards describing what students should know at the end of a grade, winter testing ensures that most students will fail.

Another unworkable requirement, that each school show annual progress, has already been dropped by House and Senate conferees after statisticians showed that almost every school in the nation would fail. Any improving school is likely to have stagnant scores in some years, offset by gains in others. Requiring improvement every year is not feasible, even for the best schools.

So annual progress is being redefined in the conference, without hearings or expert advice. This is no way to change something as complex as American education.

President Bush denies wanting federal control of education. But this demurrer is belied by his demand for a law detailing precisely how accountability must work. Whatever value reconstitution, prompt scoring or annual improvement may have, local circumstances vary too much for these to be dictated by Washington. For example, Chicago needs freedom to correct mistakes and fine-tune policies.

Education bills have languished in conference because writing a real bill is tougher than enacting clichés like those originally passed by the House and Senate.

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