Part Three: Blinded by Reform
It’s gotten lost in the splashier news, but big things are going on at the U.S. Department of Education.
Following on the unprecedented federal reach of No Child Left Behind, the Obama administration is extending further and putting serious money behind its education initiatives, inviting states and districts to compete for federal dollars. The department wants to increase the community college graduation rate. For K-12, it wants to stimulate the production of better state standards and tests, measure teacher effectiveness, turn around failing schools and increase the number of charter schools. Through a third initiative it wants to spark innovation and scale up the best of local academic programs.
This is a moment of real promise for American education, from kindergarten through college. It has even created the season’s oddest political couple: With the Department of Education’s blessing, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and the Rev. Al Sharpton are about to tour the country for educational reform.
Reform is in the air. But within many of these reforms are the seeds of their undoing.
For example, the Education Department is putting a lot of stock in charter schools as “engines of innovation”—in fact, it will not consider a state’s proposal if the state has a cap on charters. Yet a number of research studies—the most recent from Stanford—demonstrate that charter schools on average are no better or worse than the regular public schools around them. Some charters are sites of fresh ideas and robust education, but so are magnet schools, and career academies, and—we seem to have forgotten this—regular old schools with strong leadership and a critical mass of good teachers. But the reformers’ overvaluation of charter schools seems to dim their view of these varied manifestations of excellence.
Another example is the department’s attempt to link evaluation of teacher quality to student performance. (Merit pay could also follow.) And, again, the department will not consider a state’s proposal if the state outlaws such linkage of evaluation and student performance.
This linkage has a common-sense quality to it, especially what is called “value-added” analysis: that is, the degree to which a class’ test scores improve from the beginning of the school year to the end. Yet among experts in educational testing and measurement, there is a good deal of disagreement over the legitimacy of using these techniques to judge teacher quality. There are a host of factors that can affect scores: the non-random mix of students in a class, the students’ previous teachers, the lobbying of senior teachers for higher-scoring classes or the assignment of such classes to a principal’s favored teachers. There are also technical issues with the analysis of the test data. And there are significant conceptual concerns about exactly what the tests are measuring. In fact, the National Research Council, the prestigious, nonpartisan government agency, has just issued a statement reinforcing all of these concerns.
The Department of Education champions “evidence-based” and “data-driven” practice. Why, then, does the department espouse approaches that warrant scrutiny?
I think there are three interrelated reasons.
Given the immense pressure in politics for a quick result, there is a tendency in social policy toward single-shot, magic-bullet solutions, solutions that are marketable and have rhetorical panache but are simplified responses to complex problems. Charter schools will transform American education, or the linking of student test scores to teacher effectiveness will pressure teachers to change the way they teach and their expectations for what students can achieve.
This magic-bullet thinking is enabled by the paucity of schoolhouse-level knowledge of teaching and learning in the formation of educational policy. Not many policy analysts have taught school and, with few exceptions, those who have taught spent only a youthful year or two in the ranks. More troubling is something I have witnessed over the years: On-the-ground, intimate knowledge of teaching and learning is not valued, and is seen as an imprecise distraction from the consideration of broader economic and management principles that lead to systemic change. It’s like setting up a cardiology clinic without the advice of cardiologists.
The third element involves the rhetoric of reform. The advocates of the current model of test-based accountability have been very successful in depicting their critics as “anti-reform traditionalists,” as “special interests” or, the kiss of death, as members of the “education establishment.”
There is a lot to say about the accuracy of this depiction, for many who are tarred as establishment traditionalists have a long history of challenging traditional school practice and working to change it. But for now I want to focus on the way this demonizing rhetoric can jeopardize the work of the reformers themselves.
Take, for example, the concern expressed by teachers’ unions about linking student test scores to teacher evaluation. It is easy to characterize these concerns as special-interest pleading, but some of the evidence cited by the unions comes from researchers with no vested interest in teachers’ bread-and-butter issues. (One such researcher is a member of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers.) When legitimate concerns about reform techniques are easily dismissed as “anti-reform,” then you have a closed policy system, one shielded from self-correction.
It is good news indeed that school reform has become a top national priority, that the ways schools are structured, children are taught and teachers evaluated have become issues worthy of federal attention. But for reforms to be effective and sustained, they need to be grounded on the best we know and examined carefully and from multiple perspectives.