First-grader Mia Porter smiles while attending the Godfrey-Lee Early Childhood Center

Couldn’t Be More Wrong

by Ron Koehler  

You've gotta hand it to President Trump. He just keeps smashing conventional belief. And, in some instances, universally accepted research.

The president's budget blueprint vaporized the one principle that is universally accepted in education: An effective teacher is the best predictor of student success.

This single premise is held as strongly by those who would blow up the public schools, eliminate teacher tenure and every other tool to protect "bad teachers," as it is by those who have worked their entire life in the system and are devoted to improving instruction.

Budget Czar Mick Mulvaney and, presumably, new Education Secretary Betsy DeVos proposed the complete elimination of Title II grants for professional development. It would mean the loss of about $2 million in teacher training grants for the Grand Rapids Public Schools and similar losses for all other districts within Kent County and across the state. It's all here in the President's Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again, released in mid-March.

The Trump proposal would also eliminate federal funding for after-school programming, which provides academic enrichment opportunities, homework assistance and evening meals for thousands of students in Godfrey-Lee, Godwin Heights, Grand Rapids, Kentwood, Kelloggsville and Wyoming.

"Let's talk about after-school programs generally ... they're supposed to help kids who don't get fed at home get fed so they do better in school," said Mulvaney. "Guess what? There's no demonstrable evidence they're actually doing that ... no demonstrable evidence that they are actually helping results, helping kids do better in school."

There is, of course, ample evidence in neighborhoods throughout this community, across the country and around the world that students who are well-fed do better in school than those who are not. So, even if the program's goal was just to feed students who would not otherwise receive meals, the results would have a positive impact on students.

Grand Rapids credits its strong gains in graduation rates and student performance to its strategy of bolstering teacher effectiveness and stabilizing students, by providing essential services and enrichment opportunities in the schools.

"One of the reasons why the GRPS Transformation Plan has been so successful is because of high quality professional development of our teachers and school leaders, and the success of programs like our LOOP after-school program that is increasing student achievement and helping more students graduate," said district spokesperson John Helmholdt when asked by MLive how these dollars have been used to support students and teachers.

'Teachers Matter Most'

To be totally transparent, the research is inconclusive on the academic results of the 21st Century after-schools grants nationwide. But local superintendents would tell you they make a huge difference for students.

"Most of our kids are low-income, English learners who gain from the added learning, physical, and developmental experiences of TEAM 21, including educational trips throughout the region," said Godfrey-Lee Superintendent Dave Britten. "This fills a substantial experiential gap between our students and their peers in more affluent communities. Losing this program would set overall learning back on its heels for most of these kids."

There is no dispute on the impact of effective teachers. A Rand Corporation report says effective teachers matter more to student achievement than any other aspect of schooling.

"Many factors contribute to a student's academic performance, including individual characteristics and family and neighborhood experiences. But research suggests that, among school-related factors, teachers matter most," concluded the Rand education report. "When it comes to student performance on reading and math tests, a teacher is estimated to have two to three times the impact of any other school factor, including services, facilities, and even leadership."

And, it's not where you went to school or where you teach that determines the effectiveness of a teacher, Rand concluded, which is why it is so important to support teachers with ongoing professional development.

"Despite common perceptions, effective teachers cannot reliably be identified based on where they went to school, whether they're licensed, or (after the first few years) how long they've taught. The best way to assess teachers' effectiveness is to look at their on-the-job performance, including what they do in the classroom and how much progress their students make on achievement tests."

This is precisely why we in Michigan have spent years trying to "get it right" on teacher evaluation, and districts that are outperforming their peers are investing wisely in teacher professional development. Unfortunately, schools are struggling to keep teachers in the classroom, let alone spend large amounts on additional professional development. This is why federal programs like the Title II professional development grants, and student support programs like those financed through the 21st Century grant program, are so important.

"There is absolutely zero way that ... Wyoming or the other school districts could make up for that funding," Wyoming Superintendent Thomas Reeder told MLive when asked about the cuts.

There are times when true genius is found in challenging conventional wisdom, such as when Copernicus suggested the Earth rotates around the sun. This doesn't appear to be one of those times.

Instead, as Margo Rey sang on the intriguingly titled album "Happy Hour in the Gene Pool," this appears to be one of those times when the president "Couldn't be more wrong."

Submitted on: April 4th 2017

Spread the word!