By Kate Walsh
Former New York City Schools' chancellor Joel Klein pens a compelling, at times brutal, article in the Atlantic this month, chronicling some of the uglier confrontations he had over his eight-year tenure. Klein never liked to pull a punch, nor did we want him to, given what is at stake. We get quite a good recounting of his tireless slog of having to deal with shady legislators, self-interested union reps, and bad teachers anyone's powerless to fire--building his case that it's not just some poor needy kids who will be the victims of this recalcitrance, but all of us.
Klein's piece isn't really my focus here (certainly read it) but there's a Barack Obama quote in the article, the gist of which I am hearing with increasing frequency and can no longer let slide. The President states "The single most important factor in determining student achievement is not the color of students' skin or where they come from. It not who their parents are or how much money they have. It's who their teacher is.
As someone who runs a teacher quality organization, clearly I'd love it if that statement were even remotely accurate but,to be blunt, it's dead wrong. The 'teachers matter' refrain has been spouted so much in the past ten years that, predictably, we've lost important perspective. The truth is that SES and family background swamp school effects by a 3:1 margin.
In spite of these odds, we can still have daily reminders that teachers matter plenty. But we do schools and teachers an injustice by inflicting upon them superhero powers, especially when we also wrongly insist that superhero status can be achieved just by being basically smart and that stupendous results are possible no matter what curriculum is used.
Make no mistake about it. Overcoming the learning deficits of many poor and minority children is a monumental task, one that will take even more collective resolve than putting the first human being on the moon. Teachers deserve an honest accounting of the challenge.
*Dale Ballou and others have observed that the teacher contribution is probably somewhat larger than the statistics indicate, given that achievement may be mistakenly assigned to SES because parents with the capacity to do so choose their schools and teachers (e.g. through residential choice). Still it would only be marginally larger.