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.

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Instruction matters, and community matters

On “In Massachusetts, Brockton High Becomes Success Story“:

Engaging the community of teachers and students can be much more effective than stripping it down and weeding it out. Bottom line: “Achievement rose when leadership teams focused thoughtfully and relentlessly on improving the quality of instruction.”

Concerns about the LA Times teacher ratings

On “L.A. Times analysis rates teachers’ effectiveness“:

A Times analysis, using data largely ignored by LAUSD, looks at which educators help students learn, and which hold them back.

I’m a huge fan of organizing, analyzing, and sharing data, but I have real concerns about figuring out the best means for conveying and acting upon those results. Not just data quality (what gets assessed, how scores are calculated and weighed), but contextualizing results (triangulation with qualitative data) and professional development (social comparison, ongoing support).

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