The Drumbeat of the Educational “Reformers”

c132fcf3bdd01dfd9d99401b86204dbfc25eaa5853678a1a196e60e761618f21

I avoided reading the recent Time magazine article “Rotten Apples” by Haley Sweetland Edwards because I figured it would just make me angry.

It caught up with me, though, at a dentist’s office today as I waited for my daughter to have her braces tightened. I can’t say I was wrong about my reaction.

When published, with its dramatic cover photo of a gavel coming down toward a defenseless Red Delicious, the article ignited almost as much controversy as the legal decision it focused on.

That decision, Vergara v. California was the first success in a campaign waged by Silicon Valley millionaire David Welch, now tied in the popular imagination to the broader changes in education and the controversial Common Core movement. Welch used a PR firm and a team of lawyers to go after the current bugaboo in educational reform circles: Teachers themselves.

Based on recent research extolling teacher quality as the most powerful force in educational outcomes, a whole wave of new “reformers” is putting teachers in the metaphorical crosshairs. All too often, though, the conversations have not focused on helping teachers develop their talents and better master the minefield of the modern American classroom, but on how to get rid of bad teachers.

The problem, according to Welch, is tenure.

The data that Welch and his supporters use, of course, isn’t quite as conclusive as they would like people to believe. Teacher quality has a powerful effect, but that effect has not been found to be all powerful. A really good teacher vs. an awful one will still only swing outcomes in the neighborhood of 10% for students.

It’s not insignificant, of course, and the appeal to these “reformers” is that teacher quality—unlike socioeconomic disparity or other deeply rooted social factors that also have tremendous impact on educational performance—seems manageable.

These business leaders and market thinkers, in a stunning feat of sadly daft small-mindedness, have proposed purging low performing teachers (defined by the narrow rubric of student test performance, no less) as a simple solution to the problem of teacher quality.

This, obviously, has not gone without comment from teacher unions and other representatives of the profession. When the California ruling declaring teacher tenure unconstitutional came down, teachers’ groups immediately prepared for the next round in the court battle.

Welch says of the upcoming appeal of the Vergara decision, “I’m willing to fight that battle as long as I have to fight that battle.”

But what he and the other anti-tenure crusaders haven’t thought to ask is whether winning that battle will have any impact on the outcome of the war.

Teacher tenure was secured as a protection against arbitrary and politically motivated firings, a move to protect teachers as stalwart fixtures in culture’s self-propagation. One can imagine a wealth of theoretical reasons pro and con for the practice of granting tenure, but the practical reality must be acknowledged.

Yes, there are lousy teachers out there.

As a long-time teacher in Texas, I have known and been frustrated by the presence of many bad teachers over the years. This would seem to provide begrudging support for Welch’s argument, were it not for one simple fact.

Texas has no tenure system.

The Lone Star State’s example proves that Welch’s magic bullet to fix education will surely fail. In a profession that burns out more than half of new teachers within five years, having to keep bad teachers isn’t the problem—it’s keeping any teachers at all.

Conditions for teachers have grown progressively worse during the two decades that business-spirited “reformers” have held sway over the effort to “fix” our national school system. The nation’s schools have been locked in a constant feedback loop of constantly shifting testing standards constantly uncovering educational deficits, with well-paid corporations providing the damning evidence by scanning the Rorschach patterns in scantron bubbles with all the insight of tea leaf readings.

Despite more than a decade of testing-über-alles in the nation’s schools thanks to No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the movers and shakers of the data-driven instruction movement have precious little data to trumpet. It turns out that making schools obsess over state tests can improve state test scores, but nothing else.

Measures of academic excellence that correlate with real-world success like the SAT haven’t budged an inch, despite their superficial similarities to the bubble-riddled state exams.

The results people aren’t getting results, and yet those same people believe that they’ve found the scapegoat.

Well before the Vergara decision, teachers have been pushed for greater and greater “accountability,” a buzzword that has translated to more paperwork and more scrutiny for teachers. Educators across the nation—and particularly here in Texas—have been pushed for results through reviews, excruciating data analysis sessions, and trainings focused on assessment, assessment, assessment. Meanwhile, the Great Recession left budgets slashed, ratcheting up the pressure on teachers by forcing them to preside over larger classroom populations with less systemic support.

The turnover rate among new teachers entering this hostile climate is unsurprising and it’s the fatal flaw in Welch’s battleplan. Studies have found that teacher quality is also something that can be developed throughout a teacher’s career. Very few prodigies launch into the classroom and are immediately effective as practitioners. The evidence suggests that experience is vital, but even more interesting, it also shows that teachers can get better just by being assigned to better schools. Firing bad teachers might seem like a way to improve the environment in schools and hence reinforce this effect, but it would likely only lead to the revolving door for beginning teachers spinning even faster.

In short, Welch may get rid of the bad teachers, but where does he expect to find the good teachers to take their places?

To do that, we need an honest exploration of what makes for a good teacher.

That is where the wrongheadedness of Welch’s approach really reveals itself.

Time’s article characterizes the movement spearheaded by these Silicon Valley 1%’ers and the broader business-backed “reform” movement so entangled with for-profit educational firms like Pearson as, “built on private-sector management strategies.” The truth goes much deeper, though. These education “reformers,” from the common core folks to the NCLB backers a decade ago, all share one dismal trait in common: their view of education is entirely framed in economic terms.

One of the pieces of evidence brought into the Vergara case was a finding from a Harvard/Columbia study that found that bad teachers could affect a student’s lifetime income to the tune of $250,000.

Yet, these market thinkers never bother to consider what market incentives exist for teachers. The worsening bureaucratic realities for teachers under the Common Core and the testing movement are only part of the problem. With low standards, low pay, and withering social status, teaching lacks the very market value that the “reformers” use to appraise their impact on students.

Other nations—Finland, most notably—have successfully reformed their education systems without the help of wealthy moguls’ input. Professionalizing the teaching field and investing in teacher quality through education and incentives instead of taking a scythe to the existing workforce can pay more dividends than the results-oriented “reformers” have been able to accomplish with their push for accountability through testing.

For that, though, we must surrender their entire paradigm.

Education, after all, is not and should not be simply about economics. Children are not products to be brought up to code (though that is the chilling implication of the rhetoric and methodology of the “reformers”). The education system these standards-driven ideologues have designed is a sad parody of the Jeffersonian ideal which suffused the Founders’ vision for America, and it subtracts from the dignity of all the human beings caught up in its increasingly labyrinthine accountability machine.

If we infused fresh life into our education system by training and trusting a new generation of teachers vested in a humanistic and holistic approach to improving the minds and lives of our young people, then we might find that even some of the undesirable teachers Welch wants to expunge might rise to the occasion.

We can certainly afford to find out, since all the other changes under the business-minded “reformers” have already failed.

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: