Why schools are 'failing'

By Paul Sutton

The Aug. 22 editorial on school failures somewhat misses the mark.

Editor Craig Groshart blames the teachers union and state legislators for politicizing education by “not meeting the requirements” that classify schools as successful set forth by the federal government.

The reason why schools are classified as failing is because the formula the federal government uses is idiotic. Teachers unions and state legislators refused to comply with the federal mandate because they refused to consider student test scores in teacher evaluations, otherwise known as value-added measures.

They were wise to do so.

A growing number of research studies have refuted the validity of value-added measures. In the past year, the two biggest proponents of value-added measures, the Department of Education and the Gates Foundation, changed course and proposed a moratorium on the use of value-added measures in teacher evaluations. Supported by the research, teachers and state legislators “balked” because it was the ethical and moral thing to do.

The more important point is this: The current rhetoric around education reform is deeply problematic. It assumes that the way the federal government distinguishes between failing and high achieving schools is fair and just. It is not. It also assumes that the hard work teachers, counselors, and administrators do in the classroom can negate myriad complicating factors students and families face as a result of poverty. They cannot.

Obviously, teachers, the pedagogy they use, and the curriculum they teach matter. However, we have to stop looking to teachers and schools to fix the social problems we ignore.

Studies have repeatedly shown the effects of poverty are more significant on a student’s readiness to learn than just about anything they experience inside of school, even the quality of their teacher. The overwhelming effects of inequality, inequity, and poverty are the primary reasons why schools “fail,” not teachers or the teachers union.

The problem is not that we don’t know how to fix our educational system. The problem is we lack the political courage to do so.

If we were really concerned about student success, we would demand our political leaders make substantial investments in social programs to alleviate the poverty a growing number of children and families face. Otherwise, the vast resources we spend on STEM education, curricular reforms, etc., however promising and thoughtful, will do little to improve schools overall.


Paul Sutton lives in Bellevue

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