The Great Ed Reform Swindle From the since de-beatified "Texas Miracle" of 2000 that inspired the creation of George W. Bush's "No Child Left Behind," to the latest revelations about Washington D.C.'s falsified student test scores under ed reform's broom-wielding 'superwoman' Michelle Rhee, 10 years of the punitive ed reform agenda and its so-called "successes" have turned out to be a bust. D.C. mirage under Michelle Rhee: [caption id="attachm … Read More
For all the enthusiasm that school turnarounds are generating in some quarters, I’ve been consistently underwhelmed by the coherence or historical literacy of the would-be turnarounders. While a new bit of jargon–the term “turnaround” (can’t you just feel the power?)–and $3.5 billion in designated federal funding for School Improvement Grants is enough to push many an edu-reformer to the brink of hubris, it’s fairly clear that no one actually knows what to do. More to the point, it’s clear they’ve mostly ignored what we’ve learned from previous go-rounds.
This all came to mind yesterday while I was over at the U.S. Capitol participating in a conversation on “Avoiding Déjà Vu: Lessons from the Federal Comprehensive School Reform Program for the Current School Turnaround Agenda.” Hosted by the Knowledge Alliance and WestEd, the discussion focused on the implications of Marty Orland’s new report on the findings from WestEd’s big evaluation of the Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration Program (CSRD).
First enacted in 1998, and wrapped into No Child Left Behind, CSRD required low-performing schools to implement eleven “school reform” components in return for federal funds. The eleven entailed: proven methods and strategies, comprehensive design, professional development, measurable goals, support from staff members, support for staff members, parent and community involvement, external assistance, evaluation, coordination of resources, and scientifically based research. Good stuff, right? Thoughtful, based on careful research, backed by new funding, yada yada.
The results? Dismal. Orland reports that “the CSR program did not yield comprehensively reformed schools.” While “states receiving CSR funds largely succeeded in passing them along to those schools most in need” (whoopee!!!), at the same time, “schools receiving CSR awards made little progress in implementing…the 11 mandated components.” Astonishingly, CSR schools were actually less likely to implement the various CSR elements than were matched comparison schools.
Orland proceeds, “Given these findings, it is not surprising that receiving a CSR award was not associated with improvements in either mathematics or reading achievement. Five years after initially receiving their CSR awards, schools receiving awards did not demonstrate larger achievement growth than matched comparison schools.” Just 12 of 262 CSR schools made “significant improvements in reading and mathematics over the next two years.” Moreover, Orland reported that examining particular cases pointed to “an often chaotic and sometimes irrational environment that can thwart the sustainability of hard-won gains.”
Adding to the poignancy of Orland’s account, these findings follow nearly a decade of policymaker frustration with the disappointing track record of NCLB’s once-heralded “remedy cascade.” Public choice, supplemental services, corrective action plans, and reconstitution have all been implemented limply and to little effect. For a collection of terrific analyses on this count, check out the volume No Remedy Left Behind that Checker Finn and I edited a couple years back.
So, you might expect some lessons from these experiences to be evident in the administration’s ESEA “blueprint.” Not so much. Rather, Duncan’s much-touted “loose-tight” proposal entails jettisoning NCLB’s overdone remedy cascade for most schools in return for a more prescriptive federal role in “turning around” schools that score in the bottom five percent on tested achievement. Currently, the blueprint calls for requiring those schools to adapt one of the four School Improvement Grant turnaround models: essentially chartering them, canning the principal and doing comprehensive reform, canning the principal and half the staff, or closing the school.
Color me skeptical. There’s little reason to think that chartering these schools works, and charter operators aren’t all that eager to take them on. The SIG transformation model looks to me a whole lot like CSR or corrective models that have never racked up much success. As for the “fire half of ‘em” turnaround model, I’ll just note that firing half your employees usually isn’t a one-time solution. Most well-run outfits, private or public, don’t fire half their folks in one big bonfire, replace them, and then enjoy a miraculous transformation. Rather, weeding out mediocrity is a natural, sustained part of how they manage their team. That’s not an option here. And school closure is swell if we think there’s plenty of room at terrific schools that will welcome these kids, and if it won’t disrupt those schools. Unfortunately, most of the targeted schools aren’t in areas flush with terrific, under-capacity alternatives.
There are absolutely a bunch of awful schools out there that need to do better. Nobody needs to sell me on that. It’s nice that folks in ED are aware of that and want to do something about it. But the trick is that not every problem in the world is susceptible to a policy solution. Sometimes, there’s nothing a policymaker can do to solve a problem. When it comes to something like school improvement, something that’s a matter of practice, fidelity of implementation, and on-the-ground commitment, the frustrating fact is that federal policymakers can’t really do much. What can they do? They can provide data and transparency, research and evaluation, and political cover that permits local leaders to act, and they can scour their books to strike rules that hamstring hard-charging principals and superintendents. But that may be it. As much as federal officials would like to do more, it may well be that dramatically improving lousy schools is simply beyond the purview of folks sitting in DC office buildings, no matter how smart and well-intentioned.
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Education ‘reformer’ Michelle Rhee, the much-touted darling of Arne Duncan and unfortunately our President, is now being investigated for falsifying test records of her students to improve her resume.
Rhee responded to the investigation by saying
“”It isn’t surprising,” Rhee said in a statement Monday, “that the enemies of school reform once again are trying to argue that the Earth is flat and that there is no way test scores could have improved … unless someone cheated.”
In its months-long investigation, which included documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, USA TODAY looked at 103 public schools in the nation’s capital where tests showed a pattern of unusually high numbers of answers that had been changed from wrong to right. The improvements in test scores earned Rhee and the school system national attention.
But since 2008, more than half of D.C. schools were flagged by a testing company for having unusually high rates of wrong-to-right erasures. At one school, Noyes Education Campus, the number of erasures in one class was so high that the odds of winning the Powerball grand prize were better than the erasures occurring by chance.
A ‘reformer’ who was on a rising path in Washington political circles has near-to-impossible turnaround scores in schools to bolster her resume. What gives?
In the social sciences, there is an oft-repeated maxim called Campbell’s Law, named after Donald Campbell, a psychologist who studied human creativity. Campbell’s Law states that incentives corrupt. In other words, the more punishments and rewards–such as merit pay–are associated with the results of any given test, the more likely it is that the test’s results will be rendered meaningless, either through outright cheating or through teaching to the test in a way that narrows the curriculum and renders real learning obsolete.
So human nature dictates that teaching to a test does not create accountability for our teachers or our students, it only incentivizes cheating.
And, ironically, when Democrats start blaming teachers for poor results – more likely due to poverty than bad teaching – it emboldens guys like Scott Walker:
Walker’s argument – that greedy teachers are putting their own interests over the interests of the public – resonates in part because in recent years, many Democrats have made that argument as well.
Exhibit A is former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee.
At the end of the day, movements that are being proposed by Arne Duncan and his kind (even here in Colorado) which include great ideas such as increasing class size to improve education,
are not motivated by real reform, but rather to game the system in order to receive the favor of those paying for it – such as the billions provided by the Gates foundation or Philip Anschutz.
These ‘reform’ efforts may merely just may be misguided good intentions – but why take the chance when they are more likely exactly what we see in Wisconsin: a right-wing assault on the most leveling aspect of our democracy, a fair and free public education.
Teachers should be allow to teach a child from a holistic perspective – are they hungry? cold? emotionally challenged from a family issue? – without being worried about firings based on a testing system created by some politico in DC.
If getting ahead means cheating to gain favor with rich donors who back a right-wing Republican agenda, then maybe we should examine whether those who claim to be Democratic ‘reformers’ actually have our children’s interests at heart — ahead of their own.
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Back when I was an excitable young Teamster, I had the same anger toward my corrupt union leaders as today’s “reformers” have towards the educational “status quo.” But a union reformer shared the old Okie wisdom of “don’t go off rootin’ and tootin’…” and, eventually, democracy prevailed in our labor movement. Today, data-driven school “reform” is a two-barreled shotgun blast from the hip. The first target, is bad teachers. Given the harm that the bottom 5 to 10% of teachers cause, the quick-draw approach of the accountability hawks is understandable, even though their scatter-shot aim is bound to destroy the careers of many good educators. But the second shot is directed towards our best educators. Anyone old enough to have an institutional memory, and recall the lessons of earlier unsuccessful reforms, is fair game. Since most of today’s “reforms” are recycled quick fixes that have already failed, top-down policy wonks want to make sure that young educators are not exposed to the lessons that veterans learned during previous experiments.
History may not repeat itself, but it rhymes, and David Labaree explains why today’s accountability hawks are destined for the ash heap of history. I hate the title of his new book, Someone Has to Fail, when the real message is how to avoid “cuttin’ and shootin.'” Labaree explains why good teachers are so adept at derailing the best laid plans of the educational social engineers. He documents the shared characteristics of a century of educational reforms, but he does not paint reformers with a broad brush. Instead, Labaree celebrates great teaching. He then explains why reformers invariably feel the need to defeat the best educators in order impose their will on schools.
For learning to occur, teachers must establish a special type of personal relationship. As much as we try to hide it, children are conscripts, but learning will not occur unless kids are persuaded to be willing participants in their own education. “A surgeon can fix the ailment of the patient who sleeps through the operation, and a lawyer can successfully defend a client who remains mute during the trial,” writes Labaree, “But success for a teacher depends heavily on the active cooperation of the student.” Teachers must become adept in managing chronic educational dilemmas. Teachers must embrace the ambiguity in the “local ecologies” that are known as classrooms. “As a teacher I’m not applying laws, I’m choosing from an array of overlapping rules of thumb; my primary skill as a teacher is my judgement.”
In order to lead a classroom, the teacher must develop a persona that is similar to that of a method actor. In one sense, teaching is a dramatic performance art, but it only works when the teacher draws deeply from his or her own soul. The teacher persona, says Labaree, must be likeable and tough, and it is not something that “a teacher puts on lightly or sheds with ease.” Teaching “is a form of method acting that lasts not merely for the duration of the play but for the course of an entire career. It is not just a way of practicing a profession but a way of being.”
Once a teacher has learned how to motivate students, she is unlikely to change because some new theory is mandated, and that leads to endless conflict with reformers. “Teachers draw on clinical experience; reformers draw on social scientific theory. Teachers embrace the ambiguity of the class process and practice; reformers pursue the clarity of tables and graphs. Teachers put a premium on professional adaptability; reformers put a premium on uniformity of practices and outcomes.”
Today’s reformers, like their forefathers, “don’t doubt the virtue of their model of reform, so they have little tolerance for teacher resistance … The reform grid seems to carry the best ideas and highest values of our time, so practitioners of the old ways of doing things just need to get out of the way of progress.” Before long, these idealists become obsessed with defeating practitioners, and this is one of the saddest parts of the story. Reformers get so frustrated with teachers that they fail to heed our first rule, “do no harm.”
Labaree says that reformers could play a constructive role if they listened to David Tyack and Larry Cuban and not try to implement their policies in a pure form, but allow teachers to “hybridize” them. Labaree adds, however, that “no reformer worth his salt would take the wimpy and self-negating approach to school change that I have suggested here.”
On the other hand, Americans are justifiably proud of our independence. It is good that we have rejected five year plans and other forms of social engineering. The “solution” is to embrace our messy, imperfect, non-rational world. And that is another frustrating aspect of today’s “reforms.” Good-hearted activists have become so angered by the way schools resist their efforts, that they have become blind to the joys of teaching and learning. – JT
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We are plodding along, spending almost nothing compared to total $$ and I just continue to be dumbfounded that we celebrate having winners and losers. I am not hearing about RTTT from any educators, just politicians. This continues to be one of the saddest programs I have ever seen foisted on a populace in the history of education. Disaffected stakeholders getting hurt and politicians taking credit…..
SO much not true here.
Charter operators named; some object to closed meeting
March 16, 2011|By Inquirer Staff Writer
Students who said they were turned away from SRC meeting protest outside an auditorium in the School…
Philadelphia schools superintendent Arlene Ackerman today recommended three charter operators to run six low-performing schools despite the protests of teachers and students.
In a meeting with the School Reform Commission this afternoon at District headquarters, Ackerman said she had chosen Mosaica Education to run Martin Luther King High and General David B. Birney Elementary; Mastery Charter to run George Clymer Elementary and Simon Gratz High School; and Aspira Charter Schools to take over Olney East and West High Schools.
Outside the auditorium, many students stood in mute protest, their mouths covered over with duct tape.
People who were not admitted were directed to an atrium where they could watch the proceedings on a closed-circuit television monitor.
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Okay, you’ve won! Tenure has been abolished. There are no limits on charters, and vouchers are available to all takers. Collective bargaining is a thing of the past. The dreaded fire-breathing dragon union now resembles a salamander. Governors, state legislatures, mayors and editorial boards, who’ve claimed that they can turn around the dismally depressing performance levels in our urban inner cities — if only these vestiges of the past were abolished — have had their way.
But some questions remain, because as Colin Powell once said when referring to post-war Iraq, the “Pottery Barn Rule” now applies. That is, “you break it, you own it.” So it might be useful if we ask the victors some questions about the new education landscape now that the “War on Entrenched Teachers & Unions” has been brought to a successful conclusion.
I was talking to a guidance counselor about students with special needs the other day. He told me that the number of kids attending city schools who live in shelters is at an all-time high. Just a few days ago, a colleague at an elementary school had told him that a number of these students, that had been placed in their building because their shelter was nearby, just disappeared without anyone informing the school administrators.
It seems that the city had moved them to another shelter, and they were shuffled off to the new location and another school without notice.
Now all obsolete, ineffective teachers on the losing side of the war believe that children placed in shelters have all sorts of disadvantages before they enter the schoolhouse door, a view not shared by the value-added reformers who maintain a good teacher should get any child to make a year’s worth of progress under their supervision. I wondered — if these students who were forced to move had been enrolled in a charter school, could the city demand that another charter school closer to their new shelter be required to accept them even if it means that they exceed their capacity?
Here’s another question: Which teachers are we going to hold responsible for these students’ performance? More than half the school year is over, and when we track student performance with less than 16 weeks left in the term, will their results be tied to their old teacher’s evaluations or the new one’s?
You might not realize it, but the problem isn’t just confined to homeless kids who are moved around like furniture. New York City has a remarkably unstable student population. Students drop in. They drop out. The most recent census figures indicate that the outflow of population from New York is the largest in the nation.
An NYU study tracked a student cohort numbering 86,000 that entered the first grade in 1995. It found that less than 40 percent remained in the system after eight years! How will the progress of these students be measured? Who will be rewarded for the unmeasurable progress? Who will be blamed?
Combine these numbers with the outflow New York is experiencing and you realize that the exodus can’t simply be blamed on poor public schools when people are leaving the state altogether, not just switching to private and parochial education.
We know this to be true because the Archdiocese of New York announced that it would be closing 27 schools in June.
As it stands now, 50 percent of the teachers who are hired in any given year leave the system voluntarily by their fifth year of teaching. So why are the generals in the Gates Reform Army so energized about holding on to the youngest teachers when half of them will be gone before you know it? Just what will a fabulously expensive tracking system track if neither teachers nor students remain in the system after a few years?
Will Gates, Bloomberg or Rhee suggest that a special court master be appointed so that a salary “clawback” paid to teachers who left the system after a few years and didn’t live up to the data’s expectations be created? After all, if you can do it with people who were on the winning side of the Madoff Ponzi scheme, why can’t you do with it teachers who don’t produce the good data?
Then there’s the testing conundrum. Now that the unions, seniority and tenure have been dispensed with, what are we going to do about the testing system that will tell us which teachers are worth retaining?
In New York, the Regents have admitted the tests they’ve been administering aren’t a valid measurement of student progress, and because of costs, they want to eliminate high school Regents exams in some subject areas instead of expanding them. So what are we going to do about high school teachers who don’t teach a Regents course?
How will we judge art, music and physical education teachers? For that matter, how will we measure teachers of languages like German, Hebrew and Latin? If a child enters a gym class overweight and doesn’t lose a designated amount will the teacher be held responsible? What skills do we expect art and music teachers to impart so that we can determine if they should be terminated?
Now imagine that the number of students enrolled in charter schools grows to about one half of the NYC school system. Who is going to be inspecting these schools to ensure that monies are properly spent, crimes and abuses are reported to the appropriate authorities, and that an excellent teacher isn’t fired because a capricious principal doesn’t find the teacher appealing?
In short, how do you finance and maintain a bureaucracy that actually has to deal with the nuts and bolts of educating hundreds of thousands of kids when everyone is on their own?
Bill Gates, a man who put his money where his mouth is when it came to financing the “War on Entrenched Teachers and Unions,” wants a new education environment that discards the 19th- and 20th-century industrial model, because as a man who made his fortune in the post-industrial age, he believes that we have to keep up with the times.
I’m sure that he envisions a day when we’ll be able to say “beam me up Bill and Melinda,” and we’ll all realize our educational potential. Why not distance learning without teachers at all? But until that day arrives, he might do well to study an earlier attempt to break away from the past by washing it away with a reform tsunami, and look at the bleak outcome we see in the field of mental health.
The New York Times recently ran an expose of the abuses that go unreported in mental health group homes in New York State. The movement to remove mental patients from the horrors of state hospitals in the ’70s and place them in group homes echoes in the arguments against our public schools and the need to “deinstitutionalize” students, moving them into charter schools. However, the litany of abuses documented in the group homes by the Times should give anyone who thinks that the smashing of one troubled institution and replacing it with another is the magic bullet.
Just how the reformers will remake the landscape is a matter of speculation. But I would suggest turning to China’s Cultural Revolution for guidance about how it will shake out. That’s because Utopian schemes foisted on large complex societies with religious zeal substituting for sound public policy usually end badly.
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