What Education Reformers Get Wrong

Diane Ravitch is the author of Reign of Error, a critically important book about all that’s wrong with the education reform movement.

Ravitch is a wonderfully independent thinker in an era of unprecedented educational groupthink. Her purpose is to convince readers that conventional wisdom about how to improve public schooling is all wrong. She’s especially critical of “corporate reformers”—the George W. Bush administration, the Obama administration, the Gates Foundation, Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein among many, many others—that want to apply free-market business principles to education.

The corporate reformers see student testing as a panacea for not just improved student learning, but better teaching. They insist that we evaluate teachers and principals based upon how their students score on standardized tests. Ravitch explains that K-12 educators want to be held accountable for their students’ learning, but details why emphasizing standardized test scores is so problematic.

There are two overarching purposes of public schooling in the U.S.—to prepare students for democratic citizenship and to prepare students for the world of work. Never mind that it’s nearly impossible to know what the job market will look like in ten years, the corporate reformers emphasize preparation for work almost exclusively. That’s because they’re anxious that our country’s economic lead over other nations is steadily shrinking, and that as a result, our quality of life will gradually decline.

The Reign of Error is essential reading because Ravitch details the importance of citizenship education, and by doing so, restores much needed balance to the rationale for public schooling. In doing so, she explains how the quality of our democracy hinges in part on the quality of young people’s history education, humanities coursework, and critical thinking skills.

Corporate reformers, a distinct majority in education policy debates today, argue that our economic predicament is so dour we have to focus on strengthening our economic competitiveness above all else. In essence, we can’t afford to worry about the health of our democracy.

But what the corporate reformers fail to grasp is that when it comes to global competition, the relative health of our democracy is quite possibly our greatest competitive advantage. Nearly every government in the world is in some form of crisis. In the U.S. money dominates politics and the U.S. Congress is obviously flawed, but everything is relative. Our government is less corrupt and more responsive than most others; our press is freer than most; our judiciary more independent; and our rule of law, more robust.

We shouldn’t frame school improvement as a zero-sum global competition. It’s okay if students in Singapore, Finland, and South Korea are smart. At the same time, competition is so engrained in our national consciousness, if we have to compete, we should take the less obvious path, and strive to create the world’s most vibrant democracy. One that’s increasingly responsive to its citizens. We need to strengthen history education, embrace the humanities, and cultivate critical thinking in public K-12 schools and trust that our economy will be fine.

With apologies to Robert Frost:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, one economic and one political,

And sorry we could not travel both

And be one traveler, long we stood

And looked down one as far as we could

To where it bent in the undergrowth

Then took the political path, as just as fair,

And perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear.

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The Teacher Evaluation Maelstrom

The power brokers? Bill and Melinda. Who knew that when we were buying Microsoft Office (for the Mac of course) every three to five years we were ceding mad educational influence to the Lake Washington power couple. Given their Foundation’s less than impressive record on education reform, their reasonable, respectful, and constructive thoughts on how to improve teacher evaluation surprised me.

This article, “Nearly Half of All States Link Teacher Evaluations to Tests” provides a national snapshot. A few excerpts:

At least 23 states and the District of Columbia now evaluate public-school teachers in part by student standardized tests, while 14 allow districts to use this data to dismiss ineffective teachers, according to the report from the National Council on Teacher Quality, an advocacy group.

Last year, President Obama’s $4.35 billion Race to the Top initiative awarded grants to states that adopted policy changes such as linking teacher evaluations to student test scores. This year, Republican governors in Idaho, Indiana, Nevada and Michigan ushered in overhauls to teacher rating, compensation, bargaining rights and tenure.

Critics, including some teachers unions, say many of the changes are aimed at firing teachers and usurping union power. They say the new evaluations use flawed standardized tests that measure a narrow window of student learning.

In Florida, tenure was eliminated. In Colorado, teachers now must get three positive ratings to earn tenure and can lose it after two bad ones. Several states, including Indiana and Michigan, did away with “last in, first out” union rules that resulted in districts laying off effective new teachers instead of ineffective tenured ones. Indiana and Tennessee passed merit-pay laws that base teacher pay primarily on classroom performance.

California illustrates how important elections are. The new governor and Superintendent of Public Instruction have chosen not to “Race to the Top”, as a result teacher evaluation looks quite different there.

Interesting that no one cared about teacher evaluation policy until a few years ago when we pulled up in the global economic race with a hamstring tear. Nevermind that corporate boards were failing to meet their fiduciary responsibilities; we were fighting two wars; and our government was bailing out major banks and car companies left and right, and looking the other way while investment bankers bought and sold home mortgages that people never should have taken out. Make no mistake about it, the only reason politicians and business leaders care about teacher evaluation is mounting economic anxiety. That utilitarianism breds cynicism among teachers who resent being scapegoated for our country’s economic ills.

Obama, Arne, and a bunch of Republican and Democratic governors believe that improved teacher accountability will solve nearly all of our economic problems. Bad teachers will vanish. Students will learn the four holy subjects—science, technology, engineering, and math. The ice caps will stop melting and we’ll start kicking ass again in the global economy.

At this stage I’m giving the Gates a “B-” for their teaching eval work because, like everyone else, they’re slighting the more important half of the teaching improvement equation—how to attract more socially conscious, culturally diverse, hardworking academic all-stars to one of the more challenging and rewarding forms of community service there is.

Seniority-based Teacher Layoffs

Thanks T for this article, “UW study questions seniority-based teacher layoffs“.

Should school districts facing serious budget shortfalls lay teachers off based on relative seniority? Tough one.

Rather than riff on the costs and benefits of seniority-based teacher layoffs, I want to highlight two underlying issues that education policy makers are ignoring.

First, what does it say about the state of teacher professional development and the profession more generally that many of the youngest teachers are the most effective? Learning to teach well is a challenging and complex process, the same is true I suspect for learning to be an excellent pastor, lawyer, accountant, or legislator. When we choose a surgeon for a complicated procedure we want to know how many times she’s performed it.

At what age do teachers do their best work? I suspect it’s about four to five years in which often means late twenties. This is an indictment on the poor quality of most teacher professional development and the profession. For most teachers there tends to be a dramatic, challenging, and rewarding learning curve over the first four to five years; followed by a plateauing; and then sometimes, a fatigue-based tailing off.

National Board Teacher Certification was intended to address this problem by rewarding the very best teachers with added responsibilities and challenges like mentoring new teachers, teaching methods in local schools of education, and creating exemplary curriculum for others. It’s been partially successful at best. School districts are incredibly conservative and consequently loathe to rewrite National Board teachers’ contracts.

Second, and this may surprise, but with a few important caveats, I’m more open than union leaders to efforts to compare and contrast teachers’ relative effectiveness. A recent front-page article in the New York Times about the Gates Foundation’s efforts to evaluate teachers influenced my thinking. I liked that the system doesn’t rest exclusively on students’ standardized test scores, but on video-tapes, student surveys of their teachers’ class environments, and other variables. Also important, it doesn’t appear to pit teachers against one another. Not perfect, but much better than traditional merit-based teacher evaluation pay plans.

But what Gates and other policy makers aren’t thinking nearly enough about is whether or not their video-tape/value-added-based teacher evaluation proposal is going to convince more outstanding undergraduates to commit to K-12 teaching careers.

Historically, teachers have understood the profession’s primary trade-off—less money, more job security; however, the story of the recent past is one of steadily increasing teacher accountability and decreasing job security. Meanwhile, compensation remains unchanged. Granted these are tough economic times. Numerous states have to make serious budget cuts. Still the fact remains, few of the best undergrads even consider teaching as a career. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t expect the Gates Foundation’s current work to change that.

Especially strong undergrads who are considering teaching are less concerned about rigorous teacher evaluation systems than they are their modest salaries. And that’s the problem, the Gates Foundation offers no ideas on how to improve all teachers’ compensation.