In "Has the Education Movement Lost Its Way" Walsh says that the aftermath of fall conference season left a bad taste in her mouth.
I'm struggling with the seismic shift in tone at these conferences, where education advocates traditionally assembled to give each other a pep talk. In a few short years, we've gone from thinking we were right about everything—granted, that was kind of obnoxious—to adopting a rather pathetic and unattractive lament, professing just how wrong we've been about everything. I guess I prefer smug to self-flagellation.
|I wanted a laser, and if I'm going to have a laser, let's put it on a shark|
Boy, I wish I were privy to a bit more of that self-flagellation. Because, no, the self-important always-right certainty wasn't kind of obnoxious. It was extremely obnoxious. In fact, it included a lot of teacher flagellation and school flagellation and in many cases, flagellation that ended careers and cut schools off at the knees.
And maybe it is unattractive to lament just how wrong you've been about things, but damn-- you were wrong about a lot of things. Not only wrong, but wrong in the face of a whole of experts in the education field who repeatedly tried to tell you that you were wrong.
You were wrong about using a single narrow poorly-written Big Standardized Test to gather reliable data about student learning, teacher effectiveness and school quality. You were wrong about the whole idea of identifying "bad" schools and turning them around. You were wrong to treat teachers as the enemies instead of partners and frontline troops in the work to make deliver quality education.
Many advocates appear to be abandoning our once shared convictions about what it takes to lift children out of poverty, the very wellspring of the movement's power and mass appeal. For years, we had stuck hard and fast to a sensible, winnable, and research-based strategy: Improve student learning. Teach children to read. That is how we tackle society's inequities.
Oh, wait. Now I think I know what she's talking about, at least in part. Robert Pondiscio got himself in all sorts of reformy hot water almost two years ago for suggesting that the social justice and equity side of the reformster movement was pushing out the free market conservative wing. This kicked off all sorts of debate in the reformy world. Walsh makes reference, obliquely, to the notion that more reformy panels included black folks coming to yell at the white folks for not taking a broader, social justice view.
She has a problem, of course, in that reform has had a while to have things its own way, and it hasn't demonstrated any ability to teach more children to read or improve student learning. At best it has shown a skill for separating better student learners from their less able neighbors. But improving learning? Not so much. And because we have such a lousy measure of student achievement in place, what reformsters are left arguing is that if a student gets good scores on the preferred BS Test of her state, that student will be more happy and successful in life. That is a hard premise to sell. It's silly on its face, and there's no evidence to back it up.
Walsh does not agree with me on this.
It's a sure way to lose an audience these days to remind them that tests have merit, not just for accountability purposes, not just because they measure numeracy and literacy, but because they are highly predictive of the quality of a child's future. (Thank you Raj Chetty and other academic purists.) A few short years ago, reminding an audience of this connection was a rallying cry. Now our eyes avert, we squirm in our seats, and feel the sudden need for another cup of hotel coffee.
Well, tests don't have merit. They aren't good for accountability, and they don't measure numeracy and literacy, and they are not predictive of a child's future. Also, Raj Chetty has been repeatedly debunked, his methods iffy and his ultimate results one more example of confusing correlation with causation. But Walsh is feeling frustrated:
By many measures, children's academic outcomes have improved—particularly in the charters which this movement created—but the consensus is that progress has either not been fast enough or it's not even legit. If we agree to expand our role to also tackle the social, economic, racial, and political contexts of students' lives, we'll surely be more successful...right?
There is nothing wrong with any of these goals. They're all good—but their collective impact leaves me limp and rudderless, rather than inspired. This job was hard enough.
But there's very little charter success that isn't explained by techniques we could use in public schools (longer day, more resources, smaller classes) or by techniques that turn their back on the mission of public education (charters that only take the few students who are a "good fit"). Meanwhile, too many charters are demonstrating just how badly the charter system can be abused by con artists, frauds, and self-dealing money-grubbers (eg ECOT, today).
As for expanding the educational mission to include a hundred other issues...? On the one hand, I understand her reaction to the large set of goals. On the other hand, I understand it because that's what every public school teacher is asked to do every day of every year for as long as I've been working at this. And while some of these issues are handed to us in a formal way by one program or another ("Hey, here's a thing that we need to get out to every child, so let's have teachers do it") we also end up handling them because you cannot teach part of a child. You cannot pluck the "learning to read" part of the child out and away from everything else and just address it in isolation. Tiny humans do not work that way. Certainly there are attempts to do so-- what is a No Excuses school except a school that demands that young humans leave all the rest of their lives and selves outside the schoolhouse door. But mostly that trick doesn't work.
Achieving a complex, ambitious goal—like providing all children in this nation with a strong education—requires laser focus, determination, abundant resources, an ability to measure progress, exceptional expertise, and a strong research basis. The movement had each of these elements and still does (for the most part).
No, it doesn't. It has never had laser focus because it has always been a loose alliance of people with very different goals (free market education, justice and equity, chance for my company to make a buck, application of techno-enineering to a social problem, hey we could gather all the data with this stuff, etc). Determination-- yeah, I'll give you that one. Abundant resources? Well, you've had wealthy backers, but you've had real trouble getting and keeping solid human resources, and for all your talk about the money wasted in public schools, you keep discovering that running a school with all the programs you'd really like to have is hella expensive. Ability to measure progress? This is the one I find tiring, but I'll say it as many times as I have to-- you don't have that. You don't. You just don't. The BS Tests do not measure what you think they measure. They don't measure math and science achievement. They don't measure teacher effectiveness. They don't measure how well a school works. And they certainly don't measure the full breadth and depth of a students education beyond those two subjects, nor do they predict the child's future success. Exceptional expertise? Mostly, no. Mostly reformsters are a collection of people who may be experts in their own field but who are education amateurs. And two years as a TFAer don't change that. For most of the reform movement, they have worn their amateur status proudly (David Coleman bragged about it openly) and resolutely refused to listen to those of us who have devoted our lives to the work. They've also resolutely avoided listening to the people in the communities they were going to fix (which is part of the reason that some folks started showing up to yell at you on various panels).
There are people within the reformster world who have some real expertise. And there are many who are beginning to recognize that listening wold be useful, and that maybe not all their opponents are evil dopes. That's a good thing. But reformsters have mostly been unwilling to examine any of their premises (The tests are great. Competition works. Etc) and so they keep building shaky structures on the same bad foundations.
While not shying away from our many imperfections, while recognizing that schools do not function in isolation, we can not and should not turn our back on what gave rise to this movement.
By all means-- don't turn your back on it. Take a good hard look at it. And then ask yourself if perhaps some of it was mistaken, or if some of your allies are correct to criticize. Consider if some of your allies had, in fact, vastly different aims from your own. You were all together when the tip of the spear penetrated the soft underbelly of American education, but some of you expected reform to lead to the invisible hand steering education and some of you expected it to lead to broad social programs for the poor and some of you expected it to lead to openings for profitable entrepreneurship. Some of you expected it to revitalize public education, and some of you expected it to destroy public education entirely. Some of you sincerely wanted social justice to be part of the movement, and some of you just wanted to use that part of the movement as protective cover for a Democratic administration-- cover that you no longer need.
In other words, you can't reunite the reform movement behind your laser-like goals, because you never had laser-like goals in the first place.