teaching_school_reform_education_social_capital_measuring_social_impact(Illustration by Brian Stauffer)

In Waiting for Superman, the 2010 documentary that describes the failure of American public education, several children and their families, along with educators like Geoffrey Canada and philanthropists like Bill Gates, drive home the argument that the key to school reform lies in improving the competence and skills of individual teachers. Making the case for a crisis in K-12 education is not difficult. Open any newspaper and you are likely to find an article reporting on the sorry state of US public education. Student competence in basic subjects like math and reading is alarmingly low and trails that of other nations. Three in 10 public school students fail to finish high school. Graduation rates for students in some minority groups are especially dismal, with just over half of Hispanics (55.5 percent) and African Americans (53.7 percent) graduating with their class.1

President Barack Obama and others have expressed concern about American students’ deficiencies in math and science. In comparisons among OECD member countries, 15-year-olds in the United States markedly lag in mathematics, trailing their counterparts in 30 other countries, including China, France, and Estonia.2 This should not be surprising, as a little more than a third of fourth-graders in US public schools were proficient in mathematics in 2009. Although this represents a considerable rise from 22 percent in 2000, gains have stalled in the last five years, and fourth-graders’ math proficiency actually declined in the United States between 2007 and 2009.3 Performance gets even worse as students move on to secondary school; only 26 percent of US high school students are proficient in math.

This disappointing performance has led educators, policymakers, and parents to search for ways to improve student achievement in schools. Foundations, too, are focusing on school reform, with the largest and most powerful, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, providing hundreds of millions of dollars in funding to initiatives for improving teacher competence and accountability. The accountability models increasingly in fashion find their roots in the discipline of economics rather than education, and they are exemplified in the value-added metrics now gathered by large urban school districts. These metrics assess annual increments in each student’s learning derived from standardized tests in subject areas like math and reading, which are then aggregated to arrive at a score for a teacher—her “value added” to students’ learning. Anyone can go to the website of the Los Angeles Times and find a ranking based on these scores for every teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Needless to say, many teachers and the unions that represent them are opposed to value-added models, arguing that they fail to capture the complex factors which go into teaching and learning.