The National Education Association wants to reform hiring practices to help move highly qualified teachers into the classrooms of troubled schools. This is a laudable effort, but the problems in America’s public schools extend far beyond poor areas. Indeed, many middle-class schools are failing to educate their students.
The NEA effort, highlighted in a recent Wall Street Journal article, focused on underperforming schools. The NEA hopes to encourage local unions to restrict language in contracts so that “troubled schools” can more easily get highly qualified teachers. NEA President Dennis Van Roekel explained his support for the shift because “too often schools with the greatest needs are filled with the most inexperienced and least skilled teachers.”
Before Congress cut off its funding, the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program was an important step toward getting students into better schools. Unfortunately, only low-income students received tuition vouchers to attend the school of their choice. Legislators never extended vouchers to suburban kids in Maryland and Virginia. Reformers themselves often focus on schools in poor urban and rural areas, but the need for reform is just as great in affluent suburbs.
In a forthcoming study by PRI, Lance Izumi, Evelyn Stacey, and I update our 2007 book Not As Good As You Think. In 2007 we found nearly 300 schools that we classified as both middle class and underperforming. Schools qualified as middle class if one third or less of the students received free or reduced school lunch and were socioeconomically disadvantaged. We considered a school underperforming if less than 50 percent of the students scored proficient on the California Standards Test in math or language arts.
In the 2009 version we again look at middle class schools in California to assess how well students in more affluent areas are performing two years later. The results are worrisome. Using our original standards, we found more than 750 schools that had less than one-third of students on free or reduced lunch and who were socioeconomically disadvantaged. In these same schools, half or less of the students were scoring proficient.
Since the number was so large we decided to create a second list of even wealthier schools. For this list we only considered schools with 20 percent or less of students on free or reduced lunch and who were socio-economically disadvantaged. Then we looked at whether these schools had 60 percent or less of their students scoring proficient. We found a shocking 528 schools that met this profile.
The results of the forthcoming study do not diminish the importance of school reform in poor areas with failing, unsafe schools. Such schools urgently require real reform so that students everywhere have a chance at success. But the study does show that the need for reform is wide-ranging.
As the many successful charter schools have demonstrated, public schools in poor areas do not fail because the students are “unteachable.” Rather, they fail because the system as a whole—even in middle class suburbs—needs to change. Voucher programs like the DC Opportunity Scholarships should be expanded so that all parents can choose the best schools for their children.
Middle class parents in the suburbs, where charter schools are rare, should not consider reform a problem of the urban poor. Parents, educators, and politicians should be concerned because schools everywhere need to improve. True reform goes beyond the latest NEA proposal and will challenge the education establishment by introducing incentives for change with vouchers, accountability, and merit pay.