I’ve been invited to participate on a panel for Dialogue TV and Radio next week. The discussion topic is ‘Education Reform from the perspective of the classroom’ and I’ll be one of three panelists.
I thought in preparation I’d organize my thoughts in a blog entry. The taping is next week, so please comment if you have any suggestions.
The first thing that needs to be done in any discussion about ‘reform’ in 2011 is to define what’s meant by ‘reform.’ To the public it means the dictionary definition — some kind of change intended to improve something. But in the last few years the word ‘reform’ has been claimed by a small group of powerful people when they dubbed themselves the ‘reformers.’ When teachers hear that someone is a ‘reformer’ it conjures up a negative image because the style of reform they advocate is based on increasing charter schools (choice) and tying teacher evaluations to standardized test scores (accountability). ‘Reform,’ ‘Choice,’ and ‘Accountability’ are three very nice sounding words and they were designed to be. And when you believe that this style of reform won’t work and are in favor of different types of reform, you are not a ‘reformer,’ but an ‘anti-reformer’ which makes you sound like you don’t think education should be improved.
So when I think about ‘reform’ from the perspective of the classroom, there are two answers depending on which definition of ‘reform.’
If my principal were to tell my staff of a new practice that he observed at another school, like having a student summarize the lesson at the end of class, the principal might tell the staff that he’d like to see everyone doing this practice. He’d explain the rationale, about how it improves retention and how it encourages students to synthesize the lesson. Now he could say that it is optional or that it is mandatory. If he says it is optional, some, who think it is a good use of time, will do it, while the rest won’t. If he says it is mandatory, well, teachers are pretty obedient when they are told they have to do something so almost everyone will do it, but those who don’t really think it is a good idea will do it with the minimum amount of enthusiasm. The principal might be OK with this if half the people are doing it with gusto and half are at least doing it.
But when you get to the ‘reforms’ as dictated by the ‘reformers’ it’s a bit different. The ‘reformers’ want to see those standardized test scores go up. So if teachers are told that they must get the scores up or face the consequences, well, they might be facing a dilemma. You see, to get those scores up might require abandoning true learning and substituting it for test prep. This cheats the kids.
There are two fallacies with the current obsession. One is that high test scores indicates good teaching. The other is that high test scores indicates true learning. Both are false. I know because as a private tutor at night I specialize in helping students raise SAT scores without really learning. I even have techniques for narrowing down to two or even one choice without even looking at the question.
Another factor is the way the test scores get tied to evaluation and job security. In Washington D.C., where the program is being taped, they have something called the IMPACT evaluation system. In this system, up to 50% of their score is based on the gains their students make on the standardized tests. The idea is that principal evaluations weren’t accurate enough as teachers were getting satisfactory ratings while their students were not really learning. So they hired a firm called Mathematica Policy Research to create and analyze what’s called a ‘Value Added’ model. From the students’ scores the previous year and a bunch of other factors they determine what those students should get the next year with an ‘average’ teacher and then compare to what they actually got. This translates into a ‘Value Added’ score for that teacher.
I downloaded and read the report that Mathematica supplied to D.C. schools and in it they said that this model had a very high error rate of over 33%. So a third of the time this might say that a teacher did not add much value when, in fact, they did.
In another Mathematica report that they prepared for the Department Of Education they advise as strongly as I think you can in one of these reports NOT to use their system for firing teachers. Here is the quote
“Our results strongly support the notion that policymakers must carefully consider system error rates in designing and implementing teacher performance measurement systems that are based on value-added models. Consideration of error rates is especially important when evaluating whether and how to use value-added estimates for making high-stakes decisions regarding teachers (such as tenure and firing decisions)”
So the way this ‘reform’ plays out in the classroom is to make teachers who are already stressed out from this tough job even more stressed as their job security rides on something with a huge error rate based on a formula that is so complicated that the teacher can’t be given the details of the calculation.
One of the panelists is from an educational consulting place. His looks pretty good, as it focuses on K-2 before kids have gotten so far behind. In general, though, companies like this are pretty corrupt. They claim they can perform miracles by getting incredible results in a short period of time. Politicians buy into them since they need results fast before their terms end. But school improvement is a slow process, like losing weight. Hearing some of these claims by this educational consultant industry is like hearing about a super diet where people lose 30 pounds in a week. By making wild claims, they fool politicians and the public into believing that schools that don’t make such rapid gains need to be shut down. That’s the danger of this industry. This panelist is part of one that sounds good, so I’d be interested to hear his take on some of the other places.