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Conor Williams
Washington, DC

Conor Williams

I’m working on a PhD in Government at Georgetown, so I’m full of ideals, but my optimism is tempered by experience.

Real education reform

The recent firestorm surrounding Vince Gray's primary victory in Washington, D.C., has refocused national attention on education policy. Central to his victory was a citywide debate over the style and effectiveness of Mayor Adrian Fenty's Chancellor of Schools, Michelle Rhee. Unfortunately, while Gray's call for a more collaborative approach to education reform was an effective campaign slogan, it has emboldened reform's many opponents to expect a reprieve from public pressure to improve. What's at stake?

These are hardly problems specific to the District. In The Widget Effect, a multi-state study on teacher performance, researchers found that effective teacher accountability systems are extremely rare: though 81 percent of administrators believe that at least one of their school's tenured teachers is performing poorly, over "half of the districts studied did not dismiss a single non-probationary teacher for poor performance" during the two to five year study length.

The New York Times recently reported that Mayor Bloomberg's administration invested two million dollars in legal counsel over two years to get ineffective teachers out of the classroom. The net haul? Three of New York City's 55,000 tenured teachers were dismissed for incompetence. Ineffective teachers across the country are being identified -- not only by test scores or by single-measure assessments -- but are not being dismissed.

How can this be so? Teachers' unions have long opposed strict accountability measures. They dismiss standardized tests as inadequate evidence of teacher proficiency; they claim that holding teachers accountable to either absolute or relative standards of student achievement ignores the diversity of student backgrounds; and they allege that administrator-driven systems for holding teachers accountable may be abused.

If this approach -- relentless in its criticism but vague in terms of suggesting alternative solutions -- sounds familiar, don't be surprised. It is precisely this sort of rhetoric that was at the core of candidate Gray's campaign. Lost in the public debate: while demanding greater teacher accountability, Chancellor Rhee also presented a new contract this year raising teacher pay by nearly 22 percent with substantial bonuses for highly effective teachers. Demonizing her approach as insufficiently collaborative and promising to reform education without upsetting those with an interest in maintaining the horrifyingly unjust status quo is both insincere and unproductive. The time for equivocation is long past. Real education reform requires that we celebrate and encourage Rhee's (and others') attempts to professionalize the teaching profession and put the nation's students first.

By Conor Williams  |  October 11, 2010; 12:00 AM ET  | Category:  Initial Entries
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Part one.

The premise of this piece--that the educational system needs better teachers--is entirely incorrect. The fault and salvation of the educational system supposedly lies in teacher quality. Good teachers are said to elevate all of humanity essentially (every child), while poor teachers are responsible for human failure.

But for all of human history no matter the gifted minds appearing in all fields most of the human race never arrives at giftedness. Furthermore something of a contradiction is stated in declaring gifted teachers the salvation of the educational system: We have a human race with a wide variety of natural ability and supposedly picking the gifted teachers will overcome the natural variety, elevate the less capable.

The fact is fault is not with the teachers but the majority of humanity which is intellectually mediocre. Piling gifted teacher upon gifted teacher will not overcome genetic inability in the majority. In fact education is something of a myth, there is no such thing as education.

Eduction standards are set somewhere in the middle, favoring the average--the genetic ability of the average. This disguises the fact that the bottom twenty or thirty percent are not being educated and makes it seem the top twenty percent or so owe their achievement to being educated when the fact is they are actually genetically gifted to begin with.

Education is a myth--it claims essentially to be able to overcome genetic differences between people, that ironically looking for the gifted teachers, who owe their abilities to superior natural gifts, will elevate the masses to something close to their own level.
What we have is a circular argument in trying to find gifted teachers to save the educational system. We search for gifted teachers who are supposed to elevate the average, but the average proves recalcitrant and so we search harder for gifted teachers who again fail to elevate the average and so on. Eventually the day will arrive when we can blame teachers no longer, when we have as best as possible gifted teachers but human difference in ability keeps proving resistent to education.

If a person wants a school to succeed he does not put, charge, gifted teachers with the task of elevating average students, what he does is pick gifted students to begin with--which is the practice in all fields except education apparently. If you want a great sports team you pick the best players; if you want a great music group the best musicians; if you want the best business you pick the more gifted in the required positions to fill the positions. Obvious.

Posted by: daniel12 | October 19, 2010 8:15 AM
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Part two.

But apparently the education system has as its goal to provide all these fields with high performing material! Completely irrational! As early as Socrates it was understood that if one wants to communicate the more complex things one chooses carefully one's students. As early as the Greeks it was recognized that education is a myth if it is suggested a gifted teacher make something of a mediocre student. Education works only if teacher and student are on the same intellectual level to begin with. A moron can teach virtually anyone to tie a pair of shoes. Someone gifted in a field can transmit his knowledge only to a mind as naturally gifted as himself. So obvious.

It really is only a matter of time before all this becomes accepted, because the genetic sciences are pushing ahead more powerfully every day and getting at genetic differences between individuals, races and ethnic groups. Gradually the genetic sciences will replace education, the human race will arrive at high performing children genetically, making obsolete the concept of trying to elevate children to equality by education. Already it is recognized that the more gifted students have the capacity to educate themselves--increasing I.Q. is corrolated with increasing capacity to self-educate.

Again, the premise of this entire piece is wrong. And the most despicable and ironic thing is that one is not allowed to suggest such at all, not to suggest such in precisely the area in life in which one would expect the most flexible and free of thought. It would not surprise me if my comments here are deleted. Certainly I have never heard them discussed at all no matter how clearly I have stated my position in the past. People just refuse to consider it. Good luck with that tactic in the future. I feel it will not work. Eventually all positions will receive a fair hearing. And I think the current views being put forward by our education czars will be proved wrong.

Posted by: daniel12 | October 19, 2010 8:14 AM
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Good to hear from you again, MSJS. I did not get through this one at all.

Posted by: martymar123 | October 18, 2010 7:58 AM
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This article was beautifully written. Brilliant information that should make this guy the winner. He deserves it!
Go chicago

Posted by: macpaulus55 | October 14, 2010 5:02 PM
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I found the author's writing style long-winded and uninteresting. I could barely finish the essay.

Try "what's up with that?" instead of "how can this be so?". And ditch sentences like "the time for equivocation is long past."

Make the essay interesting and fun. This reads more like the last 10 minutes of my most boring high school class.

Posted by: MsJS | October 14, 2010 3:04 PM
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I was looking for an anecdote from your teaching experience but the piece still works. Personally, having tutored in D.C. schools, I believe that parents -- lack of one, in particular -- are the problem. The eagerness of the children to learn is heartrending but it is apparent that learning does not continue for most of them outside the classroom.

Posted by: Couvade | October 14, 2010 8:09 AM
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Everything's a ______ travesty with you, Walter!!

Posted by: conorpwilliams | October 13, 2010 6:15 PM
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"I suggest you do what your parents did. Get a job sir!"

Posted by: waltersobchak2 | October 13, 2010 2:38 PM
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Just cut and paste this article to Wikipedia and post under "The Call of the American Educator, ie givusmoremoney'"
Paying a nickel more to anyone will not solve the problem of overpaid, burned out, self proclaimed "educators".
Typical propaganda of educators in our times.

Posted by: realitybased1 | October 13, 2010 11:07 AM
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Ok, I'm a Lebowski, you're a what?

Posted by: conorpwilliams | October 13, 2010 7:56 AM
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"no, you're not wrong Walter, you're just an a-hole"

Posted by: tazeffiro | October 13, 2010 1:23 AM
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Just so we know what's really at stake here:

"Dude, this is a league game, this determines who enters the next round robin. Am I wrong? Am I wrong?"

Posted by: waltersobchak2 | October 12, 2010 11:16 PM
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He starts out his short bio-burst with a gratutious platitude designed to cater to what he hopes will be an enormous right wing/tea-party leaning fan base. I am not sure how the "American left" is any more "intellectually incoherent" than the American right at the present - and I cannot even fathom what that has to do with anything that he has to say about the state of education in America.
As a teacher myself, I would hope that one who is competing for a slot as a pundit might actually adhere to the tenets of persuasive rhetorical writing by supplying legitimate evidence for the assertions made in the essay - not just unsupported suppositions about base political motivations of people he does not like or support.

Posted by: Pirsqrd | October 12, 2010 8:22 PM
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Chucky-El pegs this just right: "Not Top 50 writing or subject." I would never have known Mr. Williams had been a teacher had he not disclosed that fact. I can only conclude that the experience didn't just temper his optimism, as he says, but obliterated it!

Posted by: DCSteve1 | October 12, 2010 6:33 PM
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In a short piece you took on a big subject...and then tried to stay big in a format that didn't fit...resulting in nothing but platitude as result.
Yeah, there are bad teachers...more discouraged than incompetent. So why not focus on some instance of the problem...for instance, that only 3 teachers have been dismissed in NYC despite the investment? Tell us the problem with dismissal procedures (I'm sure there were more if "for cause" terminations are included}.
Frankly, I agree that the # of votes here the result of the same socal networking reality that rewarded the latter over talent last year. It's a benign piece overall...PS...I'm a retired HS teacher, not in the DC area.

Posted by: mfkpadrefan | October 12, 2010 4:03 PM
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Would have been more salient if you identified the people behing Gray who are pushing the "status quo" and what is it going to take to find the right balance between performance and non-performance.

Posted by: jgdonahue | October 12, 2010 3:23 PM
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OMG, not another Michele Rhee "Teach for America" clown, opps I mean clone. Are you anther of her ex-husbands as was the last guy? You even look like him. And your writing is a one trick pony on education reform.

Even worse, by the large number of votes you have tallied, and total lack of comments, you must be tied into the same social network that allowed the last guy to win.

This is not Top 50 writing nor subject.

Posted by: chucky-el | October 12, 2010 11:47 AM
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Conor, how can you be so naive. You've diagnosed the symptons but overlooked the the the disease. This isn't about doing what's right for the children, this is about Fenty and Rhee effectively busting the Teachers Union by actually firing incompetant teachers. They took a hard line as opposed to your example of Bloomberg in NY. Unfortuately the majority of these teachers were black in a city whose voting majority is also black. They also fault Fenty for highering so many "non-blacks" in important posts. So the underlying "disease" in this casr is racism. I hope I didn't ruin your naivete.

Posted by: bobilly2 | October 11, 2010 7:49 PM
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