From LIVING in DIAGLOGUE, Wednesday, December 17, 2014. See http://www.livingindialogue.
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Pillars of Reform Collapsing, Reformers Contemplate Defeat
[Accountability / Bill Gates / Charter schools / Common Core / Grassroots Activism / Standardized tests / Teach For Americ]
By Anthony Cody
There is growing evidence that the corporate-sponsored education reform project is on its last legs. The crazy patchwork of half-assed solutions on offer for the past decade have one by one failed to deliver, and one by one they are falling. Can the edifice survive once its pillars of support have crumbled?
Teach For America: This project had as its central premise the idea that what was wrong with the teaching profession was that not enough really smart people were becoming teachers. So we will recruit some high flyers and fill the gaps in high needs schools. And because these folks are sooo smart, they do not need the year or two of preparation that regular old teachers needed - they could learn to crunch data, manage a class and prepare for tests in just five weeks. And if they leave after a couple of years, that's ok too. They can transform education as the next generation of leaders and policymakers, because they will have brains that classroom experience, and TFA's no excuses philosophy to guide them.
But this year TFA is hitting some serious headwinds. They are finding that recruitment has dropped for some reason, and the organization is even closing its New York training institute office. Perhaps students have been finding out some of the problems with the program, discovering in advance that five weeks is not adequate preparation for the challenge of teaching in a challenging school. Perhaps potential recruits have encountered TFA alums sharing their experiences, or even some of those organizing to resist the program. And word may have leaked out that TFA is not the best vehicle for those concerned with social justice - given that corps members are sometimes being used to replace veteran teachers.
Charter schools: We were told that charter schools were where innovation was happening. Freed from the dual constraints of district management and union contracts, these schools were going to show the laggards in public schools how it should be done. Some even claimed to have "figured out" how to overcome the effects of poverty on student achievement. So the billionaire geniuses of corporate reform insisted that all barriers and regulations on charters be removed or minimized. This requirement was written into Race to the Top and NCLB waivers. Want federal money? Better open the door for charter schools. Want special grants from the Gates Foundation? Open the doors to charters in your district.
But now charter proponents admit they have no secret sauce beyond excluding students who are difficult or expensive to educate. Their plan is to "serve the strivers," and let the rest flounder in an ever-more-burdened public system. The states where regulations are weakest, like Ohio, have charters that perform worse than the public schools, and even the self-described fan of free-markets, Margaret Raymond, lead researcher at CREDO, recently concluded that using market choice to improve schools has failed. In the state of Washington, where Bill Gates and other reform titans spent millions to pass a law allowing charter schools there, the first charter school to open is struggling to stay afloat, having suffered massive staff turnover in its first year. How ironic that 13 years after the corporate reformers labeled their flagship of reform "No Child Left Behind," that now their leaders are left defending leaving behind the very children they claimed their project would save.
New and Improved Standards and Tests: Since 2010 we have heard that the answer to the terrible impact of No Child Left Behind was to create better tests, aligned with the new Common Core standards. Modern technology would allow the tests to be taken on computers, which would cleverly adjust themselves to students' ability levels. These would be tests worth teaching to. Now the tests have arrived, and there are three huge problems. First, the tests themselves are confusing and unworkable, leading a growing number of states to reject them. Second, the tests require a huge investment in technology, since they must be taken online on computers. Third, when students take these tests, proficiency rates are plummeting, leading many to question their legitimacy. How can a test that labels upwards of 80% of students of color below proficient be considered a tool for advancing their civil rights? And when these tests are used to determine who receives a high school diploma, the results could be devastating. When a fourth grader can deliver a devastating statement like this, the Common Core tests cannot long survive.
The Pseudoscience of VAM for Teacher Evaluations: One of the central pillars of the Gates Foundation's dream for making standards and tests consequential to each and every teacher in the nation was the use of Value Added Models in teacher evaluations. As Peter Greene pointed out this week, this is one hill that Arne Duncan has staked out as one he will defend to the end - but the end may come nonetheless. The use of VAM to evaluate teachers has been roundly discredited and even disavowed by the American Statistical Association, and the National Association of Secondary School Principals. But Duncan now wants to use VAM to punish schools of education whose graduates are not sufficiently "effective" in raising test scores. This is one dead horse that Duncan needs to stop flogging.
Over at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute's Flypaper blog, there is some headscratching going on. Andy Smarick wrote last week of what he described as a return to homeostasis. In the world of the reformer, disruption and instability is to be created and celebrated. Homeostasis, that stable state that healthy organisms require to sustain health and vitality, is the enemy. He cites the exodus of reform-era state chiefs and their replacement by actual educators, and the dangers that annual testing - one of the bedrocks of test-driven accountability - may face when ESEA reauthorization comes up this year. Smarick concludes: "Homeostasis may be bringing this heady era of reform disequilibrium to an end."
It is perhaps a basic truth that it is easier to tear something down than to build something new. This may explain some of the trouble reformers are facing. Our schools are flawed in many ways, and do not deliver the sorts of opportunities we want all children to have access to. Racial and economic segregation, inequitable funding, and the replication of privilege are endemic - though truly addressing these issues will require change that goes far beyond the walls of our classrooms. Corporate-sponsored reformers have blamed the very institution of public education for these problems, and have set forth a set of alternatives and strategies to overcome social inequities. Here we are a decade into this project, and the alternative structures are collapsing, one by one.
We cannot pass laws that declare others "accountable" for making sure 100% of our children will be proficient and act as though we have accomplished something. It is time to go back to basic premises, and in every community, ask ourselves what we want from our schools? How can we meet the challenge of educating all our children - not leaving any behind? The answers will not come easily or cheaply. But just as a previous generation faced the challenge of the 20th century Civil Rights movement, our generation must respond.
Anthony Cody worked in the high poverty schools of Oakland, California, for 24 years, 18 of them as a middle school science teacher. He was one of the organizers of the Save Our Schools March in Washington, DC in 2011 and he is a founding member of The Network for Public Education. A graduate of UC Berkeley and San Jose State University, he now lives in Mendocino County, California.