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March 02, 2009
March 03, 2009
I just had a chance to tackle Steven Wilson's ???????Success at Scale in Charter Schooling,??????? an AEI Working Paper that generated a good bit of buzz late last year. ????Wilson found that the vast majority of teachers in the best urban charters are graduates of the nation's most elite colleges. ????He concludes that if we want to scale up these great charters we have two options: Either recruit a much higher percentage of graduates of these colleges into the charter world or make the job of teaching in a ???????no excuses??????? charter easier.
Personally, I found this conclusion extraordinarily frustrating, bordering on elitist. I don't know Mr. Wilson personally, but he cares about low-income students and has a very good reputation and an impressive and laudable background, so I don't want to be too critical. But I have to point out that there is another option: ????Realize that there are very talented people who didn't graduate from the nation's elite universities!
First, America's elite colleges do not accurately reflect America. ????Students from privileged backgrounds are drastically overrepresented at these schools. As this invaluable paper found, fully 74 percent of students at the nation's most selective colleges come from families in the top income quartile. Only 10 percent come from families in the bottom half of income, with only 3 percent from the poorest quartile. In other words, if you meet a student from an elite university, he/she is 25 times more likely to come from a rich family than a poor family.
It is tempting to assume that this means that only rich high school graduates are prepared for elite colleges. Not so, shows this great report from the Education Trust. There are plenty of highly talented low-income students; they just don't have equal access to the top colleges. ???????High-achieving, high-income students are five times more likely to attend a highly selective college and nearly twice as likely to attend a selective college than are similarly accomplished students from the bottom three income quartiles.???????
So obviously there are many highly talented students at second-, third-, and fourth-tier universities. Given that we don't have any reliable measures of colleges' value-added, particularly their ability to improve a student's ability to teach disadvantaged K-12 charter students, why the explicit bias in favor of graduates from elite universities? Why not recruit, say, the top 10 percent of graduates from all colleges or the top 20 percent from the top half of colleges?
My frustration doesn't stem solely from Mr. Wilson's analysis. It also comes from the hiring practices of these high-performing charters, if their leaders truly believe that only elite college graduates are talented enough to teach at their schools. And sadly, they may believe that: Wilson shows that Achievement First (maybe my favorite CMO!) explicitly lists ???????top-notch University??????? at the top of its list of attributes for teacher candidates. I wish Wilson had challenged this unnecessary bias instead of reinforcing it.
The overarching point is that our efforts to scale up great charters might not be inhibited by a human capital deficit. There might be plenty of high-quality individuals able to become extraordinary teachers at extraordinary charters. We may have unnecessarily constrained the talent pool by focusing on only elite colleges.
As always, however, I'm willing to be talked out of my current position if the data warrants it. If someone can point to some evidence showing that elite college grads are consistently better ???????no excuses??????? charter teachers than, say, the top graduates at second- or third-tier colleges, I'm certainly interested. But until we've fully tapped that source of talent and found it lacking, I'm going to contest the ???????there's not enough human capital available??????? argument.