Education Reform? Great Plan!

With the official appointment of Hearst Magazines' Cathie Black as the new chancellor of NYC schools this past week (and, concurrently, Joel Klein's departure to NewsCorp, which just purchased the lion's share of educational software giant Wireless Generation), there's been plenty of discussion about the role that wealthy executives can or should play in the theater of public education.

Four days ago, Newsweek's Jonathan Alter added fuel to that fire in an interview with Bill Gates; in his hagiography of the Microsoft founder, Alter refers to education reformer and history professor Diane Ravitch as Gates' "chief adversary" in his quest for education reform, and Gates in turn lobs several questions Ravitch's way (which may or may not have been intended rhetorically) such as "Does she like the status quo?" and "Is she sticking up for decline?" On Monday, Ravitch responded to Gates' questions in the Washington Post's education blog "The Answer Sheet" -- she not only rips him a new one (to use an expression my students particularly favor), but alludes to some of the major problems that arise when school reform is spear-headed by those who have no educational experience.

In her response, Ravitch lambasts the number one tenet upon which many of Gates' and his peers' reform initiatives are based: that teacher quality is tied to and inferred from students' standardized test scores. Ravitch decries standardized testing in general, for narrowing the focus of curricula, penalizing creativity, and sucking up resources that could be spent on arts, music, and other non-tested courses of study. She also derides the "anti-teacher rhetoric" that is responsible for driving away good teachers and deterring new talent from entering the pool.

There are a couple of points I want to add to Dr. Ravitch's discussion. The first is about teacher assessment. Much is made of value-added analysis -- the statistical process that supposedly measures teacher quality based on student test scores -- because it seems to offer a precise way of judging if a teacher is "good" or "bad," thus allowing for bad teachers to be replaced and good teachers to be rewarded. There are tons of reasons why the accuracy of such a method is highly suspect (many of which are touched upon in Ravitch's response), but moreover, the emphasis on this method of evaluation belies a flawed understanding of what makes a successful educator as well as an unsuccessful one.

Reformers seem to think that apart from test-based evaluations there is no way to judge teacher efficacy, and this simply isn't true. Peer and professional observations of actual teaching, examining teachers proposed curricula and unit assessment projects, looking at student work, and in some cases, asking the opinions of students and parents, are all alternatives to evaluating solely based on test scores -- and, these measures offer the added benefit of a "real-time" gauge of teacher efficacy over the course of a longer term (as opposed to results from a one to two day exam are generally released long after the fact.) Yes, testing can be useful for gauging whether students are meeting certain academic goals -- but the idea that it is only way to evaluate teacher efficacy, or that without testing there is no way to hold teachers accountable for the quality of their work, is preposterous. Such one-track thinking is characteristic of business leaders who, without any background in education, cannot appreciate nuances of good teaching and are overly reliant on an unreliable model purely because it purports to be data-based.

The other problem, to which Dr. Ravitch alludes briefly, is the lack of emphasis on improving teacher quality. Most reform initiatives are focused on hunting down and removing bad teachers, but nary a word is said about improving passable or even good ones. Countries that are world leaders in education don't only pay the teachers higher salaries and instill a culture of respect for educators -- they also have serious government-funded teacher-training programs and continued meaningful professional development.

Here in the United States, professional development is widely regarded by teachers as a joke, and that's because it usually is: at both the school-based or region-based levels, courses are often led by instructors who have little to no more experience than the teachers they are supposedly "developing," and the content of these programs is usually ruled out within one to two years as ineffective. Even the courses required for teacher accreditation are fairly useless, in that they are largely steeped in impractical theory as opposed to tried and true methods of conveying material to students.

But none of the reform agendas proposed by Gates, Black, and their peers address either the need to devise alternate means of teacher evaluation or the importance of teacher development. And this is where the foolishness of having people uninvolved in education making large-scale policy decisions becomes evident. While the impulse to improve schools is laudable, in the absence of knowledge and experience at the foundation, even the best-intentioned measures end up being ineffective. When you know nothing about education, or more specifically, about what makes good teaching, education reform seems quite simple. Too bad that isn't the case.