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Hear the Echoes #26 - Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Hear the Echoes No.26

Who’s Reform?

Children’s Future Is At Stake!

Education reformers are committed.  Paul Pastorek and Paul Vallas were deeply and unalterably over-committed to charter schools in their Recovery School District (RSD) reforms.

Now, after five years of RSD operation, New Orleans charter schools operate with mixed results, none of them reaching the top 50 schools in Louisiana, and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan proclaims that there are many charters that operate unsuccessfully and needing to be closed.

In the eyes of Indiana State Superintendent Tony Bennett, America's schools can only improve by taking on a number of different reforms simultaneously. Different parties to the education debate stress different measures -- charter schools, voucher programs that use public money to fund private schools, looser union protections for teachers -- but implementing reforms one at a time won't do anything, Bennett said.

"We had had a robust public school choice system with charter schools in our state for a few years," Bennett said. "It didn't do anything."  (Harvard Conference on School Reform)

Corporate reformers have long claimed that merit pay/bonuses would boost test scores; when it failed to do so the reformers claimed they never expected merit pay to boost test scores.

Defenders of the suspect policy argue that merit-based systems would attract a better class of recruits to the teaching profession.  They debunk the failure of the New York City merit-based system because it was a whole school system of rewards.  However, the well-regarded Vanderbilt College of Education reported on performance pay in 2009-10 and the results: Merit pay for individual teachers doesn’t work either.

In opposing the Louisiana Race to the Top proposal, the Louisiana School Boards Association based its opposition in part on the advice given to Sec. Duncan by the National Research Council’s (NRC) panel on the issue.  The NRC urged that teacher performance not rely heavily on linkage of test results to evaluating teaching or class performance.  LSBA’s position was also predicated on a similar study of all professions by the London School of Economics.  That study also found that teaching and a number of other knowledge professions were not improved by linking performance to pay.

In the early 1980s, when A Nation at Risk alarmed citizens with the prospect of "a rising tide of mediocrity" threatening to engulf U.S. schools, President Reagan reintroduced experimentation with merit pay, with similarly negative results. Some school districts experimented through the 1980s with incentive programs based on merit, management by objectives, career-ladder, or differentiated staffing approaches. Few such experiments had any staying power.  A new wave of experiments developed in the 1990s, most of which were also based on career ladders, teacher skills and knowledge, or differentiated staffing.


Denver established a merit-pay system that school boards and teacher associations helped to design.  It didn’t meet expectations and has been undergoing change ever since 1999.  Designers saw that measures of student performance were not adequate.  Connections to teacher performance were hard to establish, and the standard measures of student learning were not applicable to more than half of the teachers working in schools.  The model also didn’t address incentives for teachers working in difficult situations.  Now only one of the Denver plan’s four components directly addresses academic achievement goals.  The criteria now include teacher knowledge and observable skill, professional evaluation, and market incentives such as hard to staff positions.


Recently, a task force of education stakeholders working to develop the Louisiana teacher evaluation plan heard from the education advisor to the Governor of Tennessee.  That state has the nation’s longest running value-added testing program to measure student achievement.  According to him, the Tennessee program still has not been deemed ready for teacher evaluation.


These "reforms” along with vouchers and tax-credits paid to parents with children in private schools have yet to transform from experiment to sustainable reforms.  Even one of Louisiana’s top "reform” advocates, Leslie Jacobs (former New Orleans School Board member and state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member) announces on her web page that New Orleans voucher supported students fail to even keep pace with the low performance of RSD schools.


The majority of failing schools in the United States are found in only 29 districts (T. W. Slotnik), suggesting that these districts need improvement at the school and district leadership levels, not just among teachers. Despite the existence of troubled schools and districts, however, most students achieve more academically now than in past decades, and most parents give their schools high marks and support them (Bradshaw & Gallup, 2008).


It is no different in Louisiana.  The majority of failing schools are contained in four districts including the RSD and its charters.


Inescapable is the conclusion that the "reform” movement is still a well-funded "experiment” aimed at changing children’s futures. The fact that each of the elements of "reform” still remains as unconfirmed successes suggests that all education stakeholders need to insist on transparency in evaluations and on longer term assessment of "reform” capacity for scaling up to meet the larger needs of children’s education.


If we want students to develop as well-rounded human beings who are empathetic, thoughtful, and creative, we will have to include these characteristics among our goals for schools and seek ways to gauge our success. A system that rewards schools, students, and teachers only for test scores will get mostly test scores. This is not what most of us want for our children.


Don Whittinghill




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