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In late spring, Linda Darling-Hammond and I discussed the state of educational equity in America as part of Education Sector’s interview series on equity in education.
Linda Darling-Hammond is the Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education at Stanford University’s School of Education and author of more than a dozen books and 300 articles on educational reform, teacher professionalization, and equity. She has won numerous awards for her research and contributions to policy and practice. Linda worked closely with candidate Barack Obama to shape educational policy and today is working with Gov. Jerry Brown in California to revitalize that state’s once-glorious educational system. Linda is a champion of teachers and the teaching profession. Linda does that rare thing—inspires and informs at the same time.
Education Sector: Linda, you’ve been fighting for educational justice your whole life. What sparked your convictions and commitments?
Linda Darling-Hammond: Growing up, I came from one of those families that didn’t have a lot of money or education but was really committed to getting a good education for their children. We moved to try to get into better schools. ... I had a brother with a set of learning disabilities, which were not labeled at that time, but I could see how different his experience was in school from mine; I could see the inequalities in access within and between schools. During my first teaching experience in Camden, New Jersey, which was a severely underfunded district serving very high-needs students, the extent of educational inequality became clear to me. It just mobilized my concern that if the American dream means anything, if education is the great equalizer, and if people are supposed to be able to become wiser and more capable, we had to fix these tremendous inequalities.
ES: In 2010, you published The Flat World in Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future. Can you tell us why you wrote it, and where you see the issue of equity today?
LD-H: I wanted to write The Flat World because there was a lot of discussion in the '90s and since then about our place in the world, our competitive relationship to other nations, and how some other countries are doing better in education. ... People make wild claims about what other countries do that are completely wrong. So I looked at the high-achieving countries on assessments like PISA (the Program for International Student Assessment) and described what their policies were. And guess what? They do a lot to promote equity. They ensure that children are well taken care of. There is no child poverty in any large degree in any of the top 10, highest achieving nations on PISA. Even when families have low incomes, there are safety nets to ensure that children are housed, fed, have health care, and access to good early learning opportunities. They fund schools equally. They invest heavily in well-prepared teachers and school leaders for all schools. Salaries are equitable; kids are able to count on having a serious career-long teacher and school leader as well as all of the materials needed for a well-outfitted school.
Children are cared for regardless of where they grow up in Finland, Singapore, South Korea, or Hong Kong. I wanted to be sure that we were thinking about the question of improving our international competitiveness from a base of understanding of our own situation and the strategies used in other countries.
ES: Some argue that class has replaced race as the most important variable in explaining differences in educational outcomes. Is this true?
LD-H: There are studies that suggest a strong influence of parental or family income on educational outcomes that appears greater than that of race. But it doesn’t mean that race is less important; instead the effects of the growing income disparities in education have become more important. In fact, what’s really going on here is that the spread of income has gotten larger in the United States over recent decades. ... The wealthiest Americans, the 1 percent if you will, now control a lot more of the wealth of the country—about 43 percent. ... Meanwhile, poverty, especially severe poverty, has deepened. One in four kids live in poverty but the number in severe poverty is a greater share of the total. Race ... continues to be strongly correlated with wealth and particularly with severe poverty. So it’s very premature to say that race does not matter.
ES: You are the nation’s leader in calling for the professionalization of teaching. What is the relationship between teacher professionalization and equity?
LD-H: At the end of the day, if we achieve a level playing field, if all schools become reasonably well-resourced, children are fed and housed, and we have adequate health care, what will still matter most in terms of students’ achievement are the qualifications and capacities of their teachers.
The only way we can ensure that kids who have different backgrounds, learning styles, and experiences get an equal educational opportunity is if they have teachers who know how to teach content well and how to reach diverse learners. Without highly skilled teachers, you can’t get to excellence; and highly skilled teachers matter the most for the kids who have the fewest opportunities. There’s a lot of research showing that teachers with more training, more qualifications, and more experience are even more important to children who live in low-income communities and who have had learning challenges than to students with more advantages. Teaching children who have particular learning needs or who may not speak English requires extraordinary skill, sophisticated skill. It’s not enough to be able to go in and be enthusiastic and love the kids. That’s great. But if you don’t know how to help kids learn, [kids] who come from so many different contexts and often don’t have someone reading to them at home or other outside-of-school learning opportunities, having that highly skilled, committed teacher is the No.1 path to educational opportunity.
ES: What are your thoughts about evaluating teachers by their students’ standardized test scores? What’s missing from the public debate?
LD-H: Teacher-bashing infuriates me. The commitment of individuals who go into teaching in this country is extraordinary. And many teachers are highly able. We do have a wide range of access to knowledge for teachers, just like we have a wide range of access to knowledge for students. That means that teachers are left with one hand tied behind their backs if they aren’t given the knowledge and the skills they need.
Evaluation has to begin at the very beginning of the career. Finland’s rise to the top of the international rankings is typically attributed by the Finns to the deep training of teachers in a highly professionalized master’s degree program. [In Finland education] students have strong content background, and they study teaching methods while they spend a year in a model school, pursuing a clinically supported internship. In addition, there is a lot of attention to learning how to teach special education students and to personalize teaching for all students. The idea is if you can teach kids who struggle to learn, then you can teach anyone. It really pays off. Finally, teachers learn how to use and conduct research, and [each writes] a thesis in which he or she researches an educational issue as part of the master’s degree.
In Finland there is very little formal evaluation that happens after teachers get into the profession because the bar is so high at the beginning, and there are so many supports to get better. There are some analysts who have claimed, “Oh, if you fire the bottom 10 percent of teachers every year, you’ll get educational outcomes like those in Finland.” In fact, that is not how Finland gets high educational outcomes. You can’t fire your way to Finland. You actually have to build the capacity of teachers.
We ought to be having a conversation about performance assessments for entering the field. [American Federation of Teachers President] Randi Weingarten has called for a "bar exam" for teachers. I’ve been involved in building teacher performance assessments in which beginning teachers demonstrate that they can plan a curriculum, teach it, produce and evaluate student learning. We find that these assessments improve teaching and improve the quality of teacher education.
On-the-job evaluation should use similar professional standards and examine both teachers' practices and the learning of their students based on multiple measures drawn from the classroom as well as from some external tests. Value-added metrics are very popular right now and being pushed by a lot of policymakers. Unfortunately, these have proved to be both highly unstable and biased for certain teachers, based on the students they teach. The actual “value-added measure” is actually just the error term in a regression equation. Basically that means that whatever share of a student's test score in a given year we can’t predict with the student's demographic characteristics and prior test scores, whatever variance is left over, we call the “teacher effect.”
However, there are all kinds of things in the value-added basket, unmeasured variables other than the teacher to whom the measure is attached—school conditions, administrative conditions, curriculum, class size, home conditions, etc. Even though the teacher is actually only a tiny bit of that number, all of these variables are essentially called the "teacher effect." Furthermore, you can’t sort out previous teachers, other current teachers, the tutor the kid might have at home or after school, or the parent who does the homework with the student.
And finally, our state tests are designed only to measure grade-level standards ... they don’t measure growth above the grade level or below the grade level. In a typical sixth grade classroom, you may have kids reading on the kindergarten level and the 10th grade level, and everything in between. Maybe a quarter of the kids will actually be on grade level. If a teacher moves a student from the kindergarten level to the third grade level, it will never show up on the test, because the test is only measuring the sixth grade standards.
Value-added metrics are extremely error-prone; they shouldn’t be used as a single measure of teacher quality. That doesn’t mean some test score gains couldn’t be used as evidence of student learning in a basket of evidence. If I were evaluating an elementary school teacher in a community with a lot of English learners, I would want evidence about how her kids were progressing on the developmental reading assessment, which is actually a profile that extends along the first eight years of school. I would want evidence of how they were gaining on English language proficiency assessments. I would want artifacts from the class itself. For example, if students were writing stories, I would want to see how they progressed from first drafts to last drafts and what kind of feedback the teacher offered in between. I’d want to see lots of ways that student growth might be measured, but I wouldn’t want to peg a teacher’s evaluation on an inaccurate and unstable value-added score.
ES: How effective do you think the Obama administration has been in reducing educational inequalities?
LD-H: In the first term of the Obama administration, the equity agenda was pretty much pushed to the side. I think we’re beginning to see quite a bit of attention now to investment in early childhood education, which is critically important for an equity agenda. We know that there’s a big achievement gap at kindergarten. Low-income students have about a third as many words as high-income students. That vocabulary gap is also a concept gap because [low-income students] haven’t had the experiences and the concepts that everything else is built on. The investment in preschool is tremendously important for equity.
The Department of Education also sponsored an Equity Commission that just put out a report, For Each and Every Child. I was a member of the commission. It was established legislatively by Congressman Mike Honda and Congressman Chaka Fattah and chaired by Chris Edley, Jr. and Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar. I think the list of proposals in that commission, which the department has begun to take up, signals the possibility for a lot more attention to equity in the second term.
ES: What kinds of policies do not work to reduce educational inequality?
LD-H: The test-and-punish approach to reform doesn’t ultimately reduce inequality in a meaningful way. You can sometimes drive up scores a little bit on the tests that are being drilled to, but we have a lot of evidence that those gains—if they’re just produced by this sort of drilling approach—don’t translate into other measures of learning. Assessments are productive when they measure the right things in ways that are useful for informing instructional decision-making, but by themselves they don’t reduce inequality. If you really want to address equity, you have to make the investments. It’s not just a question of motivation.
We’re also finding that privatization doesn’t improve equity. I have personally helped start schools in the private, charter, and district-run school sectors—to be able to provide particular kinds of education at the preschool level and to innovate in particular ways at the high school level—so I am in some ways agnostic with respect to school sector. Innovative, equitable education can occur in any of these sectors.
But the evidence really shows that there’s no magic panacea associated with changing governance. Studies show that across the sectors on average, there’s not a huge difference in achievement for kids of a particular demographic. While we have some charter schools that have proved to be highly successful, the biggest study of such schools shows that about 17 percent outperform district-run schools serving similar kids, but 37 percent do worse and about 46 percent do about the same. The idea that governance changes are going to magically improve achievement or equity is unlikely to get us there. We’ve got to focus on what happens inside of schools—the quality of teaching, the quality of curriculum, the supports that are there for kids—and move beyond a governance-only conversation.
ES: You’ve been working with the governor of California on education issues. Could you tell us a little about that work?
LD-H: We have a new day in California. ... We are right down there in the basement of the state rankings on educational outcomes. That happened because of tremendous disinvestment in the public system, including Proposition 13, which restricted tax revenues, and all the things that followed. The state really went into a testing-without-investing modality over the 1990s and early 2000s.
We have a new governor, Jerry Brown, who’s cycled around for the second time, a new state board chair, Mike Kirst, who’s also cycled around for the second time. (Mike likes to talk about the rise of septuagenarians as the framework for this era of reform.) We have a new state superintendent, Tom Torlakson. I’ve worked with Tom as the co-chair of his transition team and I serve at the governor's request as chair of the California Teacher Credentialing Committee. We’re trying to bring these parts of the government together and move in a common direction, one that will reinvest in the public education system.
We’ve passed Proposition 30 that brings funding back into the system. The governor is supporting a local-control funding formula that will equalize funding. It will put us on par with what some other countries do in terms of investing in schools in a progressive fashion. [Jerry Brown signed the reform bill on July 1.]
We’re aiming to re-professionalize teaching, to make investments in the quality of preparation, to identify high-quality programs that prepare candidates for a very diverse student force. We’re the first state to have performance assessments for beginning teachers as a requirement for licensure. We’re going to be very rigorous about identifying programs that shouldn’t be training teachers, because if they can’t do it do it well, they shouldn’t be in the business.
Rather than punish students and teachers in schools that have low test scores, we’re putting in place a new infrastructure for professional learning in the state and new, more thoughtful assessments, which will aim at 21st century skills, more meaningful learning goals, and will be used to inform and support decision-making about professional learning and curriculum in schools.
ES: We haven’t had a chance to talk about technology. What role can technology play in creating greater equity?
LD-H: Technology is going to blow the lid off of all of our conceptions of schooling, because people can learn all the time, everywhere. We have to equalize access to technology. Since the 1990s, we have not made a big investment in technology in low-income communities. Technology is going to be important as people use it to inquire, to investigate, to solve problems—not to create electronic workbooks that put kids in little cages where they have to march through all of the items on the multiple-choice test. Technology has to be used for thinking and empowerment, not for restricting and standardizing.
ES: Linda, thank you so much for talking with us.
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