Reform Is In The Air

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Mike Rose at Truthdig has noted that following the extensive and unprecedented federal reach of No Child Left Behind, the Obama administration is attempting to extend this iniative further by putting some some serious money behind a number of education initiatives that invite states and districts to compete for federal dollars. In the K-12 education world, they want, in part, to stimulate better state standards and tests, including the better measurement of teacher effectiveness, while turning around failing schools. One way they want to accomplish this is through an increase in the number of charter schools. At the same time, a third initiative wants to spark innovation and scale up the best of local academic programs.

As Mr. Rose acknowledges, this is a moment of real promise for American education, from kindergarten through college. But he also sounds a note of caution.

Reform is in the air. But within many of these reforms are the seeds of their undoing.

He pointed out that the Education Department has put a lot of stock in charter schools as “engines of innovation,” while noting, importantly, that DOE will not consider a state’s funding proposal if that state has a cap on charters.

Yet a number of research studies — the most recent from Stanford — demonstrate that charter schools, on average, are no better or worse than the regular public schools around them. To be sure, some charters are sites of fresh ideas and robust education, but so are magnet schools, and, lest we forget, so are our regular public schools, ones with strong leadership and a critical mass of good teachers. For the “reformers’” however, charter schools are the recipients of the highest accolades, the rest – not so much.

The Stanford University study shattered the myth of charter school superiority. According to Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, students at only 17 percent of charter schools do better on math and reading tests than their demographic peers in regular public schools. Thirty-seven percent do worse, while 46 percent of charter school kids, almost half, perform at approximately the same level as their traditional public school counterparts.

The author of the report concludes:

This study shows that we’ve got a 2-to-1 margin of bad charters to good charters.

The results are especially significant, given that charter schools have built-in advantages – starting with parents that are engaged enough in their children’s education to put them there, in the first place. Yet the actual outcomes, in most cases, fail to live up to the hype.

President Obama and his administration are committed to charter schools. In no small part this policy is driven by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who was a cheerleader for charters when he ran the Chicago school system, and has threatened to withhold federal education money from the 10 states that don’t yet have charter schools and the 26 other states that put limits on enrollment in charters. Such raw coercion, especially given the results of the Stanford study, seems strongly misguided. This comes in spite of the acknowledgement of the Stanford study on the part of Sec. Duncan, which, he suggests, merely points to the need for greater vigilance. “Charter authorizers need to do a better job of holding schools accountable.”

This administration has said that charter schools are key to educational “reform,” and provide “competition” for traditional schools. But that’s utter nonsense if the educational outcomes are no better, and in many cases worse, than in the regular public schools.

Speaking of “holding [charter] schools accountable,” one would of thought that that was a central argument for the need for charter schools in the first place, an institution free of those ill-principled and wretched teacher unions. Unionized teachers are blamed for much of the ills of education; it’s not a reasoned argument, but a matter of faith – and political prejudice. Charter schools are not private (at least not entirely, if you consider they are chartered by the state), but they are the privatizers’ foot in the door, a wedge issue to demonize unions. And that third leg of the reform movement, so to speak, measurement of teacher effectiveness, is also front and center (see the latest continued plea from the Wisconsin State Journal).

One approach being piloted in a number of education systems around the country is by the non-profit Hope Street Group, and developed by a team of teachers across the U.S., who have proposed recommendations for a smarter evaluation system, imploying more ‘objective’ measures of student achievement, ones that aim to attract and retain teachers, and put America’s schools back on top internationally.

“Policy 2.0: Using Open Innovation to Reform Teacher Evaluation Systems” suggests that in K-12 education, any teacher evaluation system should have the input of teachers and administrators and not solely come from researchers and policymakers. Their specific recommendations include the suggestion that evaluation systems should be frequently revised, that teaching advocates need to be involved in this process, and that any in-class observations for assessment must be done by teachers with sufficient experience.

Lets hope the coming “seeds of change” are not broadcasted, with great hope, onto marginal soil. There is too much at stake for education in this new century.

Robert Godfrey

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Filed under Accountability, AMPS, Arne Duncan, Best Practices, Gimme Some Truth, nclb, No Child Left Behind, Uncategorized, We Are Not Alone

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