Don't Blame Teachers, Unions, or Families



Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach For America which has placed more than 200 corps members in Memphis, says teachers, unions, and apathetic families are getting too much blame for failing schools.

All three of those scapegoats have been getting a workout in the debates over surrendering the Memphis City Schools charter. Kopp draws from the collective experience of 20,000 Teach For America graduates working in tough school districts like Memphis for the last 20 years. (Memphis is not specifically mentioned.)

From her new book "A Chance to Make History":

"Just as the silver bullet solutions ultimately prove insufficient in solving educational inequity, so too are these silver scapegoats undeserving of all the blame."

When she asked corps members if the general public understands the causes of bad schools, 98 percent said they did not. Their consensus, after putting in their two years, was that the public mistakenly blames "lack of parental involvement" and home life. Kopp says most corps members reported that parents were responsive if teachers and schools reached out.

Nor is the problem an absence of good teachers in rural and urban areas.

"The problem is that our urban and rural educators are asked to tackle much greater challenges than teachers in other communities without receiving the training and professional development to teach or lead in transformational ways."

Unions, one of the favorite targets of philanthropists and Republicans, get too much blame, too, Kopp says. It is not "fair and it isn't productive. It backs groups that we need as allies into a corner and ultimately it simply doesn't get us anywhere."

Often, she says, school reformers "focus on the high-hanging fruit and neglect attainable victories."

I read Kopp's book looking for clues to our citizens' choice, but could not find anything specifically addressing charter surrender or the merits of big districts versus smaller ones. Here are a few other takeaways, however:

1. The key to success is "local leadership and capacity to employ all the elements of strong vision." Interestingly, this was apparently written just before TFA alum and education superwoman Michelle Rhee left Washington D. C. as superintendent following the defeat of the Mayor who empowered her. And we have two mayors, two councils, and two school boards!

2. Place teachers in schools based on how well that fit a particular school's needs and values, not because they are looking for reassignment from another job. A consolidated school system could see hundreds of both. Lots of churn. Good grades don't necessarily make good teachers, but "teachers should not come, on average, from among the least academically accomplished."

3. Career ladders are often part of a "talent mindset" but should not be mandated at the state or federal level, Kopp says. U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander presumably disagrees. While governor, he implemented the Tennessee Career Ladder for teachers. And he went on to become U.S. Secretary of Education.

4. New Orleans is becoming a national poster city for school reform. I don't get it. The city lost over half of its population and its school system shrank drastically after Katrina. Too many variables.

5. States watered down their standards to look good on tests due to No Child Left Behind. Kopp says that for all its faults, NCLB did highlight the achievement gap between schools.

6. Watch for Baltimore and schools superintendent Andres Alonso to be the next Washington/Michelle Rhee. Notably, Kriner Cash pointed out this week that Memphis has a better graduation rate than Baltimore.

7. As school reformer Brett Peiser says about school success, "There's not one big thing, there are one hundred one-percent solutions."

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