Equity & Diversity Opinion

Belling the Cats of Corporate Education Reform in 2011

By Anthony Cody — December 31, 2011 2 min read
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This year, the gloves came off, as teachers faced unprecedented attacks on our right to collective bargaining, as well as continued attempts to tie our pay and job security to test scores. Some of these attacks were blatant, as in Wisconsin, but most were veiled behind a cloak of rhetoric about education reform. Today I want to review some of the posts that attempted to bell the corporate education reform cat.

I started the year taking on Eric Hanushek, the Hoover Institute economist whose theories inform Michele Rhee and Bill Gates. I wrote this, titled Battling the Bad Teacher Bogeyman:

Leaders like Hanushek systematically lead us away from real solutions that they have decided society is unwilling to contemplate. His views are guiding the education "reformers" - you will hear him cited by Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee and Arne Duncan. Reducing class size is too expensive. Likewise quality pre-school, libraries, dental care, health care, nutrition, etc. They actively ignore the many things along these lines that their chosen role model, Finland, has done. Simply offer a bonus for higher test scores, fire the bottom five percent, and you have the perfect combination of carrot and stick. And vilify anyone, especially our teachers' unions, that say this is not the best way to improve our schools, by accusing them of protecting bad teachers.

Later that month, I took a closer look at the platform advanced by Michelle Rhee’s new organization, in this post: Rhee’s Plan, Students (Test Scores) First!

It is bizarre to portray this as a way of elevating the teaching profession. Under the system Rhee describes, teachers will be subject to annual reviews based on their test scores, and if these scores are unsatisfactory, teachers can be dismissed. In the absence of due process protections, an administrator can use test data to "prove" that one is "ineffective" and that is the end of your career. As has been recently shown, the "value added" methods used for these purposes are highly unreliable, and are likely to result in many good teachers being mislabeled as ineffective.

I hardly needed to do much work to uncover what Jonah Edelman’s Stand For Children has been up to - he laid it all out for us in a video that should be closely viewed by anyone who doubts that advocates for corporate reform are actively coordinating their efforts. But I made sure my readers saw it, in this post, Jonah Edelman Reveals Corporate Education “Reform” at Work in Illinois.

A subsequent interview with Diane Ravitch about the Edelman video led to a request from the director of Teach Plus that we not judge her program so harshly. I offered her a chance to address my readers, but she failed to respond after I posted this critical look, Teach Plus, Astroturf in Indiana?

First, we have a heavily funded group bringing forward teachers to reinforce their policy perspective. This creates the appearance of widespread support for practices which are highly controversial within our profession.
Second, Teach Plus has embraced the practice of widespread staff firings as a wise strategy for school improvement. Experience and research do not show this to be effective. On the contrary, this takes our most challenged schools and subjects them to further trauma and disruption, to no good end.
Third, Teach Plus has attempted to create policy that would shield "promising young teachers" from the brunt of these firings. There is a great deal of evidence that teacher effectiveness, on a wide range of indicators - not just test scores - increases as teachers gain experience. Why should we embrace policies that favor "promising young teachers," many of whom may be interns who have only a two-year long commitment to the classroom, over more experienced teachers?
Fourth, the law that resulted from this lobbying by Stand For Children and Teach Plus mandates that test scores be a significant part of teacher evaluation, and does away with the professional advisory board that informs the legislature about these issues.

I carried quite a few stories related to Teach For America, including reviews of research, and commentaries from one former TFAer, and another, as well as coverage of concerns raised by civil rights groups over the concentration of poorly prepared teachers in high poverty schools. This last led to a post titled The Dialogue Heats Up over Teach For America, where I wrote:

Current education policy does not seem concerned about the issue of stability and retention, especially at our low performing schools. There is an attitude of disrespect towards teachers who work there, as if they are the reason for the low performance of their students, and thus we are better off with a situation that churns the staff. Many of the "solutions" the Department of Education mandates for chronically low performing schools require at least half of the staff to be fired or transferred. And most of the emphasis of our policies focuses on test scores. As I suggested in my post, there are many qualities of a good teacher that are not reflected in tests, that take years to develop. Designating interns with little training or experience as "highly qualified" seems to fit this pattern of disregarding the need to build stability at low performing schools as one of the conditions for improvement. And defenses of these practices that are based on the test scores these teachers achieve fail to recognize the other dimensions of good teaching that are not measured by these scores.

The granddaddy of many of these corporate reform efforts is, of course, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In September, they sponsored NBC’s Education Nation, and the Teacher Town Hall event was dominated by an interview with Melinda Gates herself. I wrote about what I saw in this post, Circular Reasoning at the Gates: Education Nation off to a Confusing Start:

In spite of all the billions they have spent, it appears that the Gates Foundation is laboring under the same logical fallacy that doomed No Child Left Behind. In a way which employs circular reasoning, they have defined great teaching as that which results in the most gains on end of year tests, and then spent millions of dollars identifying indicators of teaching that will yield the best scores.
The most deceptive strategy is how they then try to pretend that these indicators are "multiple measures" of good teaching. In fact, these are simply indicators of teaching practices associated with higher test scores. In spite of Mrs. Gates' feint at the opening of her response, everything she describes, all these things that supposedly go beyond test scores - peer observations, student perceptions - are only deemed valid insofar as they are correlated with higher test scores.

I tried to sketch out the role I see the Gates Foundation playing in this post, Bill Gates’ Big Play: How Much Can Money Buy in Education?

I described what I see as the Gates Foundation’s modus operandi:

Since the accountability devices in NCLB were clumsy and punitive, invent a host of new mechanisms to reward success as well as punish failure. As much a possible, target these interventions down to the level of the individual teacher and student, to ensure compliance. Redefine professionalism for teachers so that it no longer means you have autonomy and responsibility for your work. Instead, being professional means you get paid for your results, and are subject to termination if you fail to help your students achieve what the predictive models project they ought to. Since teachers have been firmly opposed to this, do not make test scores the only means by which their performance is measured. Call this one of "multiple measures." But make sure other elements that are measured also align with growth in test scores.

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, 2011 was the year that people began to awaken to the danger our public education faces. Let’s hope 2012 is the year we gather the strength to de-claw this cat for good!

How did your perceptions of the players in education “reform” change over the past year? What events or insights informed your understanding?

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.