5 Questions With . . . Sociology’s Daniel Long on Education Reform

Lauren RubensteinMarch 6, 20129min
Daniel Long, assistant professor of sociology, studies education in the U.S. and abroad. In February, he was invited to testify before the Connecticut General Assembly’s Education Committee about education reform plans.

In this issue of  The Wesleyan Connection we ask 5 Questions of Daniel Long, assistant professor of sociology.

Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy has made education reform a major priority this year. He has proposed a sweeping package of reforms, including overhauling teacher tenure, increasing Education Cost Sharing grants to struggling districts, funding more preschool slots for low-income children, and requiring districts to contribute additional money for students to attend charter schools.

Q: Connecticut suffers from the highest black/white and poor/non-poor achievement gap in the country. What can be done to address this?

A: In Connecticut—as well as nationwide—longitudinal studies have shown that the achievement gap is constant or decreases during the months that children are enrolled in school, meaning black and white and poor and non-poor students learn at the same rate while in school. But the gaps are quite large before students enter school, and expand during the summer. To address this, many have suggested increasing the time kids spend in school, and offering academic enrichment activities to poor and minority students during the summer. Experimental studies have also shown that really high-quality early childhood education—which includes small class sizes, great teachers, social workers who support parents, and adequate health services—can make a big difference. Unfortunately, many early childhood education programs, such as Head Start, don’t meet these standards. The Perry Preschool Project in Michigan and the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York are examples of really effective programs.

Q: Governor Malloy seeks to boost funding for charter schools, requiring municipalities to provide an additional $1,000 per student. Do you think this is a good use of taxpayer money?

A: No, I don’t. On average, students perform equal or worse in charter schools than in public schools. Connecticut’s charter schools do a little better than the national average—in part, because we’ve kept a rigorous cap on the number of charter schools created—but states like Arizona that have allowed a huge expansion in the number of charter schools see much worse student performance. I would advocate a return to the original purpose of charter schools in Connecticut, which was to experiment with new types of school organization and pedagogy, then share those pedagogies found to be effective with other schools. Of course, this experimentation can also be done in public schools. Macdonough School in Middletown is a great example of innovation in a public school, which has resulted in a narrowing of its achievement gap.

Q: One of the most controversial elements of Governor Malloy’s proposal is overhauling teacher tenure rules, based on a new set of teacher evaluation guidelines passed earlier this year by the state Board of Education. The new framework would base nearly half of a teacher’s rating on student performance on standardized tests and other indicators. If implemented, how do you expect this would impact student performance?

A: I believe this would be counterproductive. My own research has found that when teacher evaluations are based on student performance on standardized tests, students tend to learn less. This is because teachers have an incentive to teach to the test, and may neglect to teach a full range of concepts and critical thinking skills. It is also unfair to evaluate teachers on their students’ test performance because so many other factors—such as parent support, peer effects, neighborhood characteristics and school funding—play a role. Studies have demonstrated that a teacher’s performance evaluations can change drastically when he is moved from one class to another, simply based on class characteristics.

Q: You study student performance in schools around the world. In general, how do students in the U.S. stack up against those in other countries, and are there any areas in which we excel?

A: A number of international surveys have found that American grade school students perform slightly above average in most subjects when compared with students in other countries. Most of my international research focuses on a survey completed every few years by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) of 15 year olds’ performance in math, language arts and science in 65 countries around the world. The OECD study finds the highest-performing students hail from Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong, with Finland and South Korea following close behind. There are a variety of factors that account for the success of students in East Asian countries, including deference toward educators and the amount of time parents spend helping children with schoolwork. In Singapore and Finland, especially, we see innovative curricula and teacher collaborations that seem to partially account for performance. Some scholars have argued that the narrow, focused nature of curriculum in these countries also allows their students to master concepts better than students in the U.S., where curriculum is said to be “a mile wide and an inch deep.”

That said, American students do excel in critical thinking and creativity. In media interviews, educational leaders in Shanghai and other parts of East Asia have stressed that they strive to follow the United States’ lead in better developing these skills in students. The U.S. also sets a global standard for excellence in higher education; hence, proportionally more students come to the U.S. for college from around the world than any other country.

Q: What’s your general impression of national education reform efforts in the U.S.?

A: In recent years, there’s been a convergence of opinions from the political right and left toward a market-based approach to education reform, relying heavily on testing, incentives and a very narrow view of accountability. I think this is misguided. Countries that have tried to increase competition amongst schools—like Chile with its national voucher program—tend to see higher inequality and lower-quality schools. We see a similar pattern in the U.S. with respect to states that have drastically increased the number of charter schools. Instead of pursuing a quick-fix market-based approach, we ought to commit ourselves to doing the hard work of identifying particularly effective pedagogies that improve student performance, and building a more highly trained teaching corps. Like doctors, teachers should have a longer residency period, be given more deference, and paid salaries that attract the highest-quality applicants.