A Sinking Ship?

Assessment, Equity, Leadership, Learning, Organizational Change, Teacher Quality

During a week in which both Education Secretary Arne Duncan and President Barack Obama will publicly defend their education reform priorities – in response to severe criticism from the country’s leading civil rights organizations – I’m trying to figure out how a set of ideas that was so close to mobilizing a quiet revolution in public education has instead led the soldiers of that revolution to passionately (and loudly) take up arms against each other.
All I can come up with is they’ve gotten some lousy advice. And I think I see where they’ve gone wrong.
Take, for example, the issue of teacher evaluations, which is a major component of the Race to the Top selection criteria. First of all, anyone who doesn’t think our current system of teacher and principal evaluation needs to be completely remade is someone you should never listen to again on any issue of consequence. Teacher and principal assessments in this country are a joke – and do nothing to advance the quality of the profession or improve the overall learning conditions for kids. So the Obama Administration’s decision to shine light on this issue is spot-on.
Why, then, has that issue transmogrified into a bold push for using financial incentives to boost teacher motivation? Who thought that was a good idea, and why did anybody listen? As I’ve written previously, the leading thinkers in the business community have recognized for years the limitations of this strategy (Enron, anyone?). Dan Pink has posted a useful video in which he cites a study by, of all entities, the Federal Reserve, showing how cash incentives work well – as long as the desired behaviors are simple and non-cognitive. Yet this is an issue the administration continues to try and defend. They should drop it like it’s hot.
Similarly, there’s the push to adopt a common set of academic standards across all fifty states. This, too, is something I’ve written about previously, and this, too, is an issue I’m ready to support, provided the projected purpose for the use of the standards is in line with what other high-achieving countries around the world have used them for – namely, to provide guidance, clarity and quality control, not to enforce a strict set of restrictions that prescribe the actions of local educators. We need standards that are viewed as indicators of wisdom our students will need to be successful in college and the workplace, not shards of knowledge that make it easier to devise uniform tests and mandate standardized modes of instruction.
Is this the path the Obama administration and the National Governors Association seek as well? I’m not sure, but I can see why some people feel nervous.  We are, after all, still a culture intent on overvaluing the illusory certainty that basic-skills test scores provide us. We still seek linear progress in the most nonlinear of professions and experiences. And we still operate in a society where powerful forces driven by the bottom line have the capacity to steer policy decisions to their liking. So although the jury is still out on this one, I feel more nervous than confident.
Finally, there’s the issue of making federal money for states a competitive, rather than strictly a formula-driven, process. If you want to view this one purely by its ability to engineer massive changes in how states operate, it’s a runaway success. States have revised laws to lift caps on the number of charter schools, adopted the new common standards, and poured thousands of hours into finalizing their grant proposals. Initially, two states were awarded money in the first round. Today, 18 more states and the District of Columbia were named finalists for the remaining $3.4 billion in funding.
This aspect of the Obama administration’s proposals is what particularly rankled the civil rights groups. As Schott Foundation president John Jackson put it, “No state should have to compete to protect the civil rights of their children in their states.”
Hard to argue with that point, but in the interest of moving forward, I want to offer three simple pieces of START STOP KEEP advice to the Obama team:

  1. KEEP focusing on teacher and principal quality and evaluation, but STOP doing it via the 20th century notion of carrots and sticks, and START investing deeply in quality teacher preparation programs and evaluation systems.
  2. KEEP emphasizing the utility of a stronger, clearer and leaner set of national standards that can guide instruction and provide quality control to a system that sorely needs it, but STOP viewing it as a way to impose more national standardized exams, and START heeding both the civil rights groups’ recommendation for common resource opportunity standards, and the need for a long term goal (once the aforementioned teacher preparation programs are up to snuff) of having national content standards provide guidance for teachers, who then devise locally-administered assessments based on their detailed knowledge of what they’ve taught and who they’ll be testing. (This is what many of the highest-performing countries in the world do, by the way.)
  3. KEEP saying that providing a high-quality public education to all children is the civil rights issue of our time, but STOP trying to do so by incentivizing competition that results in winners and losers, and START advocating for a Constitutional amendment that makes the guarantee of an equal opportunity to learn for all children something the states cannot ignore.

I think that would help a lot. What do YOU think?