I’ve been watching school reform efforts for several years now, and I’m depressed.
Most of the organizations that have formed to improve our public schools are populated by wonderful, well-meaning people, and most of the men and women who have chosen to teach in those schools are caring, dedicated professionals. So you’d think they would all be talking to each other and working together to identify and eliminate the barriers to better schools.
Instead, they seem to be at war with each other.
Now, I understand that focusing on common goals has been made more difficult by the “take no prisoners” attitudes of ideologues like the departed-but-certainly-not-missed Tony Bennett, whose arrogance and autocratic tactics created a backlash of resentment among the teachers he regularly and unfairly bashed. (It shouldn’t surprise us when people who’ve been told they are overpaid and underperforming nitwits are unenthusiastic about collaborating with those who leveled the accusations.) But Bennett and his equally tone-deaf boss are gone, and the folks on the front lines–the teachers–need to help the real reformers understand what they need.
I haven’t been a high school teacher for nearly 50 years; neither do I have mastery of the reform literature. I’m just an interested observer who believes that public education is an immensely important public good, so you should take the following observations with the appropriate amount of salt.
Reformers are absolutely right to want teacher accountability. But teachers are absolutely right that high-stakes testing is not accountability.
Testing to figure out what kids know is a time-honored necessity; testing as a way to evaluate teacher performance is deeply problematic. For one thing, poor people move so frequently that turnover in many inner-city schools exceeds 100% during the school year, and the kids being tested at the end of the year aren’t the same kids who were tested at the beginning. Tests in such classrooms are meaningless.
Even in more stable environments, the current testing regime does significant damage–to students, who are being taught that there is always a “right” answer, and to teachers who are forced to focus their efforts on the subjects being tested and neglect other, equally important lessons. Furthermore, years of research demonstrate that more affluent kids test better for lots of reasons unrelated to the quality of classroom performance. If teachers are going to be evaluated and paid based upon test results, a lot of good teachers are going to leave the poorer schools that need them most and head for precincts where the students are better off and easier to teach. (And yes, I know the theory is that we are testing for improvement, not absolute knowledge, but that theory is too often just that–theoretical.)
Here’s a heretical thought: before we engage in programs to assess accountability, let’s see if we can achieve agreement on what we mean by “education” and “quality instruction.” In other words, let’s be sure we know what instructors are supposed to be accountable for.
Too many of the self-styled “reformers” (not all, but too many) equate education with job training and quality instruction with (easy to test) rote learning. For that matter, too many teachers agree with those definitions.
The people who genuinely want to improve public education–and there are a lot of them in both reform organizations and classrooms– start by tackling the hard questions: what do kids really, really need to know in order to function in 21st Century America? What skills are essential? What are the barriers to imparting that information and those skills? What additional resources do poorer kids need? How much money does it take to provide a good education, and how much does ignorance cost us?
Here’s how you can separate out the genuine education reformers from the ideologues and shills: real reformers understand the importance of public education’s civic mission. Because they understand the constitutive function of the public schools–because they understand that education is more than just another consumer good–they want to fix public education by working with teachers and parents and policymakers to make our public school systems work.
The genuine reformers aren’t the ones insisting that we privatize or abandon those schools.