Teach the teachers, test the students

A review of “There Are No Shortcuts,” by Rafe Esquith, and “The $100,000 Teacher” by Brian Crosby

Common sense and empirical research tell us that teacher quality is one of the most important factors affecting student achievement. But what makes for good teachers and good teaching? Two books, both by Los Angeles-based teachers, attempt to address these difficult questions.

Rafe Esquith is a famed elementary school teacher who has earned international acclaim for taking low-income, often non-English-speaking students, and turning them into high-achieving standouts. His students not only learn to read and appreciate Shakespeare, they perform the Bard’s plays so well that Sir Ian McKellen has become one of Esquith’s biggest boosters. How does he do it? Esquith’s book, “There Are No Shortcuts,” provides an interesting, informative, but at times frustratingly incomplete answer.

Esquith uses personal anecdotes and observations to make his points, many of which are incisive and courageous. When his class was studying the Declaration of Independence, it struck him that Jefferson’s phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” described the essential problem he and other teachers face. Students want a good life, love liberty, and want to be happy. But, he observes, “What happened to pursuit? We aren’t handed happiness. We’re given an opportunity to pursue it.”

It was world-renowned cellist Lynn Harrell who helped him see the solution to the problem. After a concert the class had attended, one of Esquith’s students asked Harrell how he made such beautiful music. The cellist answered, “Well, there are no shortcuts.” From that, Esquith got not only the title of his book, but his philosophy of teaching.

Esquith subsequently laid out a strategy for increasing his students’ learning. He set high expectations: “Successful classrooms are run by teachers who have an unshakeable belief that the students can accomplish amazing things and who create the expectation that they will.” The responsibility lies squarely with the teacher: “Someone has to raise the bar, and that person is the teacher … Someone has to tell children if they are behind, and lay out a plan of attack to help them catch up.”

Esquith’s eight laws of learning are: “… explanation, demonstration, imitation, repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition, and repetition.” He effectively lengthened the school day by setting up study sessions before and after school, on Saturdays, and during vacation periods. His students received 500 hours of reading instruction per year, compared to an average of 200 hours for students at other schools. Esquith’s success is no surprise, given research showing that extensive practice is the key to true competence.

One wishes, however, that Esquith were a bit more specific about how he puts his laws into practice. For example, regarding reading instruction, he says, “Teaching reading is not rocket science.” True enough, but he offers no details about how he actually teaches it, apart from putting in long hours, reading to students, and getting his young charges interested in great literature through his own enthusiasm. He does not say, however, if he favors a phonics-based method, the whole-language approach, or something else. Perhaps Esquith wished to avoid being drawn into the “reading wars,” but it would have been useful to know what methods he uses to bring his students’ reading skills up to grade level.

Esquith does say he opposes Open Court, the structured, phonics-based reading program used by the Los Angeles Unified School District. His opposition has more to do with the program’s supposedly rigid structure than with its phonics approach. As an energetic, enthusiastic, and independent-minded teacher, he bristles at being straitjacketed by this structure. Yet for all his emphasis on student achievement, he fails to address honestly the fact that reading scores shot up, especially among black and Latino students, after Los Angeles implemented Open Court.

To his credit, Esquith is unafraid to criticize political correctness. He decries the inordinate amount of time allocated to celebrating ethnic cultures when “many of the children who participate in these activities cannot read and write well in any language.” What’s more, Esquith rejects the philosophy of the bilingual education establishment and teaches entirely in English, even though many of his students are non-English-speakers. “Looking down the road,” he writes, “how in the world can a child who isn’t fluent in English do well on college entrance exams? Students who don’t speak English will have no chance; this is why I teach in English.”

Esquith is clearly a great teacher. Critics no doubt will gripe that the extra-long hours he puts in, the large amounts of his own money he spends on his classes, and the cross-country trips he arranges for his students can’t be replicated by other teachers. But any teacher can replicate Esquith’s high expectations, his emphasis on practice and drill, and his use of great literature to excite his students about reading. Esquith has something to teach other teachers. But the fact that many of his own colleagues hate him for his accomplishments should tell us that his lessons won’t be easily learned.

Also interesting, but more seriously flawed, is Brian Crosby’s “The $100,000 Teacher.” Despite the title, the book is not a teacher-union screed about pumping more tax dollars into teachers’ pockets.

A high school English teacher, Crosby wants to professionalize teaching and believes that the way to reach this goal is to offer higher salaries to attract better-qualified people into the field. While making some useful criticisms of the teachers’ unions, suggesting interesting ways to finance his proposal without increasing taxes, and taking his teacher colleagues to task for an assortment of shortcomings, he fails to provide a reliable mechanism to ensure that good teachers under his system would really be worth the high salary he envisions for them.

Currently, most teachers are paid uniform wages based on years of service and other factors, such as whether they have earned an advanced degree. Therefore, all teachers with 10 years of service and a master’s degree earn the same salary, regardless of their subject field or competence.

Crosby’s proposed wage structure is based on four principles: (1) Pay more to secondary school teachers than to elementary school teachers, since specialized knowledge is worth more than general knowledge; (2) Pay more to teachers in high-demand fields such as math and science if they majored in those areas; (3) Pay more to teachers who have more paperwork, such as English teachers who have to grade dozens of composition papers; and (4) Pay more to teachers working in hard-to-staff places, such as inner-city schools.

Based on these criteria, Crosby would establish a teacher career ladder with five different classifications, ranging from an “instructor,” a teacher-in-training with a starting salary of $50,000, to a “master teacher,” who has 15 years of experience and earns $100,000.

Parts of his proposal have merit. Differentiated pay for teachers makes good economic sense. A math major can get a better-paying job in the private sector, so why not pay him more than someone who can’t?

Crosby wants to pay teachers based on performance, which is an excellent idea. Under his plan, teachers would be evaluated periodically by administrators and fellow teachers, based on certain standards, e.g., demonstrating mastery of content. Pay raises (or reductions) would be tied to these evaluations. The trouble is that even if teachers meet these standards, there is no guarantee that student achievement will improve. J.E. Stone, an education psychology professor at East Tennessee State University, studied how teachers certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (one of the organizations Crosby cites approvingly) affected their students’ performance. He found that certified teachers “cannot be considered exceptionally effective in terms of their ability to bring about [higher] student achievement.” Further, Stone writes that “… the achievement gains made by their students are no greater than those made by students who had other teachers.” The California State Legislative Analyst’s Office reached similar conclusions in 2000.

If there is little correlation between such teacher standards and student achievement, then what about linking teachers’ pay to an objective measure of student performance, such as student test scores? Crosby fanatically opposes standardized tests. “State testing is the biggest public education scam,” he writes. Without citing any specific studies, he declares that multiple-choice standardized exams are “an assessment tool unanimously frowned on in education research literature.”

This claim is patently false. Michigan State University professor Susan Phillips, one of the nation’s top experts on standards and testing, says that multiple-choice exams allow for the testing of breadth of knowledge, are better than essay tests in generalizing results, and can be better than other tests in measuring “higher-order thinking skills.”

Unfortunately, Crosby’s zeal against standardized testing leads him to make emotional and preposterous statements. He thunders: “If students can’t read English, they will do poorly on the test. If students come from a home where education holds little value, they will do poorly on the test.” In addition to being an accountability tool, standardized tests serve a diagnostic purpose. Poor performance gives teachers and principals valuable information about what areas they need to focus on in order to improve student achievement. Principals at high-performing, high-poverty schools strongly support testing for precisely this reason. By asserting that a student’s family background determines his or her performance, Crosby consigns legions of students to automatic failure and ignores the impact of good teachers like Rafe Esquith.

So it goes in Crosby’s book. There definitely is a strong case to be made for higher pay for teachers, but someone besides Crosby will have to make it.

Lance T. Izumi is director of education studies at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco, California. This article appeared in the Spring 2004 issue of the Claremont Review of Books, published by the Claremont Institute, and is reprinted here by permission. On the web: http://www.claremont.org.