With the new school year about to start, now’s a good time to consider two fundamental facts about education reform today:

• There is less certainty about what school reform entails than there was 10 years ago.

• That’s a good thing, a very good thing.

For now, modesty is the best policy.

Hawaii’s recently completed plan implementing the federal Every Student Succeeds Act is good because though it sounds highfalutin’, the plan is in fact modest. It is more aspirational than operational, and it allows for flexibility. Less cockiness and more openness.

5th Grade Hale Kua Elementary School teachers Ronda Gillam and Esther Park talk with Governor David Ige in their new classroom. 27 july 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Daniel K. Inouye Elementary School in central Oahu. Hawaii’s public school landscape is changing as the state looks to implement the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

How Reform Has Been Wrongheaded

For the last decade and a half, education reformers have often been far too immodest. What they have considered to be definitive has turned out to be simplistic, and sometimes just plain wrong.

The Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act reflected a hard-nosed, breezy confidence about how to assess both the quality of schools and the quality of teaching. 

It was a simple model really: Give children lots of standardized tests, evaluate school quality on the basis of these scores and come down hard on schools with consistently bad scores, closing them if necessary.  In effect, teachers were held responsible for their students’ scores.

The Obama administration ultimately modified this approach a bit.  But still, its approach was pretty much the same regarding teacher and student assessment.

From the get-go there was a great deal of resistance. It came from conservatives who did not like the federal government’s usurpation of local education, teachers unions resisting the onus the policies put on teachers, and parents who felt that their kids were spending way too much time taking standardized tests.

The experts, the reformers, the people in the know typically dismissed these opponents as archaic ideologues, special interest groups or people who simply did not know any better.

This resister-shaming did not work very well, partly for political reasons. Let’s just say that the reformers’ attitudes were not the best way to get buy-in, and things went from bad to worse. Think of the deceptively smooth rise and meteoric fall of the Common Core.

The key, though, and the reason why modesty is so important right now, is that those policies have failed on the merits.

Lack Of Agreement Can Be Agreeable

Methodologically, the state of the art turns out to be the state of the artless.

The Bush/Obama school assessment criteria, which relied on a limited set of academic variables, were far too narrow. 

For instance, a recent study in the Journal of Economic Perspectives shows how differently parents evaluate schools and how important it is to include this in school assessments.

Parents consistently grade their neighborhood schools considerably higher than they rate their school systems in general. This creates a disparity between the way the experts and parents see the schools.

Back in those breezy, confident days, reformers would have used this as evidence that parents don’t know enough.

Standard ways of assessing teachers are both underdeveloped and overused.

In fact non-standardized criteria that the parents consider, like safety, is valuable.

Overall, current data systems, which consist primarily of standardized test scores, misrepresent school quality. And they say very little about the many things that good schools do. They indicate nothing, for instance, about how safe students feel, how strong their relationships with teachers are, or how they are developing socially and emotionally.

Standard ways of assessing teachers and making use of these assessments have twin problems. They are both underdeveloped and overused.

Given the lack of the state of the art, there is no good way to predict who will be an effective teacher.  There are no good tools available to know this in advance of hiring. The most important indicator of good teaching is a few years of experience.

As for teacher assessment tools, the Bush and Obama reforms’ emphasis on holding teachers responsible for their students’ class scores was misguided.

These teacher evaluation reforms ignored the fundamental fact that so many people wish away when they talk about making schools better.

It’s this: School scores are much more about family income than teacher competence.

Children from poorer and fragile families don’t do well in school for reasons that are even clearer and more compelling than they were in the early days of this round of educational reform. 

Yes, some children in such families overcome the obstacles to become stellar students. Yes, it is a powerful aspect of the American dream that people can use school to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. And most importantly, yes, today the level of education is now the biggest distinction between economic and social success and failure.

But the teacher, good or awful, is a very small part of all of this.

In methodological terms, the most commonly used ways of assessing teaching have limited validity.  They don’t measure what they claim to measure, and they can’t be accurately used for much of what they are used for.

They are basically just hard data dumps having little useful consequences. Think about the paper and pencil assessments that you have had to deal with in your own workplace.  How effective are they in changing worker behavior?

To change behavior, to help make a teacher more effective, you need at least two other components: a much more pervasive peer evaluation process and sustained opportunities for teachers, their peers and their supervisors to talk about teaching.

Those two things are hard to bring about. They take time, money and different sorts of commitment.  They don’t offer the temptations of “hard” data.

But we know from research on effective charter schools that these fuller, mushier forms of assessment can be powerful.

And speaking of charter schools, in my next column I’ll look at what the research on school choice says about school reform. Here’s a teaser: Choice is an ideologically potent issue, but when it comes right down to it, choice is the small stuff.

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