Assessment Opinion

Will the REAL Education Reformers Stand Up?

By Anthony Cody — September 20, 2010 3 min read
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I wrote a column a couple of days ago that suggested that Education Reform has jumped the shark. Parent activist Leonie Haimson challenged me, saying

...please don't buy into their description of themselves as the education "reformers." Call them the billionaire's boys club, the privateers, the hedge hogs, or the corporatists; because we, or at least I, believe strongly in a separate set of reforms that would be far more effective and would improve our public schools.

Richard Kahlenberg writes in a similar vein,

All sorts of people are interested in education reform - very few are content with the status quo. Yet in the press, only those who embrace a particular type of reform get the label. To be a "reformer" you have to embrace ideas that teachers and their unions don't like - ideas such as non-unionized charter schools and teacher pay based on test scores.
Consider, for example, a recent article in the New York Times depicting the battle in three New York state Senate primary races. On the one hand were hedge fund managers and supporters of non-unionized charter schools who were identified as favoring "education reform" on four occasions, "school reform" on another, and simply "reform" on yet another. Opponents of charter schools were never given that label, even though teacher unions and others who don't think the track record of charter schools is very good in fact favor lots of reforms - such as teacher peer review to weed out bad educators; rigorous national standards; expanded pre-K programs; reducing economic and racial isolation in schools, and on and on.

Haimson and Kahlenberg are absolutely right. We need to challenge the very terms by which we are defined - and defamed. Language is powerful. Let’s start by reclaiming the term education reform for those who actually seek to improve the institution of democratic public education in our nation.

And while we are at it, let’s agree to reject some other labels.

How about “failing school”? Why should any school be labeled a failure? As Sabrina Stevens-Shupe so eloquently described here, this label has a way of triggering a cascade of events in a way that makes it a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Even “low-performing school” is a term that characterizes a complex place based on one set of dimensions - its test scores. Even struggling schools have dedicated staff and students that are doing their best, and may be performing quite well in other ways. All of that is hidden when we only speak of test scores.

And Monty Neill of FairTest suggests that Value Added be renamed “Valueless Addition,” since the information it provides is rarely of real value. He also suggests that “pay for test scores” is a more accurate descriptor of most “merit pay” plans.

In our current education reform debate, teachers that are “ineffective” are those who raise test scores at too slow a rate. These morph into the “bad teachers.” As the panel description on NBC’s Education Nation web site says, “Good Apples: How do we keep good teachers, throw out bad ones, and put a new shine on the profession?”

When the quality of teaching is reduced to test scores, hugely important dimensions of teaching are completely ignored. When I became National Board certified, I submitted a portfolio that showed my students’ work over time, videos of my students engaged in group discussions, and contained my own analysis of the strengths of my teaching, and areas I needed to work on improving. This included how students were conducting scientific inquiry, how they were debating ideas with one another, and how they were expressing their ideas in writing -- little of which would show up on a test. This is the kind of process we should have as the basis for teacher evaluation, not some hunt for bad apples based on test scores. And when the hunt for bad apples commences, teachers are likely to hide, rather than open themselves up to criticism, especially when it may be for factors beyond their direct control.

And how about our terms for students? I have heard teachers refer to students as my “below basics,” my “far below basics,” or even by the acronym, “fbb”. And some students - those that are able to lift our API scores if they just improve a little bit, are called “strategics,” because if WE are being strategic, we will make sure these kids get the most attention. We begin to define our students by the only dimension that counts, and use test language to describe them. Whatever other strengths and abilities they may have are masked by their test scores.

What do you think? Who has earned the title “education reformer”? Are there other terms we should reclaim or reject?

PS: If you ARE an education reformer, and would like to stand up and be heard, Teachers Letters to Obama will be holding our own Teachers’ Roundtable, “Stop Griping, Start Organizing,” on Tuesday, Sep. 28. Panelists will include Jesse Turner, who has just completed his walk from Connecticut to Washington to protest federal education policies, NEA vice president Lily Eskelson, Chris Janotta, founder of Million Teacher March, education advocate Angela Engel, and parent activist Leonie Hamson, of Class Size Mattersand a founding member of Parents Across America. The online event will take place on Tuesday, Sep. 28, from 8:30 to 10:30 Eastern, and 5:30 to 7:30 pm Pacific Time. Register here.

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.