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With Whom do We Stand? A Counterpoint for Education Reform

Guest post by Steve Silvius and Stephen Danley.

Consider us optimists, but we think the high-stakes test movement has reached its apex and started its decline. It won't happen quickly given the powerful political forces aligned to promote the testing regime, but the test obsessed "accountability" package for education reform won't continue indefinitely. There are too many bad policies (NCLB, Race to the Top), bad performance reports (NAEP, CREDO, last week's Mathematica study), and corruption/cheating/score inflation scandals (ATL, DC, NY, and more). If you need hope, look back at how Diane Ravitch drove an intellectual stake into the heart of the education reform movement on the Daily Show. She asked the audience how they felt about tests. When the crowd booed, Jon Stewart complained that it couldn't be that simple. Tell that to Michelle Rhee now that her reforms have faced the scrutiny of the voting public (in the DC Mayoral race but again this past Tuesday). In a democracy, eventually, the people have their say.

So excuse the optimism; we don't see how this compulsive need to measure something can continue indefinitely when even scrutiny funded by its biggest supporters reveals the intrinsic weaknesses that are all too obvious to those living with the "go test or go home" culture.

The real questions, for the increasing number of us skeptical of reform, is who can we stand with and what can we stand for? It's a problem--one that reform advocates are starting to highlight. In a recent discussion a TFA alumna argued that even if the tests themselves were not ideal, the reform movement was successful in attracting massive amounts of private dollars into education. Who else is going to do that? We are encountering these kinds of conversations more and more often. It isn't hard to convince people that the tests themselves and the testing regime are problematic, but pretty quickly they point out that the system has many problems and ask who is going to fix them. Answering this question is difficult given that the studies outlining these problems are typically funded by organizations that are promoting the testing/accountability approach (See Brian Williams' comments introducing the Gates Foundation with, "it's their facts we're going to be referring to" [our emphasis]).

And here is the crux of the problem. If we don't stand with education reform, with whom do we stand? We never thought we'd see the day when we'd bemoan bipartisanship, but both political parties have adopted the reform agenda leaving teachers unions as the only major political force in opposition. And let's face it--unions have an image problem. Teachers unions exist to protect the working rights of teachers, but the problems around evaluation and dismissal exposed over the past several years are serious. It will take a lot of effort for the unions to re-orient themselves to address these problems and take a proactive role in evaluation without giving into the pressures of the "tests count most" advocates. The unions are starting to respond to this challenge, but in many of the worst districts the history of district/union relations has seriously poisoned the well.

The pattern we're seeing is undeniable. We argue against simplistic measurements of "learning," point out the problems with behaviorist models of teaching, and reject a "transmission" model of education in which students are passive absorbers of information. We do it until we're blue in the face. But our criticisms are either: A) accepted but treated as if they have no implications; B) glossed over, or C) accepted but with the caveat that things are bad so its ok to attempt to fix them even through faulty approaches especially if those approaches bring in money. We are dismissed as obstructionist trouble-makers far outside of the mainstream.

Increasingly, we've found our conversations drifting away from the education reform narrative and towards the thorny issue of creating a cultural counterpoint to reform in which criticisms aren't easily dismissed. Ironically, we are considering taking a page out of the reform movement's book. Counter-reform could use an investment fund aimed at supporting schools rather than controlling schools and conducting holistic research rather than superficial, narrow research; we could use someone sexy to stand with.

Imagine the following scenario: a group of wealthy donors (perhaps consisting of alumni from urban schools who have first-hand experience with the weaknesses of the testing movement), match Zuckerberg's $100+ million fund. Except instead of using the money to "incentivize" further test-driven ideology, the fund focuses on giving freedom to teachers, emphasizing student power and engagement, and providing schools with the resources to offer a well-rounded curriculum without the need to focus exclusively on what will be tested.

It's not hard to see educators rallying around such a fund. Teachers would be glad to finally be treated as professionals rather than demonized. Students would welcome having some control in a school system that too-often takes them for granted. And administration would be thankful to leave the test-prep business to Kaplan and The Princeton Review and get back to the business of educating our children. Evaluations would stop playing year-to-year shenanigans with test score numbers and look at a broader and more meaningful spectrum of outcomes.

Such a fund is just a dream today, but it's already helped us start to clarify our counter reform principles and policy proposals. More importantly, we've identified what we see as a critical issue in reform: a culture of dismissing counter-reform points by calling them out of the mainstream. Even if it doesn't happen, the fund idea is a way to point that out to reform disciples. And if it does happen, when the TFA, Gates, et. al. policy cult produces the next round of demeaning Race to the Top demands, counter reformers won't have to stand individually and say, "We're against that." We'll be able to say, "We're with them".

Now, anyone have any ideas where we can find that $100 million dollars?

Stephen Silvius was born and raised in San Bernardino, CA where at the age of 17, he took his first stab at teaching when, with some friends, he developed an affordable SAT prep course for younger students at his high school. He attended Georgetown University where he studied mathematics and history. He has taught all ages of high school mathematics in Los Angeles California and received a Marshall Scholarship to study educational research methodology at Oxford University. His thesis investigated the role of authority in the discourses of secondary mathematics classrooms. He is a co-founder of orangebook.

Stephen Danley is currently a doctoral candidate at Oxford University, where he completed a Master's of Science in Comparative Social Policy, and an adjunct lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania, where he completed a Bachelor's of Arts in Philosophy, Political Science and Economics. His research specializes in local knowledge and neighborhood organizations, particularly in Post-Katrina New Orleans. Stephen worked as a Philly Fellow for the Neighborhood Interfaith Movement, is the recipient of the Marshall Scholarship, spent a summer working at the White House, and freelances for the New York Times.

They met on a Marshall Scholarship and ran an education policy discussion group together at Oxford University. You can find them on twitter at @DrStephenDanley and @SteveSilvius and sometimes posting on this erstwhile blog.

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