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College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Are Corporate Education Reformers Like Young Earth Creationists?

By Anthony Cody — February 09, 2014 6 min read

Last week a commenter calling himself DrSpector posted a response to John Thompson’s essay about the Gates Foundation’s Imaginary World of School Reform. In part, DrSpector said this:

I think the rhee-formers are the equivalent of the so-called "creationists" and so-called "intelligent design" supporters - they believe what they believe and NO amount of evidence will EVER change their minds, no matter how incorrect and misguided they are.

This echoes a post I wrote last fall, “Is Education Reform a Faith-Based Belief System?

In the recent debate between science educator Bill Nye and creationist Ken Ham, perhaps the most dramatic moment was when an audience member asked what it would take to change their minds. Nye responded that he would change his mind if he were presented with new evidence. Ham, however, made it clear that his faith in the literal truth of the bible was impervious to evidence that might contradict the holy book. In the spirit of that debate, let’s take a look at the central points of belief for corporate education reform, and see what the evidence might tell us.

Reformer Belief Number One: Poverty can best be overcome by excellent schools, and this is proven by the exceptional schools that they highlight as examples of what can be done.

Evidence: It would be great if this were true, but these miracle schools almost always are revealed to be fairly ordinary when we look more closely. And the data shows that poverty exerts a strong downward pressure on student achievement. It is time to stop pretending that our schools can somehow repair the income gap.

Reformer Belief Number Two: Preparing larger numbers of children for college will significantly reduce poverty.

The belief carries within it the assumption that middle class jobs await those who graduate with college degrees.

The evidence? The main evidence cited to support this looks backwards, not forwards. Reformers present tables and charts showing earnings of people with varying levels of education, based on the past thirty years, and assume that this will continue into the future.

The reality? We are already in a world that is very different from the world of the previous 30 years. According to this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

...approximately 60 percent of the increase in the number of college graduates from 1992 to 2008 worked in jobs that the BLS considers relatively low skilled--occupations where many participants have only high school diplomas and often even less. Only a minority of the increment in our nation's stock of college graduates is filling jobs historically considered as requiring a bachelor's degree or more.

According to this report from the US Bureau of Labor Statistic, looking forward to 2018, only 23% of all job openings require a bachelor’s degree or more. About 67% require a high school degree OR LESS.

Reformer Belief Number Three: Paying teachers more for test scores will motivate them to teach “more effectively,” as defined by increased test scores.

Evidence: There is zero evidence that this will work. It has been tried and failed so many times and in so many variations, that we ought to have no doubt about its validity. In Nashville, teachers were offered bonuses as high as $15,000, and still there was zero effect. This study by Hout and Elliott is the most comprehensive to date and concludes these systems never have worked. Maybe teachers are already trying their best to teach?

Reformer Belief Number Four: There are large numbers of bad teachers out there, and, as Bill Gates suggested on Oprah a few years ago, if only we could get rid of them, student performance in the US would soar to the top of international rankings. This has yielded the current practice, mandated by Federal policy, that test scores carry significant weight in teacher evaluations. It also underlies the current effort to demolish due process and seniority through the Vergara lawsuit in California.

Evidence: You would think that a reform movement that holds data to be of such importance would have some before embarking on this colossal national experiment. But the evidence that student success is somehow predicted by differences in test scores is very weak. The main study cited, by Chetty, Rockoff and Friedman, is one that has not even been subject to peer review, and has been roundly debunked by Bruce Baker, among others.

The fundamental problem here is that student test data is hugely variable, and teachers are responsible for less than 15% of the variation between students. If you use this data to determine who should be fired (as the reformers insist be done), you will fire a great many good teachers, and subject all to intense pressure to teach to the test. Once again, there is no evidence this will help, and lots of evidence that this is causing harm.

Reformer Belief Number Five: Charter schools are beneficial. The reasons charters are preferred over traditional public schools is because they are free of the restrictions that “hamper innovation.” Things like union contracts that limit teacher hours and class sizes.

Charter schools tend to have high teacher turnover, but whose to say that’s a bad thing? It may be just fine, according to Wendy Kopp.

We need schools that “serve the strivers,” argues Michael Petrilli, in defending high suspension rates at Washington, DC, charter schools. Thus it is not a flaw, but a design principle, that some charters exclude students not “ready to learn.” Of course they land in the public schools.

Evidence: There are some charter schools that defy this “serve the striver” mentality, and actually recruit students who might otherwise drop out (such as this one in Albuquerque). But the sector as a whole has not delivered the results that one might expect given the supposed advantage from the freedom to hire great teachers and fire bad ones, and the ability to avoid some of the most challenging students. There is significant evidence that suggests that teacher turnover is very harmful for students, especially in low income schools.

Furthermore, when we look at that all-important data, we find that, in spite of their supposed advantages, charter schools as a whole do not have results that are much better than traditional public schools, and in many states are significantly worse.

In addition, charter schools seem to be furthering some decidedly unhelpful trends, such as an increase in economic and racial segregation.

Last fall, Bill Gates said “It would be great if our education stuff worked, but that we won’t know for probably a decade.” But we do not need to subject the children of our nation to another decade to know if their stuff works. The evidence is in, and it does not -- even if corporate reformers refuse to accept it.

Regarding evolution, there are powerful engines of misinformation at work. Christian fundamentalists have funded research and the Creation Museum, and political candidates willing to put their faith in a literal interpretation of the bible, in spite of the evidence. In education reform, there are similar engines of misinformation, sponsored “research” and advocacy paid for by the Gates, Walton and Broad Foundations. With powerful allies in the White House and Department of Education, these organizations have led our nation seriously astray. If we continue down this path, we risk the destruction of one of the greatest American inventions; universal public education.

When overwhelming evidence is defeated by the power of money in the policy arena, our only recourse is to rally the public through clear and compelling communication and action. Students, parents, teachers and administrators are gathering in Austin in a few weeks to organize this movement, called together by the Network for Public Education. (Disclosure: I am a co-founder of NPE and serve as its treasurer). Organizers of a national Opt Out are gathering in Denver at the end of March.

What do you think? Are corporate reformers impervious to evidence that contradicts their faith in their strategies?

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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.