What the reformers aren’t reforming

Back in December I shared this Answer Sheet blog post with some friends. The ensuing discussion revealed a disconnect between how those of us who work in education perceive the issues and how the lay public perceives the issues. This is my attempt to bridge the disconnect.

In the above post Valerie Strauss and Jay Mathews, both veteran journalists on the education beat, debate the merits of KIPP, Teach for America, and other aspects of education reform. Mathews tends to support the current wave of reforms—standardized testing, teacher merit pay, charter schools—while Strauss tends to be a skeptic. My non-education friends tended to side with Mathews, at least on the point these reforms are better than no reforms. Ming Ling and I sided with Strauss. [ML: Specifically, I agreed with Strauss’s concerns that current high-stakes accountability systems miss a lot of important information about teaching, that effective teaching requires ongoing training and support, and that improving education requires systemic policy. But I also agree with Mathews’ observations that KIPP, TfA, and charter schools have demonstrated many worthwhile achievements, and that “Fixing schools is going to need many varied approaches from people with different ideas.”]

These reforms focus on the incentive and regulatory structure of the school system. Proponents of these reforms believe that loosening the restrictions on schools and teacher pay, coupled with incentives and punishments, will let market forces take over. And market forces will lead the nation’s finest minds to the education industry, who will then find ways produce a better-quality “product” at a lower price so they can reap the rewards. The idea is intuitively appealing, but the collection of specific reform proposals contains serious flaws and don’t address key structural failures in our education system. There are reasons to believe these reforms are worse than no reforms at all.

The Flaws
Those pushing to change the incentive structure through test-based accountability, including merit pay, are assuming the tests are adequately measuring important educational outcomes. Questioning this orthodoxy is like standing next to a straw man with a large bounty on his head. To quote Jay Mathews from the post linked above,

Test-driven accountability is here to stay. Politicians who try to campaign against it are swiftly undercut by opponents who say, “What? You don’t want to make our schools accountable for all the money we spend on them?”

Nobody is against holding schools accountable for the taxpayer money spent. But holding schools accountable to a bad standard, particularly a high-stakes one, can distort people’s behavior in a counterproductive way. It’s called Campbell’s Law and social scientists have documented the effect in all areas of life, including a recent finding that texting bans may actually increase accident rates.

One doesn’t have to look very far to find examples of school districts outright cheating or otherwise trying to game the system. The Death and Life of the Great American School System by Diane Ravitch is full of such examples. Something about the standardized-testing-driven incentive structure is clearly not working as intended, but rather than stopping and developing better ways of measuring learning, the current reform crowd wants to plow ahead and raise the stakes again by linking teacher pay to this flawed system of accountability. They are not interested in asking the hard questions about what they’re really measuring and influencing.

But even if we assume the tests are good and the incentives are in the right places, it is difficult to see why market forces will necessarily improve the education system in the way those reformers are claiming. In politics, market forces are supposed to expand the pie, not equalize the slices. Despite very strong incentives to be elite athletes and coaches, a significant portion of the population can’t even run a mile without getting winded. But those who support market-based education reforms still use egalitarian rhetoric—appeals to closing the achievement gap, equipping all citizens with the tools they need to succeed.

The Omissions
Meanwhile, the very heart of education is missing from the current reform agenda. What should children learn? Why? How can we best teach it? Yes, the Common Core standards are front-and-center in the education debate, but there is little discussion or understanding of what standards are actually supposed to do. The definition of “standard” given by the National Council of Teachers in Mathematics is:

Standard. A standard is a statement that can be used to judge the quality of a mathematics curriculum or methods of evaluation. Thus, standards are statements about what is valued[1].

They were not originally intended to be blueprints for developing curricula or standardized tests[2] and are quite inadequate for both purposes—standards are not prioritized or sequenced. And yet, that is how states commonly use standards. In math, this has produced a mess. TIMSS found that high-achieving math countries use curricula that align well with each other in scope and sequence, a scope and sequence designed to reflect the internal logic of the discipline. For example, fractions are generally not introduced until after children have mastered division because the two are conceptually related. Meanwhile, the curricula in US introduce topics willy-nilly, and don’t cover some important topics at all[3].

But there is no national dialogue about curriculum. Consider this encounter between Core Knowledge supporter Robert Pondiscio and former DC Chancellor and education reform darling Michelle Rhee:

After the Manhattan Institute event, I had the opportunity to talk briefly with Rhee about my reform game –curriculum, teaching and learning. I wondered out loud whether it made sense to reach conclusions about the effectiveness of individual teachers who are poorly trained and have no say over their curriculum or, more often than not, no curriculum at all.

“I know you have a lot on your plate,” I concluded. “But I’d urge you to at least keep curriculum in mind.”

“The last thing we’re going to do,” she replied with a chuckle, “is get wrapped up in curriculum battles.”

A stunning reply if you think about it.

In this exchange, Pondiscio also touches upon another critical element missing from the reform agenda—the quality of teacher preparation and their working conditions. The necessity of the former has apparently been outright dismissed, based on the rise of Teach for America, which throws recent college graduates into tough urban classrooms with five weeks of training. Regardless of how a teacher came to be certified, 1st-year teachers’ responsibilities differ little from veterans’, and there is little meaningful professional development for any teacher. Implicit in this model is the idea that teaching is so simple a task a highly-educated person can do well almost by default.

High-achieving countries do not treat their teachers this way. Countries like Singapore structure their training much more like our medical training and professional development programs, with years of paid “residency” during which new teachers teach reduced loads while being supervised and mentored by experienced teachers[4]. Implicit in this model is the idea that teaching takes significant amounts of knowledge and skill and only well-trained professionals can do it well. Research supports this model[5].

The lack of regard for the teaching profession in the US creates teachers’ poor working conditions. Because teaching is assumed to be an easy, repetitive task, it is treated almost like an entry-level position—there are no paths for professional advancement that keep good teachers in the classroom. Teachers are not given enough time to do their work well, often with less than an hour of scheduled prep time to cover 6-7 hours of teaching per day. The pay is low. Because teachers are not assumed to be competent professionals, they are often left out of key instructional decisions. They are openly disrespected by students, parents, and the public. In the US, these factors contribute to the profession’s inability to attract and retain top talent.

In today’s reform debate, discussion of teachers’ working conditions pretty much stops with blaming unions for self-interest and coddling bad teachers. But honest analyses of the structural deficiencies in our education system don’t point the blame at teachers. As the Christian Science Monitor writes:

It seems to me that politicians blaming teachers for our national failures in public education is like blaming bridges for falling down. Who made that bridge? Who maintains it? Who ensures its safety?

If I were to be charitable, I might assume that market-based reform proponents believed the “invisible hand of the market” would come to build the missing support structures in teacher training and professional development, that if only we loosened the regulations on public schools and let them behave more like private businesses, some education entrepreneur would find a way to profitably mass-market Japanese lesson study (pdf) in the US. But building a profession takes time, a generation even, and the rhetoric of Rhee and others suggest they believe their ideas will effect change quickly, particularly if we punish the low performers hard enough. One of their pet claims is if only we fired the worst 5% of teachers, the US would equal Finland in education quality, a claim that’s a second cousin to the spherical cow.

So I remain skeptical of these reforms, and continue to be dismayed they have the spotlight in education policy-making.


[1]National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. (1989). Curriculum and evaluation standards for school mathematics. Reston, VA: Author
[2]Schoenfeld, A. H. (2004). The math wars. Educational Policy, 18(1), 253-286. Read this article (pdf).
[3]Schmidt, W., Houang, R., & Cogan, L. (2002). A coherent curriculum: The case of mathematics. American Educator, Summer 2002, 1-18. Read this article (pdf).
[4]Wang-Iverson, P., Myers, P., & Lim, E. W. K. (2009-2010). Beyond Singapore’s mathematics textbooks: focused and flexible supports for teaching and learning. American Educator, Winter 2009-2010, 28-38. Read this article (pdf).
[5]Ball, D. L., Hill, H. C., & Bass, H. (2005). Knowing mathematics for teaching: Who knows mathematics well enough to teach third grade, and how can we decide? American Educator, Fall 2005, 14-46. Read this article (pdf).
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About Spherical Cow
I'm a trained cognitive scientist and education researcher currently working for an education non-profit. In my job, I translate findings from education research into classroom practice and observe and evaluate the results. I also help non-scientists understand what we can and cannot conclude from different data sets. I hope that increased awareness of quality research will improve the discourse and policymaking in education.

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