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John Thompson: New York Reformers Show Their True Colors

Guest post by John Thompson.

If nothing else, the controversy over publicizing New York City teachers' value-added scores has revealed the essence of test-driven school "reform." The contemporary data-driven accountability experiment was begun by idealists, who sincerely sought a "civil rights movement of the 21st century," but who were clueless about the realities of urban education, and now it is in shambles. Some honest reformers, like the Washington Post''s Jay's Mathews, seem to ruefully acknowledge that the bubble-in mania produced "sand castles carefully constructed on the beach."

Other accountability hawks, such as Stanford's Eric Hanushek, admit that New York's latest anti-teaching spasm is not about improving teacher quality and that, "nobody would ever advocate making personnel decisions through public posting of evaluations in the newspaper." He openly proclaims that it is a part of an "intense, broader battle underway throughout the nation." Hanushek then exemplifies the truism about war's first casualty by misrepresenting his enemies' positions. For instance, he ignores the substance of teachers' positions and claims, "the fight is between those who want to improve the schools and those who like the system as it exists today."


Righteous reformers assumed that holding teachers accountable could drive the transformational change of our schools. Many were like the Education Trust which borrowed a tactic from a late stage of the civil rights movement and mis-applied it to schools. The non-educators at the Trust assumed that the type of data used to document overt discrimination could drive the creation of an educational system that would undo the legacy of Jim Crow. By now, however, the wisdom of a reformer who is actually engaged in that battle should be clear. Charter school leader Chris Lehmann said it best. "You will never, ever bully a teacher into caring for children."

If the accountability hawks knew twenty years ago what they are finding today, it is inconceivable that they would have (to borrow the term of Stanford's Larry Cuban) "deputized" teachers as the primary cure for the ills of generational poverty. The Education Trust is led by liberal devotees of accountability who attended schools where it was unusual for children to bury the grandmothers who raised them, lose their favorite uncles to violent crime, attend multiple funerals of their classmates, and face trauma so intense that it alters their cognitive processes.

The Ed Trust's support of test-driven accountability makes sense only if we assume that the learning trajectory of students would increase predictably if it were not for incompetent teachers. But, it has now studied the value-added data publicized by Los Angeles and admits that for even the most effective teachers, 11% of their students see declines in their test scores to "below basic." And that raises the obvious "the chicken or the egg question," when when a disproportionate number of students in a class post declines in performance, is that because their teacher was ineffective or because the students endured a disproportionate number of tragedies during the year?

The Ed Trust has a long history of supporting No Child Left Behind and its naive hypothesis that the "benign bigotry of low expectations" is the root cause of educational failure, but even it accepted the reality that schools cannot be held solely responsible for students who can't make it to class. The Trust supported NCLB with its ugly compromise allowing systems to avoid accountability for chronically absent students. But now, New York "reformers" say that individual teachers should be held accountable for the test scores of students who miss more than 20% of class!?!? There is no rational justification for firing teachers because they committed to schools where vicious realities create extreme truancy. N.Y's position simply reveals the inevitable result of the sword of primitive test-driven accountability.

As New York's value-added controversies illuminate the absurdity of the bubble-in path to school improvement, we should remember that the contemporary reform movement is not a monolith. Many "reformers" still see schools from 30,000 feet and these controversies simply harden their beliefs that the "status quo" must be destroyed, regardless of the collateral damage. Others, like Bill Gates, in a New York Times Op-Ed, reject the shaming NYC's and L.A.'s teachers. Hopefully, reformers in charter schools who deal with poverty's challenges will recoil from the social engineering wing of "reform" which seems more obsessed with settling scores with teachers and unions than helping poor kids.

I hope that Gates, and other "reformers" within and without the Duncan Administration are keeping an open mind in regard to the increasing body of evidence against their faith in value-added evaluations. If they are not engaged in a "bait and switch," perhaps they will consider a truce that I have proposed. Perhaps all but the most ideological of the "reformers" could agree that we should hold each other accountable for creating high-quality Early Warning Systems for addressing absenteeism before it metastasises, and aligning interventions for children and families in their times of need. Or perhaps we can all agree that this value-added mania should be put on hold. After all, we don't want to take the next logical step and destroy great charter school teachers and principals just because they accepted the challenge that neighborhood teachers took up. If nothing else, let us reject the self-righteousness that justifies whatever it takes to destroy the educational "status quo" in order to save education.

What do you think? Might we achieve some sort of a truce along the lines suggested here?

John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.

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