Commentary on Alabama Law and Society

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Location: Birmingham, Alabama

Friday, June 09, 2006

Equal Opportunity In Education

Here is an interesting new study on educational inequality. From the introduction:

Every year, a large number of children enter school substantially behind. Sometimes that’s because of poverty. Sometimes it’s because they speak a language other than English. Sometimes there are other issues. But regardless of the reason, many children – especially low-income and minority children – are entering the classroom without the knowledge and skills they need to succeed.

Unfortunately, rather than organizing our educational system to pair these children with our most expert teachers, who can help “catch them up” with their more advantaged peers, we actually do just the opposite. The very children who most need strong teachers are assigned, on average, to teachers with less experience, less education, and less skill than those who teach other children. . . .

Of course, teacher quality cannot be measured only by years of experience and knowledge of basic skills and subject matter. At some time in our lives, almost all of us have heard about a brand-new teacher who was remarkable or a veteran teacher who was ineffective. And nobody who has spent much time in higher education would argue that deep knowledge of subject matter necessarily translates into quality teaching.

But substantial bodies of research show that these proxies for teacher effectiveness, though imperfect, do matter to teachers’ ability to produce student learning. So when all of the proxies tilt one way – away from low-income and minority students – what we have is a system of distributing teacher quality that produces exactly the opposite of what fairness would dictate and what we need to close achievement gaps. This system, quite simply, enlarges achievement gaps.

In short: On average, rich white kids get good teachers, poor black kids get lousy teachers. The cause of the problem, at least around these parts, is simple economics. All the incentives draw teachers towards the rich white schools.

On the one hand, you have, oh let’s say B’ham City schools. As a teacher in one of those schools, you will teach in a building that leaks, is surrounded by weeds, has a tempermental (at best) heating and cooling system, and does not have so much as a functioning fridge in the teacher’s lounge. There are no working copiers or other office equipment. You must supply your own paper, pens, staplers, and similar products. You even have to supply your own toilet paper. The classroom in which you teach was designed for twenty students, but has thirty-five students sharing thirty desks. Computers? Ha. And even though you are a salaried professional, you must clock in on one of these every day.

On the other hand, you have, for example, Hoover High School. The building is brand new and is better equipped than some colleges. Your cavernous classroom has its own thermostat, and even empty desks. The teacher’s lounge is nicer than your first apartment. The school has an employee whose only job is making copies for the teachers. All your record keeping is done on your computer in your classroom. HHS even provides tp. Finally, far from requiring you to clock in, you are treated like the professional you are.

Now, how much more money would B’ham have to pay you to get you to teach there instead of Hoover? Probably a lot; maybe no amount would be sufficient. Unfortunately, B’ham pays less than Hoover. So, who ends up in B’ham? Teachers who can’t get a job anywhere else: The inexperienced, ill educated, and unskilled.

Fixing this problem means increasing the incentives to teach in B’ham. That may mean more pay for teachers, but it certainly means improving the environment at the schools. It is not just the pay that drives teachers away from B’ham. Who is going to teach at a school where you have to provide your own toilet paper? The entire system is broken. It needs some serious TLC.

But, of course, that requires money. I certainly do not want to pay any more taxes for education in B’ham. Mostly because our local officials will fritter it away long before it does any actual good. So, maybe we ought to consider structural changes, like this suggestion in the study:

take a cue from professional sports and start using a “draft strategy.” That is, put high-poverty, struggling schools at the head of the hiring line, allowing them to have the first pick of teaching talent. If we can give struggling sports teams first dibs on talented new players, can’t we do the same for low-performing schools and provide these schools a decent shot at giving good teachers to the students who need the most help?

That would be a radical change, but if we want to call this society a meritocracy, something needs to be done.