Why is public education failing too many of its client students? Why does the achievement gap still persist in most of our schools? Taking the macro view I wonder: Is this a systems problem or a human capital problem? Or both? On Friday of last week I attended the professional development seminar sponsored by the Santa Clara County Office of Education and SJ2020. During the morning presentation by nationally renowned researcher Dr. Robert Marzano, the 250 conference attendees learned he believes it is a systems problem not a teacher capital problem.
According to Marzano the 3.4 million public school teachers in America fall into a normal “bell” curve distribution as far as their overall effectiveness and quality. This means that 68% of all teachers are represented in that portion of the “bell” curve that is 1 standard deviation from the mean.
Marzano stipulates that a vast majority of America’s 3.4 million teachers are good enough in their pedagogical skills to help all students succeed while eliminating the achievement gap. However, he believes that the system of feedback to students must be vastly improved over the current antiquated summative grading system.
Three commitments he deems essential include: 1. A system of individual feedback on learning goals at the classroom, school and district levels which is standards-based and uses quality formative assessments. In other words, both teachers and students must learn from formative assessments. Teachers instruction must be driven by what is learned from formative assessments and students must be given second opportunities to succeed once the knowledge is learned, 2. Ensure that effective teaching is happening in every classroom, 3. Build the academic language and background knowledge students need to succeed. Marzano believes if a serious attempt was made to do all three of these commitments in every SJ2020 district the achievement gap would be eliminated in 5 years.
At the January 13, 2010 Santa Clara County Board of Education meeting we heard a presentation on the renewal application by Rocketship Mateo Sheedy Charter School. Rocketship has a 2009 API of 926 with a 78% free and reduced lunch and 73% English Language Learner population. Rocketship education co-founder and CEO John Danner said, “With commitment and hard work, Rocketship has proven that the achievement gap is a historical legacy, not an immutable fact of life.” In fact, Rocketship outperforms the mean API of Palo Alto Unified School District.
In my conversations with Mr. Danner he tells me his staff is stellar and the issue with closing the achievement gap is first and foremost a human capital problem. I felt Danner’s management staff fell into the 2% of experts on that bell curve. It was truly evident at the Board meeting with the principal, Chief Achievement Officer and Chief Operations Officer who addressed the Board and its questions.
As I struggle to attempt to figure out this puzzle on why we have the same issues persisting in public education for the last 40 years and why Marzano says he fears 40 years from now we will be talking about the same identical issues I get a huge migraine.
Well, I think the problem is both a systems and human capital one. If San Jose Unified and Superintendent Inglesias had the same flexibility Rocketship enjoys as a Charter their results would be as good. In fact, 4 of their 45 schools outperform Rocketship, but those schools have very different number counts for free and reduced lunch and the number of Latino students.
The teachers’ unions, AFT and NEA, have fought to keep too many teachers who might fall in the bell curve between the 1st and 2nd deviation from the mean from dismissal. In a study done last year by the New Teacher Project more than 50% of the teachers responding to the survey in the study said they knew a tenured teacher who warranted dismissal for inadequate performance. President Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers gave a historic speech on this issue last week, so times are a changing.