I’ve often heard teachers complain about the latest reform “fad.” It’s understandable insofar as veteran teachers have been around for many rounds of “reform,” only to see each and every one swept abashedly into a locked closet in the back of the class (right next to where I surreptitiously put those pre-tests I never got around to grading).
I think there’s a lot of truth to that, and I suspect that you agree. Where we’d probably part ways is the takeaway from this insight. You might say that this goes to show how temporal the current regime of reform is; I would say that the faddish nature of past reform shows that we need to stay the course.
You write that Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson’s reforms in Washington DC have not worked. (Disclosure: I previously spent a couple months working as an intern at StudentsFirst. And I had one very brief, very pleasant conversation with Michelle Rhee. I have no affiliation with StudentsFirst now, though, and my views are my own.)
I think it’s misleading to say that based on a few years of inconclusive data we can determine that a reform has “failed.” There is mixed evidence regarding the results of the changes made in D.C., but as Matt DiCarlo pointed out in a takedown of some of Rhee’s overstatements, it’s inappropriate to draw broad conclusions, pro or con, based on just a few years of observational data.
The goal, by the way, of some of these changes – albeit not always articulated well by reformers – is to raise overall teaching quality by attracting some people into the profession who might not otherwise become teachers. It is, to use your baseball analogy, to try to make all hitters bat .300 (or more to my liking, have an on-base percentage of .400). Baseball of course, is a zero-sum game – a batter’s success is a pitcher’s failure – but in education it’s at least theoretically possible for all teachers to be excellent. That’s why many reformers believe in increasing teacher compensation in order to attract top talent, and this is what D.C. is trying to do. This sort of reform, though, will by its nature take time.
I know you believe that these new-fangled evaluation systems are doing far more harm than good, but I can’t accept that after a few districts have implemented them for a few years, they can be trashed as complete failures. If we’re not seeing improved results in another couple decades, then I will be the first one to say that these reforms need to go.
The completely understandable response is, well, what happens to the students who are (in your view and many others’) getting worse results because of such reforms? I have no glib answer to that. What I can say is that students in D.C. were struggling greatly before Rhee’s reforms. The spending per student sits at $30,000 and the results were among the worst in the country.
Gary, I know that you believe that schools can only do so much for their students, but certainly DC schools had and have a lot of room to improve. Was there not space to try something new, even if it didn’t align with many educators’ intuitions about what will work? Isn’t this especially true considering the shaky (though mixed) evidence for more traditional reforms, such as class-size reductions and Head Start?
What I feel disillusioned about is that many teachers that I worked with were so negative towards our pay-for-performance system that they sought to tear it down rather than build it up. You’re upset that StudentsFirst spends a great deal of money on elections, rather than trying to improve teacher preparation; well, I hope you’re equally upset that NEA and AFT have spent huge amounts of money backing candidates who oppose teacher evaluations. What if that money were spent on making teacher evaluation systems be as effective as possible?
Few alternatives have been suggested. Yet, I don’t think even you would agree with the notion that a decade ago teachers were being fairly and effectively evaluated. As you know, many “evaluations” consisted of an annual pro forma visit by the principal into the teacher’s classroom; meaningful feedback was not consistently given. I know you think the pendulum has swung too far, but perhaps you could acknowledge that reformers were responding to some bad circumstances.
Am I wrong? I know that the AFT has backed peer review programs, which I think could be great, but it also seems like a blip on the radar. Perhaps reformers have to account for the failure to work with unions on this – but isn’t always a two-way street?
Yours in dialogue,
PS I hope you saw Matt DiCarlo’s recent piece on VAM. I agree that it’s not junk science or a “sham.” I also think that some districts have a way to go in using it effectively – hence my comments above about teachers being partners in creating such evaluation systems.
“another couple of decades”? No, I don’t think this would be a good idea. I do appreciate your desire to apply the scientific method to education, however. And yes it can be premature to label an experiment as a failure before it has been given time to run its course. But if we’re going to act like scientists, we have to do it right. For education, it is a bit like medicine. There is a ‘disease’ — poor kids getting low test scores — which we want to ‘cure.’ The vital first step is to identify the cause of the disease. If you misdiagnose this, any remedy based on fixing the wrong cause is doomed to fail. Even if ‘bad teachers’ were a big cause for low student test scores, I’m not confident that corporate reforms strategies would work, but treating the wrong cause is definitely counterproductive. In this case it is like trying to cure a strained knee with chemotherapy.
To treat the problem scientifically, the people controlling the experiment should have some idea about what ‘success’ should look like at various stages of it. Yes, I suppose there could be experimental drugs where they seem to be not working at all and then at the last minute they kick in and cure the disease, but in this case we should be seeing some benefits, particularly in places that have embraced the reforms most like Washington D.C.. Their lack of progress so far suggests to me that I am correct that they are fixated on the wrong root cause. The problem with waiting for a few decades, from my perspective, is that there is too great of a risk that these remedies come with severe side-effects.
This may seem non-scientific to you, but my very traumatic first year created in me a keen ability to tell when something in education just isn’t going to work. My first year I was very naive and ideas about how to teach or about how to manage a classroom would sound so good to me until I tried them only to learn, the hard way, that they had serious loopholes. So since that first year I’ve developed an innate sense for these sorts of things. When I hear new ideas about how to teach or about how my school’s bell schedule is going to be altered or, at a macro level, how to ‘turnaround’ certain schools, I just ‘know,’ even sometimes when I haven’t been able to verbalize exactly why, it isn’t going to work.
In the case of the ‘bad teacher’ cause I also have some strong first hand evidence that this is not the major issue. For one, I taught at three failing schools that all had what I’d call ‘above average’ teachers. Also, two of the smartest friends and TFA alum that I know have been principals of un-miraculous schools. I feel like if they weren’t able to turn around their schools (at least from a test score perspective) that it can’t be done without some kind of cheating.
You are correct that many schools and districts, pre-reform movement, were not fulfilling their potential. Though I think there is a limit to what a school can accomplish, I do think it is worthwhile to try to achieve that limit and, yes, schools did have a lot of problems: money being used unwisely, terrible organization where on the first day of school some classes have 50 students and others have 10 students, bad curricula, etc. I’m not surprised that ‘reformers’ have been given an opportunity to show that they could do things better. My hope is that once this wave of ‘reform’ is shaken off, a new movement led by people who actually know something about students, teachers, and schools take over and guide us forward. I look forward to the day when I can stop playing defense and participate in that endeavor.
I mentioned my ‘sixth sense’ which I’m sure could invite some ridicule, but here is what I believe will happen as a result of this misguided ‘reform’ movement. Within five or ten years there will be a massive teacher shortage. Already, I’ve read that in California the number of new teacher applicants is way down this year. The promise of big bonuses to young superstars will just not be enough to get people to replace all the teachers retiring or otherwise fleeing the profession. Maybe TFA and other alternative certification will be expanded to fill the void and maybe we may even be able to get test scores to the same, or even marginally higher, level with enough focus on that goal. But the other metrics, the more important ones that are so tough to measure, will suffer. Maybe we will drop from the top of the Nobel prize winners category. Or, like we see in New Orleans, we will have more crime. We may win the ‘test score’ battle, yet lose the war. I know that this might sound extremely speculative, but that is where I see things going, at this rate.
As far as the unions spending money to back candidates to go against the ‘reformers’ I think that is exactly what they should be doing right now. When you’re under attack, you have to defend yourself as your first priority.
You know, the basic premises of ‘reformers’ are not crazy to me. Certainly we want schools and teachers to be as effective and efficient as possible. And yes, a good teacher gets kids to learn. It may be tough sometimes to measure that learning, but still, a teacher should be able to present some evidence that students have progressed. But these modern measures of progress for students and schools are being misused. Maybe they are not complete ‘junk’ but they certainly have a large margin of error so using them as a way to rank teachers is not very fair. Matt Di Carlo does seem determined to keep the possibility that one day these measures will be improved and used appropriately.
But the big problem is that the ‘reformers’ are not as wise as Di Carlo. The whole ‘reform’ movement is led by people who I really don’t admire. I haven’t figured out if they are well-meaning but just not wise about things or if they are devious and excellent liars. I can see the case for either argument. As a litmus test, compare some of the writers and bloggers on both sides. A good starting place that will hit home with you is to look at the pieces that you wrote and appeared in The Answer Sheet and in Dropout Nation. I can’t think of another person besides you who has had pieces in such different forums. In your Dropout Nation ‘Testing is good for teachers and children‘, editor RiShawn Biddle is so insecure that he constantly interrupts your essay (I counted four such intrusions). Compare to your ‘It’s time for TFA to fold‘ where Valerie Strauss, after the introduction, allows you to say what you want without interruption.
Anyway, I hope I have not seemed to ‘dodge’ any of your questions. I’m wondering what you think about the mythical highly-effective teachers and high-performing charter schools. Do you think they prove that ‘poverty is not destiny’? Also, what do you think that TFA makes the right decision when they try to convince the new CMs that they are very capable of achieving ‘transformational’ teaching where they change the life trajectory of their students? Realistically, I don’t think that my impact on students, even in my ‘teacher of the year’ year, was so great that it changed any life trajectories. Do you think that you did? Do you think that the alum who trained you did? If this is unrealistic, is it still OK to train people with that mindset since it will keep them optimistic, like telling someone that a diet and exercise program is likely to work, thus motivating them to stick to it? Or is is more like telling someone that they can climb mount Everest if they just have high expectations for themselves and little practical training?
Look forward to continuing the dialogue.