Williamson Evers served as U.S. assistant secretary of education for planning, evaluation, and policy development from 2007 to 2009. The Review caught up with him this past month to discuss education policy in America, teacher pay, No Child Left Behind, and also his time served in Iraq in 2003 as a senior adviser for education to Administrator L. Paul Bremer of the Coalition Provisional Authority.
SR: Why are there relatively few conservatives involved in education?
WE: I think it has to do with the historic interests of conservatives. They’re interested in criminal justice, they’re interested in national security, and economic policy. Not enough of them are interested in higher education policy… I think it is a shame, because I think there is a lot of room for improvement… I would also say that in terms of bringing more people to conservative and libertarian values out there in society, it is a very fruitful ground for recruiting people. Because a lot of people are disappointed in the public schools as they are.
SR: Do you think the achievement gap between races and genders can be closed?
WE: We saw some of the achievement gap closing in the 1980s, but it’s been tough to make improvements lately. There are lot of pieces there in the “Standards and Accountability” movement, mainly setting academic goals and topics to be learned and testing children to see whether they’re learning and trying to hold schools, administrators and teachers responsible. [These things] will help with [closing the gap], but still I think probably more radical steps, more incentives are needed—more things that will encourage teachers and administrators to be more productive. There are some things that are laid down that are helpful, but more things like charter schools and performance pay are needed.
… Eventually, a series of presidents: Bush 41, Clinton, and Bush 43, and the Congress, implemented Standards and Accountability. In its final form that we’re living under now, which is from 2001, they said that there’s going to be a test every year, in English and in Math, and that the kids have to take the test, and that states have to participate in a national benchmarking test called the National Assessment of Education Progress. Kids that are in failing schools have to be able to transfer out of them, if possible. If schools persist in having serious problems, there has to be some kind of restructuring that has to take place. This is all dependent on the fact that these schools are getting all this federal aid. The law says that, if the state does not want to take this money, they do not have to report results, or test. All states have taken the money.
SR: Do you support voucher programs?
WE; I would certainly say that President Bush tried to get in 2001 a change called “exit vouchers.” That is, if it’s a failing school, you should be able to get out. Now he was not able to get all school vouchers or all opportunity scholarships [not private or Catholic schools]. He was only able to get through Congress that you could go to another public school. Even that has not worked very well. Partly it is the logistics of getting a kid to a different school. The school districts themselves have kind of discouraged it. They get paid based on the attendance of students. They don’t always notify the parents clearly or properly about what their rights are.
SR: Why has America lagged behind in international testing?
… American students are having problems in math and science, which are fields that we can tell pretty well how students are doing across different countries… [In math] we’re not doing too bad in some of the early grades, but as children go through in higher grades, the children in other countries seem to be pulling farther and farther ahead. It’s for a variety of reasons. Our textbooks are not as good at going as far in depth into the problems. Our teachers are not as prepared as teachers in other countries. It’s very complicated because in some of these countries, such as in China, many of the teachers of elementary math did not even go to college. They went to a special high school for teachers, but no college. Still, they get more out of their students than American teachers do for American kids. [A contributing factor] could be that in China, teachers specialize in elementary grades, but we’re not sure. We are making progress though, in setting forth what teachers need to do, and in getting better textbooks and better curricula for America.
We like to think that in America that education is highly valued, but we also have, “anti-egghead,” anti-intellectual attitudes in America, we admire Huck Finn, Davy Crockett for not liking school learning. [In] some of these countries [that] are very high achieving, like the East Asian countries, Hungary, and Israel there’s a lot of respect and high value on book learning.
SR: What are your thoughts on teacher pay?
WE: Teacher pay is a uniform step-by-step thing mostly governed by seniority, and somewhat by credentials. There are several things that are neglected by this rigid pay scale. One thing is, [the neglect of] tough schools that are low performing makes the challenge greater. So you want to pay more to attract people to take on that challenge… [In this system] you are paying a math teacher similar to a physical education teacher—you might lose a math teacher to an accounting job, or lose a potential science teacher. There is a demand that is not really being met for certain fields because of the pay. The same is true for teachers of students with learning disabilities.
Another question is that in most jobs in life, if you are adding to the company’s success, if you are adding to the productivity of the company, you are paid accordingly. Teaching is not like that; if you’re effective, it does not affect your pay. You are paid fundamentally according to your years on the job. It discourages high performing teachers from staying on the job.
SR: Newark Mayor Cory Booker came to Stanford earlier this year and mentioned that Newark spends close to $20,000 per pupil on education annually, but students are still underachieving. Why are the most expensive per-pupil schools often so low performing?
WE: What you have are districts that have become dysfunctional. Despite huge amounts of money—we had one in Sausalito, CA—they usually have a combination of things, they usually have corruption, they usually have an unwillingness to hire teachers based on [merit]. There is cronyism involved in hiring and promotion. There is an unwillingness to fire teachers that are low performing. They usually have a lot of programs to try to fix things, but none of them are coordinated, or are matched by the standards of the state… Another problem that could be the case is that a lot of these students come from low education backgrounds and need a lot of time and concentration in a lot of academically focused things. Sometimes a lot of these programs are “learn through play”—these programs aren’t sufficiently academic-focused. Since they come from families that are not particularly highly educated, they need more background knowledge to succeed. It’s understandable that the [educators] would be seeking motivation, and trying to interest people, but they’re focusing so much on motivation, that they neglect the need for knowledge gain—that is so important for students if they are going to catch up. These districts have this problem.
SR: Why is this true in Sausalito, CA as well?
WE: The district of Sausalito includes Marin City as well [in addition to wealthier Sausalito], so there are a lot of less educated families in it. The combination of the two cities is actually kind of strange, because often the parents in Marin City want a concentration on solid academics, and the Sausalito people are more interested in self-esteem. Self-esteem was actually a program that was very heavy there, but it did not seem to improve the academics. I am for self-esteem that is earned by achievement. We know that heavy, knowledge-oriented, rigorous academic programs build self-esteem [for students] because they realize they are mastering all this material. You can have self-esteem, though, and not be doing that well in life. Gang members often have extremely high self-esteem. If you compare Chinese students, in China, or Japanese students in Japan, they think “I’m not doing really well in math, I don’t know enough math.” Americans think “I know a lot of math.” Well, American students are wrong. They’re not achieving in math as well as the East Asian Tigers are.
SR: Is No Child Left Behind under threat with the new Administration and what are Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s prospects?
WE: There’s $100 billion in the stimulus fund that is being used to perpetuate the existing system as it is: not very productive and disappointing… That dwarfs all these other little funds. I don’t see a big reason to blame Secretary Duncan for this. He’s only to blame if he misspends his discretionary fund. Congress and President Obama are to blame for the [$100 billion] in the stimulus bill. Duncan has talked about “21st century skills,” which is to make kids work well in groups, or to make kids media savvy. Kids who don’t know what the American Civil War is need to know what the American Civil War is. I don’t see why they need to be spending time becoming media savvy. They are naturally going to become media savvy living in the world they live in. It’s a diversion; there’s only so much time in the day, and they should be concentrating on the most important things.
I’m also worried about the Research Institute for Education Sciences. I am worried that it will not live up to the level of quality and rigor that the institute had under Bush 43. In terms of different people that President Obama could have looked at to be Education Secretary, Arnie Duncan showed that he made a lot of effort to do a lot of positive things in Chicago…We don’t know enough to see how he will do.
SR: How would you describe your time in Iraq as a senior adviser for education to Coalition Provisional Authority?
WE: I was there from July to December in 2003… Our basic goal was to get the schools re-started and get the teachers back in the classroom. We were trying to help the Iraqis, they had been isolated for 20 to 30 years. We were trying to facilitate them and get their feet back on the ground. We were not trying to impose some ready-made Americanization on them. Our view was that they needed to find their own way to improve their schools, but if we could answer questions, that would be fine. But we weren’t trying to impose some big program on them. That worked very well. They developed interest in things from Jordan and other countries from around the world. They wanted teachers trained in ways that were successful in other places. I thoroughly enjoyed being there, it was exciting hearing rockets and explosives going off all the time. I felt that I was able to be helpful to the Iraqi people so I’m glad I did it.
These schools are not like schools under the Taliban in Afghanistan or radical Islamist madrasahs in rural Pakistan. The schools in Iraq are state schools. Saddam had pretty much abolished private schools. You have to think of Saddam Hussein as a fascist like Mussolini in Italy. He wanted both boys and girls learning in schools how great he was and how great the Ba’ath party was.