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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Thompson: It’s Not Just Teachers Who Need to Make Their Peace With Politics

By Rick Hess — June 09, 2014 5 min read
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I was struck by some of the feedback to last Thursday’s post on the whole “why can’t pols get out of schooling?” question. “Eduwonk” Andy Rotherham pithily noted I was just explaining “life in a liberal democracy.” He was right. I also found it intriguing that much of the response didn’t really map onto the usual “reformer” v. “anti-corporate” divide. (I take the whole thing a promising sing for The Cage-Busting Teacher.) Meanwhile, reform skeptic John Thompson continued our occasional, engaging, correspondence, penning a thoughtful missive that took the blog to heart while arguing that reformers ought be equally willing to make their peace with the ways of liberal democracy. His take is constructive and applies the insights usefully (though you’ll note parts that I obviously don’t buy), and I agreed to run it as a follow-up:

Although we don’t necessarily like hearing it from the sharp-penned Rick Hess, his “Why Can’t Politicians Get Out of Schooling?” is right on both of its points. “Public schools spend public dollars and hire public employees to serve the public’s children,” so “for better or worse, they’re going to be governed by public officials.” Secondly, talented educators have plenty of gripes about “dumb accountability systems, teacher evaluation schemes, and such.”

That is why teachers must explain how our educational civil war is rooted in high-stakes standardized testing. Were it not for that issue, we would have plenty to argue over, but none of our differences would be worth such a vicious fight.

Numerous reformers have confided with me about their growing concerns over bubble-in accountability. They know that testing has spun out of control. Often, they voice fears about conceding victory to teachers and unions. Equally often, I get a sincere request - what are the alternatives to attaching consequences to tests?

Test-driven reforms are like chemotherapy. They might produce some benefits but, kept up too long, they become poisonous. I urge vigilance regarding the inherent dangers of punitive policies. Even if “win-win” policies are slower and more incremental than some would like, we must be much more careful with measures that might produce gains for some students but that will harm others.

If a parent supports high-stakes tests for his children, I can’t complain. But, don’t impose them on others. If policymakers want to attach incentives to tests, such as awarding college credit for A.P. tests, that’s fine. They should shoulder the burden of proof, however, before attaching punitive consequences to tests.

Today’s controversy is Common Core. Fearing that teachers will not fully embrace the higher standards, primitive bubble-in testing is being replaced with much more rigorous exams. That might have been fine if stakes weren’t attached. But, many students must pass End of Instruction tests to graduate. Those exams were designed to be minimum competency tests. What legislator in his right mind would have risked a massive increase in the dropout rate by requiring college readiness graduation tests?

Let’s respect the spirit of democracy. If reformers want to require all students to pass college readiness tests in order to graduate, they should explicitly state their intention, draft legislation in an open process, and try to pass new graduation laws.

A similar respect for constitutional democracy should apply to value-added evaluations. Value-added was never a tool for improving schools, as much as a club to get the attention of teachers. Once union power was defeated, reformers could devise policies which they believed would help students. When reformers pushed value-added as a political weapon against educators who opposed their theories, that was an understandable mistake. That’s fine; its hardball politics. And, teachers can (and will) continue the struggle in court.

An evaluation, however, is supposed to evaluate an individual’s performance. It shouldn’t be an estimate of the individual’s performance. Because they can’t control for sorting and peer effects, value-added evaluations also are collective punishment of teachers for choosing to teach in schools where it is harder to meet test score targets.

Let’s reject the failed search for statistical proxies for “effectiveness” in teacher evaluations. It’s not hard to identify bad teaching. Hold educators accountable for what they do or don’t do. Fire bad teachers for their behavior and we’ll rid schools of “ineffective” teachers. Even better, we could adopt peer review evaluations (PAR) of what teachers actually do.

The fundamental accountability issue is whether we continue with data-driven governance or embrace data-informed accountability. Rather than hold schools accountable for formula-driven metrics, we could create an “Inspectorate” such as the British use for accountability. Impartial inspectors would analyze a school’s entire body of data in order to evaluate its effectiveness.

Rather than trust easily manipulated test numbers, we should invest in an evidence-based alternative like the Organizational Health Inventory. The OHI produces much more accurate, data-informed portraits of school cultures and they correlate well with test score results.

The most promising way to improve high-poverty schools would also provide the best accountability. We need full-service community schools. Let’s get our poorest students out of their buildings and into the full diversity of their communities. Let’s bring the full range of social and medical services into high-challenge schools. This would bring the eyes of the wider society into classrooms and hallways. The best accountability system would be schools that are so well integrated into the community that underperformance could not be hidden in buildings that are outside the social mainstream.

School reform must be a bottom-up process. Both sides must embrace the political process. We teachers have taken a beating over the last twelve years, but we’re fighting back. If reformers hope to improve schools, they also should be willing to accept defeat when the public doesn’t embrace their preferences and, perhaps, learn some lessons from the experience.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.