Teacher Trap

My sophomore year of high school, a new hire stood at the blackboard of my chemistry class -- a blond, fresh-faced MIT grad in a school where 97 percent of the students were Hispanic. In 2001, the year before the No Child Left Behind Act was passed, only about a third of the school's students were proficient in reading and math -- once NCLB regulations took effect, the school was declared failing.

"Rule No. 1: No carilla," she started, using Spanish slang -- no ribbing each other. The rest of the classroom rules were also punctuated with some colloquialism to bridge the cultural divide. She was dynamic and enthusiastic, on a mission to use her skills and education to help these needy kids. She left after a year.

I kept thinking of this teacher's quixotic idealism as I watched Waiting for Superman, the much-talked-about Paramount Pictures documentary by An Inconvenient Truth director Davis Guggenheim. The film, which opens in D.C. tomorrow and prominently features D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, follows five children at underperforming schools in Los Angeles, New York, D.C., and suburban Silicon Valley who enter into district-wide lotteries to attend high-performing charter schools. Their stories are intercut with interviews with Rhee; Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers; and education reformers Bill Strickland and Geoffrey Canada. The film takes its title from a childhood anecdote told by Canada,* who said he was crushed when he discovered Superman wasn't real -- and wasn't coming to save him from his troubled neighborhood. The take-home message is pretty clear: The answer to our education woes is having a "Superman" teacher in every classroom -- a goal unions have been blocking.

While it would be nice to believe that an army of Jaime Escalantes, the famed Latin American educator who taught calculus to inner-city kids, or Dangerous Minds Michelle Pfeiffers, is all our education system -- and struggling schools in particular -- need, the reality is, of course, not so simple. It's just not true that good teacher = performing student.

As Waiting for Superman rightly notes, for a long time, the prevailing assumption among education policy-makers -- at least insofar as you could tell from their approach -- was that kids from poor neighborhoods would inevitably do worse than their more affluent counterparts. But in the 1990s, the successes of programs like Teach for America, which places students from elite universities in troubled schools for two-year stints, and schools like Harlem Prep and the KIPP Program -- which put poor, inner-city kids through a grueling college-prep curriculum -- challenged these assumptions. (Though, it's worth remembering that programs like Harlem Prep and KIPP only include the self-selecting group of students and parents who choose to apply and get in.)

Taking a cue from these efforts, in 2001, No Child Left Behind implemented more stringent teacher-qualification standards and held schools and teachers responsible for low student test scores nationwide. Today, the pendulum has swung full force the other way; whereas teachers were helpless before, now they can fix everything.

Critics of the film have rightly assailed Waiting for Superman as reductive. A host of factors affect student outcomes -- parental education and involvement, student effort, and peer effects. And as Dana Goldstein observes, underperforming students tend to be disproportionately minority and poor. Academics have come up with complicated models to predict student performance based on such factors, which show what should be common sense: Educational outcomes are a lopsided equation in which teacher quality is but one variable.

For all the focus Waiting for Superman places on teachers, the film spends very little time actually talking to any; instead, it relies on romanticized descriptions by administrators and reformers. But anyone who has actually taught disadvantaged kids will tell you that most of the time, it's hardly like being Superman; it's a much different -- and much harder -- job.

Teachers in struggling schools deal with students whose parents tend not to be involved -- often because they are struggling to make ends meet or believe it's up to the school to educate students. According to the National Household Education Survey, in 2007, 51 percent of parents above the poverty line volunteered or served on a committee at their child's school, whereas only 26 percent of parents below the poverty line did the same. Students in poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods also have few educational role models but plenty of evidence of the system failing them; it's no wonder students in these situations tend to be less motivated to learn. The more these other elements that prop up student achievement are missing, the more effort a teacher has to exert to compensate for them.

Moreover, struggling schools have trouble attracting and retaining teachers. According to a 2006 study, not only are teachers in struggling schools more likely to leave the school -- and the profession altogether -- the better a teacher is, the more likely she is to leave.

It's also an open question whether the skills of highly effective teachers at better-performing schools translate to the unique challenges posed by lower-performing schools. While Teach for America has had success in raising student test scores, its teachers don't raise student test scores any better than regular, well-qualified teachers do.

Only as research in education has advanced to allow policymakers to tease out social variables in order to see how teachers are performing -- using what are called "value-added assessments" -- have policy-makers been able to begin to answer this question. Currently, the Talent Transfer Initiative, a federal research project, is conducting a pilot program that takes teachers who have a track record of improving student test scores and places them in underperforming schools. Preliminary data are set to be released earlier next year.

At the end of Waiting for Superman, text flies by the screen, encouraging the audience to "get involved" and stating that "we know what works" -- all we need to do is act. If only life were as straightforward as it is in the movies.

Correction, October 4, 2010: An earlier version of this piece misstated the source of the Superman anecdote. It was told by Geoffrey Canada, not Bill Strickland.

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