Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Unintended, Unforeseen Consequences

The challenges surrounding the U.S. Department of Education's (ED) plan to replace principals at underperforming schools across the nation (New York Times: "U.S. Plan to Replace Principals Hits Snag: Who Will Step In?") reminds me of the unintended consequences of California's class size reduction policies during the 1990s.

As the New York Times reported yesterday about the ED's $4 billion plan to radically transform the country’s worst schools by installing new principals to overhaul most of the failing schools, "[T]here simply were not enough qualified principals-in-waiting to take over."

California experienced a similar human capital problem when it reduced class sizes statewide in grades k-3. An unintended consequence of its state policy was the hiring of more emergency-credentialed and unqualified educators as a result of the additional teaching positions needed to enable smaller class sizes. As this Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning report noted, "[T]he implementation of class size reduction ... dramatically increased the shortage" of fully qualified teachers. In addition, the Public Policy Institute of California reports that it exacerbated educational inequality and disproportionately affected schools that served low-income and minority students:
CSR led to a dramatic increase in the percentages of inexperienced and uncertified teachers. In 1990, there were few differences in these characteristics by racial/ethnic and income groups. Even as late as 1995–1996, the year before CSR, schools with high percentages of nonwhite and low-income students were only slightly more likely
than other schools to have inexperienced teachers who lacked full certification and postgraduate schooling. By 1999, large gaps in teacher qualifications had emerged between schools attended by nonwhite and low-income students and other schools. For black students in schools with more than 75 percent of the students enrolled in subsidized lunch programs, nearly 25 percent had a first- or second-year teacher; almost 30 percent had a teacher who was not fully certified. At the other extreme, for white students attending schools with 25 percent or fewer of the students enrolled in subsidized lunch programs, only 12 percent had a first- or second-year teacher, and only 5 percent had a teacher who was not fully credentialed. These differences reflect the varying levels of difficulty that many schools experienced in attempting to attract and retain teachers following the implementation of CSR.
With all the current hullabaloo about wanting to fire more underperforming teachers as a chief reform strategy, the critical question is: "Who will replace them?" The belief that 'we can do better' does not necessarily make it so. We've got to attend to and recognize such human capital challenges before we put forth such policies, however well intended.