Tag Archives: accountability

“Good Teaching” and the Failure of Education Reform


 Student achievement is soundly measured; teacher effectiveness is not. The system is spending time and effort rating teachers using criteria that do not have a basis in research showing how teaching practices improve student learning.”–Mark Dynarski, Brookings Institute

Goodbye Mr. Chips. Up the Down Staircase. My Posse Don’t Do Homework. To Sir With Love. Dead Poet’s Society. Mr. Holland’s Opus. The 4th season of The Wire.

The “great teacher” movie has become a bit of a cliche. But decades of film and movies work on our emotions for good reason. That reason is not “Wow, this teacher’s practice is soundly based in practice that research shows improves student learning!”

“You cannot ignore facts. That is why any state that makes it unlawful to link student progress to teacher evaluations will have to change its ways.”–President Barack Obama, announcing Race to the Top


Reform movies usually fail. Won’t Back Down, a piece of blatant choice advocacy, bombed at the box office. Waiting for Superman was a big hit in elite circles but for a film designed as propaganda, it notably failed to move people to action, or even win considerable praise from the unconverted.

In general, performance-obsessed folks are the villains in mainstream movies and TV.

In Pump Up The Volume, the villain was a principal who found reason to expel teens whose lack of motivation and personal problems would affect her school’s test scores. This was before charters, when such practices became encouraged.

In Searching for Bobby Fischer (the movie, as opposed to the book), the parents reject the competition-obsessed teacher who wanted the boy to spend all his waking hours on chess, giving equal time to a homeless street guy who advocates a more open, aggressive, impulsive approach to chess. The parents preferred a son with a happy, rounded life to a neurotic who wouldn’t know a normal life. (Their son is, today, a happy well-rounded brilliant man who never became Bobby Fischer. In every sense of that meaning.)

In the famous season 4 of The Wire, AVP Donnelly tries hard to “juke the stats” by gaming the test, “spoonfeeding” the “Leave No Child Behind stuff”. Prez rejects this approach: “I came here to teach, right?”

I can think of only one movie in which a teacher was judged by his test scores and declared a hero:  Jaime Escalante in Stand and Deliver.

But most people throwing about Escalante’s name and achievements don’t really understand that  it took  fourteen years of sustained effort, handpicked teachers, legally impossible demands of his students, and a supportive principal to get 73 kids to pass the AB Calculus exam, with another 12 passing the BC, with around 140-200 in his program, out of a student population of 3500 . Once Escalante lost his supportive principal, he  was voted out as department chair because he was an arrogant jerk to other teachers, and handled defeat by  leaving the school.

Escalante’s story, channeled through Jay Mathews, thrilled policy wonks and politicians, and the public was impressed by the desire and determination of underprivileged kids to do what it takes to get an opportunity they otherwise wouldn’t have. But those same wonks and politicians wouldn’t have tolerated Escalante’s tracking, and 2% would have been an unacceptably low participation rate. He rejected a lot of kids. Mine is a contrarian view, but I’ve never though Escalante cared about kids who couldn’t or wouldn’t do the work he demanded.

“Teachers should be evaluated based on their ability to fulfill their core responsibility as professionals-—delivering instruction that helps students learn and succeed.”–The Widget Effect ((publication of the National Council for Teacher Quality)

In the book We Need To Talk About Kevin, the teacher Dana Rocco makes two brief appearances. The first is in a parent-teacher conference with Kevin’s mother:


We don’t know how Dana Rocco’s students’ performed on tests, or even how she taught. But purely on the strength of this passage, we know she is passionate about her subject and her students, who she works to reach in ways straightforward and otherwise. And in the second passage, we learn that she kept trying to reach Kevin right up to the moment he split her head open with a bolt from crossbow while she was trying to carry another of his victims away from danger.

In Oklahoma, a hurricane blew down a school, and they pulled a car off a teacher who had three kids underneath her. Teachers were pulling rubble away from classrooms before the rescue workers even got there. Were they delivering on their core responsibility as professionals?

The Sandy Hook teachers died taking bullets for their students.

Were they fulfilling their core responsibilities as professionals? Would NCTQ celebrate the teachers who abandoned their students to the deranged young gunman, who left their students to be buried in rubble? Could they argue that their efforts were better spent raising test scores for another ten years than giving their lives to save twenty students?

“Most notably, [the Every Student Succeeds Act} does not require states to set up teacher-evaluation systems based in significant part on students’ test scores—a key requirement of the U.S. Department of Education’s state-waiver system in connection with ESSA’s predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act.–Stephen Sawchuk, “ESSA Loosens Reins on Teacher Evaluations”

ESSA is widely acknowledged to have ended the era of education reform, started in the 90s, hitting its peak in the Bush Obama years. Eulogies abound, many including prescriptions for the future by the same people who pushed the past policies that failed so completely, so spectacularly. In future years, the Bush-Obama choice/accountability reforms will ever more be accompanied by the words “roundly repudiated”. The world we live in going forward is as much a rejection of Michael Petrilli, John King, and Michelle Rhee as the “Nation At Risk” era was to the wasteful excesses of the 70s. The only real question left is why they still have billionaires paying their salaries.

They failed for many reasons. But chief among their failures was their conviction that public education is measured by student outcomes. This conviction is easily communicated, and allowed reformers to move politicians and policy in directions completely at odds with the public will. Reformers never captured the  hearts and minds of the public.  They failed to understand that student academic outcomes aren’t what the public thinks of when they think of good teaching.

The repudiation of education reform policies and preferences in favor of emotion-based, subjective expectations is one of the most comforting developments of the past twenty years. Go USA.


Unstructured Musings on Choice

I had a brief twitter talk with Neal McCluskey about Jay Greene’s article arguing that charter schools shouldn’t have to take state tests.

Best line: “So, the state only pays for its own vision of a good education but you have to pay extra if you want to pursue something else. “. Um. Yeah. Similarly, the state only pays for its own vision of law enforcement, its own vision of unemployment funds if people don’t have jobs, and so on. Why should education be any different?

This sort of proposal seems, at first glance, to be breathtakingly full of horseshit chutzpah. Like, so let me get this straight. You base your whole argument for choice on the fact that public schools are cesspits of failure and incompetence. Give parents a choice! you say, don’t force them into terrible public schools. Don’t force black kids to go public just because of race, let them choose! Give them vouchers! Create charters! But then, when it comes to proving that choice actually results in increased learning, heavens, no! These schools are different. Parents chose them because they wanted something other than the state’s idea of education. Don’t make them take those pesky tests!

Huh? The entire impetus for choice, the entire rationale that won the day for vouchers, the reason the Supreme Court finally approved vouchers even for religious schools, was not “Hey, parents should get a choice for their children” but “parents without economic means need a way to escape failing public schools”. Choice advocates think the rationale is broader than that, of course, but time and again they lost that fight. In fact, even now, choice people are pushing “tax credits” over “vouchers” because, I think, they realize how untenable choice is without the spectre of poor kids with few options.

So the whole basis for choice is failing public schools! If you weren’t convinced they were incompetent cesspits, what the hell? What’s your basis for choice?

To which Neal McCluskey says hello? See who I work for? We never wanted state-run schools! Choice all the way down the line.

At which point I feel like Henry Clay arguing with western farmers about killing the bank. Wait. You’re for soft money. Jackson’s a hard money freak. Why the hell are you on his side?

Snicker. Hey, whatever works! sez Neal.

Kidding. Kind of.

So this used to puzzle me, but then I read an old review by James Q. Wilson of a Checker Finn book, in which he spelled out three different reform remedies. The first is to reform pedagogy/methods/curriculum—fix what and how the schools teach. The second remedy is choice, which will improve schools through competition. The final remedy involves the belief that schools are failing because the rules are flawed. Change the rules and measure the schools by those rules, and they’ll improve through accountability.

This was very enlightening because Wilson, an advocate for choice, delineates the difference between accountability and his own preference, which aligns fairly well with the distinction between Jay Greene and the folks at Fordham, to pick one at random, or the libertarians at Cato with Michelle Rhee. (The third pedagogy et. al is a much broader group, including constructivism and content knowledge, for example, and we’ll leave that alone for now.)

The Common Core argument you see among reformers is in part a split between these two groups. Accountability advocates want the Common Core—more federal control! Choice advocates see the federal control as intolerable. This doesn’t cover all of it—progressives and teachers mostly don’t like common core, and Tea Party folks like public schools, I believe, but want local control. Still, it explains the big split at the wonk level that is playing out as I write this.

No Child Left Behind was also accountability, not choice. But I think it caused less of a split because first, the law left testing up to the states, and second, the law allowed choice when schools failed to live up to the standards, and everyone knew that schools wouldn’t live up to standards. Many reformers thought NCLB was a failure because parents didn’t exercise choice.

I really shouldn’t be the person explaining this, hence the title of this essay. But it’s interesting to consider the differences. Half the accountability people and all the choice people hate the political power that teacher unions represent. The accountability Republicans seem to just want Republicans to be in power, or at least reasonably represented. The choice people don’t really want anyone to be in power educationally speaking, but also hate the political power of unions because they see them as, oh, I dunno, more committed to increased federal power. No, that can’t be right. But something along those lines. ( The other half of accountability folks, the Andrew Rotherhams, the Dems who want to reform schools with unions, them I don’t get, so leave them out for now.)

(Wait, Ed, you don’t understand. All that political stuff might be true, but you forget these people are working for good schools. Yes, yes, reform opponents want good schools, too, but these guys actually want results. Why are you laughing, Ed?)

So the accountability people just want more voices for charters to help destabilize public schools and unions. In return, accountability people give lip service to vouchers, but their hearts aren’t really in it.

It seems to me that choice people themselves understand that this might be the best they can get, which is why they’ve mostly hitched their wagon to the accountability star, getting more choice around the edges and corners. They can’t get it outright for the reasons I described early on. The public is not going to give parents money to send their kid wherever. Consequently, Jay Greene’s article makes no sense, strategically, because it completely undercuts their admittedly opportunistic basis for pushing choice. Hence my surprise.

Accountability advocates have a stronger position, but then, it’s a bit fuzzy what their position is. There’s a reason Michael Petrilli calls to mind the mutant dogs in Up. (“Squirrel!”)

Besides, public schools are held accountable in all sorts of ways that the officially designated accountability advocates ignore entirely. For example, public schools are held accountable if they suspend too many black or Hispanic students. They are held accountable if they group kids by ability and the racial demographics are unrepresentative of the school community. They are held accountable if girls can’t play football, or LBQT students are referred to by the wrong gender. They are held accountable if their students use social media to torment each other about events that occurred off-campus, on the weekend, with no school involvement.

This sort of accountability goes by another name: lawsuits. Lawsuits or the threat thereof are highly effective accountability measures, and are much scarier than Mike Petrilli and Andrew Rotherham. Or even Michelle Rhee. Unfortunately, giving in to these accountability measures does nothing to improve public education and often, in fact, does much to harm it. Not that this matters to lawsuits. Or schools fearing them.

So what, exactly, is accountability as Fordham and Bellwether envision it, separate from choice? Beyond the scope of this essay. Back to choice.

Going back to Neal’s “hey, don’t look at me! I don’t want accountability” wave-off, I just want to ask: do pure choice people really want an education system with no state control? An open marketplace? I realize that we’re supposed to pretend that all parents value school and be insulted at the implication that they wouldn’t want what’s best for their kids, but reality, alas, intervenes, which is why truancy officers are a major profit center for urban schools.

So suppose we just let the kids whose parents didn’t care go to terrible schools or just not go to school at all. Would we get nothing more than unhappy kids on street corners, or would we get something like the scenario portrayed in this comment, during the CTU strike? Any takers?

Teachers are cheaper than cops and prisons and by this I do not mean “uneducated kids will end up in prison” or whatever pious do-gooders might say about the value of education. I mean it literally: some substantial chunk of kids who are now forced to stay in school will get out onto the streets three to eight years earlier and crime will increase. That seems quite obvious.

Someone will undoubtedly say “Wow, Ed, you don’t see yourself as anything more than a glorified babysitter?”

It’s this sort of response that causes most teachers to realize how little the outside world gets it. Because hell yes. That’s what public schools are, sometimes. And have always been. Babysitters. Education will fail to reach a significant portion of the kids who are both low income and low ability. That’s a fact. We do it anyway, in part because, as I said, it’s cheaper than jails and cops. But in part because some number, and it’s not a small number, will be reached, will be persuaded to keep in the game, play by the rules, and eventually get something approximating a paying job in this new economy. That’s what we work for, to increase the number of the kids who do more than mark time until jail.

So don’t think you’re insulting me by calling me a glorified babysitter, and get back to the issue I raised: can you prove that all parents will react responsibly to unfettered educational choices for their kids? Remember, mind you, that a good number of those parents should still be in school themselves, and clearly demonstrated their utter contempt for the value of that institution by getting knocked up or doing the knocking. Many parents make dreadful choices and it’s unpopular to give them tax dollars to screw up any more than we already have to.

Another question: if you’re against public schools, why advocate for charters? As any Cato wonk knows, charters are killing private schools. Increasing charters increases public school spending. More charters will increase the number of kids under government oversight, give even more control to the states and ultimately the federal government. So why are choice people pro-charters? Charter schools purport to give choices but actually just drive up public education costs for the express benefit of a lucky few underrepresented minorities or suburban whites and Asians too cheap to send their kids to private school. As long as I’m ordering the world, choice folks, can’t you go back to pushing tax deductions for private schools? Then let Bill Gates pay tuition scholarships for URMs rather than fund meaningless and usually unsuccessful initiatives in his public school sandbox.

Finally, this: eventually, all three reform positions will realize that they can’t have what they want, that our schools aren’t failing, that their expectations are ludicrous. I just hope, when that happy day arrives, we will take a look at what we can do to convince more low ability kids to leave off marking time in order to work towards adulthood and responsibility. Higher standards, no. Better jobs, yes.

Instead, liberals are getting all excited about a brave new world in which super-rich employers are teaching their Wisconsin nannies about quinoa. Because it’s Wisconsin nannies who will cause all the trouble when we’ve got an entire generation of disaffected youth in a society that didn’t worry about jobs for people who read at a sixth grade level and pretended instead that more choice or tougher standards would give them the intellectual skills for college.