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Posted at 3:36 PM ET, 10/24/2010

Saving public education: the 'Dolly Solution'

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Richard Slettvet, a special education teacher in Washington State. Prior to entering the teaching profession he worked as a U.S. Navy officer and for two Fortune 500 companies. He believes that many school reform advocates in government and industry would have a tough time surviving a single year as a classroom teacher in a public school.

By Richard Slettvet
I am proposing the Dolly Solution as an alternative to Charter Schools Secretary Arne Duncan’s “Race to the Top” (AKA, Grovel for Lucre) reform initiative, which, if other federal education programs are any guide, is destined to end in a muddle of red tape, unfunded mandates, and unintended consequences.

The Dolly Solution refers to Dolly the Sheep, country-music superstar Dolly Parton’s namesake, not to Ms. Parton’s 2002 cover of Led Zepplin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” Dolly the Sheep, you may recall, emerged in 1996 from a surrogate ewe to become the first-ever cloned mammal.

What does cloning have to do with saving public education? Well, in three easy steps, it’s the surest route for upgrading the quality of public education from a “C” average to “A+”:

Step 1
Clone Jaime Escalante. Great teachers like Mr. Escalante, celebrated in the film "Stand and Deliver," are rare as Thomas Jefferson fans on the Texas State Board of Education.

The attributes of extraordinary teachers—some singular combination of intellect, character and creativity, coupled with the energy to sustain a 30-year career—aren’t anything that can be taught in schools of education. A decade of research has shown that even National Board Certification doesn’t guarantee students a better classroom teacher. And having a teacher who is “Highly Qualified” under the No Child Left Behind Act plus $2.50 will buy any student a slice of pizza at the school cafeteria.

In truth, nobody knows where terrific teachers come from—it’s one of those profound mysteries of life, like why Dolly Parton recorded “Stairway to Heaven.”

It probably has something to do with the Bell Curve, which dictates that only 1 to 2 percent of a population can be defined as extraordinary at anything, whether it’s teaching, playing the violin, or hitting a baseball.

For example, the winnowing process in baseball is intense: many good Little League players don’t make their high school teams; many high school letter men don’t win college scholarships or get drafted into the pros; many who do get drafted never make it to “The Show”; and of those who rise to the major leagues, most turn out to be rather mediocre: the typical lifetime batting average, as Stephen Jay Gould famously pointed out, is a rather pedestrian .260.

Want a dugout full of great hitters? Clone Ted Williams.

There is a winnowing process for educators, too: Earning a bachelor’s degree and teaching certificate; making the cut in the resume-screening process—often there are dozens of applicants for a single teaching position; impressing school principals and staff during the rounds of interviews and teaching demonstrations at the hiring school; and surviving sink-or-swim probationary periods of two years or more.

Yet, after all this, most teachers turn out to be, well, average.

It also would be possible to raise the mean level of teaching skill and reduce variation between the lowest and highest performing educators by actively recruiting the best and brightest college graduates into the teaching profession then providing them with superior training, like, for example, Teach for America; but that would be impractical, if not prohibitively expensive, on a national scale.

One problem is that Teach for America recruits sign on for only two years in the trenches, not 30-year careers. There’s also a little problem with the Bell Curve setting an absolute limit on the number of college graduates meeting the annual “best and brightest” cut-off. Teach for America is not a model for sustainable school reform.

Nor are charter schools. Don’t misunderstand; there are some truly excellent charter schools, but the ones that surpass their public school counterparts tend to be heavily funded by private foundations trying to make a point and—Bill and Melinda Gates’ billions notwithstanding—there is a limit on available private funding.

One would have more confidence in some of the more prominent charter school boosters if they had some actual experience as teachers in a public school classroom. Arne Duncan, for one.

And Bill Gates doesn’t even have experience as a public school student, having graduated from the uber-elite Lakeside School in Seattle, where all or the children are waaaaaay above average.

Ergo, the surest way to achieve universally-fantastic teaching is to clone Mr. Escalante.

At the same time, replicating strings of DNA in the cause of higher test scores also could be employed from the opposite direction, home; that is, load the pipeline at its source with an uninterrupted flow of highly motivated and supported kids (another advantage of the top charter schools):

Step 2
Clone Heathcliff and Clair Huxtable. Studies have shown that students who live in two-parent households with high socioeconomic status (SES) have significant advantage over their classmates. Indeed, teachers have been known to bribe principals with dark chocolate to be assigned the progeny of parents the likes of Heathcliff, an obstetrician, and Clair, an attorney.

(After the feds have finished coupling teachers’ salaries to standardized test results—one hopes that history teachers in Texas will be granted waivers—the vig will rise like hands at a Bainbridge Island PTA auction.)

Sadly, but no surprise to teachers, the Department Education reports that the percentage of high-poverty schools grew steadily over the past decade, and that data was collected before the shock waves of the current depression hit American families.

A less-radical plan than cloning parents with high SES might be for the feds to implement economic policies that promote family-wage manufacturing jobs and healthy communities, as opposed to outsourcing, bailouts for financial industry malefactors, and continuing tax breaks for the wealthy, but that would require extraordinary leadership:

Step 3
Clone George Washington....

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By Valerie Strauss  | October 24, 2010; 3:36 PM ET
Categories:  Charter schools, Guest Bloggers, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, School turnarounds/reform  | Tags:  arne duncan, cloning, dolly parton, dolly the sheep, education department, george washington, jaime escalante, led zeppelin, no child left behind, public schools, race to the top, school reform, schools, stairway to heaven, stand and deliver, teachers, ted williams  
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Comments

As my children grew up in Brooklyn, their neighborhood friends always called my wife and I the Huxtable's. We took it as a compliment. On my third viewing of "Stand and deliver," I vowed to teach one day. Now that I have secured a high school teaching appointment in a public school, I tend to forget at times what led me there. I will print this article and read it when I need recalling. I suppose I should be happy that wealthy foundations have made the education of children of color (who, somehow, are always poor) a priority. But I remember how disconcerting it felt when well-intentioned, white benefactors patted me on the head years ago. Maybe I need to shore up on George Washington. In the meantime, I invite readers to visit my blog at teachermandc.com. Who knows? I might just figure out the maze after all.

Posted by: dcproud1 | October 24, 2010 6:09 PM | Report abuse

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Posted by: morse99 | October 24, 2010 7:17 PM | Report abuse

@dcproud1: "...wealthy foundations have made the education of children of color (who, somehow, are always poor) a priority."

I want to believe that (they are doing it for the betterment of society), but I don't. Why are those billionaires pushing high-stakes standardized testing so hard(which has really damaged math education)? And charter schools? Never forget that there is a lot of money to be made in the education sector--from straight profit to special tax breaks. (Do you think it's just a coincidence that Prescott Bush and James H. McGraw were buds?)

Posted by: MathEdReseacher | October 25, 2010 8:36 AM | Report abuse

This is another enlightening post. If we combine the DOE mantra of ''no child in a classroom with an ineffective teacher" and the Rhee, DCPS, 400 point rating scheme, where all teachers with a score of 249, the midpoint, or less are either ineffective or marginally effective, then we end up with that marvelous new social invention 'the half-bell curve.' ("I don't want my child with either an ineffective or a marginally effective teacher.)

Posted by: bpeterson1931 | October 25, 2010 1:40 PM | Report abuse

We need to start rating people like Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein. And perhaps we ought to start firing them as well.

Posted by: jlp19 | October 25, 2010 4:45 PM | Report abuse

"He believes that many school reform advocates in government and industry would have a tough time surviving a single year as a classroom teacher in a public school."

Put Arne Duncan in a south side Chicago Public School for a year and see what happens.

Posted by: jlp19 | October 25, 2010 4:47 PM | Report abuse

So true, feds should be promoting economic policies to enhance the educational opportunities of all children especially the poor instead of making grants competitive making it harder to compete for the Race to Top funding. That's why over 400 teachers and educators across the nation petition Obama to remove duncan. read more at: http://theinsurgentteacher.blogspot.com

Posted by: Saison | October 26, 2010 3:04 PM | Report abuse

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