Education reformers are making teaching less attractive

Dana Goldstein has a worthwhile article on Slate today about the widespread breakout of cheating in schools that have adopted high-stakes testing models. These evaluation models — which are championed by the newest crop of education reformers — are plagued by a long list of conceptual and empirical problems, some of which I have detailed in the past. One additional problem that I think deserves to be raised is the possible impact these testing-heavy approaches — and the rest of the reform agenda — have on the attractiveness of the teaching profession.

As a background, it is important to note that the education reform movement has almost exclusively implicated bad teachers and schools as the cause of the country’s educational problems. Gone in this new movement are the more typical considerations of the impacts that poverty and inequality have on student performance. In its place is the very American idea that a child’s background has nothing to do with their level of achievement, and that therefore there must be something fundamentally lacking in the teachers and schools that serve students who perform poorly.

If you thought this was true, then the most logical thing to do would be to make improvements to schools and find ways to attract quality teachers. Even if you did not think it was true, attracting good teachers is still a worthwhile goal if only for the marginal impacts they are bound to have on at least some of the students. Given that the new reform movement is premised on the idea that we need better teachers, you would think that reformers would be doing all that they could to make the profession more attractive. However, what they are actually doing is the exact opposite.

Take high-stakes testing for example. I think it is safe to say that most individuals considering a teaching career are going to be turned off by a profession that forces them to narrowly teach to a limited test that then takes up their instruction time to administer. More than that, the high-stakes testing strategy is usually coupled with some sort of merit-based pay that is connected to student test scores. In this system, every few years a teacher might receive anything from a $25,000 bonus to a pink slip depending on the performance of their students which is at least partially if not primarily outside of their control. I can not speak for anyone else, but income and job instability is not what I usually look for when considering careers.

In addition to high-stakes testing, the movement also has a strange obsession with demonizing unions. If you were to listen to Michelle Rhee or watch the documentary Waiting for Superman, you would think that teacher unions were plaguing school systems and must be destroyed. In fact, one of the arguments often mentioned in favor of charter schools is that they are unencumbered by those awful union contracts. Like high-stakes testing, I am not exactly sure how attacking the collective bargaining agents of teachers is supposed to make the profession attractive to prospective teachers. Given the willingness of states to cut teacher salaries any time they are having a crunch, the last thing I would want to do is enter into a profession in which I had no protection against arbitrary policy whims.

Finally, the whole teacher-blaming focus of the reform movement is toxic. Teach for America, the darling program of the movement, is a complete slap in the fact to the teaching profession in that it suggests that green college students could do better than experienced instructors. Additionally, the almost exclusive focus on teachers as being to blame or praise for a students achievement level sets the profession up to be one of perpetual abuse. What do you expect to happen when inevitably a student performs poorly and the reformers are claiming that it is exclusively or primarily the teacher’s fault? Verbal abuse from parents and principles, that’s what.

Given the necessity of attracting high quality job candidates within the framework of teacher-focused reform, it is totally baffling that the reformers endorse so many remedies that are hostile to those in the profession. If attracting high quality teachers is already difficult, making the profession more rigid, more unstable, and more abusive is going to make it nearly impossible. How the reformers expect to fix the problem of bad teachers by making the whole profession less attractive is beyond me.

Teacher-blaming education reform efforts continue in DC

The Washington D.C. school system fired 206 teachers Friday in the latest installment of the teacher-blaming reform efforts implemented by the now disgraced former chancellor of the school system, Michelle Rhee. According to the Washington Post, the 206 teachers were let go because they scored poorly on the IMPACT evaluation system that now dictates much of the District’s personnel decisions.

It was also revealed that 663 teachers scored very highly on the evaluation system which qualified them for high bonus payments of up to $25,000. This piece of the DC system was highlighted by Matthew Yglesias, who then remarked that the “idea that it’s somehow ‘anti-teacher’ to want to identify and compensate the best people in the system is bizarre.”

This ignorance-fueled dismissal of the substantive criticisms of the new, teacher-focused brand of education reform has sadly become common. Instead of engaging the critics of the present reform movement, proponents of it — especially those with technocratic leanings like Yglesias — just disregard the critiques as foolish and bizarre. When critics are not being depicted as laughably off-base, they are often decried as being apologists for greedy union teachers who obviously do not care if their students learn or not.

The reality of course is much different than that. If you were to only read the perspectives and polished public relations pieces of the education reformers, you would think that those opposing these reforms were grasping at straws to fight against a movement with overwhelming evidence and reason on its side. However, the actual case is the exact opposite of that: it is the education reformers who are desperately trying to cling to their position in the face of decisive evidence to the contrary.

For example, consider standardized testing as a means to measure teacher performance, this the dominant feature of the Rhee reforms in DC. Using standardized tests in this way runs into a litany of problems that reform proponents cannot explain away no matter how many times they flippantly ignore them.

The first problem is that it remains debatable what standardized tests actually measure. On the most fundamental level, it is not clear that standardized tests are precisely measuring anything at all. In addition to the obvious objections that testing acumen might not line up with knowledge acquired, there are more subtle objections about the testing process itself. Not only is it narrow, but it also can be gamed in ways that increase scores for reasons other than learning. Test-taking strategies, which are apparently taught in DC schools, are able to boost scores just by teaching students to approach the test differently, something unrelated to knowledge acquired. That alone should indicate how unreliable testing is in capturing just how much someone has learned.

But even if we assume that standardized testing is an accurate reflection of how much a student has learned, that does nothing to tell us what role the teacher had in that learning. Reformers try to get around that problem by using “value-added methods” of evaluation which only measure how much a student has improved under a specific teacher, not what their overall proficiency is. But even this does not tell us what is actually accounting for the improvement or lack thereof. In fact, an Economic Policy Institute paper noted the following about value-added methods:

One study found that across five large urban districts, among teachers who were ranked in the top 20% of effectiveness in the first year, fewer than a third were in that top group the next year, and another third moved all the way down to the bottom 40%.

If value-added methods of evaluation truly reflected the impact teachers are having on their students, this kind of variability would be impossible. Clearly, something else is in play that is outside of the scope of teacher performance.

The final objection to standardized testing is that it distorts teacher incentives in a way that encourages narrowly teaching to the test. Placing high stakes on the testing results also encourages cheating on the tests, a reality that befell the DC school district after Rhee implemented her testing-focused reforms.

With all of these clear problems, it is bizarre that these testing-heavy approaches are getting so much play by Yglesias and those like him. What is especially alarming is those who cheer along the firing of hundreds of teachers based on testing scores which the evidence actually shows are significantly influenced by things outside of the teacher’s control.

That last bit — ignoring factors outside of the teacher’s control — is really what is most disappointing about this whole movement. It avoids the sticky problems of massive childhood poverty and social inequality which clearly have an enormously negative impact on the homes and lives of children who are affected by them. It is those children who do poorly in school, and the conditions of poverty that they have to fight against are not imposed on them by teachers, but by society at large.

This more recent reform movement has totally abandoned any discussion about improving the non-school conditions of these students which I would argue have a much more serious impact on their performance. Instead, they have decided to blame and praise teachers for student failures and successes despite the fact that teachers are not the only factor, and are arguably not even the predominant one. That is why this reform movement is anti-teacher, and there is nothing bizarre about labeling it as such.

NEA plays the least worst candidate game in Obama endorsement

The largest teachers’ union in the United States, the National Education Association, voted over the weekend to endorse President Obama’s 2012 reelection bid. This last year has proven perilous for teachers across the country as primarily Republican-led attacks have sought to strip them of their collective bargaining rights, and blame them for the budget shortfalls caused by the recession.

In addition to attacks on compensation and union rights, Republicans have long been on the forefront of an effort to privatize public schooling through the implementation of voucher programs. Given the attacks — both new and old — on public education and teachers from the Republicans, the 72 percent vote in favor of endorsing Obama comes as no surprise.

However, the vote was really one made out of desperation. Although Obama has not been leading a charge to cut the pay and union representation of teachers, he has consistently echoed support for charter schools and standardized testing. The teachers then had to choose between a Republican party that wants to cut their compensation, destroy their union, and get rid of public education altogether, or President Obama who endorses the failed charter school movement and standardized testing as a means to evaluate teacher performance.

Faced with this awful choice, the teachers had no option but to “pick the least evil” as middle school teacher Bertha Foley described it in today’s New York Times.

The charter school movement that Obama endorses has been an unmitigated disaster. Often premised on the claim that teacher unions are causing public schools to fail, these sometimes private, sometimes public, alternative schools have popped up across the country to solve our education woes. They have received enormous public relations boosts from sympathetic documentaries like Waiting for Superman, and are closely linked to other failed educational reform efforts like Teach for America.

Whatever one thinks about the teacher-blaming, school-blaming slant of the charter school movement, the data which indicates a widespread failure of charter schools speaks for itself. The Stanford Credo Study (pdf) on charter schools — the largest study of its kind — analyzed 70 percent of the charter schools in the country. It found that only 17 percent of charter schools perform better than their public school counterpart, with 37 percent performing worse, and 46 percent performing about the same. More than twice as many charter schools perform worse than their traditional counterpart than the number of schools that perform better.

Reliance on standardized testing has similar problems, and relies on unfounded premises that are equally weak. Although standardized testing evaluates something, it is less than clear what that something it evaluates is. Good or bad performance on a small set of questions is not broadly indicative of how much a person has learned.

The heavy emphasis on testing leads to narrow curriculum aimed at beating the test, and the heavy reliance on the scores to evaluate teachers is senseless and encourages cheating. Let us not forget the recent debacle of Michelle Rhee whose miraculous standardized test improvements as superintendent in the troubled Washington DC schools were revealed to have been a fraud.

Despite the obvious problems with these approaches to improvement, Obama keeps on pushing them as a way to better achievement outcomes. Blaming schools and teachers is a convenient way to pretend that the problem is being addressed. It also allows us to distract ourselves from the reality that poor performance in school is clearly driven — at least in part — by childhood poverty. Children who are forced to endure the conditions of poverty at home do not perform as well in school as those who are better off.

The NEA then is put in a precarious position where both major political parties have adopted inadequate policies that put them in the crosshairs. While I wont criticize the NEA for playing the least worst candidate game, there is something sad about the fact that they even have to.