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Posted at 9:17 AM ET, 10/17/2010

Rothstein: Why teacher quality can't be only centerpiece of reform

By Valerie Strauss

Richard Rothstein is a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, a non-profit created in 1986 to broaden the discussion about economic policy to include the interests of low- and middle-income workers. This appeared on the institute's website. It is long, but worth the time.

By Richard Rothstein
Joel Klein, chancellor of the New York City public school system, and Michelle Rhee, who resigned October 13 as Washington, D.C. chancellor, published a “manifesto” in The Washington Post claiming that the difficulty of removing incompetent teachers “has left our school districts impotent and, worse, has robbed millions of children of a real future.” The solution, they say, is to end the “glacial process for removing an incompetent teacher” and give superintendents like themselves the authority to pay higher salaries to teachers whose students do well academically. Otherwise, children will remain “stuck in failing schools” across the country.

Klein, Rhee, and the 14 other school superintendents who co-signed their statement base this call on a claim that, “as President Obama has emphasized, the single most important factor determining whether students succeed in school is not the color of their skin or their ZIP code or even their parents’ income — it is the quality of their teacher.” [Note: After this was written, Philadelphia Superintendent Arlene Ackerman said she had not approved the manifesto and issued her own statement.]

It is true that the president has sometimes said something like this. But in his more careful moments, he properly insists that teacher quality is not the most important factor determining student success; it is the most important in-school factor. Indeed, Mr. Obama has gone further, saying, “I always have to remind people that the biggest ingredient in school performance is the teacher. That’s the biggest ingredient within a school. But the single biggest ingredient is the parent.”

There is a world of difference between claiming, as the Klein-Rhee statement does, that the single biggest factor in student success is teacher quality and claiming, as Barack Obama does in his more careful moments, that the single biggest school factor is teacher quality. Decades of social science research have demonstrated that differences in the quality of schools can explain about one-third of the variation in student achievement. But the other two-thirds is attributable to non-school factors.

When the president says that the single most important factor is parents, he does not mean the parents’ zip code or income or skin color, as though zip codes or income or skin color themselves influence a child’s achievement. Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee’s caricature of the research in this way prevents a careful consideration of policies that could truly raise the achievement of America’s children.

What President Obama means is that if a child’s parents are poorly educated themselves and don’t read frequently to their young children, or don’t use complex language in speaking to their children, or are under such great economic stress that they can’t provide a stable and secure home environment or proper preventive health care to their children, or are in poor health themselves and can’t properly nurture their children, or are unable to travel with their children or take them to museums and zoos and expose them to other cultural experiences that stimulate the motivation to learn, or indeed live in a zip code where there are no educated adult role models and where other adults can’t share in the supervision of neighborhood youth, then children of such parents will be impeded in their ability to take advantage of teaching, no matter how high quality that teaching may be.

President Obama put it this way: “It’s not just making sure your kids are doing their homework, it’s also instilling a thirst for knowledge and excellence....And the community can help the parents. Listen, I love basketball. But the smartest kid in the school...should be getting as much attention as the basketball star. That’s a change that we’ve got to initiate in our community.”

Of course, there are exceptions. Just as not all children flourish with high-quality teachers, not all children fail to flourish just because their parents can’t help with homework or because they live in communities where athletes are the most prominent role models. Under any set of circumstances, there will be a distribution of outcomes — that’s human nature.

And on average, disadvantaged children who have high-quality teachers will do better than similar children whose teachers are less adequate. But good teachers alone, for most children, cannot fully compensate for the disadvantages many children bring to school. As we noted, differences in the quality of in-school experiences can explain about one-third of the differences in achievement.

Even the president’s more careful statement — that teacher quality is the most important in-school factor — is actually without solid foundation in research. It is true that some studies have found that variation in teacher quality has more of an influence on test scores than do the size of classes or average district-wide per pupil spending. In other words, you are better off having a good teacher in a larger class than a poor teacher in a smaller class. But that’s it.

It is on this thin reed that Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee are mounting a campaign to make improving teacher quality, and removing teachers whose students’ test scores are lower, the centerpiece of national efforts to improve the life chances of disadvantaged students.

There are plausibly many other in-school factors, not quantified in research, that could have as much if not more of an influence on student test scores than teacher quality.

Take the quality of school leadership. Would an inspired school principal get better student achievement from a corps of average-quality teachers than a mediocre principal could get from high-quality teachers? Studies of organizations would suggest the answer is yes, but there have been no such studies of school leadership.

Take the quality of the curriculum. Would average teachers given a well-designed curriculum get better achievement from their students than would high-quality teachers with a poor curriculum? A very few research studies in this field suggest the answer might be yes as well.

Or take another in-school factor, teacher collaboration. Even when elementary school students sit in a single classroom for most of the day, several teachers influence their achievement. Teachers can meet to compare lesson plans that worked well and those that didn’t. Teachers in lower grades can successfully align their instruction with what will be most helpful for learning in the next grade. Teachers of the arts can reinforce the writing curriculum, and vice-versa. Will average-quality teachers who work well together as a team with the common purpose of raising student achievement get better results than higher-quality teachers working in isolation?

Plausibly, the answer is yes. Will promising to pay individual teachers more if their students get higher test scores than the students of another teacher reduce the incentives for teachers to collaborate? Again, a plausible answer is yes.

Of course, schools should try to recruit better-quality teachers and should remove those who are ineffective. After all, the quality of teachers is an important part of the one-third share of the achievement gap that can be traced to the quality of schools. But before making teacher quality the focus of a national campaign, school systems will have to develop better ways of identifying good and bad teachers.

Using students’ test scores as the chief marker of teacher quality is terribly dangerous, for a variety of reasons: it encourages a narrowing of the curriculum because only test scores in one or two subjects (math and reading) can be used for this purpose, and teachers who will be evaluated mainly by these test scores will have incentives to minimize attention to other subjects; it creates pressure to “teach to the test,” that is, emphasizing topics likely to appear on our existing low-quality standardized tests rather than other equally important but untested topics; and it is likely to misidentify teachers — labeling many good teachers as poor and many poor teachers as good — because test scores can be influenced by so many other factors besides good teaching.

The necessary task of identifying good teachers and removing those who are inadequate requires more than student test score data. It requires a holistic approach, in which qualified experts observe teachers’ lessons, evaluate the quality of their instruction, and examine a wide range of their students’ work and how teachers respond to it. This requires a bigger investment of qualified supervisory time than most schools are prepared to make. Using student test scores as a shortcut will do great harm to American education.

Making teacher quality the only centerpiece of a reform campaign distracts our attention from other equally and perhaps more important school areas needing improvement, areas such as leadership, curriculum, and practices of collaboration, mentioned above. Blaming teachers is easy. These other areas are more difficult to improve.

But most important, making teacher quality the focus distracts us from the biggest threat to student achievement in the current age: our unprecedented economic catastrophe and its effect on parents and their children’s ability to gain from higher-quality schools.

Consider the implications of this catastrophe for our aspirations to close the black–white achievement gap. The national unemployment rate remains close to an unacceptably high 10%.

But 15% of all black children now have an unemployed parent compared to 8.5% of white children. If we also include children whose parents have become so discouraged that they have given up looking for work, and children whose parents are working part-time because they can’t find full-time work, we find that 37% of black children have an unemployed or underemployed parent compared to 23% of white children. Over half of all black children have a parent who has either been unemployed or underemployed during the past year. Thirty-six percent of black children now live in poverty.

The consequences of this social disaster for schools are apparent, and include:
Greater geographic disruption: Families become more mobile because they can no longer afford to keep up with rent or mortgage payments. They are in overcrowded housing; they often have to double up with relatives in apartments that were already too small. Children have no quiet place to study or do homework. They switch schools more often, fall behind in the curriculum, and lose the connection with teachers who know them well enough to adapt instruction to their individual strengths and weaknesses. Inner-city schools themselves are thrown into turmoil because classes must frequently be reconstituted as enrollment rises and falls with family mobility. Even the highest-quality teachers cannot fully insulate their students from the effects of this disruption.

Greater hunger and malnutrition: When more parents lose employment, their income plummets and food insecurity grows. More children come to school hungry and/or inadequately nourished and are less able to focus on schoolwork. Attentive teachers realize that one of the best predictors of how their students will perform is what they had for breakfast, if anything at all.

Greater stress: Families where parents are unemployed are under greater psychological stress. Such parents, no matter how well-intentioned, often become more arbitrary in their discipline and less supportive of their children. Children from families in such stress are more likely to act out in school and are less able to progress academically. The ability to comfort and support such students may be a more important indicator of a teacher’s quality than her students’ test scores, which may still be lower than the scores of students coming from stable and secure homes.

Poorer health: Families where parents lose employment are also more likely to lose health insurance. Their children are less likely to get routine and preventive health care and more likely to miss school days because of illness. They are less likely to get symptomatic treatment for illnesses like asthma, the most common cause of chronic school absenteeism. Children with asthma, even when they attend school, are more likely to come to school irritable, having been up at night with breathing difficulty.

All these consequences of unacceptably high unemployment rates for disadvantaged parents contribute to depressing student achievement for their children. It is obtuse to expect to narrow the achievement gap in such circumstances. It is fanciful for national policy makers to pick this moment to raise their expectations for academic achievement from children of families in such stress and to single out teacher quality as the culprit most deserving of their public attention.

It would inappropriately undermine the credibility of public education if, in such an economic climate, educators were blamed for their failure to raise student achievement of disadvantaged children. Indeed, educators should get great credit if they prevent the achievement of disadvantaged children from falling further during this economic crisis.

Meanwhile, our political system is paralyzed, unable to take meaningful steps to reduce unemployment. Corporate profits are healthy, but an unjustified fear of short-term deficits prevents public spending from putting low-income parents back to work. Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, and the other superintendents who signed their manifesto are influential in states whose national and state leaders contribute to this paralysis. These school leaders should raise their voices in protest against economic policies that doom children to failure.

Of course, the superintendents should continue attempts to improve teacher quality. They should work on developing ways to identify better and worse teachers without relying heavily on the corrupting influence of high-stakes test scores.

In addition to teacher quality, they should pay attention to school leadership, curriculum improvement, and school organization. They should consider what initiatives they can take, either themselves or in partnership with other community organizations, to improve children’s opportunities to come to school in good health and with enriched experiences in early childhood and out-of-school time.{xii}

But they will have to embed all of this work in an insistence on broader efforts of economic and social reform if they hope their school improvements to make any difference.

Otherwise, their manifesto might appear to be more an example of scapegoating teachers than a reflection of serious commitment to the futures of our children.


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By Valerie Strauss  | October 17, 2010; 9:17 AM ET
Categories:  School turnarounds/reform, Teacher assessment, Teachers  | Tags:  achievement gap, joel klein, manifesto, michelle rhee, poverty, richard rothstein, school manifesto, school reform, teacher quality  
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Thank you Mr. Rothstein, for providing an Obama quote that clarifies the importance of parents in their children’s education. I will add it to my collection.

You should know that it’s not just in his “more careful moments” that Obama shows that he understands the parameters of teachers’ influence. Unfortunately the writers of the Manifesto didn’t follow the basic rules of using verbatim quotes and instead misrepresented the President’s meaning by cutting off key words. Obama’s full quote was the following:

"The whole premise of Race to the Top is that teachers are the single most important factor in a child's education FROM THE MOMENT THEY STEP INTO THE CLASSROOM."[caps added] July 29th 2010

So, even though the President did not mention parents, he does limit teachers’ importance to the classroom.

The President has made similar statements, such as:
“We know that from the moment students enter a school, the most important factor in their success is not the color of their skin or the income of their parents—it is the teacher standing at the front of the classroom.”
March 2010

Again, while Obama doesn’t explicitly mention the role of parents, if you read carefully and analytically, you will catch and comprehend the limiting words, “the moment students enter a school.”

Then in the quote you provided, Obama makes it crystal clear that the parent is most important factor:

“I always have to remind people that the biggest ingredient in school performance is the teacher. That’s the biggest ingredient within a school. But the single biggest ingredient is the parent.” April 29th 2009

I wish he always spoke that clearly, because as long as he doesn’t, he can easily be misunderstood and unscrupulous education “leaders” will continue to distort his meaning.

Meanwhile, I think the Manifesto signers need to apologize for misleading their readers in a way that would qualify them for an F on a high-school term paper.

Also, I think the President should demand an apology and denounce the Manifesto signers for misrepresenting his words and thoughts to the American people.

Posted by: efavorite | October 17, 2010 11:30 AM | Report abuse

We are never going to live in a perfect America. The issues of class, race (a synonym for zip code in DC), and income distribution are too large and too longstanding to be solved any time soon. In the interim, we must ensure that our children are well-educated, whether their parents read to them at night or not. In my mind, education remains the greatest lever in lifting generations of poor kids above the circumstances of their birth. As a teacher, it is my job to do all I can with the "one-third" impact that I have in my hands, while others work on the two-thirds outside my reach. If we all work to maximize the things we can control, perhaps more minds will be saved. For my take on teaching in DCPS, please visit my blog at

Posted by: dcproud1 | October 17, 2010 12:19 PM | Report abuse

Thank you Mr. Rothstein! A knowledgeable, thorough and and easily-understood statement on the core/majority issues in K-12 education....

Two of your points I'd like to reference:

The comment on the importance of quality principals - I taught under 12 different principals and directors during my career, and the difference in the knowledge, experience and leadership quality of these individuals was ALWAYS evident. A staff's ability to feel cohesive, willing to go the extra mile when the going gets tough (and it's getting tougher)to feel supported and recognized, to be inspired on occasion......principals do the hiring, set in-house policies, handle a great deal politically, work incredible numbers of hours...they don't necessarily need to be charismatic, either - one of the best principals I worked for was quiet, stood 4'10", and ran a very innovative, challenging and supportive program for many at-risk children.

"Teachers of the arts can reinforce the writing curriculum, and vice-versa."

Some of the most dynamic, productive and innovative teaching I was involved in was due to team-teaching and inter-related arts programing. To wit:

An Art teacher paired with an English
teacher to help students produce work
that utilized both imagery and words.
Ex: after studying selected poems with
the English teacher, students would
create an illustrated manuscript
through a lesson taught by the
Art teacher.

A Science teacher paired with an Art
teacher to study aerodynamics and then
produce a series of kites that utilized
both historic designs (Japanese kites,
for instance) and sound aerodynamic

Instances such as those I have cited will be discouraged with the narrowing of the curriculum and the diminishing of the teaching spirit.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | October 17, 2010 12:46 PM | Report abuse

I'd like to echo the last commenter on the importance of principals. A strong principal is one that has a vision for their school and is able to get the staff on board with sharing that vision. The staff then shares a common purpose in which they work collaboratively on how to best meet the needs of all of their students. Even better is when the school system leader (superintendent, chancellor, CEO) also has a vision that is shared by the school based administrators. It sometimes takes a little time to impart this, but ultimately it is worth the extra time. Reforms enacted under such leadership are more likely to be lasting, continuing after the leader has moved on by the instructional staff who has been charged with implementing those reforms.

Sadly, this is where the most visible of the Manifesto signers failed.

Posted by: musiclady | October 17, 2010 1:16 PM | Report abuse

Demanding apologies from signers of the manifesto is a waste of time. They won't. No one will, and the president won't demand what they do.

We are not in some ideological fight in the Cold War. Get focused on getting things done, rather than assertions of Who Shot John.

Work on keeping the unionistas honest, efavorite.

Posted by: axolotl | October 17, 2010 2:32 PM | Report abuse

The United States posts and provides a free and equitable education to ALL children--including our special needs children. Many other countries either hide or ignore their special children. Those children cannot make the same gains as high iq or normal IQ children-regardless of race, income, etc. Those teachers work very hard to meet the individual needs of their students. Merit pay or pay based on achievement would be totally unfair to those teachers. Most teachers are teachers because they want to make a difference-not for money. Students today must overcome hunger, lack of sleep, drug abuse, physical abuse and neglect to achieve anything. Society has made life difficult for many students. This carries over to the classrooms where more and more is demanded of our students. Teachers can teach and great teachers teach, but unless students can learn and pay attention, nothing is remembered. Everything is blamed on teachers. Teachers cannot fix everything! Teachers today are not just teachers. They are social workers, nutritionists, behaviorists, nurses, surrogate parent, seamstresses, and therapists.

Posted by: spedteacher103 | October 17, 2010 5:08 PM | Report abuse

The United States posts and provides a free and equitable education to ALL children--including our special needs children. Many other countries either hide or ignore their special children. Those children cannot make the same gains as high iq or normal IQ children-regardless of race, income, etc. Those teachers work very hard to meet the individual needs of their students. Merit pay or pay based on achievement would be totally unfair to those teachers. Most teachers are teachers because they want to make a difference-not for money. Students today must overcome hunger, lack of sleep, drug abuse, physical abuse and neglect to achieve anything. Society has made life difficult for many students. This carries over to the classrooms where more and more is demanded of our students. Teachers can teach and great teachers teach, but unless students can learn and pay attention, nothing is remembered. Everything is blamed on teachers. Teachers cannot fix everything! Teachers today are not just teachers. They are social workers, nutritionists, behaviorists, nurses, surrogate parent, seamstresses, and therapists.

Posted by: spedteacher103 | October 17, 2010 5:09 PM | Report abuse

Where is the "accountability" for...
/> the CIA and other corrupt
govt. & Wall Street-affiliated players
being involved with international drug smuggling
& distribution for decades (!)
-- deliberately inundating
communities & specific neighborhoods with heroin,
cocaine, meth, pills (MDMA/ecstacy), etc.
It is a documented fact that the CIA
& corrupt elements of the U.S. govt.
& freemasons have been involved in large-scale
heroin distribution operations and also
involved in the deliberately induced
crack cocaine epidemic targeting black neighborhoods (for the purposes of social undermining & political-economic control).

Where is the "accountability" for...
/> The 'entertainment' industry
flooding our youth with heinously toxic
& cognitively poisonous VIOLENT VIDEO GAMES
that promote
crime, substance abuse, disgusting conduct,
mistreatment & violence against women,
anti-educational achievement,
anti-positive values, anti-professional careers,
anti-healthy, responsible behaviors !

Where is the "accountability" for
self-proclaimed edu-profiteer BILL GATES & MICROSOFT
in producing, promoting VIOLENT, PATHOLOGICAL
VIDEO GAMES, including first-person shooter games,
such as HALO !!!??? --
which, unfortunately, too many of our country's
children, our country's students
heinously waste too much time messing
around with, messing themselves up with --
instead of healthfully, smartly & beneficially using that time
productive experiences, studying, exploring/learning, participating in sports, teamwork, creative arts + music,
outdoor activities & nature, significant time
with friends & family, or engaging in community service !!!

Where is the accountability for VIACOM
& other media corporations
(eg. instead of the "BET" channel being utilized for positive, inspirational, educational or meaningful programming --
it has mostly
broadcast the worst sociopathic, demeaning,
undermining junk -- promoting
gangsterism & exploiting our vulnerable youth
with pernicious mind-killing crap.

FACT! --
Where is the "accountability" for Wall Street
& elite financiers,
owning majority stock in the company
that produced the 'GRAND THEFT AUTO' video game
as its main product !!!

Also, what about the corporate soda-pop
& junk food pushers targeting children ?!

The reality is that ethical, caring, and dedicated
public school teachers have been the
'good samaritans' courageously
teaching with tremendous effort daily
to educate & constructively help chidren --
to transcend, overcome hardship,
to cultivate wellbeing & achievement --
despite the grotesque obstacles
& destruction foisted on us by
irresponsible, unscrupulous, rapacious and
duplicitous corporate execs. & financial elites,
corrupt oligarchs, such as Goldman Sachs et. al.
who've caused millions of chidren & families to be homeless.

Posted by: honestpolicy | October 17, 2010 5:53 PM | Report abuse

L.A. Unified Teachers have been horribly maligned by the L.A. Times' rash publishing of Value Added Measure ratings based on end of the year test scores. One of our fellow teachers was so traumatized by his unfair ranking that he committed suicide. He was considered a wonderful teacher by students, peers and administrators. L.A. Times took it upon themselves to identify so called good and bad teachers based on high stake test scores alone. It is heartening to hear Mr. Rothstein clearly state that this type of sorting teachers into good and bad by using these test scores alone is dangerous. Many hard working, dedicated and generous teachers were kicked in the gut with that misguided report.

Posted by: DoGoodAnyway | October 17, 2010 6:21 PM | Report abuse

This is a wonderful article, and really takes into account the serious problems children face.

In addition, sometimes children are sexually or physically abused, or have parents who are drug users or alcoholics. This affects children's school progress enormously.

Posted by: jlp19 | October 17, 2010 6:28 PM | Report abuse

The LA Times was on a witchhunt. And they got a victim.

Posted by: jlp19 | October 17, 2010 6:30 PM | Report abuse

Thank you, Valerie Strauss, for inviting intelligent, INFORMED people to set the record straight. It is an unbelievable thing to work in this profession, in this place, at this time. Highly effective as I am.

Posted by: wakeupfolks99 | October 17, 2010 6:47 PM | Report abuse

I have a master's degree (2009) in curriculum design and instruction. How qualified do I have to be? I teach in a school who's student body is over 90% african-Amercan and poor. Our school is "at risk at failing" under NLCB standards. When will students and parents be held accountable?

Posted by: orpheus39120 | October 17, 2010 8:52 PM | Report abuse

Both Rhee and Henderson are nothing more than "headhunters" (The New Teacher Project founded by Rhee) who sold bodies(teachers) to school districts. All good headhunters talk/adopt the buzz words language of their markets. Usually, talking the language reflects superficial knowledge of an industry, at best. Don't mistake Rhee's and Henderson's headhunting sales pitches for substantive ability to manage and lead school districts. . Neither one is qualified to do so.

Posted by: why231 | October 17, 2010 9:28 PM | Report abuse

orpheus39120--what is your role as a teacher? what are you responsible for in the classroom?

Posted by: axolotl | October 17, 2010 9:30 PM | Report abuse

Teachers struggle with students' challenges daily. This past week alone I had 2 distressing interludes with young people that all but brought me to tears as they bared their souls from the pain and danger they suffer daily.

Yet there was nothing directly I could do for either of them.

Teachers work very hard to ensure children leave them knowing more, doing more, and thinking better than when they arrived. We CANNOT fix their family dysfunction, crime in their neighborhoods, or financial stress. We CAN educate them to cope better and overcome those challenges, but lots of other folks must roll up their sleeves to help solve the problems students bring with them to schools.

Teachers need to confront other entities, parents included, to do their part. Many people criticize charter schools for having the very type of parental involvement folks want in regular public schools. Don't blame charter schools; direct your concern to the parents of these students who never show up for any school event, don't show up for parent conferences, and converse with their children like angry sailors. Indeed these parents may be under mountains of pressure to survive, but again teachers aren't credentialed to solve that.

I don't need a Mayor to run schools: I want a mayor to keep the streets safe and clean, the libraries open, stocked, and staffed, and the parks & rec centers clean, safe, stocked and staffed. Make the neighborhoods/cities hospitable to businesses so that adults and young adults can support themselves through meaningful employment, developing skills they can exploit to grow and prosper.

Churches must be more aggressive in shepherding/supporting young people through their turbulent times, especially involving their relationships and sexual intimacy. We've been teaching health/sex ed. in schools for decades, and all I've seen is MORE AND MORE young people having children out of wedlock before they are adults.

Teachers can handle the classroom; everyone else needs to help fix everything else.

Posted by: pdexiii | October 17, 2010 10:07 PM | Report abuse

Serious, authentic education reform is not what currently passes for "reform." What seems to be in vogue – championed by editors at The Post, by the soon-departing Michelle Rhee, by Bill Gates and U.S. Chamber of Commerce – is a business model approach to education improvement, characterized by more standardized testing, charter schools, and merit pay for teachers.

The overall effect of this approach – like that of supply-side economic policies on the nation's finances – has been disastrous. Charter schools are more often worse than regular pubic schools, and rarely better. Merit pay doesn't work. And an increased emphasis on standardized tests – meant to be used diagnostically – as high-stakes measures of "quality" has dumbed down education and reduced greatly the likelihood of meaningful, sustained change.

Public schools were created to fulfill the democratic ideal of promoting the general welfare (see, Constitution, U.S.). And, as Jefferson described it, the well-being of a democratic society depends on a well-educated citizenry.

Rothstein is right that real school reform does not take place only in the schools.

As he wrote in "Class and the Classroom:"

"Twenty years ago, Betty Hart and Todd Risley, two researchers from the University of Kansas, visited families from different social classes to monitor the conversations between parents and toddlers. Hart and Risley found that, on average, professional parents spoke more than 2,000 words per hour to their children, working-class parents spoke about 1,300, and welfare mothers spoke about 600. So by age 3, the children of professionals had vocabularies that were nearly 50 percent greater than those of working-class children and twice as large as those of welfare children."

"Deficits like these cannot be made up by schools alone, no matter how high the teachers' expectations. For all children to achieve the same goals, the less advantaged would have to enter school with verbal fluency that is similar to the fluency of middle-class children."

"The Kansas researchers also tracked how often parents verbally encouraged children's behavior and how often they reprimanded their children. Toddlers of professionals got an average of six encouragements per reprimand. Working-class children had two. For welfare children, the ratio was reversed -- an average of one encouragement for two reprimands. Children whose initiative was encouraged from a very early age are more likely, on average, to take responsibility for their own learning."

Authentic education reform in a democratic society recognizes a basic truth. That truth is that the closer our nation moves toward realizing its core, foundational values the closer it gets to achieving high-quality education for all, and the better it gets at maintaining a government "of the people, by the people and for the people."

As Aristotle put it more than two thousand years ago, "the care of each part is inseparable from the care of the whole."

Posted by: mcrockett1 | October 18, 2010 9:05 AM | Report abuse

Most of this discussion sounds like teacher quality is an immutable personal characteristic, like height. Teachers, like anyone else, do better work if they're well supported intellectually and socially, with ongoing, relevant, and respectful coaching, collaboration, and other learning opportunities, a workload that is not crushing, and appreciation. Calls for "accountability" assume that teachers are willfully not teaching as well as they could. This is crazy. I'm for firing the truly bad ones (my kids had a few and I was frustrated at how hard they were to get rid of) but most people who go into teaching are smart and caring. If we can't give them a positive and supportive ongoing educational experience, how can we expect them to do that for their students? Many do -- public schools are full of stars and heroes. Most aren't stars or heroes -- but most would do better if we did better by them. (From a former teacher)

Posted by: jeantepper | October 18, 2010 7:37 PM | Report abuse

Finally - an article that describes the truth about education! I am a National Board Certified Teacher. I have taught music at various grade levels for 22 years in 12 schools in 5 different states (my husband is in the military so we move a lot) and can attest to the facts that parents and school administrators greatly contribute to the success or failure of students in any school, and that the arts really do enhance learning in other subjects.

However, one additional point is consistently overlooked - the FACILITIES! Take a walk through an inner-city school and pay attention to how it looks, smells, and feels. Throughout my career I have worked in schools where the rat traps in classrooms needed to be emptied almost every morning, windows were broken and not repaired for months, poor lighting and ventilation created a difficult learning and teaching environment, cockroaches ran through the cafeteria on a regular basis, termites crawling through the walls were ignored, teachers would have to position the trash cans in their rooms and hallways to catch the water leaking from the ceilings every time it rained, carpeting was so frayed that students tripped while walking across the floor, drab paint was peeling off of the walls, and bookshelves were falling apart. Out of all of my schools, only 3 have had adequate rooms for teaching music. In all of the others I had to teach in the students' classrooms, the gym, or the cafeteria.

In my current "under-performing, low-income, inner-city" school, the musical instruments are very old and falling apart and there is no budget for repairs. I often pay for the repairs out of my own pocket (I just spent over $200 on instrument cases to replace the ones that were moldy and falling apart so that the students could take their instruments home to practice). The school cannot replace the instruments because the budget is earmarked solely for the subjects that are tested. In spite of all of this the students are learning high-quality music and will put on several excellent performances this school year.

In my music classes students are developing skills in teamwork, self-discipline, commitment, self-confidence, hand-eye coordination, and an appreciation of world history and culture - plus many other skills too numerous to mention.
Most importantly, they are learning and developing a skill that they will be able to continue to enjoy for the rest of their lives - playing a musical instrument!


As a teacher I beg anyone who wants to comment on education to spend a day in a "low-performing" school before pointing any fingers - if you are really brave and have the time to apply, get a job as a substitute teacher for the day. Sit at the desks. Eat in the cafeteria. Talk to a few of the children and the teachers about their views of education and their wants and needs. I guarantee it will be an eye-opening experience.

Posted by: musicteacher | October 19, 2010 7:49 PM | Report abuse

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