AISR Speaks Out: Commentary on Urban Education
Ensuring That Teaching Quality Reforms Address Race- and Income-Based Inequities
The publication of our latest edition of “Voices in Urban Education” (VUE), entitled “Effective Teaching as a Civil Right” (No. 31, Fall 2011), marks the culmination of an odyssey that began last March at the Civil Rights Research Roundtable, convened in our nation’s capital by the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at the University of California Berkeley School of Law.
The Roundtable, as I’ve described in a previous commentary (March 17, 2011), focused on equitable access to effective teaching and was structured around a series of research presentations on defining, measuring, and analyzing effective teaching, specifically in high minority, high-poverty urban schools – and what supports, practices, and policies are needed to end the intractable achievement and opportunity gaps between affluent white students and their low-income counterparts of color.
What emerged from the Roundtable, as I noted in the commentary, were two broad and very different theories of action when describing teacher effectiveness: performance management and instructional capacity building. While the two theories are not incompatible, the dominance of the performance management perspective at a meeting of civil rights advocates was striking to me since this posture treats culture, race, ethnicity, gender, and economic circumstance as demographic background features rather than potent forces that shape individual and institutional actions differentially.
That post-Roundtable commentary generated numerous comments from a variety of perspectives, which spurred the thought that this rich discussion could be captured in a future issue of VUE. With the support of and collaboration with the Warren Institute, we pursued that objective.
Persistent Race- and Income-Based Gaps in Access and Achievement
VUE 31, issued in October, provided a forum for a mix of contributors to explore the respective differences in values and approaches between these diverse theories of action, along with the implications for equity. What emerged was both common ground and disagreement among the authors; however, what was abundantly clear is that education has not yet served as the “great equalizer,” as VUE contributor and Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Susan Moore Johnson noted in her article “Delivering on the Promise of Public Schooling.” The achievement gap persists.
If new reforms do not address race- and income-based gaps in achievement and access to effective teaching, they risk perpetrating or exacerbating historic inequities that stand in stark contradiction to our nation’s values of justice, democracy and opportunity.
She recommends three areas where state and federal policy can influence the access of low-income students of color to effective teaching: emphasize solutions at the organizational level; recognize the variation across “high-minority, high-poverty” schools; and build equity into reform. Furthermore, she underscores that to fully close the achievement gap, a “complementary suite of policies and programmatic interventions designed to ameliorate the broader disparities in our communities” is required.
Teaching Quality: A Combination of Individual and Institutional Characteristics
Although it is well established that teachers are the single most important school-level factor in students’ achievement and, furthermore, that teachers differ in their effectiveness, there’s no solid evidence that explains that difference. Progress in achieving equity will likely rely on a better understanding of individual teacher characteristics and training, differences in instruction strategies, and school context, and how they interrelate.
At the Roundtable, Duke University’s Helen Ladd reported on research indicating that teacher qualifications do, in fact, have a significant impact on success in the classroom, and low-income and minority students are often taught by teachers with weaker qualifications than affluent students. Also, research strongly suggests that disadvantaged students are more likely to be assigned to ineffective teachers; however, it’s unclear which instructional practices yield effective teachers.
While researchers may ultimately reach agreement on the mix of individual characteristics and practices that make some teachers more effective than others, the schools in which they teach are not equal in the context they offer for teaching and learning.
VUE 31 article author Elaine Allensworth, senior director and chief research officer at the Consortium in Chicago School Research, reported on a strong correlation between schools with high teacher turnover and those which serve more disadvantaged and African American students. A related finding noted that those schools with staffing stability tend to be interdependent organizations with a supportive environment, strong principals, and frequent collaboration among teachers. It’s not enough for schools serving high poverty, high-need students to simply hire and retain effective teachers to improve results; those schools must become places where teachers can thrive.
Moore Johnson reinforced a related point:
It makes no sense to assign successful teachers to dysfunctional schools . . . in the hope that skilled individuals will overcome serious organizational limitations. Students and teachers alike deserve to have schools that encourage and support focused teaching and learning.
Furthermore, as Allensworth concluded in her article,
Schools that struggle with low achievement, especially those serving the most impoverished communities, face extraordinary challenges in developing strong organizations that can maintain a strong teaching staff. But building those organizational supports is what is needed to provide a high-quality instructional environment for all students and improve equity in educational outcomes.
Nor all good teachers equally effective in all contexts. VUE 31 author Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University points out, “A teacher who is effective within her own field of preparation or with affluent students may not be effective in other circumstances.”
Equal Access to Opportunity through Community-Centered Reform
The debate on teacher effectiveness will surely continue, with the popularity of the performance management strategy and its quantitative measures increasing among policymakers seeking a definitive return on the investment in public education. However, VUE 31 contributor Joseph Bishop, former director of education at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund, contends that performance management and instructional capacity-building strategies will “need to coexist as part of the current discourse on teacher effectiveness and public education,” and furthermore,
Instructional capacity building and developing human capital in schools is the only possible way to produce the type of student learning outcomes that performance management aims to achieve.
There is no debate, however, on the continued existence of the wide achievement gap in our nation. The Annenberg Institute contends that addressing this disparity and developing sustainable education reform at scale require the combined commitment, efforts, and investment of an entire community. The objective is to create a coherent organization that ensures that all students have access to the services and supports they need.
This kind of community-centered education reform can strengthen the effectiveness and sustainability of technical or research-based reforms by providing the political, social, and moral capital required to counter forces that often derail and delay essential changes in policy and practice. Additionally, community-centered reform recognizes the need to adapt rather then replicate best practices so that they address local conditions and aspirations.
Ultimately, we aim to identify new alternatives for expanding access to opportunity with the goal of helping education reformers achieve equity and eliminate racial disparities in education.