Thursday, March 21, 2019

What Education Reformers Get Wrong

Hard to believe that it took until now for a big voice in the reformster world to write a post entitled "What education reformers believe," but last week Mike Petrilli (Fordham Institute) did the job. It's not entirely thorough (we'll get to that). To start, Petrilli himself notes that there's been a lot of reformster angst about using the term "reformer," but he's willing to take a shot at clarifying the term and invites discussion as part of a search for the ground on which all the varied members of the reformy tribe can stand. I'm just going to go ahead and explain which of these grounds I believe are mistaken. So here we go.

Petrilli starts with four propositions that he submits as universally agreed upon:

* Every child deserves a good school and it's unfair that some don't get one.
* Strong education is important to individual dream and the nation's future.
* Educators deserve appreciation and more status than they get.
* Not everybody needs college, but they probably need post-secondary something to make a decent living.

Close enough. "Unfair" is a dodge, like undersupported and underresources schools are an act of nature and not the result of deliberate policy choices. I'm not sure everybody agrees that an education opens a great future. When it comes to post-secondary education, most everyone probably does believe it, but we'd be further ahead to verify its accuracy rather than its acceptance. The "more status" thin is demonstrably wrong-- if "everyone" believed that teachers deserved more status, then teachers would have more status. Teachers don't have more status because "most people" don't agree they should (otherwise, we would have to posit some mysterious force, some societal dark matter, that explains how teachers have lower status than everyone believes they should have). It's a sticky point here because one source of the low esteem for teachers would be all those years that reformsters pushed the idea that public schools suck because they are chock full of terrible, terrible teachers who have jobs only because they are protected by their terrible terrible unions. Some (certainly not all-- looking at you, Jeanne Allen and TFA) have backed away from that point, but it's disingenuous to pretend they have no idea who was out there bad-mouthing teachers for all those years.

Where we part ways with some of the status quo organizations is around the following principles:

"Status quo organizations"? The use of the term "status quo"  in reformy rhetoric is a bit ridiculous at this point. The Common Core or some one of its bastardized cousins is embedded in most states. charters are policy in many states, and the business of high-stakes Big Standardized Tests is enshrined in federal law. Even vouchers exist in one form or another in many states. There is nothing in the reformy playbook that is not part of the status quo. Yes, reformsters had fun day back when they could stand outside the education sector and say, "You guys are doing it all wrong. Boy, if we had our way, we'd really show you something." But those days are gone-- reformsters have gotten their way in many parts of the country, they haven't shown us a thing, and they don't get to play the maverick outsider card any more.

So, anyway, what are these principles?

Good schools deliver strong results for students—and all schools should be held to account for their results.

A variation on the old focus on outputs. Yes, Petrilli acknowledges, a decent building and qualified teachers and libraries with books matter, but the school should turn out educated graduates. America has, apparently, some beautiful, safe schools that don't teach students much. "Those cannot be considered good schools, and their failure to meet their foremost educational mission must be made clear to parents and the community and addressed by public authorities."

Okay. I'm curious where the people are who are staunch supporters of pretty schools where nobody learns, but okay. And "addressed" is mighty vague. But sure-- who doesn't think that schools should teach students?

Our schools as a whole could be delivering much stronger results for all their students, but especially for disadvantaged children.

Again, who is this supposed to be different from. Despite the field of straw men built by the reformsters over the years, I don't know a single good educator who would say, "Yes, my school and I have reached the pinnacle, and there is nothing we need to improve." And public education advocates, community activists, and plain old parent have been screaming forever that schools that serve the poorest communities in our need to do more, and need the tools with which to do more. The reformster response has been "Throwing money at schools doesn't help" or "Let's turn that school over to amateurs to run" or "Well, we'll let a few kids out of there to go to a charter school, but the ones who are left will have to make do with less."

One size does not fit all, so we should embrace a pluralistic school system.

Sure. Show me a school district where only one size is offered. Show me a school system where elementary schools don't differentiate or the high school doesn't offer a variety of programs which students can choose from, or even change their mind about, without having to withdraw and re-enroll.  Come to my small corner of the world and see it in action.

But next we are on to the how of embracing these principles. First, standards, assessment and accountability:

Academic standards that aim for readiness in college, career, and citizenship.

Boy, we got over that "one size does not fit all" thing pretty quickly. I appreciate the "aim for" part here, because this is a target that will never, ever be hit. There is no such thing as a comprehensive list of skills and knowledge that certifies readiness for every college, every career, and every manner of citizenship. And in every year (because this will be a moving target). It doesn't exist. It will never exist. Anyone who claims to have found it is either selling something or full of shit or both. It is critical to remember that because the next item is

Regular, high-quality, aligned assessments.

Nothing that reformsters have accomplished has done more damage than the imposition of high takes testing. It's important to know that here Petrilli centers the purpose of testing as giving parents information and helping teachers direct their teaching, and not other old stand-bys like evaluating schools and teachers. The BS Tests we have are not very useful for any of these goals, and that's in part because they are bad tests, both narrow and shallow and generating little useful information for anyone. Is it theoretically possible to create good tests that would be, as Petrilli puts it, worth preparing students to do well on? Not if the goal is to measure readiness for any college or any career.

School ratings focused primarily—but not exclusively—on academic progress and outcomes.

Here we get close to one of the beliefs of education reformsters that Petrilli does not include in his essay, and that's the belief that markets and entrepreneurs can run a school system better than the government. Petrilli argues that these ratings are needed to create pressure on schools to do better, but if that were the sole purpose, we wouldn't need a wide ranging system-- just a locally-determined state of the school report. The point of a rating system is to make comparison easier, the better to drive competition in an open martketplace.

Strategies for intervening in, and/or replacing, chronically low-performing schools.  

All failed strategies. First, they fail because for all the talk about multiple measures for accountability, in most states it still just comes down to test scores. Second, they fail because "intervention" too often means "put some state-appointed person who has no more knowledge about what to do than the professionals in charge." Or sell off the pieces to a charter school. Actual assistance to the school district, such as more resources or engaging the schools and community, seems rare. And those who insist that the power of the market will sort things out absolutely refuse to see the massive problems that come from leaving students and families dangling when a school closes (especially mid year).

Are there strategies that could help struggling schools? Certainly, but we haven't seen much of them.

Next up: Educator quality.

That word. I know "educator" is relatively harmless, but every time a reformster uses it, all I hear is, "You know, we don't need actual teachers to run a school."

High standards for entry into the teaching profession, combined with flexible pathways by which to enter.

As I've often noted, I am not the person to ask to defend traditional teacher prep programs. But reformsters don't have much of an idea about what to do instead (I do-- just ask me). High standards to enter the profession? What does that mean, exactly. Petrilli says reformsters want teachers who "can demonstrate an ability to help students make progress over the course of the school year" and while I believe that's what some reeformsters want, it mostly just means "someone who can raise test scores" which is the saddest, most inadequate description of teaching I've ever encountered.

I get the urge for a clear-cut system based on solid hard evidence of which teachers and which teachers aren't, but you can't have it. It doesn't exist. It will never exist. Read every "this teacher changed my life" essay ever written. Good teaching is fuzzy and personal and unquantifiable, and that's before we even get to the problem that teacher quality varies day to day and student to student. So whatever system you come up with (particularly one based on test scores) will miss thousands of excellent teachers .

Petrilli says reformsters reject the notion that anybody can be a great teacher. True that. But an awful lot of flexible pathways sure seem to be based on the assumption that any warm body will, in fact, be just fine.

Feedback mechanisms to help teachers improve.

You know what one of ed reformsters biggest problem is-- this unending feeling that they have discovered things nobody has ever before thought of and want things that nobody else wants. Seriously. Find me someone who doesn't think this is a good idea. Implementing it? Sure-- that's been problematic. For instance, every single teacher accountability idea that reformsters have created works against this, not for it.

Compensation systems that recruit and retain strong teachers.

This is a reformster value? Really? I thought that ed reform was all about making it possible for the school CEO to be able to hire and fire at will. Most of reform has been consistently built on the notion that teachers are replaceable widgets that wear out after a few years and should be then replaced with shiny new widgets. Petrilli here makes the leap to saying that "recruit and retain" means offer big salary up front with little raises later, because when teachers get older and want to start a family, they get really excited about "You'll never have a decent sized raise again." Clearly the key to holding onto people once they're seasoned and experienced.

Next up: high quality charter schools.

State charter laws that enable high-quality, autonomous charter schools to flourish.

Nice word choice-- "enable to flourish." Because, unlike public schools, charters just need to be left alone to blossom and bloom forth in all their awesomeness. Get rid of regulations. Just enough oversight to incentivize good behavior.

I'm trying to remember if I've ever heard a reformster argue that a public school should be enabled to flourish.

Equitable funding.

I came across a Canadian charter advocate the other day ho was arguing that charters should be allowed because they could do more with less than the public schools. Kind of took me back to the days that US charter fans made that argument. Just remember-- more money for public schools is throwing money at schools, but more money for charters is investing and equitable.

And that's it??!! Seriously? This is all ed reform has to say it believes about charters? No paeans to the free market? No "competition drives improvement"? No thoughts about why charters should be privately owned and operated instead of part of the public system? I feel that Petrilli just accidentally erased a thousand words from this piece.

Next up: high school reform.

A high school diploma that means something.

Once again, please link me to the non-reformy people who do not believe this.

Post-secondary education that starts in high school.

Sure, high school should be the new college because middle school is the new high school because third grade is the new sixth grade because kindergarten is now the new second grade because pre-school should now be about academics and also, we've just about figured out how to use ultrasounds to beam worksheets in to the fetus.

Is there any reason to believe that human development has changed so that the brain now develops earlier and faster? Sure, there are individuals who can do more, sooner, and we should totally support them. But for some students, handling their high school education in high school will be plenty, thanks.

Career and technical education is about post-secondary education, too.

I don't disagree, but is this a widely held reformster policy idea?

Finally: odds and ends.

Petrilli dumps a bunch of odds and ends into his final paragraphs. More standards-aligned materials. Personalized [sic] learning. Improvement to grading practices (again, I'm not sure the whole reformy tribe signed off on this one). Petrilli also notes some areas of reformster disagreement, such as disciplinary issues and the voucher related issues of including religious schools at the public trough.

It is, when you step back and look at it, a pretty small agenda compared to the days when reformsters were going to completely rewrite the educational universe, but of course it skips some of the big issues, like stripping power from elected school boards and turning the public enterprise of education over to private operators (and smashing teacher unions and the profession itself as a way to clear the path). But hey, the Status Quo Privatization Movement is still evolving from its roots in education reforminess; I'm sure they'll sort this all out.

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