Education Reform vs. education reform

The back and forth in the comments section of a Seattle Times story about Teachers United got me thinking about the difference between Education Reform and education reform. I don't know if I have written this out before, but I feel a need to write it out now.

The goals of many of the millionaire- and billionaire-funded Education Reform Organizations are focused on either reducing the cost of education (their taxes) or re-directing the money spent on education into their pockets. Improving opportunities or outcomes for students is not their real goal, it's only the rather transparent marketing they wrap around their actual intentions. These solutions are devised by people who don't have applicable experience in the classroom, don't have a real understanding of the work, and haven't considered the obvious unintended consequences of their proposals.

The primary cost of education is teaching, so Education Reform Organizations have put a lot of focus on reducing teacher pay or increasing teacher "productivity", which means reducing teacher payroll by increasing class sizes or replacing teachers with technology. The second of these serves the dual purpose of both reducing education costs and re-directing education funding to technology corporations. As you would expect, their teacher pay reduction efforts are opposed by the teachers' unions, so they have made the teachers' unions their enemies and are hard at work to erode the strength of the unions. They have worked very hard to make the teachers' unions the boogeyman in the eyes of business owners, legislators, and the electorate. In the case of the business owners and half of the electeds this wasn't hard. They know that the public loves teachers, so they have tried to create a fictional dichotomy between the teachers when they are in the classroom and those same teachers when they are in the union hall.

They have been extremely successful. They actually have some people thinking that teachers don't care about kids or education, that they are just in it for the money. This is so crazy that I sputter before I can respond. It astonishes me that anyone can say, out loud, that the very people who actually do the work of teaching children, the people who work at it full time, the people who dedicate their lives to it, somehow don't care about it. No one cares more. If there were someone who cared more, that person would also be doing the work and would be a teacher. And in it for the money? Right. I forgot about how everyone I know wished they were making teacher money. Ha! But even if it were true - which it isn't - what other workers do we criticize for doing it just for the money? When was the last time anyone said of a CEO, a manager, a factory worker or a carpenter, "Yeah, he's just doing it for the money. He doesn't really care about the business." The accusation makes no sense on any level, yet I read it and I hear it when Education Reformers accuse teachers of bringing up "adult issues" when, in fact, it is the Education Reformers who focus on the teachers' union and their contract terms.

Efforts to privatize education aren't limited to selling technological solutions. They also seek to privatize the ownership of schools, while keeping the costs public (charter schools). It is ironic that charter schools, originally devised to eliminate administrators, are now used to enrich administrators.

A number of their proposed reforms have been shown to be only mildly effective, some have been shown to be ineffective, and some of them have worked well for some students in some communities or when executed by extraordinarily talented, hard-working, or thoughtful people. Success or failure for students, however, isn't as important as success or failure for investors. Thanks to the wealthy backers, these proposals, regardless of quality, have funding for trials, funding to influence legislatures, funding to influence the electorate, funding to buy sections of the newspaper, and funding to influence school administrators. They flood the field with their money and wherever their money goes so does their influence. They create the illusion of consensus support by funding a chorus of organizations so their one voice sounds like eight. This funding and influence are put behind the efforts that advance the proposals of the Education Reformers that serve their money goals, not other proposals that serve students. People have good reason to be suspicious of the influence of big money in education reform. Let's not pretend that they don't.

These millionaires and billionaires and their hired guns are able to create the illusion that they are Education Reformers interested in helping students only because the system is so broken that any change looks like an improvement. Their messaging would work no matter how absurd the proposed solution. Let's have all of the students come to school wearing their socks inside out. Silly? You may think so, but "Studies show that test scores went up in over half of the schools that tried it. One school's test scores rose dramatically." That's a statistically typical distribution of change in test scores regardless of the introduction of a change.  "Little Susie (not her real name) went to school every day with her socks turned inside out and she went from being a D student to being a B student." Anecdotal and without any reason to attribute the change in socks with the change in outcomes. You can always find a student who made a dramatic improvement; it's another statistical likelihood with or without any change. When the statistical ineffectiveness of the change is pointed out they respond with: "Inside-out socks are not intended to be the whole solution, just one of the tools in the toolbox." We all love this one: "The people who oppose the sock plan are defenders of the status quo, and let's face it, we can't be satisfied with the status quo." "It's try the sock idea or do nothing, and we can't just do nothing." Now just replace socks with charter schools, value-added, standardized testing, data warehousing, a laptop for every student, or whatever reform the Education Reformers are promoting and it will all sound familiar.

The wealthy Education Reformers have enjoyed huge success in the private sector and want to apply their practices to schools, but they don't seem to understand the huge difference between the private sector and the public sector. In the private sector everything is driven and policed by the profit motive. It is so much a part of the landscape that it is like gravity; everything is designed to work with it and nothing works without it. Good workers are retained because they contribute to the bottom line. Good workers are rewarded because they contribute to the bottom line. Innovations that work are implemented because they contribute to the bottom line. As a worker, your objectively measurable revenue producing activity - and the possibility that it could be taken to the competition - is your protection against being fired capriciously or exploited. Good work builds market share which allows pricing power and increases revenues and margins. Expanded demand can be met with expanded supply and greater profits through volume production. All of these rules are set by the profit motive. The private sector also allows for tight quality control on the supplies used for production. The private company rejects sub-standard products from vendors. Both the products that corporations purchase and the products that corporations sell are highly standardized. They must fit detailed specifications or they are rejected.

But the profit motive doesn't exist in the public sector, so none of the rules they know, such as competition, will work. For all of the talk about schools competing, we know that instead of competition among schools for students, competing schools actually creates competition among students for the schools. We see it among elite colleges and even in the Education Reformer's own mythology like Waiting for Superman. That whole movie is about families competing for schools, not schools competing for students. A school with a capacity of 1600 can't expand to capture more market share and why should it? They have no incentive to do so. Cramming 2000 students into the school would only make conditions bad for everyone - students, teachers, administrators, and the community. So even in a choice scheme they will restrict their enrollment to 1600. Giving families the choice between School A and School B won't change the number of students who will attend each school, it will just re-arrange the students. Since there isn't any surplus school capacity, the whole idea of competing schools is false. It will not cause bad schools to go away. It will not reward good schools. Again, this is the public sector, not the private sector. There is no reward for gaining market share. Finally, since the bulk of student performance is determined by out-of-school factors, the whole idea of identifying "good" schools and "bad" schools by test scores is almost completely specious anyway.

Education Reformers don't appear to understand why a principal might want to get rid of an excellent teacher. They don't seem to understand that schools are not like the private sector where you keep good workers because they contribute to the bottom line. There is no bottom line in the public sector. All teachers, regardless of  the quality of their teaching, provide the exact same economic benefit to the school - they occupy 30 students. Giving principals more authority to fire teachers - without creating any increase in principal accountability - is a very, very bad idea. Principals will be dismissing teachers for a whole lot of capricious reasons. That's why we have teachers' unions in the first place - to counter that kind of abuse. Did these folks never wonder about why due process is so important to teachers? I'll tell you what I wonder. I wonder why so much focus on teacher "quality" and accountability and so little on principal "quality" and accountability? I wonder why is there no focus at all on central office or state administrator quality and accountability?

Students, like all human beings, are non-standardized. Public schools must provide universal service. They are not free to reject any student who does not meet their standards. They have to provide a free and appropriate public education to every student who walks through their doors. The schemes of Education Reformers appear ignorant of the realities of the lives of a significant portion of the children of this country who live in poverty or were raised by families with more urgent needs than promoting their children's education. Or they create schools that simply shed any non-conforming student. Charter school enrollment is lighter on students with disabilities, students living in poverty, and students who are English language learners. Some charter schools can expel students for any nonconformity.

The Education Reformers have a lot of "one size fits all" solutions. They have solutions for all students like Standards that all students must reach, standardized tests that all students must take, and standardized courses of study that all students must follow. This sort of standardization is typically of a managerial mindset that is accustomed to uniformity. It facilitates management. It makes it easy to assess performance. It doesn't actually improve education or help educators, it just makes management's job easier. Instead of actually having to visit a classroom and pay attention to what the teacher and the students are doing, the principal can come in and quickly check off whether they are on page 56 of the textbook as the pacing guide says they should be. Do they have the day's learning goals posted on the bulletin board? Easy objectively measurable outcomes suitable for a checklist so the principal's job is easier. Easy data points so the school administrator's job is easier. No messy personalities or subjective determinations to deal with. No recognition of the humanity of students or the art of teachers. Nope. That's not on the checklist.

The Education Reformers want to promote Teach for America and want to remove teachers' seniority privileges. They want to fire the more senior, higher paid teachers and have more junior, lower paid teachers. That's part of their effort to reduce payroll. Notice how often the villain in their melodramas are experienced teachers? These teachers often have leadership and mentoring roles in their schools, which could include union rep. What will it do to the teaching profession if we turn it into something that college graduates do for a few years before they start their "real" careers? Who would want to become a teacher if the job offers neither good pay, good benefits, the opportunity to earn more as your career progresses, nor job security? They say that they want to improve the teacher corps, but the only way they want to do it is by removing teachers, reducing the seniority of the corps (and therefore their salaries). Where is there any proposal from them to attract and retain teachers? Their merit pay lottery scheme is not credible.

The idea of ranking teachers annually and dismissing the bottom x% is equally foolish. First, it is well known that teachers are never as bad as they are when they first start teaching. So this system will likely result in the dismissal of all of the newest teachers every year. Almost no one will be able to get and keep a teaching job. Second, ranking systems based on student test scores are almost arbitrary. It will surely cause a narrowing of the curriculum to test subjects (if not test questions!) as teachers respond to the threat to their employment. Teachers will compete for the highest performing students. Principals can shed a teacher by stacking the class with challenging students.

Charter schools are no different from public schools, except they are freed from the bureaucracy of the district. If that's such a great idea, then why not free all public schools from district bureaucracy? Education Reformers actually promote close oversight and micro-management of public schools while they preach freedom from oversight and micro-management for charter schools. They are the ones who push Standards, standardized tests, standardization of instruction, and their own brand of accountability that requires expensive and byzantine bureaucratic oversight. Why the difference? They want to hobble the public schools while they free the charter schools to game the competition.

We must acknowledge that good ideas can come from anywhere. There's no doubt that some of the reforms promoted by the Education Reform Organizations actually work. In some cases they have bought (or co-opted) tools developed outside their efforts, like Khan Academy, and promote them along with their own ideas. They have successes they can point to. But if the primary determinants of student achievement are motivation, support, and preparation, why aren't those the primary focus of Education Reform's efforts to improve student achievement? Why are they obsessed, instead, with teacher contracts, school ownership and governance, and technology? That's a question with a "follow the money" answer.

None of this focus on teachers (as opposed to teaching) helps students succeed in schools. That's an important distinction. You can tell the Education Reformers because they talk about good teachers and bad teachers. The education reformers, on the other hand, talk about good teaching and bad teaching. The difference is one is talking about who the teachers are and the other is talking about what the teachers do. If you think a teacher is innately bad, then you wouldn't hesitate to fire them. If, however, you think the person is using ineffective methods that could be replaced by more effective methods, then you would invest in them rather than fire them. Do you care about who the teachers are or do you care about what they do?

I'd love to see a real discussion of what can be done to help students do better, but the politics make that difficult. As much as we might want to talk about how to identify and address each student's needs, we end up talking about money, power, and authority. Instead of talking about students, we end up talking about contracts. Instead of talking about communities, we end up talking about bargaining units. It's messed up, but the money controls the conversation and the Education Reformers control the money. Too bad, because the problems are not in the contracts and the solutions will not be found there.

The problem lies in deficits in student motivation, support, and preparation, and how the narrowly defined mission of the school does not give them license to address these deficits and tight budgets do not give them the funding to address these deficits.

There are other education reformers (lower case) who are focused on improving opportunities and outcomes for students. These often come from teachers, scientists, families, or other people with extensive knowledge and experience about how schools work, how children learn, or how communities operate. Some of their ideas cost money rather than save money, some of them are cost neutral. Regardless of their direct costs, almost any proposal that improves education saves money for society as a whole in a broader context. They are focused on the real determinants of student outcomes - student motivation, support, and preparation. They often focus on an adult having a strong, positive relationship with the student, knowing the student as an individual (rather than as a data point), and addressing the unique needs of that individual student. This is the post-industrial era, the time of mass-produced custom-made goods. We can have systems that support tailored solutions. Typically, however, these solutions generated from the bottom up have no funding and no influence with legislators, the electorate, or school administrators. They are often subjected to ridicule. Look at the reactionary response to the start time change proposal. Look at the reactionary response to school lunch programs or universal pre-school. These reforms are rarely tried beyond the efforts of individual teachers or schools. They are often done without the knowledge of administrators and, because they are operating below the radar and outside of the Standard Operating Procedure, they stay quiet about what they are doing. They don't have funding for self-promotion and many of them, if discovered, would be stopped.

Eleven schools were using enVision math materials, but only two of them had a waiver. Mercer's principal had gone radically off the reservation and assembled a committed, like-minded team to get the outcomes they delivered - all without the district's knowledge. Maple wildly outperformed expectations and the district was as surprised as anyone by their results. Every single school in the district is trying to evade notice by district officials because they know that any intervention by the district will be a negative. The district preaches standardization (mis-characterized as alignment) and fidelity of implementation (be on page 56 at 10:15am on October 3rd) when anyone who works with real children knows the folly of those values.

School administrators, by the way, should be identified as the primary obstacles to reform or innovation of any kind. Education Reform Organizations place the blame on teachers' unions because that's who has been opposing them, but it is the bureaucrats and administrators who actually control schools and oppose change, innovation, and reform. They are also the heart of the dysfunction in the system and the only possible defenders of the status quo. That's who is removed from a Charter school. That whole reform is nothing more than dropping the central district administration. I think the Education Reformers choose to make the teachers' union the villains instead of the administrators because their business experience has conditioned them to oppose unions, because it's the teachers who point out how and why their reforms won't work, it is teachers who oppose their efforts to reduce payroll, and because the Reformers identify with the management and executive classes and don't want people to expect accountability there.

Real education reforms speak to what matters. They mostly focus on the students and what they need to succeed. When they range into school governance they call for flatter district organizational structures and narrower missions for central administration. If central administration would stop trying to control the teaching and, instead, monitor the quality of it, they would help rather than hinder. The schools are doing the work of  teaching. The central administration should be taking the non-teaching duties off their desks and, with regard to teaching, they should only be providing support for the teachers and schools and quality assurance for the community. Instead, they meddle with the teachers and neglect the community.

Bad ideas can come from anywhere also. Some of the bottom-up education reform proposals are not cost-effective and some don't pan out. Proposals have to be judged on their merits and they have to be adjusted during trials to improve their effectiveness. We also have to bear in mind that none of these reform ideas exist in a vacuum. Some of them will work with one population but not with another, some will work in one community but not in another. They, too, will have consequences and be influenced by factors that appear outside of the effort.

There are some reforms that, like constructivist math, work well under laboratory conditions but prove ill-suited to the field. A gifted teacher working with a small class of prepared and motivated students can make constructivist math look genius. In a classroom led by an ordinary teacher with 30 students including 12 FRL students, 4 students with IEPs, and two students working beyond grade level and acting out from boredom, the program breaks down. Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) sounds wonderful, but can it ever really be implemented across all schools instead of just at the schools with highly motivated principals and teacher teams who are unanimously and completely onboard with it? It requires a great deal of student monitoring, flexibility, and just plain work.Will the district actually dedicate the necessary resources to it or will they leave teachers feeling under-prepared, over-burdened an abandoned? You know, like every other implementation the district has ever done.

This is one of the keys to the failure of top-down reforms. They never get buy-in from the people who have to implement them. So those people don't implement them, so the implementation fails. You would think that after a couple dozen implementations fail in exactly this way the leadership would figure it out and would put a lot of their focus on getting buy-in. You would be wrong. They are not interested in buy-in because it would require them to share authority - getting buy-in requires that you allow people to add their two cents. They would rather own a failure than share a success. This is only a part of why they are the greatest obstacles to reform.

It is easy to distinguish Education Reform and Education Reformers from education reform and people working to reform education. One serves the Reformers and the other serves the students and the community. The first are top-down, include the words "for all students", and are interested in teacher quality. The latter are bottom-up, include the words "for each student", and are interested in quality teaching. One gives more authority to the management and executive class without any accountability, the other empowers teachers and students. If these divisions seem stark as I have described them, it is because they are, in fact, that stark. Any analysis would reveal this divide.

So where does that put someone like Chris Eide and Teachers United? They are in the uncomfortable position of having one foot on the boat and one foot on the dock. If you have ever been there, you know that scenario doesn't end well. I love listening to him talk about his experience at Mercer and the valuable lessons he took from it. It was a great example of what can happen when the school community gets together and commits itself to addressing students' needs. To make that happen the principal needed the cooperation and additional effort from each member of the staff. Those who couldn't get with the program had to go - regardless of the quality of their work. I understand that, and I believe that the principal should consciously set the culture at the school, but that's the sort of thing that cannot be taken to scale without safeguards. I would like to hear Mr. Eide talk more about the necessary safeguards that would come with the greater authority granted to principals. I think Mr. Eide also recognizes that it was an extraordinary team and an extraordinary leader that brought that revolution to Mercer. That's something that cannot be taken to scale without a lot of support. I would like to hear Mr. Eide talk more about the necessary supports that would come with the additional duties for school communities. The requirements for this kind of success needs to be reduced so it is within the range of ordinary staff. It won't work in lots of schools if it requires the exceptional. Besides, I find it inconsistent and ironic that a principal could look past the supports that a teacher needs for success (work/life balance, preparation, training) when demanding that the teacher provide students with the supports they need for success. I'm sure Mr. Eide recognizes these things, but he doesn't talk much about them. He will be preaching to the converted until he does. When he decries seniority I think he is one of the few who do so with the understanding of how few would be impacted by any change. Seniority only matters when there are lay-offs. When and why are there lay-offs? They only happen when enrollment drops or budgets are cut. There isn't much reason for the former and there's no excuse for the latter. Also, there aren't many senior teachers with negative performance evaluations. At least not in an honest process. So where is the accountability that assures teachers of an honest performance evaluation? I'd like to hear Mr. Eide talk about that. The great thing is that I think Mr. Eide would also like to talk about strengthening the accountability of performance evaluations and the supports that school staffs will need to implement supports for students and the safeguards that will be put on principals' authority. I would suggest he lead with those, and then say "and once these are securely in place and inexorably part of the culture and practice of our schools, then we can safely and effectively do these other things that will improve outcomes for students." Not that he's asking me for any advice.


Anonymous said…
Chris Eide (Gates funded) being featured on the ST Education Blog (Gates funded) has the legitimacy of Tide being plugged into a Simpson's episode when P&G is the sponsor.

When Eide got tired of responding to those who said he wasn't he teacher, he became a substitue teacher. In his eyes, he can call himself a "current teacher" with a clear conscience. That doesn't pass the smell test either.

Ethics matter. People are not fooled by this guy, who happens to be the husband of the former SPS ed director who tried to fire longtime principal, Martin Floe.

--enough already
Sahila said…
I'd bet economic necessity drove Eide to became a substitute teacher - the ultimate irony!!!

Could you sign this petition:
Good paragraph on principals and why we need due process for teachers.

It would seem that the Times has their favorites for op-eds by ed reformers (and if your name is Chris, you stand even a better chance - either Korsmo or Eide). It's getting a little obvious who they print.
Anonymous said…
What I wish SPS staff would read:

The Importance of Teaching Content, which is supported by Daisy Christodoulou's Seven Myths of Education.

Anonymous said…
Oh yes, parent, our principals need to read this and believe it. Teachers are being constantly told that content doesn't matter because kids can look up anything they want to know on their phones. What we are told we should be teaching is skills, just skills, because the kids will just forget any content we teach them. Where are the principals getting this? Tolley and Heath?

open ears
Anonymous said…
open ears post brings us once again to the sorry state of "principals" in schools. The minority who are good -- who are courageous leaders of their schools, who inspire (and back up) good teaching -- seem to be outweighed by the many who undermine teaching, cannot lead bread crumbs out of a paper bag, and fail to understand real basics (like the importance of content -- not just "skills"), etc.

Lots of pots boiling right about now -- but it seems to me that the new interim Supe could make serious headway in improving learning by kids (the real, ultimate, only goal of all this) if he undertook a rigorous review of the efficacy of his current principals, and helped us figure out: (1) how to get rid of the ineffective ones (without promoting them to downtown positions where they can continue to underwhelm and to bedevil those trying to get their jobs done), (2) how to support the good ones (including those hew and on learning curves, but who have lots of potential, (3) how to do a better job of identifying new principals so as to diminish the damage done to schools, teachers, and kids by those inclined to either be fools or bullies -- or both.


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