John Merrow is the host of The Merrow Report, a documentary series on education that airs on PBS and NPR. He is also the correspondent on Frontline's Testing Our Schools. In his commentary below, Merrow questions if President Bush's education plan offers enough incentive to improve failing schools.
Like most federal laws, the No Child Left Behind Education Act contains both carrots and sticks. It raises the bar for schools, requires lots of testing, and includes sticks for whacking failing schools. There's a carrot for parents in schools that fail three years in a row. After that time, parents can use school money to pay for private tutoring. Naturally this big carrot has Sylvan Learning Systems, Kaplan, and other tutoring services salivating. But where are the carrots for the failing schools? All the law says is that the school district must provide unspecified supplemental services.
The whole world, which includes President Bush and the US Congress, knows that two keys to school success are strong leadership and well-trained, effective teachers. We know that distressed urban schools get the newest, worst-trained and least-effective teachers. Many of these schools have a 25 percent turnover in teaching staff every year. I spent much of last year reporting from an urban public elementary school that's had four principals in five years.
Neither states nor local school districts seem to be able to turn around failing schools. For example, a local carrot approach, offering money to the best teachers, alienates parents whose schools lose those teachers. Sticks do not work. Seniority provisions keep teachers from being reassigned. The school superintendent in Richmond, Virginia, lost her job when she began reassigning principals to the neediest schools. Simply removing ineffective teachers and principals is not a solution. As one Los Angeles teacher noted, "That's an empty threat. Nobody's waiting for our jobs."
The president has called upon Americans to serve, to give back. Many citizens, motivated by idealism, are joining programs like Teach For America, a New York City teaching fellows program. But the success of these schools and their pupils should not have to depend upon the kindness of strangers. If President Bush and the US Congress really want to help failing schools, they could provide federal tax credits to those willing to serve in them, a credit of, say, 5 to $8,000 a year would attract and keep the kind of people failing schools need.
The president's reluctance to provide carrots makes me wonder whether he's serious about helping failing schools or merely trolling for votes. And this administration is not the first to just talk the talk. Harvard's new president has called upon his university's graduate school of education to rescue public education. Funny he should be issuing that challenge now, and to others. In his previous job as President Clinton's secretary of the Treasury, Lawrence Summers could have done it himself.