Sunday, March 20, 2011

School reform? yeah, right!

Last week, in the course of discussing the flurry of anti-teacher initiatives across the nation, I made the conscious decision to focus only on the apparent shift in political calculations that factored into the current mini-revolution.
What last week's piece did not address was the proposals themselves. That, as it turned out, is the topic of this week's essay.
Now, it would be tempting to dismiss all the pending legislation rolling through GOP-led legislatures on the simple procedural grounds that they are, in fact, emanating from Republican-led legislatures.
However, it is worth noting that any number of these initiatives have vocal backers on the Democratic side, up to and including folks who hang out in the White House. So dismissing them purely on partisan motive is probably not productive.
That said, those presuming that there will be criticism here of the "reform" measures currently making their way through the halls of state legislatures will feel vindication as they keep reading, no doubt.
As someone who has spent his entire adult life in education, I will concede that I have few qualms with the exploratory nature of reform. Even if things are going well (and I would submit that things are better than often mourned in the public conversation), there is nothing wrong with seeking to be better.
But that's not what is going on here. In addition to the existence of legitimate questions about the effectiveness of proposed reforms, the haste with which they are being orchestrated raises real questions about motive. Indeed, it is the "ready, fire, aim" nature of the current wave of legislation that I find the most dangerous aspect of this wave of educational "reform."
Case in point: when I wrote a critical analysis of value-added teacher assessment this past June, I noted that one of the pioneering institutions in this arena (the University of Wisconsin's Value Added Research Center) had this to say about their craft:
Much basic research remains to be done to build high-quality value-added models and indicators that can legitimately support district and state accountability and high-stakes applications such as pay for performance.
One must conclude that they did all of this basic research in the past nine months. Because the notion of "value-added" teacher evaluation is a cornerstone of Florida's new "Merit Pay" proposal.
The reliance on testing is the most oft-cited criticism of the bulk of these educational "reform" measures. Not only is it found in the Florida proposal, but it is also part of the "seniority" reform being kicked around in Michael Bloomberg's New York schools.
Leaving aside, for the moment, the fact that many in the educational community have serious qualms about using high-stakes testing to make so many of these critical decisions, there is an additional concern that too many in the "reform" community seem eager to ignore.
Basing teacher retention decisions on test scores is a policy that is tailor-made for the worst kinds of exploitation by school districts being forced to try to do more with less.
Those advocating the end of seniority-based retention practices in favor of "performance" based on student test scores have to concede that districts, which must stretch dollars these days like never before, will be tempted to staff their classes in such a way to protect their younger (and, it must be noted, markedly cheaper) staff members.
I will never forget in my third year on the job drawing a Freshman Geography class that felt, on bad days, like a training session for America's Most Wanted. When I half-jokingly teased a counselor about how I managed to draw every wild-eyed boy in the freshman class, she smiled and told me, "But, Steve, we all know how good you are with difficult students."
At the time, I took it for the backhanded compliment that it was. In this brave new world being promoted by the GOP (and an alarming number of Democrats), it would be my ticket to lower pay. Worse yet, it could be my ticket out of the profession.
Other reforms seem to be surging forward, despite conflicting evidence as to their effectiveness, as well. Efforts to increase class size are driven by dismissive claims that such increases "don't matter." Yet there is at least one study that says there is a legitimate return on investment for reduced class sizes, one that is substantially higher in urban schools.
Merit pay proposals have been kicked around for years, and they are currently moving their way through multiple state legislatures. Aside from a bit of intellectual disconnect (if teachers were solely motivated by the cash, wouldn't they be doing something a bit more lucrative?), there is question as to how effective they have been in the places where they have been piloted.
Of course, the "reform" at the top of the agenda for these GOP-fueled state efforts is dramatic restructuring of the rights and powers of labor unions representing teachers. Most dramatically displayed in Wisconsin, it is also at the core of legislative efforts in states like Idaho and Indiana, as well. Will this save our schools? Given that the performance of those states hostile to teachers unions has hardly impressed, one would think not. Especially on the heels of a new international study which shows that...wait for it..."in many cases, countries with the highest student performance also had strong teacher unions."
And it is on this final point that the intentions of the "reformers" become a lot more naked. For Republicans at the state level, teachers unions have proven to be their most dogged and effective nemesis for years. The strategy for the GOP here is cynical, but possibly effective: 
Step #1: Decry the current state of education, even raising it to crisis level. This makes sense--people are more willing to accept dramatic solutions, if they feel the crisis merits it. If you have to exaggerate, do it (consider the fact that Florida, site of the most aggressive reform, actually ranked 5th among the states in education, according to an Education Week survey.) 

Step #2: Offer a variety of solutions, and structure them in a way to guarantee howls from teachers in protest.

Step #3: When the protests inevitably come, lament that teachers are not interested in "fixing the problems" in education, and have become a barrier to progress. Then work on stripping them of the ability to negotiate matters of working conditions, curriculum, etc. 

Step #4: With your toughest opponent weakened and muffled, enjoy the budgetary savings that come with "belt tightening" in education. Those, of course, can pay for oodles and oodles of tax cuts!   
Whether this works politically remains to be seen. Whether this works to improve education for America's kids, however, seems to be a very suspect proposition.

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