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.