Jeri Stone, TCTA Executive DirectorAs Texas begins implementation of yet another accountability system this year, it occurs to me that nobody is taking a hard look at those who are pushing the reforms that have whipsawed educators and students in our state for more than 25 years. There seems to be shockingly little scrutiny of the shifts in education policy that have dominated Texas and other states as the federal government has become increasingly involved in the mechanics of everything from student testing to teacher compensation.

Though my perspective is admittedly that of an acutely interested party, rather than one at arm’s length, it is truly frustrating that the reform movement seems to deploy such a scattershot approach, much of which is not only unsupported but discouraged by the research. Somehow in the process, reform turned into its own industry with multiple think tanks, reform proponents, and vendors selling the latest and greatest training, curriculum or distance learning system as an ongoing business. Then there are the so-called muscle philanthropies such as the Gates Foundation, creating and funding an ever-widening network of entities to advocate their agenda, which again includes many elements not supported by the research. Never mind that in many, if not most, instances those selling reform either politically or as vendors (or often both, with political decisions preceding sales to districts) have little practical experience or credentials or, most importantly, valid data to back up their claims.

If your knees feel like they’re buckling, it’s little wonder. There seems to be a tendency to pile on one new approach after another, often at the urging of vendors, with few of those that have not proven successful going away. Thus there is an ever accumulating series of reforms, which often means more work for you, even if it is unproductive work, with little scrutiny of whether the desired results are being achieved or the investments are warranted. If you read the article on pages 7-9 of this issue, you’ll learn, if you didn’t already know it, that the Obama administration continues to push hard for a linkage of individual teacher employment and compensation decisions to the test scores of their students. The states that didn’t buy into that approach via Race to the Top grant applications are now being lured in with the promise of waivers from No Child Left Behind (now referred to as ESEA, due to what is considered to be the tarnished brand of NCLB). Ignore that scientific evidence continues to mount that there is no valid mechanism for isolating the teacher’s impact on a student’s achievement; the push to require this approach is intensifying at the local, state and federal levels.

All of which leads one to wonder, who’s holding the reformers accountable? How many districts really scrutinize what reforms they’ve implemented, at what cost (both in dollars and human capital), and whether they’re producing the desired results?  How often do districts admit an error and say we’re going to abandon this approach and quit paying this vendor because student performance has not measurably improved and teachers don’t like it?  Though the National Assessment of Education Progress scores in Texas look excellent, who is looking in to why that is?  Was it because of NCLB?  If so, why are we looking at waivers from NCLB now?

Consider the factors beyond a teachers’ control

The research is very clear that parenting and socioeconomics have more impact on student achievement than anything the schools can do. That has been proven time and time again, in study after study. Yet with increasing frequency, the reformers are preemptively announcing that blaming poor student achievement on these proven factors is simply making excuses for bad teachers and underperforming school systems. That approach strikes me as both ridiculous and counterproductive. Is it because teachers work for school systems and parents don’t, so authority can be exerted over teachers? Is it because poverty has proven to be an intransigent problem in the decades since President Lyndon B. Johnson declared war on it, so we’re now going to ignore the problem and focus on “fixing” schools that may, in fact, be doing a good job under difficult circumstances?

It’s time for the reformers to be held accountable, both for the costs and often poor results of their innovations, and for their failure to focus on the more difficult problems that the research suggests are most often at the heart of poor student performance. The charter school movement provides a great example of focusing on what the research indicates is critical. Most charter schools underperform their public school counterparts, even those with similar student population demographics. Those that succeed, however, do so with motivated parents who seek to enroll their children in charter schools and often to transport them there, and with the extra funding that is needed to provide supplemental instructional time and services to help counteract the effects of poverty.  

Not only are countless dollars being expended on some dubious efforts at reform, but teachers are being exhausted in the process. And far too often, the proposals for reform do not include those who will be responsible for implementing them.

Heed the research and change direction when needed

Though I recognize that science is not static, that discoveries can and do regularly change what was accepted (apparently some neutrinos may move faster than the speed of light - or then again, maybe not), and that medical experts regularly change course regarding what is or isn’t good for us, the science in education seems to be both lacking and ignored. Here are a few recent examples:

  • After years of reading that single gender schools were better for students, the most recent research now suggests the opposite may be true. But some districts, including the Austin ISD, are seriously considering implementing or expanding single-sex campuses.
  • In Texas and nationwide, most charter schools underperform their traditional school counterparts. Yet the Obama administration and many Texas legislators are pushing hard for major expansions of the charter school movement.
  • The vast majority of research indicates that you cannot accurately assess a teacher’s performance based on student test scores; even the test makers will tell you so. (The research shows an appalling level of inaccuracy in using this approach, including one in four teachers who are average in performance being erroneously identified as below average, with a similar percentage of below-average teachers not showing up as underperforming.) Yet at the state and federal levels the push to link student test scores to teacher employment and compensation decisions continues.
  • Recent research indicates that student performance for those participating in distance learning lags behind that of their peers in the classroom, but the push to enroll more students in distance learning even when the content is available in their local classrooms continues – again, at both the state and federal levels.

If we’re going to be about the business of reform, let’s address the real issues and be willing to abandon those efforts that prove unsuccessful or change direction when we veer off course. And it’s important that we persuade policymakers soon, before the public schools as we know them today are crushed under the weight of the newly burgeoning education reform industry.