Education “Reform” that Deforms

Teachers are on the “firing line” for everything from failure with students in impoverished neighborhoods, the decline of schools generally, and even the decline of the United States in the global economy.  A broad coalition of “education reform” actors, spanning the political spectrum and extending to the editorial pages of the mainstream media, has come to believe that ineffective teachers, protected by their unions, are responsible for the decline.  The “reformers” are determined to right the listing educational ship.

Joanne Barkan, in a compelling article, analyzes the powerful campaign that promotes such reform, the billionaires that fund it, and the anti-union bias that fuels it.  The implied logic of the coalition is clear: “If we can just get the right kinds of teachers, with the proper teaching strategy in union-free schools, all will be well with education and the U.S.”  Its reform strategy involves universal standardized testing and using student test results to evaluate teachers.  And, if the reformers have their way, teachers can be fired if their students do not raise their test scores to an acceptable level.

 The role of billionaire funders behind this reform movement has been critical.  The article specifically mentions the Gates Foundation and hedge fund managers.  My first blog post described the huge impact the Gates Foundation has had in support of the reform movement.  Two of my earlier posts have named other wealthy movers in it.

As for teacher unions, Barkan notes a “virulent anti-teacher-union ethos [that] pervades the ed reform movement” and that many coalition actors are “fundamentally anti-union.”   She then observes that the two main national teachers unions constitute 30% of all union members in the U.S.  Her analysis adds, “Crippling such a large portion of the labor movement will debilitate the rest.  It will also undermine the Democratic Party in elections.”

Her core argument (in my words) is this: the “reform movement,” as it is termed today, actually undermines and deforms public education.  It dramatically narrows the curriculum focus and pressures teachers to teach to the test.  Such pressure raises the temptation to cheat, as a NY Times article reported happened on a system-wide basis in Atlanta.  Standardized tests, Barkan points out, also fail to take into account that outside-of-school factors account for two-thirds of the variance in student achievement.  So, while good teachers are important, they are far from the only influence on test scores.

While reformers and their critics alike agree that education in the U.S. needs to be improved, the critical difference is how they go about it.  Basing her judgment on several reputable research sources, Barken concludes that the reformers’ strategy is fraught with serious flaws and is failing with teachers and students.  The tests, she indicates, are based on subjective judgments, are unable to produce dependable outcomes, and use arbitrary “proficiency level” cutoffs as indicators of student adequacy or failure.  Politicians, in turn, can further distort test results by raising or lowering the cutoff points to fit the image they want to project, as happened in New York City.

As a result, she observes, teachers are “misidentified” as good or bad and teaching staffs are demoralized.  Indeed, she argues, “With the zealots’ mix of certainty and fervor, ed reformers have made this a wretched time to be a public school teacher.”  Fewer people are pursuing studies to become teachers and undergraduate teacher preparation schools are declining or closing.

Given this education-distorting freight train of “reform” coming at us, is there an alternative that provides hope for the future of our children?  Barkan names a proven model for evaluating teachers and improving schools.  Called “Peer Assistance and Review” PAR involves district-wide panels of administrators and teachers, which select “Consulting Teachers” (CTs) to be released from teaching duties to observe and mentor new and underperforming teachers.  Parents and teacher unions are part of the process at every step.  Research results indicate that the PAR programs get strong support, once they are underway.

Stopping and transforming the freight train in its track will take major organizing and political effort.  Barkan puts it bluntly: “In order to rescue their children’s public schools…, parents will need to organize themselves in large numbers as allies of teachers.  There’s no other way to stop the damage being done.”

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