The paradoxical world of education reform

[CC image credit: Brett Jordan | Flickr]
[CC image credit: Brett Jordan | Flickr]


I used to think that anyone who rose to a position of power and prominence in the world of education had to be smart, well-informed, and have significant teaching experience. The last few years of following the education reform debate, however, has disabused me of that notion. It seems as though so many of the people who hold positions of authority and prestige in the education sector (i.e., Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, Eva Moskowitz, Bill and Melinda Gates, David Coleman, Peter Cunningham) have had little to no actual experience in education before assuming leadership posts in the field. In fact, if you didn't know better, you'd think that a degree in education, teacher certification, or experience as a teacher were disqualifications for obtaining a leadership role in the profession. [wink wink...]


A stream of recent online conversations with a few well-known reformsters has also revealed an alarming lack of logic and common sense informing the understandings of these "leaders" with respect to what teachers do, how students learn, and how education works. I think of these "disconnects" as education reform paradoxes, and share a few of the more puzzling examples below:


  • Traditionally-prepared teachers need more student teaching experience, but TFA recruits are better with less student teaching experience


In a Twitter discussion with one prominent education reform communications guru, who happens to be a big supporter of Teach for America, the following accusation was made: "Most teachers feel unprepared on day one. Why not build more student teaching into the program?"


Almost immediately, an astute reader commented: "advocating for more student teaching, right after you claim a 5wk program [TFA]  is as good as a 5yr one [a traditional teacher preparation degree program]. Which is it?"


The communications guru responded: "both"


Now, you can be a fan of alternative pathways to certification, like TfA and The New Teacher Project. And you can believe that graduates of traditional teacher education programs (who spend 4 to 5 years studying their content area, pedagogy, learning theories, child development, and gaining experience in school classrooms working with actual students and practicing teachers) aren't as "good" as the graduates of elite colleges and universities (who didn't major in education and only get a few weeks of training before entering the classroom.)


But you can't claim that the former group would benefit from more experience in schools, while the latter group would not. Especially when the traditionally-prepared teachers have far more of this kind of experience already, and the alternative route recruits have so little.


Well, you can claim this paradox is true, I suppose...but no one should believe you, and your credibility on this point should be called into question.


  • Teachers are heroic saviors that save children’s lives, but they place their own self-interests above the needs of their students

In another Twitter conversation about the amount of difference in student learning attributable to in-school factors like teacher quality (which happens to be less than 10%, with out-of-school factors, like poverty, responsible for the bulk of these differences), the same guru responded with this comment:


"That implies teachers make little to no difference, which is absolutely not true. They save lives. They deserve the credit."


On first blush, this seems like an endorsement of the power of good teaching and the impact that excellent teachers can have on their students' lives. But if we dig just a bit deeper, this comment can be seen as playing into the "teacher as savior" narrative that is so popular in the reform community.


The truth is that teaching is not a "calling," like being a priest or a minister--it's a job, and a difficult one at that. Portraying teachers as "heroes" who "save lives" is a simplistic and disingenuous attempt on the part of the reformers at glorifying what teachers do without recognizing the challenges and difficulties that the reform agenda has created.


It has also been my experience that whenever a reformer waxes poetic about the power of "good" teachers, an attack is coming in the very next breath. And indeed, the guru followed up with this response:


"Teachers succeed despite profession, which does a poor job training, supporting and honoring them. I don't attack 'teachers.'"


Then, the coup de grace, stringing together a series of attacks:


"Most people coming out of ed school are unprepared to teach but you still have a job. We need accountability in higher ed."


"Not instead of, but 4 same reason we have civilian oversight of military. Self-interest must defer to public interest."


A reader responds:


"so there we go, we are back to the attack, the heinous assertion that teachers are self interested"


"the assertion also makes the assumption that teacher best interest and student best interest are in opposition"


The paradox here couldn't be more clear: toss out a faux compliment about how wonderful teachers are while simultaneously denigrating their preparation and readiness to do their jobs and inferring that teachers place their own "self-interest" (reformer code for "teachers union membership") above their interest in meeting their students' needs.


If this is how the reform crowd shows their "support" for teachers, I don't want any part of it.


  • The reformers insist that school choice will allow "poor kids to escape failing schools," but the evidence shows that school choice leads to more segregated schools and fewer options for black and Hispanic children

Perhaps the most important foundation of the reformers' creed is their devotion to competition and school choice as the levers that will solve all of the problems of public education. In some places this comes in the form of "schools of choice" initiatives, while in others we see it expressed in renewed calls for vouchers--now marketed under the misnomer, "education savings accounts."


In Michigan, where school choice has been the law of the land for several years, the results of this increased competition in the school sector have been a decidedly mixed bag:


The outcomes we can measure show it’s leading to increased segregation and increased burdens for districts,” said Gary Miron, a researcher and education professor at Western Michigan University who studies school choice data. “If we are talking about choice as a market tool and we apply it as a market tool, there’s going to be winners and losers. Mostly kids are losing and your public schools are being damaged.”


Of course, the reformers don't really care about the education of poor children--they see the lure of school choice and charter schools as the bait for parents frustrated by the systemic defunding of their local public schools, especially in urban centers, and who are desperate for any option that promises a better alternative.


And if there's one thing the charter industry does well, it's marketing their product. Consider the findings of a new study by Catherine DiMartino and Sarah Butler Jessen on the aggressive promotion tactics undertaken by some charter school management corporations:


Certain organizations have great resources and seemingly a greater institutional goal of making marketing a central piece. And there are good reasons for it if you’re, say, a new school of choice, or a charter management organization trying to create some kind of national identity with schools scattered across the country. But it’s completely unregulated at this point and completely inequitable as far as the degree of resources that certain organizations have to to get their message out there. It takes time too. What principal or teacher has the time to keep up a Twitter page? I can’t even keep up my own Twitter page. And then the more formal branding process takes real knowledge. Schools are hiring experts to create marketing campaigns that target a specific population, and help with branded imagery. It’s a whole new world and there’s an industry that has emerged around it.


So, if your goal is to improve the educational experience for students in urban schools, many of whom are Black and Hispanic, why would you pursue an agenda that contributes to increased segregation, while damaging the public schools these children attend, and instead of spending precious resources on classroom instruction, redirecting that money towards glitzy advertising and marketing campaigns? Another paradox of the reform agenda.


  • Teachers should be subjected to increased accountability because they are paid by the public but reformers, who support charter schools (which are funded via public tax revenues), aren't accountable to taxpayers and the public

The final paradox focuses on another one of the reformers favorite tropes: the need for accountability for teachers and schools. Never mind that public education is already one of the most accountable institutions in our society, and that teachers welcome and embrace accountability, building it in to their everyday practice in the form of assessment.


The reformers would have us believe that public school students are lazy and uninterested in learning, their teachers are "union thugs" trying to get away with working as little as possible, and our public schools are "money pits" run by corrupt staffers looking to line their pockets with taxpayer dollars.


Making matters worse, the reformers have only a single tool in their tool box to accomplish this goal: standardized test scores. For the corporate reform crowd, student test scores are the "gold standard," the coin of the realm, the ne plus ultra of accountability measures. These folks have never seen a standardized test they didn't think could unlock the secrets of the universe, and they are just not having any questions about silly notions of "validity," "reliability," or "appropriateness" of these tests.


But there's a different tune being sung when we ask the reformers how they are to be held accountable. Consider the following recent exchange of Twitter messages with a prominent reformer:


MR: "U seem very committed to "accountability", *****. how are U held accountable? Is it public? Do I get to "weigh in"?"


Reformer: "Isn't that what you are doing right now?"


MR: "Really? a Twitter convo is your accountability? then let's get rid of teacher eval and VAM. how silly..."




Reformer: "Plenty of evidence that 5-yr teacher is better than a 1-yr teacher. Less evidence that 20 is better than 10."


MR: "are you better at your job now than after 5 years of experience, *****? answer honestly...I know I am."


Reformer: "Getting better every day -- but if I wasn't I wouldn't have a job."


MR: "so you're it. good to know. i guess accountability is for the great unwashed, not the ruling classes..."


Reformer: "I was appointed by an elected president. Now I work in the non-profit sector. How do you want to hold me accountable?"


And there you have it. As a political appointee, now safely ensconced in the non-profit sector of the education "business," this high-level corporate reform official enjoys tremendous power, prestige, and protection.


He has the connections and access to play a major role in the development and implementation of public policy, but is insulated from any form of accountability that may result from the effects of his decisions on our children, teachers, and schools.


He has a virtually unlimited war chest with which to work, and a team of paid assistants and bloggers to do his bidding, quickly and forcefully attacking the attempts of anyone emboldened enough to push back against the reform mantra of competition, choice, and accountability.


The enterprise of public education is complicated and complex, and encompasses many issues on which reasonable persons may, and do, disagree.


But is it too much to ask that one's positions on these issues be based on logic, informed thought and study, and a sincere interest in helping children learn?


That shouldn't be a paradox for anyone.



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