It’s been a busy week for education reform news. The first is from Michelle Rhee, who served as the chancellor of the Washington, D.C., schools for three years, a time marred by controversy, strife and a cheating scandal. She championed reform strategies currently in vogue, including an emphasis on standardized tests scores, and has gone on to found an advocacy group called StudentsFirst.
That group has just issued what it is calling a State Policy Report Card. Jeff Bryant, a marketing consultant and creative strategist for nonprofits, published a critique in the Washington Post, stating that “although the document talks a lot about the ‘Teaching Profession,’ there’s virtually no attention paid to what good teaching is or what good teachers actually do and how government leaders can support that work or get out of the way.”
Instead, the State Policy Report Card grades states on how well they echo 24 policies that Rhee’s group prefers. On a scale of A to F, no state received an A, and two-thirds were given Ds and Fs. Oddly enough, many of these policies seem unrelated to students at all. For example, states that have a defined benefit pension instead of a 401(k) contribution plan for teachers received a failing grade.
Bryant quotes school finance researcher Bruce Baker as saying that StudentsFirst “has their policy preferences, and they’re certainly entitled to that. They’ve built their entire rating system on their idea of what’s good policy. They’ve not tried to justify their policy preferences in any research basis on effectiveness or efficiency of these policy preferences, nor could they. There simply is no research basis to support the vast majority of their preferences.”
Bryant concludes, “For education, what leaders should have known for the past decade or more is that neglecting the inputs into the educational system – what our society is willing to invest in terms of money, materials, personnel and training – while pursing unproven policies based on ‘markets’ and ‘metrics’ is getting us nowhere. What we have with the StudentsFirst report card is the ultimate roadmap to nowhere, more ‘reform’ for reform’s sake, which stakes out more hoops and hurdles for schools, engineered by ‘belief tank’ operatives, justified by some spreadsheet calculations that look ‘objective,’ and wrapped-up in a slick PR campaign.”
The second big report that made the news this week also was released by a prominent proponent of school reform, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The result of three years and $45 million spent observing 3,000 teachers in seven different school systems, including Charlotte-Mecklenburg, the study, called Measures of Effective Teaching, attempts to create a tool to evaluate teachers.
According to Thomas J. Kane, at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the lead investigator on the project, the study started by identifying good teachers – that is, teachers whose students scored well on standardized tests – and followed them for at least one more school year. Good teachers, the assumption went, would be able to replicate their success from year to year.
Except that the study doesn’t deal with what makes a good teacher. It is based on a narrow definition of success – students scoring well on standardized tests – and a faulty premise, that high test scores are evidence of both student achievement and good teaching when they might not reflect either.
Enough research calls into question those assumptions, particularly with value added measures, that even the Gates Foundation strikes a warning against an overreliance on test scores in a teacher’s evaluation. It argues instead for including multiple observations from principals and peers and subjective evaluations from students. Too bad it cost so much money and time to come to the conclusion teachers have been saying all along.
Think about your own experience with good and great teachers. Your performance on standardized tests probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind if you are asked why you remember or value those teachers.
The teachers who taught me the most weren’t the ones I made the highest grades for – or even the ones I appreciated at the time. They cared about me enough to push me to learn, and they understood their subjects and knew how to teach them. Some were funny and exuberant and some were quiet and serious and some were more organized than others, but all shared a gift for making me believe that what they had to teach was worth my time to learn – so I did.
Nothing mysterious – but not something easily quantifiable, either, and you don’t need three years and millions of dollars to know that.
Guest columnist Kay McSpadden is a high school English teacher in York, S.C., and author of “Notes from a Classroom: Reflections on Teaching.” Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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