Friday, April 13, 2012

What Passes for School Reform: "Value-Added" Teacher Evaluation and Other Absurdities

Alfie Kohn - Posted: 09/ 9/10  - HuffPost
"The less people know about teaching and learning, the more sympathetic they're likely to be to the kind of "school reform" that's all the rage these days. Look, they say, some teachers (and schools) are lousy, aren't they? And we want kids to receive a better education -- including poor kids, who typically get the short end of the stick, right? So let's rock the boat a little! Clean out the dead wood, close down the places that don't work, slap public ratings on these suckers just like restaurants that have to display the results of their health inspections.

"Unfortunately, the people who know the most about the subject tend to work in the field of education, which means their protests can be dismissed. Educational theorists and researchers are just "educationists" with axes to grind, hopelessly out of touch with real classrooms. And the people who spend their days in real classrooms, teaching our children -- well, they're just afraid of being held accountable, aren't they? (Actually, proponents of corporate-style school reform find it tricky to attack teachers, per se, so they train their fire instead on the unions that represent them.) Once the people who do the educating have been excluded from a conversation about how to fix education, we end up hearing mostly from politicians, corporate executives, and journalists.

"This type of reform consists of several interlocking parts, powered by a determination to "test kids until they beg for mercy," as the late Ted Sizer once put it. Test scores are accepted on faith as a proxy for quality, which means we can evaluate teachers on the basis of how much value they've added -- "value" meaning nothing more than higher scores. That, in turn, paves the way for manipulation by rewards and punishments: Dangle more money in front of the good teachers (with some kind of pay-for-performance scheme) and shame or fire the bad ones. Kids, too, can be paid for jumping through hoops. (It's not a coincidence that this incentive-driven model is favored by economists, who have a growing influence on educational matters and who still tend to accept a behaviorist paradigm that most of psychology left behind ages ago.)

"Reform" also means diverting scarce public funds to charter schools, many of them run by for-profit corporations. It means standardizing what's taught (and ultimately tested) from coast to coast, as if uniformity was synonymous with quality. It means reducing job security for teachers, even though tenure just provides due-process protections so people can't be sacked arbitrarily. It means attacking unions at every opportunity, thereby winning plaudits from the folks who, no matter what the question, mutter menacingly about how the damned unions are to blame."