Is the education reform tide turning?

I find that many of my posts at American Times are pretty cynical – what with the apparently coordinated assault on teachers form one state to the next – but there has been one piece of good news lately: president Obama has come out agains the current standardized-testing regime. This is good news for public education in America. It’s also good news for teachers – standardized tests have become the first weapon of faux-accountability wielded against our nation’s educators. And as this recent report from USA Today shows, far from holding teachers accountable, the current testing craze simply incentivizes cheating, while making education and learning boring.

I’ve been pretty critical of this administration’s education reforms – Race to the Top has been little more than No Child Left Behind Part Deux. But if Obama means what he says about testing – and I have no reason to suspect otherwise – then perhaps we’re witnessing a real sea-change. I certainly hope so.

Defending teachers from the noise machine

So I’ve been blogging at Forbes and spending a lot of my time talking about teachers and how teachers are under a sustained ideological assault. However, one thing I will never blog about is how teachers should be teaching. My philosophy is pretty simple: nobody knows how to teach better than a teacher does. They are trained to teach by people who are often either teachers themselves or experts in the subject of teaching. And they learn from years of teaching in the trenches what outside observers could never learn reading education papers and analyzing test scores.

Education pundits, school reformers, and politicians all think they know what’s best for students and by extension what sort of pedagogy a teacher should adopt. Often, top-down reformers try to use ‘teacher-proof’ curriculums which enforce lockstep thinking and automated-teaching. I find this appalling. And even though I occasionally have an idea about how I’d like to see teaching done, or imagine how I would teach if I were a teacher, this sort of thing won’t show up at the blog. Let teachers teach, and let bloggers (and bureaucrats) talk about policies that allow teachers, parents, administrators, and students to weave together the best education experience possible.

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The new face of education reform

Over at Forbes I talk about Scott Walker’s plans to layoff 1,500 state workers and cut $1 billion in state aid to schools and local governments. I think Walker is doing what Chris Christie would like to do, and what reformers like Michelle Rhee never had the power to do – he calls it balancing the budget, but really this is the bald face of conservative education reform. For a long time conservatives played around at the margins, flirting with school choice, flirting with vouchers. It wasn’t until prominent Democrats joined the school choice movement that Republicans became emboldened enough to go for the jugular.

My new education-policy blog

Shameless self-promotion alert:

I have a new blog at Forbes on education policy and education reform. My long introduction post is up this morning. In it, I offer a critique of the top-down reforms of Michelle Rhee and others, as well as a more broad swipe at the choice and accountability movement. Lots more to come.

The Death and Life of the Great American School System (part one)

All the bad crazy out of Wisconsin lately lines up really well with the book I’m reading at the moment, The Death and Life of the Great American School System by Diane Ravitch. Ravitch was for a long time an enthusiastic supporter of the choice and accountability movement in education reform. Her book is a very public way of breaking with that movement. I’m not all the way through it, but I’ll try to lay out some of the themes of the book, and by extension the current reform movement, and why it’s on the wrong path despite some limited successes.

The reformers, for all their talk of choice, are often (though not always) obsessed with top-down reforms. Ravitch details the twin reform eras of San Diego (under Alan Bersin)  and New York City. It’s pretty galling how little those charged with reform care about the input of actual educators. This is because:

  • Reformers tend to think that only authoritarian, top-down leadership can ‘shake things up’. Knock enough skulls together and you get results. This is the shock and awe version of education reform. It’s also highly undemocratic.
  • Reformers tend to ignore the input of teachers, administrators, and parents. They find sympathetic voices in academia and in charitable foundations to bulwark their reforms in the intellectual sphere.
  • Reformers tend to blame teachers, principals, and others members of the ‘status quo’ for the problems with education. Most education reforms in the past decade and a half have been aimed at breaking up teachers’ unions.
  • Reformers do not pay much attention to the substance of education so much as they pay attention to the procedural side of things. Rather than focus on curriculum, reformers focus on uniformity in pedagogy and strictly regimented ideas on how to teach (specifically to tests).
  • Reformers focus only on testable subjects, primarily math and reading, because accountability has become the golden goose of education reform.

I am about half-way through the book, so I’ll have more to report later, but it really is extraordinary to read about the reforms that Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein have foisted on New York schools (modeled on the authoritarian San Diego reforms that preceded the Bloomberg era) – and the very mixed results of those reforms. Bloomberg managed to gain total control of the school system, something that the mayor’s office hadn’t had in decades, and he passed that control over to Klein without oversight. Indeed, there is no oversight of the Bloomberg reforms.

The central theme of these reformers is not just to blame the teachers, but also to ignore them, spy on them, and undermine their autonomy. In San Diego there were public firings of school administrators who were escorted from their schools by the police. In both cities, money was filtered out of the classroom and out of support services like teachers’ aides, and put into professional development programs which were aimed at top-down pedagogical reform. Teachers and administrators who didn’t like it were fired or resigned. Turn over in both cities was enormous. Something like 90% of San Diego’s principals left in the course of six years. In both cities Balanced Literacy became the only approved teaching method. Dissent was not tolerated.

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