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What Matters Most

by AFT President Randi Weingarten

Evidence Matters
NY Times, April 23, 2011

Among the many theories that have been applied to public education is the notion that business practices—and even business leaders themselves—will improve education outcomes. This idea has been used to rationalize any number of things, from a heavy emphasis on standardized testing and the use of such tests to evaluate and compensate teachers; to privatization (whether through charter schools, vouchers and virtual education or through outsourcing public functions to private operators); to "dealing" with struggling schools by firing staff or shutting down the schools altogether, and even referring to the students educated in our public schools as "products."

These concepts may work in industry, but they have been proven ineffective in the realm of public schooling. This was made clear in Education and the Cult of Efficiency, Raymond Callahan’s seminal account of efforts early in the 20th century to treat public education like a business. Callahan’s deconstruction of these failed theories has informed policy discussions since it was first published in the 1960s. Yet market-based education "reformers" continue to promote such approaches—evidence be damned. But in education, as in other important endeavors, evidence matters.

Teaching children is as much an art as a science—and more complex than a formulaic corporate stratagem. Unlike businesses, public schools don’t have a niche market they can target to enhance their balance sheets. We rightly embrace all children.

There is abundant evidence of effective education strategies that can and should be replicated. We can learn much from the many U.S. public schools and districts that are helping students achieve at high levels, as well as from the high-performing countries that spark so much competitive interest among American policymakers and pundits yet whose lessons about improving teaching and learning so often are ignored.

Frontline educators understand the wisdom of what underlies the success in these countries—their systemic emphasis on quality, equity, shared responsibility and collaboration.

The countries that consistently top the international rankings—Finland, Singapore and South Korea—emphasize teacher preparation, mentoring and collaboration. They provide ongoing professional development for teachers and de-emphasize standardized tests, and each has a well-rounded curriculum that teachers can tailor to meet the needs of individual students. These countries provide a more equitable education for all students, and they offset the effects of poverty through wraparound services (healthcare, afterschool programs and the like) that support students and their families. Teachers in these countries are esteemed, and they’re virtually 100 percent unionized.

You don’t have to look past our borders to find schools where teaching and learning reach great heights. I recently visited Clarence R. Edwards Middle School in Boston, a school that just a few years ago was slated to be closed after years of lagging performance, and today is one of the most impressive schools I have ever seen.

The changes at Edwards Middle School include a longer school day, which allows for tutoring and a host of electives, such as music, drama and art. The school has a culture of shared leadership and accountability. The AFT recently proudly awarded teachers at the school a grant from the AFT Innovation Fund to develop high-quality lesson plans tied to the Common Core standards. Changes at the school have resulted in greatly improved student outcomes. Now, this middle school that was about to close has a waiting list of students who want to attend.

I often think of the excellent schools I have visited that are using best practices to help students reach their potential and wonder how we can shine a spotlight on them. And I worry that ineffective so-called reforms based on ideology, not results, will continue to gain a foothold.

Innovation is an American value. But when our focus is our young people’s lives, experimentation and ideology at a certain point must give way to evidence and results. The United States has seen the shortcomings of market ideologies in many areas. And the evidence shows that using these approaches in public education won’t get us where we need to go.