Tag Archives: No Child Left Behind

Bush/Obama Ed Reform: The Road to Glory

The utter collapse of ed reform in 2016 and beyond really hasn’t received much notice in the mainstream media, although the conservative branch of the old movement certainly talks about it. So prompted by Spotted Toad, I’m expanding (of course), the rise and eventual fall that I began in response to a question in a comments section.  As an aside, if you haven’t read Spotted Toad’s outstanding article referencing this collapse, do so after finishing this piece, however long it becomes, the better to appreciate his sublime analogy.

While education reformers were of both the left (Howard Fuller, Theodore Sizer, Andrew Rotherham) and right (Checker Finn, Rick Hess), the Republican party eventually seized the agenda and made it their own. Most teachers (raises hand) considered the GOP adoption as a weapon to weaken teachers’ unions, but motives aside, the school reform movement was traditionally considered as conservative policy, primarily because teachers, whose unions are very much of the left, were the opposition. But ultimately, education reform efforts in this era were shared and then arguably taken over by Democrats.

Beginnings

Understand that there’s always education reform going on in our country, so I’ll be specific: in the late 80s/90s, several highly influential books created momentum for specific public school reforms. Public education was, these people argued, corrupt, inefficient, incompetent, and expensive. Proposals to address its failures fell into three categories, broadly. First, give parents public money to spend freely on their own educational choices. Second, invest and examine instruction and curriculum. Finally, tie up federal education funds with demands that the dollars are being spent well, holding schools accountable. (For more on choice and accountability, see my thoughts here.)

Charters

During the Clinton administration, Democrats were still eager to prove they weren’t McGovern leftists.  California and Minnesota already had authorized charter schools by 1993, when Clinton became president. Clinton and Congress passed a new version of the ESEA, Charter Schools Program, which gave a whole bunch of federal money to charter schools. From the start of Clinton’s presidency to the end, charter school growth increased by 1, 992 schools–literally, from 1 to 1, 993.

I was surprised to learn while preparing this piece that most states had authorized charters during the Clinton administration–by my count, 36 states had charter laws and charter schools by the time Clinton left office.

One of the two most famous charter chains and the only one that really tries to reach throughout the nation, KIPP, was founded in 1994–and arguably created the market for charters as selective schools for inner city African Americans and Hispanics whose public schools were chaotic and/or academically undemanding.  KIPP’s success, which was originally evaluated without controlled comparisons, seemed miraculous and charter advocates saw an immediately compelling “killer app” (to use the parlance of  the times). While many advocates were honestly interested in improving educational outcomes for poor African American and Hispanic students, it’s hard to believe they would have gotten as much funding for their efforts if wealthy conservative organizations didn’t see the growth of charters as a way to wipe out teachers’ unions and their Democratic party donations. It’s hard to escape noticing that neither educational advocates nor charter funders have ever been much interested in improving academic outcomes for poor whites.

Alternative Teacher Credentialing

In 1990, billionaire Ross Perot gave half a million dollars to Wendy Kopp to help her get a new organization,Teach for America, off the ground. Based on the premise that the education gap was created by ignorant teachers, Kopp got corporate funding and political support by making it attractive for elite college graduates to teach for a few years in inner city schools. TFA attracted idealist 22 year olds who also, pragmatically, saw the value of a TFA stint on their resume–as Kopp herself put it, she wanted TFA to be the equivalent of a Rhodes scholar award.

It was during the Clinton era that it first became common to think of public school teachers as dull mediocrities. Credential tests for elementary school teachers started to show up in state requirements by the late 1980s, and the Higher Education Act of 1998 required them. Eager to dethrone ed schools as a means of teacher production, education reformers succeeded in including a requirement for ed schools to publish their credential pass rates, certain that outrage at teacher incompetence would push parents and politicians to join with reformers in demanding alternate education credential paths.

Republicans had been targeting teacher tenure and unions as the obstacles to educational excellence since at least “A Nation at Risk”. But Terry Moe, a Democrat, started making such heresy popular among Democrats (at least the neoliberals, as some called them) in the late 80s. Increasingly, critics of  teachers held them responsible for student test scores, and compared them unfavorably to non-union charters.

Governance

Another notable development during the Clinton era was the high school exit exam, although the media really only began to notice during the Bush and Obama administrations. A number of states had very simple exit exams (called MCE for minimum competency exam) in the 1970s, but the “Nation at Risk” report led to the cancellation of many of these. Texas instituted a more difficult test in 1985; that’s the earliest I could find of a more typical high school exam requirement. But the rise of the modern high school exit exam is definitely linked to the Clinton administration. Somewere between 24 and 26 states required a high school exit exam by 2002, and increasingly these exams required passage for a diploma.

(note: I added the above the next day.)

Ascending to Glory

In 2000, George W. Bush’s election put school reform in the driver’s seat. For the next dozen years, reformers achieved almost all of their major policy goals with two consecutive, supportive presidents–as my title notes, the era will be named after them. There’s at least one book on the subject already.

No Child Left Behind

The decade started with the rewrite of ESEA famous enough to get its own name: No Child Left Behind.  NCLB was bipartisan; Democrats George Miller and Edward Kennedy were co-sponsors. Accountability was always a key component in the education reform agenda. In a nutshell, NCLB required that all students in all categories score at proficient or higher by 2014,  leading to the absurd demand that all students be above average. Schools that didn’t meet what was called “adequate yearly progress” in state-defined proficiency were put on “program improvement’;  students were allowed to go to any other public school that accepted them. Oddly enough, the threat of students leaving wasn’t all that terrible, as students who wanted to go to charters were already leaving, and public schools weren’t terribly interested in accepting students outside their geographic district. But there was plenty left that was horrible about program improvement, including the never-ending relentless focus on test scores.

TFA had solid growth during the Bush era, although it wasn’t the soaring rates that they’d see next term.

Charters

Absolute growth slowed from 2001 to 2011.  As a percentage, though, the decline from 2001 to 2011 was steep, slowed slightly but still declined through 2017. Part of this is because most states had authorized charters before the Bush administration; from 2001 to 2008 Iowa, Maryland, New Hampshire, Tennessee, and Wyoming authorized charters.

However, charters saw a major boost because of a natural disaster. Education reformers were a little too ecstatic about the “opportunity” provided by Hurricane Katrina, when the Louisiana legislature summarily fired the vast majority of New Orleans teachers, 71% of whom were black women, in order to turn New Orleans’ schools over to the State Recovery District. (More than half of these teachers never taught again.) New Orleans became a predominantly charter school district after that, and less than 50% of its teaching population is black (as of five years ago).

New Orleans became the crucible for education reformers. Finally, they’d been able to completely scrub (one might say bleach) a school district and redefine it the way they thought schools would run. Overwhelmingly, they believed that New Orleans would serve as an impetus for more cities to go full charter, or at least full-scale choice.

Another famous charter network, Success Academy, was founded in 2006 when Eva Moskowitz lost her election for the NYC council and needed a backup job.

Charters were still being primarily targeted as a method to improve black and Hispanic student outcomes, but Summit Prep in the Bay Area, California was began as a suburban charter in 2003.

Governance

School and district takeovers continued to be an important strategy to institute charters and choice. TFA alum Michelle Rhee was appointed the head of Washington DC schools by mayor Adrian Fenty after the DC Board of Education was stripped of its power.  Joel Klein, with Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s support, instituted choice throughout the NYC school system and supported dramatic growth in charters.

The outcry against ed schools got stronger, aided in no small part by the National Council on Teacher Quality (which, in my view, is the educational equivalent of the Southern Poverty Law Center). Founded in 2004, NCTQ is well-known for providing research fodder for sympathetic education reformers that is generally ignored by teachers, even more than they ignore most research.

NCLB built on the 1998 Higher Education Act to require that all states define “highly qualified teachers” that test in through credential test or other rigorous standard.  In many states, middle school teachers had to meet the same requirements as high school teachers (although existing teachers were grandfathered in). The credential test created significant challenges for new black and Hispanic teachers.

One crushing blow, however, to ed school critics, was the failure of the 1998 HEA to create an ed school ranking system. Ed schools were required to publish their graduates’ credential test pass rate which critics expected to be low for many schools. This, they hoped, would create a ranking system and thus an opening for alternate credentialing programs to break the near-monopoly of university-based ed schools. Alas, ed schools bit hard on a bullet and simply denied diplomas to any ed school candidates who couldn’t pass the credential tests. Thus, the vast majority of ed schools had a 100% pass rate, and alternative ed school programs simply copied the prevailing requirements. Curses! foiled again.

However, this new ed school policy, coupled with NCLB’s demands for teacher quality, led to many black and Hispanic teachers losing their jobs. In the 90s, ed schools simply issued diplomas to everyone who completed a program, leaving the credential test an open issue. Teachers who couldn’t pass the tests (a disproportionately black and Hispanic population) just applied for an emergency credential and kept teaching with that, sometimes for years. No Child Left Behind eliminated the emergency credential, thus forcing teachers, sometimes with a decade or more experience, to take the credential tests.

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So this became much longer than I expected. I split it into two sections.


Education Reform with Beer and Bourbon

Tis my wont to recount conversations with colleagues and students by assigning them pseudonyms similar to their real names.  However, the debates I describe here weren’t with work folks, but two public figures, each quite well-known in their own field. Identifying them would not only compromise my own pseudonymity, but also be a bit too much like (heh) talking out of school.   Simply assigning them similar names might help someone figure out their identities as well.

Therefore, I’ve chosen to name the two men for the booze imbibed whilst debate was underway.

My first sparring partner is very well-known in education reform circles; anyone who reads or writes about ed policy would at least know his name. We met in a pub, a good one, and went through easily four rounds before dinner crossed our minds. And so he is Beer.

The second man is more famous than the first in any absolute sense. He’s frequently on TV where his name is met with applause, and writes for a major political magazine. If I described his achievements even in the most generic sense, most Republicans would be able to identify him. I met him in a bar with other fans, after he gave a speech (not at the bar), and Maker’s Mark was flowing free, so he’s Bourbon.

Bourbon doesn’t talk or present like an elite, but his educational resume reads like one. Describing Beer’s educational history would give away his identity, but suffice it to say a simple google doesn’t give up his alma mater, although he has one. Beer spent some time teaching K-12 in high poverty schools. Bourbon has not taught K-12, poverty or otherwise.

Beer’s views are difficult to predict, save his primary cause, which I can’t describe because it would instantly identify him. Bourbon, who is not involved with education in any real sense, holds utterly typical conservative views: choice, more choice, and more choice still, vouchers good, unions suck. In both cases, I knew this going in. I’ve read both men’s work for years.

As to my own participation, the setting with Beer is right in my zone. We talked for easily three hours. I had plenty of time to lose track, retrack, restate, dig deep, hop around, zing his boss with a clever tag (he laughed).  I was at my best.

Bourbon, on the other hand, was a celebrity giving time to fans. I was one of many. He was generously sharing his time with everyone.  It was a good time for an elevator speech, and, er, well. I write something under 1000 words, it’s a big day. Short enough for three floors, I don’t do. Paradigm-shifting takes time and in this case I’d never really expected education policy to emerge as a topic. So I don’t know what sort of impression I left. At my best, for better or worse,  people remember me. I’m not sure Bourbon would.

Wait. Trump-voting teacher,  three credentials, thinks charters and choice are overrated and expensive.

He’ll remember me.

Anyway.  While I enjoyed both encounters tremendously,  I’m writing about them because both Beer and Bourbon made comments that helped me to see past the end of this era of education reform. Both men, in the midst of discussions about various education policy issues, waved off an issue that was a foundational basis for the modern education reform movement.

In Beer’s case, we were discussing his ready acceptance of cherrypicking charters. Because charter school attendance isn’t a right linked directly to geography, as it is for public schools, charters can be selective. There are academically selective chartersimmigrant only charters, Muslim-run charters. Despite all these obvious cases, the major public argument is about the technically open charters (KIPP, Success, other no excuses charters) and whether or not they are secretly selective. The research is pretty conclusive on this point, much as charter advocates deny it.

But Beer shrugged this off. “I want charters to skim. I want them to be selective.”

I was taken aback. “I mean, come on.  Go back to the mid-90s when charters started taking off. The entire argument for charters was ‘failing public schools’. The whole point was that the failure of public education was located in the public schools themselves: unions, bad teachers, stupid rules, curriculum, whatever. Charter schools, freed from all those stupid laws, but open to everyone, could do better automatically simply by not being those rules bound public schools. Now you’re saying that they can’t actually do better unless they skim, unless they have different discipline rules.”

“Yeah.”

“But….that won’t scale.”

Shrug.

“And you’re going to increase segregation, probably, since if charters can skim then they’re going to focus more on homogeneity.”

Shrug. “I want as many kids to get as good an education as possible. Skim away.”

I don’t want to continue, because I don’t want to get his arguments wrong. And for this particular piece, the shrug is the point.

So now, on to Bourbon who was waxing eloquent on the uselessness of unions, one large one (with which I am unaffiliated) in particular.

“They’re losing kids because their schools suck. It’s not money.  They’ve had billions. They want more, more, always more. Charters just do a better job and don’t whine for money.”

“Well, charters get to pick and choose their kids. But leaev that aside, charters aren’t ever going to end public schools. Catholic schools in inner cities have been almost obliterated. and even  private schools are getting hurt bad by charters, with declining enrollment. Once you offer basically private school at public prices, then many people who would otherwise pay private are going to go for the free option.”

“That’s fine.”

“Wait, what? You’re arguing in favor of a government policy that kills private enterprise?”

“Sure. Well, I reject your premise that private schools are being hurt all that bad by charters. But if so, so what?”

I can only imagine the look on my face. “So you’re arguing against free markets and private enterprise?”

“No that’s what I’m arguing for. Free markets. Parental choice.”

“But no. You are arguing for public schools to be able to act like private schools. That’s government intervention. If the public option allows discrimination and selectivity,  there’s no need for private.”

“Great.”

“But then you’re moving all the teachers from the private market into the public market–meaning higher salaries, higher pensions, more government costs. And because these are basically private schools, so you can cap–so there will be even more teachers, thus creating shortages, driving up salaries, driving up costs.”

“So?”

“SO?”

I wasn’t mad. I was genuinely perplexed. Again, I’ll stop there, because I don’t want to recreate any part of a debate that I didn’t have down cold. In this case, as in Beer’s, I am certain that this was my understanding of Bourbon’s position, and I’m at least reasonably sure I had it right.

Like most teachers, I see the modern education reform movement (choice and accountability legs) as being fueled by two things. Funding the effort were billionaire Republicans or elitist technocrats, the first dedicated to killing the Democrat fundraising monster known as teacher unions, the second dedicated to upgrading a non-meritocratic profession. Nothing personal, that’s just how we see it.

But on the surface, where it counted, the argument for education reform focused on “failing schools”, caused by incompetent and stupid teachers, creating a horrible racial achievement gap because lazy teachers didn’t believe all students could succeed.

[Note: The actual arguments were often more nuanced than that, with many choice advocates like Cato and Jay Greene arguing for all choice and no accountability, and others arguing that all students, regardless of race, deserved the education of their choice. But the bottom line sale, the one designed to gain the support of a public who loved their own schools, was the let’s get poor kids out of failing schools pitch.}

A while back at Steve Sailer’s blog, I wrote a short synopsis of the rise and fall of the modern education reform era, and I probably should rewrite it for here sometime. I’ve also written at length about it here, notably “Good Teaching” and the Failure of Education ReformEnd of Education Reform?, and Charters: The Center Won’t Hold.

So the modern education reform movement will probably be dated in the future from either 1991 (first charter) or 1995, the year when the Public Charter Schools Program began, through the early heady days when people were allowed to say that KIPP was ending the achievement gap, the 1998 Higher Education Act, which advocates thought would kill ed schools, through No Child Left Behind,  onto New York becoming an all choice district, to Hurricane Katrina allowing the New Orleans’ conversion to an all-charter district, Race to the Top waivers, Common Core, and then the unspooling: Adrian Fenty getting thrown out of office on account of Michelle Rhee (who has apparently left education entirely), Common Core opposition leading to a massive repudiation of all forms of federal accountability, teacher unions rising in red states after Janus was supposed to end union power entirely, and the wholesale rewrite of the ESEA that wiped out most of the reforms won during the Bush/Obama era. Education reformers understand these are dark days, even though the mainstream media appears to have no idea anything happened.

Charters are ed reform’s one happy place. For the moment, they are still popular. Why not? They are, as I say, private schools at public prices.  Although everyone should look carefully at California, which is considering not only giving charter control to districts, but also restricting TFA and other alternative teacher programs.  Taxpayers may finally care about the issues that didn’t trouble Bourbon.

But as so much else falls away from their grasp, it’s instructive to see both an ed reformer and a conservative shrug off aspects of charters that the original case argued strongly against. Charters were supposed to weaken teachers, but unlimited charters coupled with strong federal laws will only increase their scarcity. Charters were supposed to improve the achievement gap for all kids, but now they’ll just do so for a lucky few.

Or am I missing something?

Anyway. They were great arguments, and have given me much to mull. My thanks to Beer and Bourbon–both the men and the booze.

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I met some other cool people at the Bourbon event, and at some point in the evening, I mentioned I write a blog.

One guy said, “Wow, that’s dangerous for a teacher.”

“Indeed, which is why it’s an anonymous blog.”

“Really? I read a blog written by an anonymous teacher from this area who voted for Trump.”

I laughed. “Well, if that’s true, then you read me, although I never say what area I’m from.”

“It can’t be you.”

“I’m crushed.”

“No, no, I just mean…it’s not you.”

“OK, then I’d love to know who it is, because as far as I know I’m the only anonymous teacher blogger, Trump voter or otherwise, from this area.”

He got out his phone, brought up his Twitter account, and clicked on a profile. “This you?”

And reader, it was.

First time I’ve met my audience!


“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:

danarocco

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.


The Many Failings of Value-Added Modeling

Scott Alexander reviews the research on value-added models measuring teacher quality1. While Scott’s overview is perfectly fine, any such effort is akin to a circa 1692 overview of the research literature on alchemy. Quantifying teacher quality will, I believe, be understood in those terms soon enough.

High School VAM is Impossible

I have many objections to the whole notion of modeling what value a teacher adds, but top of the idiocy heap is how little attention is paid to the fact that VAM is only even possible with elementary school teachers. First, reading and basic math are the primary learning objectives of years 1-5. Second, elementary schools think of reading and math ability in terms of grade level. Finally, elementary teachers or their schools have considerable leeway in allocating instruction time by subject.

Now, go to high school (of which middle school is, as always, a pale imitation with similar issues). We don’t evaluate student reading skills by grade level, but rather “proficiency”. We don’t say “this 12th grader reads at the 10th grade level”. We have 12th graders who read at the 8th grade level, of course. We have 12th graders who read at the third grade level. But we don’t acknowledge this in our test scores, and so high school tests can’t measure reading progress. Which is good, because high school teachers aren’t tasked with reading instruction, so we wouldn’t expect students to make much progress. What’s that? Why don’t we teach reading instruction in high school, if kids can’t read at high school level, you ask? Because we aren’t allowed to. High school students with remedial level skills have to wait until college acknowledges their lack of skills.

And that’s reading, where at least we have a fighting shot of measuring progress, even though the tests don’t currently measure it–if we had yearly tests, which of course we don’t. Common Core ended yearly high school tests in most states. Math, it’s impossible because we pass most kids (regardless of ability) into the next class the next year, so there’s no “progress”, unless we measure kids at the beginning and end of the year, which introduces more tests and, of course, would show that the vast majority of students entering, say, algebra 2 don’t in fact understand algebra 1. Would the end of year tests measure whether or not the students had learned algebra 1, or algebra 2?

Nor can high school legally just allocate more time to reading and math instruction, although they can put low-scoring kids in double block instruction, which is a bad, bad thing.

Scope Creep

Most teachers at all levels don’t teach tested subjects and frankly, no one really cares about teacher quality and test scores in anything other than math or reading, but just pretend on everything else. Which leads to a question that proponents answer implicitly by picking one and ignoring the other: do we measure teacher quality to improve student outcomes or to spend government dollars effectively?

If the first, then what research do we have that art teachers, music teachers, gym teachers, or, god save us, special education teachers improve student outcomes? (answer: none.) If the second, then what evidence do we have that the additional cost of testing in all these additional topics, as well as the additional cost of defending the additional lawsuits that will inevitably arise as these teachers attack the tests as invalid, will be less strain on the government coffers than the cost of the purportedly inadequate teachers? What research do we have that any such tests on non-academic subjects are valid even as measures of knowledge, much less evidence of teacher validity?

None, of course. Which is why you see lawsuits by elective teachers pointing out it’s a tad unfair to be judged on the progress of students they’ve never actually met, much less taught. While many of those lawsuits get overturned as unfair but not constitutional, the idiocy of these efforts played no small part in the newest version of the federal ESEA, the ESSA, killed the student growth measure (SGM) requirement.

So while proponents might argue that math and English score growth have some relationship to teacher quality in those subjects, they can’t really argue for testing all subjects. Sure, people can pretend (a la Common Core) that history and science teachers have an impact on reading skills, but we have no mechanism to, and are years away from, changing instruction and testing in these topics to require reading content and measuring the impact of that specific instruction in that specific topic. And again, that’s just reading. Not math, where it’s easy enough to test students on their understanding of math in science and history, but very difficult to tangle out where that instruction came from. Of course, this is only an issue after elementary school. See point one.

Abandoning false gods

For the past 20 years or so, school policy has been about addressing “preparation”, which explains the obsession with elementary school. Originally, the push for school improvement began in high school. Few people realize or acknowledge these days that the Nation at Risk, that polemic seen as groundbreaking by education reformers but kind of, um, duh? by any regular people who take the time to read it, was entirely focused on high school, as can be ascertained by a simple perusal of its findings and recommendations. Stop coddling kids with easy classes, make them take college prep courses! That’s the ticket. It’s the easy courses, the low high school standards that cause the problem. Put all kids in harder classes. And so we did, with pretty disastrous results through the 80s. Many schools began tracking, but Jeannie Oakes and disparate impact lawsuits put an end to that.

I’m not sure when the obsession with elementary school began because I wasn’t paying close attention to ed policy during the 90s. But at some point in the early 90s, it began to register that putting low-skilled kids in advanced high school classes was perhaps not the best idea, leading to either fraud or a lot of failing grades, depending on school demographics. And so, it finally dawned on education reformers that many high school students weren’t “academically prepared” to manage the challenging courses that they had in mind. Thus the dialogue turned to preparing “underserved” students for high school. Enter KIPP and all the other “no excuses” charters which, as I’ve mentioned many times, focus almost entirely on elementary school students.

In the early days of KIPP, the scores seemed miraculous. People were bragging that KIPP completely closed the achievement gap back then, rather than the more measured “slight improvement controlling for race and SES” that you hear today. Ed reformers began pushing for all kids to be academically prepared, that is hey! Let’s make sure no child is left behind! And so the law, which led to an ever increasing push for earlier reading and math instruction, because hey, if we can just be sure that all kids are academically prepared for challenging work by high school, all our problems will be fixed.

Except, alas, they weren’t. I believe that the country is nearing the end of its faith in the false god of elementary school test scores, the belief that the achievement gap in high school is caused simply by not sufficiently challenging black and Hispanic kids in elementary school. Two decades of increasing elementary scores to the point that they appear to have topped out, with nary a budge in high school scores has given pause. Likewise, Rocketship, KIPP, and Success Academy have all faced questions about how their high-scoring students do in high school and college.

As I’ve said many times, high school is brutally hard compared to elementary school. The recent attempt to genuinely shove difficulty down earlier in the curriculum went over so well that the new federal law gave a whole bunch of education rights back to the states as an apology. Kidding. Kind of.

And so, back to VAM….Remember VAM? This is an essay about VAM. Well, all the objections I pointed out above–the problems with high school, the problems with specific subject teachers–were mostly waved away early on, because come on, folks, if we fix elementary school and improve instruction there, everything will fall into place! Miracles will happen. Cats will sleep with dogs. Just like the NCLB problem with 100% above average was waved away because hey, by them, the improvements will be sooooo wonderful that we won’t have to worry about the pesky statistical impossibilities.

I am not sure, but it seems likely that the fed’s relaxed attitude towards test scores has something to do with the abandonment of this false idol, which leads inevitably to the reluctant realization that perhaps The Nation At Risk was wrong, perhaps something else is involved with academic achievement besides simply plopping kids in the right classes. I offer in support the fact that Jerry Brown, governor of California, has remained almost entirely unscathed for shrugging off the achievement gap, saying hey, life’s a meritocracy. Who’s going to be a waiter if everyone’s “elevated” into some important job? Which makes me wonder if Jerry reads my blog.

So if teacher’s don’t make any difference and VAM is pointless, how come any yutz can’t become a teacher?

No one, ever, has argued that teachers don’t make any difference. What they do say is that individual teacher qualities make very little difference in student test scores and/or student academic outcomes, and the differences aren’t predictable or measurable.

If I may quote myself:

Teaching, like math, isn’t aspirin. It’s not medicine. It’s not a cure. It is an art enhanced by skills appropriate to the situation and medium, that will achieve all outcomes including success and failure based on complex interactions between the teachers and their audience. Treat it as a medicine, mandate a particular course of treatment, and hundreds of thousands of teachers will simply refuse to comply because it won’t cure the challenges and opportunities they face.

And like any art, teaching is not a profession that yields to market justice. Van Gogh died penniless. Bruces Dern and Davison are better actors than Chrisses Hemsworth and Evans, although their paychecks would never know it. Teaching, like art and acting, runs the range from velvet Elvis paint by numbers to Renoir, from Fast and Furious to Short Cuts. There are teaching superstars, and journeyman teachers, and the occasional lousy teacher who keeps working despite this–just as Rob Scheider still finds work, despite being so bad that Roger Ebert wrote a book about it.

Unlike art and acting, teaching is a government job. So while actors will get paid lots of money to pretend to be teachers, the job itself will never lead to the upside achieved by the private sector, despite the many stories about famous Korean tutors. Upside, practicing our craft won’t usually lead to poverty, except perhaps in North Carolina.

Most teachers understand this. It’s the outside world and the occasional short-termers who want teachers to be rewarded for excellence. Most teachers don’t support merit pay and vehemently oppose “student growth measures”.

The country appears to be moving towards a teacher shortage. I anticipate all talk of VAM to vanish. But if you want to improve teacher quality beyond its current much-better-than-it’s-credited condition, I suggest we consider limiting the scope of public education. Four of these five education policy proposals will do just that.

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1 I was writing this up in the comments section of Scott Alexander’s commentary on teacher VAM research, when I remembered I was behind on my post quota. What the heck. I’m turning this into a post. It’s a long answer, but not as long-winded as Scott Alexander, the one blogger who makes me feel brusque.


Ed Schools and Affirmative Action

Education policy rarely—hell, let’s say never—results in anticipated consequences. But usually, this acknowledgment turns our thoughts to bleak, dark places.

So let’s think of the one time when an education policy’s unanticipated consequences actually had a reasonably positive outcome—and opportunity for a chuckle. I speak, of course, of the 1998 Higher Education Act, specifically Title II, section 206: “Increasing success in the pass rate for initial State teacher certification or licensure, or increasing the numbers of highly qualified individuals being certified or licensed as teachers through alternative programs.”

The plan: force education schools to report their students’ licensure pass rates.

The pass rates were widely expected to be dismal. According to Sandra Stotsky, the 60% failure rate seen in Massachussetts, which had instituted a similar requirement a few years earlier, had provoked the federal law. The Democrats behind the bipartisan bill expected to see a tiered system result, with ed schools ranked by their licensure test pass rates. Those schools with pass rates below 80% would improve or be shot and put out of their misery. It’d be like law school.

The Republican politicians and reformers of all denominations saw this as a means of destabilizing the evil cartel. They were certain that all the ed schools would have low pass rates. It was not a coincidence that the 1998 law required states to provide alternative certification paths to a credential. Alternative certification was actually the secret sauce of the 1998 law which would, its advocates fantasized, enable an organic move from ed schools to alternative certification programs. Parents would learn that ed schools turned out students with abysmally low pass rates on simple tests, so they’d demand that their children’s schools hire from only those schools with high pass rates. Faced with the realization that traditional ed schools turned out simpletons, parents would join reformers in a push for alternative certification.

So you can imagine the anticipation back in November, 2001, when the first Title II report was released online. It got 7000 hits—no doubt all of them from ed school critics, eager to curate a list of dismal passing rates, looking for a high-profile target.

and…what’s this? They all passed?

Well. I laughed, anyway.

Ed schools had been accepting and graduating students who they knew wouldn’t pass the licensure test, in the name of affirmative action. Faced with a threat, they sacrificed their ideology and commitment to collect money from underprivileged students wanting a college degree, and made a new rule: No pass, no diploma.

And so, the much-anticipated Title II reports showed that most ed schools had 100% passing rates. All but a very few easily bested the 80% barrier. Far from showing a picture of unprepared, low quality candidates, the Title II reports gave a glowing picture of competence.

The “tiered” results dreamed of by the law’s supporters? Useless. As an example, just one of Kentucky’s 25 ed schools that first year had a low passing rate of 55%, while the others were all above the minimum. So schools with 93% passing rates were in the third tier. Definitely not planned. Several states reported 100% passing rates—California, for example, which doesn’t credential teachers with an undergraduate education degree, simply required all candidates to pass the tests to gain admission.

A simple policy change rendered the law irrelevant. And expensive, alas–states spend lots of money turning out largely useless reports.

(Here’s a more measured account of the law’s intent and why it went off the rails.)

Much gnashing of teeth ensued, much castigation, many claims that the tests were incredibly easy, testing just basic skills, so of course the passing rate was so high. They accused ed schools of gaming the requirement, states of lowering the pass rate. They castigated ed schools for having such low standards, for cheating, for wasting the government’s time. For a taste of the frustration and near rage of the enjoy this 2002 Edtrust diatribe or the NCTQ wishlist.

Critics regrouped. Subsequent retoolings of the law attempted to thwart the ed schools—for example, ed schools now have to report their student score average against the state average– and lord knows NCTQ knows how to push for meaningless requirements, but it’s been pretty much game over ever since. While alternative teacher certification programs have grown, ed schools aren’t worried about their market share. It still takes a lot of work and education to become a teacher. (Before you wave TFA at me–they all still go to ed school, Relay or otherwise.)

But the attempt to destabilize or “improve” ed schools was lost, and the proponents knew it. How extremely annoying. No differentiation, no high profile targets, no rationale to get the public pushing for alternative certification programs.

Ed schools were angry right back, of course, but you have to figure they had a whole bunch of smug in there. I mean, seriously, who could get mad at ed schools for requiring their candidates to pass the licensure tests? Wasn’t the point to raise teacher quality? In your face, Snidely. Foiled you again.

That’s the end of the funny part.

The strategy wasn’t free. Ed schools couldn’t commit affirmative action, at least not as most colleges do.

Ironic, really, that the profession notorious for its supposedly lax standards, is the only profession that denies itself the opportunity to give underrepresented minorities a chance at a good government job. This reality is utterly obscured liars or fools like Arne Duncan (your choice) complaining that a 95% pass rate shows the lack of rigor.

Reality: most of the tests are appropriately rigorous, and the pass rate is considerably less than 95%.

licensuretestpic

When people refer to the “high passing rate” of licensure exams, they’re either deliberately deceitful or extremely ill-informed. The exams leave carnage in their wake when all testers are considered, not just ed school graduates, and a substantial portion of that carnage is black and Hispanic.

We all know that many college students, indeed, many college graduates, lack basic skills. We all know that these individuals are, overwhelmingly but not exclusively, black and Hispanic. Colleges let them in and then graduate them anyway, both out of ideological zeal and a reasonable fear of lawsuits.

But alone among all the professions, the majority of prospective undergraduate teachers are now required to demonstrate that they have a given skill set (set by each state, much to the feds’ chagrin) at some point before they graduate. At the graduate level, they have to pass the test just to get in. Ed schools can’t use a different standard to accept black and Hispanic candidates. They are limited to those blacks and Hispanics that can both pass the tests and want to be teachers. And most ed schools aren’t selective, so those candidates are in, anyway.

I’m oversimplifying. Some ed schools are dedicated to underrepresented minorities: HCBU ed schools , and some smaller colleges who swallow the low pass rate on their Title II report for the tuition. Alternative credential programs, once envisioned as the elite corps of folks too good for traditional ed schools, are more commonly a means to produce black and Hispanic teachers, as they are immune from the Title II reports, and passing the tests is their primary curricular objective.

But traditional ed schools, both public and elite, the ones producing the bulk of all teachers, can’t realistically provide that extensive training for a small number of students, so they “counsel out” those who don’t pass the Praxis by a certain date–or require passage for admission.

But, you say, the tests have cut scores, set far below the average. Well duh. That’s because the states don’t want to shut out blacks and Hispanics. That’s where the affirmative action sneaks in—not by ed schools, but by the states, in setting the cut scores.

I don’t know the specifics of the math involved in setting the cut score. But it seems obvious that the bulk of whites (and Asians determined to infuriate their parents) are easily clearing the cut score—or the mean would be lower. It seems equally obvious that very few blacks and Hispanics are easily clearing the cut score—or the cut score would be higher. I suspect the cut scores for elementary school are letting through more than optimal, but I can’t find any data on this. The cut score is lower than the average, but not that many people are scoring far below that average—and they are disproportionately black and Hispanic, just as the states want.

Not only did most ed schools begin to require a passing score prior to graduation, but states raised the cut scores (still below the average, though) in response to No Child Left Behind. The mean scores jumped dramatically, both as a group and by race:

ETSsatpraxisverbal ETSsatpraxismath

The average scores by race, coupled with the average SAT scores for each type of teacher, suggest that the bulk of Hispanic and black passing the test are elementary school teachers.

Before the 1998 Act, many blacks and Hispanics ed school graduates who didn’t pass the test got an emergency license, which doesn’t require a test, and hired by schools on that basis, using the fiction that they were working towards their credential. No Child Left Behind cracked down on emergency credentials and closed this loophole. The ETS report points out that a disproportionately high number of Praxis testers from 2002-2005 were employed teachers who either had an emergency or otherwise unqualified credential, and these testers were disproportionately black. The Clarence Mumford ring’s clients were often black teachers with emergency credentials, as well as clients who couldn’t pass the original test.

This may be why there wasn’t a huge fuss about the failure of many black candidates to pass the Praxis in the 90s–they were able to get teaching jobs. Or maybe there was a fuss and google just doesn’t like me.

So most public and elite ed schools can’t commit affirmative action, can’t accept wholly unqualified candidates in the name of the diversity, take their money, push them through classes they don’t really understand, pressure professors into giving passing grades, graduate them, and let them figure out after it’s all over that they can’t pass the licensure test.

In other words, ed schools can’t be law schools.

This all came about because reformers and politicians had this bizarre delusion that the quality of the ed school had something to do with the licensure test pass rates, when in fact the licensure pass rates have everything to do with the quality of the student body.

So the 1998 law and the follow-on restrictions of NCLB, restrictions based on a profound underestimation of an average teacher’s intellect, didn’t even come close to having their desired impact. Meanwhile, the laws inadvertently took away the dream of teaching for many black and Hispanic teachers. The media steadfastly ignores this and wonders gravely where all the black and Hispanic teachers went.

I can’t see the change as a bad thing; while some of the black and Hispanic ed school grads who couldn’t pass the test found jobs with emergency credentials, I doubt they all did.

This way, eventually, the feds and the states will be forced to realize they need to lower cut scores, at least for elementary school teachers, if they want to have more black and Hispanic teachers. This, too, I see as a good thing.

But as I started with a chuckle, so I shall finish: the idea that Teach for America’s “diversity” is in some way comparable and thus superior to ed schools. That’s really, really funny.

If you’ve been paying attention, you’re wondering how the hell TFA recruited so many blacks capable of passing the license tests. Yeah, me, too. I have some ideas. Another post.