For all of the doom and gloom surrounding the American education system, it is an exciting time to be involved in schooling.
Yes, it is true that on international assessments, American students have been found to lag behind their peers around the world. On the most recent iteration of the Trends in International Math and Science Study exam, U.S. eight graders scored just above the international average in math, placing them in the same pack as Hungary and Slovenia, well below Asian nations like South Korea and Japan.
It is also true that reports show an intellectual gulf between where students are when graduating from high school and where they need to be for college. ACT, for example, reported that only 25 percent of students that took its exam hit college readiness benchmarks in all four subjects.
But at the same time, all across the country numerous organizations are rethinking how to deliver instruction and redefining what it means to be a "school" and a "teacher."
Carpe Diem Public Charter Schools pair in-person and online instruction in an environment that looks unlike any school you've ever seen. Students at Carpe Diem spend a large part of their day in a kind of cubicle farm, progressing through customized educational programs on computers. Teachers circulate through the room, tracking student progress and periodically corralling small groups into classrooms that ring the large "learning center" to reinforce topics for students that are struggling or to personalize discussions of subjects like Literature.
The results are staggering. In 2012, the flagship campus in Yuma, Arizona saw 83 percent of its sixth graders, 91 percent of its seventh graders, 80 percent of its eighth graders and 91 percent of its 10th graders rated as proficient on the Arizona state accountability exams in reading, besting state averages of 80 percent, 84 percent, 72 percent and 80 percent respectively. It saw a 91 percent graduation rate for its class of 2012, besting the state average of 78 percent. What is more impressive is that the school did this at a cost of $6,500 per student, less than the Arizona average of $7,600.
As research organization Public Impact points out, even with several years of the most strident of today's teacher policies – aggressively hiring and retaining the best teachers and firing the worst – only 40 percent of classrooms across America would have a high-quality teacher in the front of the room (according to their estimates, only 25 percent or so have one now). Scaling up successful schools is a huge problem. But, through leveraging technology and innovative staffing, schools like Carpe Diem point to a workaround.
The problem? In recent years, lawmakers across the country have been establishing teacher evaluation programs that might constrain the growth of these innovative models. In 2011, Arizona established the Arizona Framework for Measuring Educator Effectiveness that requires between 33 and 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation to be driven by quantitative data on student academic progress and 50 to 67 percent by evaluation of teaching performance on established rubrics based on national standards and approved by the state board of education. This mirrors the teacher evaluation programs that states all across the country have enacted in order to receive No Child Left Behind waivers from the U.S. Department of Education.
If observation tools for teacher performance or quantitative measures of academic growth are not sensitive to schools that "unbundle" the act of instruction and split it amongst teachers and technology, schools could struggle to comply with the law. These laws are written with a traditional school model – 25-30 students in an age-graded classroom progressing through a state-sanctioned scope and sequence of material in a nine month school year – in mind.
Is there an established rubric to measure teacher performance in a hybrid environment? If there is, I haven't seen one. How does a student's value-added test score get split between what the computer taught the student and what the teacher did? Should it? If an overeager state bureaucrat believes that these schools are out of compliance, it could lead to serious problems.
This is not to say that teacher evaluation programs are a bad idea. A mountain of research finds that teacher quality is important, that there is variation amongst teacher quality, and that meaningful evaluation can improve teacher practice. It is to say that when the federal government, state leaders, and district administrators are designing these programs, they need to look around the bend and make sure that the polices of today don't stifle the schools of tomorrow.
Michael McShane, a former inner city high school teacher, is a research fellow in education policy at the American Enterprise Institute and the co-author of "President Obama and Education Reform: The Personal and the Political."
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