Education Opinion

Favorite Posts of 2012: Deepening the Dialogue

By Anthony Cody — December 23, 2012 12 min read
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This has been a remarkable year for education. What was previously a one-sided conversation about education reform has signs of becoming a dialogue in which teachers are heard. The sleeping giant is waking up, as was seen in Chicago in September, when grassroots organizing paid off as teachers there were able to win their strike. Voters began to wake up as well, as we saw arch-reformer Tony Bennett defeated in the state of Indiana by a National Board certified teacher, Glenda Ritz. Once again, it was a grassroots coalition of parents and teachers that led her to victory. And in the closing days of the year, the actions of the educators at Sandy Hook belied the negative portrayal teachers have recently endured. We have a long way to go on the road to better public schools, but we have some clear models to follow, and we are gathering the strength to be heard.

This year has also been a productive one here at Living in Dialogue. With the help of more than a dozen guest bloggers, we have posted about 175 entries. The ten-part dialogue with the Gates Foundation generated lively discussions of the core issues of education reform. As the year draws to a close I offer my favorite dozen posts from 2012, with short excerpts from each.

Number 12: ALEC Reports on the War on Teachers

As state after state rewrites their education laws in line with the mandates from Race to the Top and the NCLB waiver process, the teaching profession is being redefined. Teachers will now pay the price - be declared successes or failures, depending on the rise or fall of their students’ test scores. Under NCLB it was schools that were declared failures. In states being granted waivers to NCLB, it is teachers who will be subjected to this ignominy. Of course we will still be required to label the bottom 5% of our schools as failures, but if the Department of Education has its way, soon every single teacher in the profession will be at risk for the label.

This revelation came to me as I read the Score Card on Education prepared by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), authored by Dr. Matthew Ladner and Dan Lips. This is a remarkable document. It provides their report on where each of the states stands on the education “reform” that has become the hallmark of corporate philanthropies, the Obama administration and governors across the nation.

It seems that ALEC considers itself engaged in a battle of epic proportions, yet many teachers are too busy working to even realize that their profession is being redefined in state after state. I would offer another quote from Winston Churchill:

One ought never to turn one's back on a threatened danger and try to run away from it. If you do that, you will double the danger. But if you meet it promptly and without flinching, you will reduce the danger by half.

Number 11: At the Department of Education, Warm Snow Falls Up

In his speech launching the (RESPECT) project last week, Secretary Duncan laid out what he feels are the problems afflicting the teaching profession.

The Department has solutions to each of these problems - but they often have pursued policies that actually make things worse. Here are the problems, and the solutions the Department of Ed has offered -- many of which are mandatory if states wish to qualify for Race to the Top or escape the ravages of NCLB.

The crazy-making thing about all this is that teachers are not stupid. We know when we are being systematically disrespected. We know that in order to have a career in teaching, we need some degree of security. We cannot survive if our jobs depend on constantly rising test scores. The supposed “bargain” we have been given is one that makes our work, especially those of us in high poverty schools, all about test scores. The Department of Education is attempting to create a reality distortion field, where we will somehow believe the spin, mistake all these new mandates for “flexibility,” and miss the fact that all these terrible test-scored-driven policies being introduced across the nation are driven by their policies.

Bad news, Homer. We are not in opposite land. Here in the USA, cold snow falls down, and test scores are indeed a sword hanging over our heads. And the agency most responsible for this is the US Department of Education. Real respect is all about being forthright and truthful. We will know it when we hear it.

Number 10: Sorry Mr. Press Secretary, Multiple Measures are not Fairy Dust

Beyond this, what are the problems with using test scores or VAM ratings as one of a number of indicators of teacher performance?

Value Added Methods are not rendered reliable when they are combined with other measurement methods. We have solid evidence of the problems associated with VAM - which exist with the use of raw scores as well.

You can see from this list that the Miss America contest also uses “multiple measures.” Fully 65% of a contestant’s score is derived from talent and interviews, and only 35% depends on appearance! Does this mean looks don’t matter? Hardly! Just as a certain sort of physical beauty permeates this contest, test scores permeate the measures that are now being used for teacher evaluations.

The teachers of the United States have been entered in a very ugly sort of contest, where there will be few winners and many losers. The biggest losers will be our students, who will find that contrary to the bland reassurances of our highest officials, basing 40% of a teacher’s evaluation on test scores will indeed promote teaching to the test. It will indeed make teachers reluctant to work with English language learners and Special Ed students. And it will drive good teachers out of the profession, exacerbating the already high turnover rate in the schools that are in the greatest need of stability.

Number 9: Is Seniority for Teachers Bad for Students?

There is a reason that states (and nations like Finland) with strong teacher unions tend to have better education systems. When we invest in schools, and give teachers a sense that their experience and expertise is honored, that they will have academic freedom and autonomy in the classroom, they are happier with their work. They stick with it, and are driven, not by a fear that their students’ scores will be low resulting in the loss of pay or job security. They are driven by their passion to inspire their students with new challenges, to create outstanding work, to investigate the world around them in new ways. This sort of teaching is not the product of some perfectly aligned testing and evaluation system. It is the product of the passion for teaching and learning that drew so many of us to work with children in the first place.

Number 8: Flipping the Script on Turnarounds: Why not Retain Teachers Instead of Firing Them?

Most of our efforts to turn around low-performing schools assume there is little of value in place at these schools, in terms of the teachers, administrators, and school culture. Thus there is no consideration given to what is lost when teachers or administrators are replaced. The research on the negative effects of staff turnover is a huge clue that we have missed something very important here.
I believe the Department of Education has made a fundamental error with its turnaround strategies, and we ought to turn them upside down. Instead of policies that call for the firing of teachers, we are likely to gain much more by creating schools capable of supporting, developing and retaining them. Of course there will still be individual teachers who need to be ousted, but this should be the job of an effective principal. Our overall strategy will be far more successful when we make it our challenge to keep our teachers and help them grow.

Number 7: The Common Core: The Technocrats Re-engineer Learning

Standards equal standardization, and, in my mind, standardization and centralized control are the objectives of the technocrats, and these are the biggest villains of all. The stakes attached to tests are the tools of coercion, by which teachers and students will be rewarded or punished for the extent to which they comply. But in the big picture, the final objective is not tests, but uniformity, and adherence to a centrally conceived and approved version of truth. I think the Common Core is the vehicle for this technocratic vision, and it should be firmly opposed for this reason.

Number 6: Payola Policy: NCTQ Prepares its Hit on Schools of Education

The NCTQ receives funding from dozens of foundations, such as the Broad Fund. And the work of NCTQ continues to seek to reshape schools of education. Their current project is to “evaluate” all 180 schools of education in the country. In advance of this evaluation, they have released a report titled: “What teacher preparation programs teach about K-12 assessment.” The report highlights as models districts that have won the Broad Prize, such as Charlotte-Mecklenburg:

All educators in CMS are trained in Data Wise, a structured system to improve instructional and organizational practices based on data, and every school has a data team. Teachers, administrators and coaches can access a wide variety of learning data on the district's online learning portal, which gives them the capacity to meaningfully track student performance and adapt quickly to learning difficulties.

The reports states:

It is fair to say that the school districts in the nation that do the best in the face of the challenge of educating disadvantaged students have become obsessive about using data to drive instruction.

Our schools of education ought to be in a position to think clearly and freely about the challenges our schools face. They are certainly not perfect, but their ability to take an independent stance on education policies and practices is crucial for us to avoid a complete groupthink. But this sort of ideological unanimity in support of “obsession over data” is what our education “reformers” apparently want, and the foundations driving the corporate reform agenda will do what it takes to get it.

Number 5: Technocratic Groupthink Inflates the Testing Bubble

The trouble with Groupthink, as Janis points out, is that it can be disastrously wrong. Once we get swept up into this momentum, and more and more of our values and livelihoods hinge on this set of beliefs, it becomes harder and harder to break away. And with this particular set of ideas, we are, as a nation, building a huge technological infrastructure of curriculum, instructional tools, assessments and data systems, based on this absolute diehard belief that test performance will drive learning to new heights. Those of us who have voiced skepticism are called Luddites or worse.

What eventually happens in cases like this is that the systems collapse, because reality will not support the endless optimism of the believers. The bubble always bursts, sooner or later. The NCLB testing bubble should have burst several years ago, and probably would have done so had not the billionaire technocrats intervened with the Common Core testing bailout. Now it looks like we are in for a few more years of glorious predictions of the wonderful equitable outcomes the latest and greatest testing technology will deliver, until it doesn’t. But in the meantime, our public schools continue to be undermined, and resources continue to be diverted away from classrooms and into the testing/data infrastructure.

Number 4: Dialogue with the Gates Foundation: How do we Build the Teaching Profession?

We need to pursue the conditions necessary for solid reflective, collaborative cultures at schools. These are dynamic processes that rely on the leadership and inspiration of everyone involved. They require trust to be invested in our school leaders, who in turn need to trust their teachers to engage in this often open-ended work. Constant pressure to raise test scores and top-down mandates destroy this. These external pressures do not add coherence--they subtract it. Teachers need autonomy and time, and they need support, access to partners, the use of strong models of collaboration, and small class sizes so they are not overwhelmed every day. We need to strengthen, not eliminate due process, when we ask teachers to open their classroom practices to one another and reflect honestly about their practice.

Number 3: Dialogue with the Gates Foundation: Can Schools Defeat Poverty by Ignoring It?

In the name of reform, the Gates Foundation has wielded its political influence to effectively shift public funds, earmarked for the service of poor children, away from investment in those children’s direct education experience. Through the Race to the Top and NCLB waiver conditions, the US Department of Education has instead dedicated public resources to creating state and federal mandates for the Gates Foundation’s costly project -- making sure every aspect of our educational system is “driven by data.” The future public expenditures required by the transition to the Common Core, with its greatly expanded assessment systems, will further deplete resources available for classrooms.

History shows that the greatest closure of the achievement gap took place during the years that the US took concrete steps to economically and racially desegregate schools. But in the past two decades this has been reversed, and now segregation is greater than it has been since the 1950s. We hear the rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement, but the reality is a reversal of many of the gains of that era, and a dramatically widening gap between the rich and poor.

Number 2: Chicago Strike Lessons: Teacher Activists Explain How it Was Done

How did you build support from the community and parents?

Xian Barrett:

The key was to start by listening, rather than talking about what we want. We built relationships by listening. To understand conditions students were learning in and what changes parents wanted and identified issues we could collaborate on. The most obvious one was school closings. Nobody was in favor of the closings, but groups were fragmented. Over four years we built movement that started out as pushback vs school closings, but turned into a rich conversation about what good, equitable education is. It is very important that we focus not only on what is wrong with corporate reform and school closures, but also on the positive side, what do parents and kids want out of their schools.

Adam Heenen shared how this support was maintained during the strike:

We relied on social media and pamphlets to help inform them of what we were doing and why. The parents have our back. We first leafleted last spring at the report-card pick-up day. Over the summer we went door-to-door asking for signatures to get a referendum on the ballot to be able to elect our school board. On Thursday of the picket we spent 3 hrs going door-to-door in our communities as striking union teachers, but also as neighbors, voters, parents, and taxpayers.

Number 1: The Dialogue with the Gates Foundation: What Happens When Profits Drive Reform?

Choice in education is an illusion. In some cases it allows a lucky few access to a better school. But those seeking profit rarely want a level playing field - they seek whatever advantages they can get, and often that means leaving behind the special education student and the English learner.

As a parent, I was not only concerned about my own sons. I wanted the best education possible for all the children of our community. The public schools were a legacy handed to us by generations before that built them. It is our challenge to rebuild them into places that fulfill that now tarnished ideal, to educate everyone well. It is critically important that institutions such as our schools be driven not by decisions based on what is most profitable, but instead by our interest in the common good, and by our commitment to providing excellent opportunities for every child, even when this is unprofitable.

In the process by which decisions are being made about our schools, private companies with a vested interest in advancing profitable solutions have become ever more influential. The Gates Foundation has tied the future of American education to the capacity of the marketplace to raise all boats, but the poor are being left in leaky dinghies.

Neither the scourge of high stakes tests nor the false choices offered by charter schools, real or virtual, will serve to improve our schools. Solutions are to be found in rebuilding our local schools, recommitting to the social compact that says, in this community we care for all our children, and we do not leave their fate to chance, to a lottery for scarce slots. We have the wealth in this nation to give every child a high quality education, if that is what we decide to do. With the money we spent on the Bush tax cuts for millionaires in one month we could hire 72,000 more teachers for a year. It is all about our priorities.

What was your favorite education story of the year?

Continue the dialogue with me on Twitter at @AnthonyCody

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.