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John Thompson: Are Conservative "Reformers" Bailing Out?

Guest post by John Thompson.

Perhaps because they demonstrably lost the 2012 election, conservative school "reformers" are being much more candid about why bubble-in accountability has failed. A month ago, conservatives were united in their support of Indiana Superintendent Tony Bennett, Idaho's "Luna Laws," and other efforts to dramatically expand high-stakes testing. Now, conservative Mike Petrilli is not alone in admitting that, "Top-down, one-size-fits-all efforts such as formulaic teacher evaluations tend to overemphasize the high-stakes testing that can take the joy out of learning. Parents and teachers in richer areas typically hate this pressure."

Similarly, conservative Andy Smarick can now recognize the scientific fact that, "evaluation-reform laws may have been passed too quickly and that those laws, so certain of their own righteousness and unaware of the countless complications lurking around every corner, left too little discretion to policy administrators." Now that he is "a recovering state policymaker," Smarick can attest to the yawning gap between policy and practice and how challenging it is to bridge." So, he sees the next shoe that will drop as state and local leaders "try desperately to implement the big-promise policies."

Conservative and liberal "reformers" were joined at the hip in supporting top down mandates by the Obama administration that put NCLB-type testing on steroids. Now, presumably, conservatives will step back at let the Democrats take the full blame for Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, and other coercive policies that by "any fair accounting, got way out ahead of practice."

Conservative Kathleen Porter-Magee is a former teacher who has long shown a willingness to balance her allies' ideological presuppositions with facts on the ground. She attributes the failure of "reformers" to their "group think," and worries that their feelings of misguided certainty may drive them to an educational "Bay of Pigs." She says the true believers in test-driven accountability have suffered from:

  • a feeling of moral superiority among group members;
  • collective rationalization, where members discount warnings or fail to rethink assumptions;
  • overly negative and stereotypical views of the groups "enemies"
  • and censorship of dissenting opinion--either via self-censorship or direct pressure put on those who disagree. If the unions or the most vocal anti-reformers were against it, it must be a good idea.

Kathleen Porter-Magee even questions the fundamental assumption that the only cure for our dysfunctional school systems is rapid transformational change. She agrees that "Time is of the essence, but moving quickly at the expense of smart decisions and effective policies is worse than doing nothing at all."

Part of the reason, I fear, that conservative reformers can be more honest than their liberal counterparts is that they, alone, have an exit strategy. Conservatives can conclude that they tried to work within "the status quo," and learned that public schools are irredeemable. They can then move, supposedly in sorrow, to the next logical step - privatization.

On the other hand, the desire by conservative, liberal, and neoliberal "reformers" to unleash more market forces could have an upside. Perhaps I'm naïve, but "The Hangover: Thinking about the Unintended Consequences of the Nation's Evaluation Binge," by the American Enterprise Institute, could be a step toward a new approach to accountability. Written by Andrew Rotherham and other Bellwhether consultants who have roots in the Democratic "reform" efforts of the 1990s, much of the report is diplomatic about the ways that the Obama administration and other reformers "could" have erred by focusing too much on systems for dismissing teachers. (I wonder if it was Bellwhether or the AEI who drafted the title.) The Forward is written by conservative Rick Hess, and he stresses one of the paper's most provocative (and true) statements, "the recent evaluation binge is not without risks...headlong rushes inevitably produce unintended consequences--something akin to a policy hangover as ideas move from conception to implementation."

"The Hangover" explains how the effort to "people proof" evaluation systems will "almost certainly result in nonnegligible numbers of both Type I (false positive) and Type II (false negative) errors. Because value-added advocates were preoccupied with the legal obstacles to using their model for firing teachers, and because they concentrated on restricting systems' ability to get around the policies, they have also tied the hands of educators seeking to be innovative.

Yes, one reason (or perhaps the main reason) why these "reformers" have seen the light on test-driven accountability is that they want to liberate charter schools and online instruction programs from its top down oversight. But, at least they explicitly acknowledge that concern. And, they articulate other truths (that should have been obvious long before they were repudiated at the polls.) Education is a people process but the accountability movement tried to drive the human element out of evaluation in a way that no other profession would have tried.

Best of all, "The Hangover" briefly mentions the most promising method of improving teacher quality - peer review. Regardless of whether this position was inspired by the teachers unions' efforts to use peer review to dismiss ineffective teachers, or whether they were more impressed by charter schools that have more sensible evaluation systems, the paper notes, "mentor teachers appear to be harder in their evaluations of teachers than principals are."

The bottom line is that we should all agree with the AEI/Bellwhether conclusion that, "Because value-added or growth measures for individual teachers are much less robust and more subject to error than those for schools--and also, in the proposed evaluation systems, often carry higher stakes--it makes little sense to implement them before, or even at the same time as, value-added or growth accountability for schools. In fact, it could undermine teacher and public trust in these systems."


Lastly, it is not just seven "reformers" who sound like they are channeling Diane Ravitch or Fair Test in condemning bubble-in accountability. Bellwhether's post-election Whiteboard Advisors "Insider Survey" found that only 12% of education policy analysts and insiders believe that that teacher evaluation laws passed in the last three years will be fully implemented. The anti-education comments by education analysts included in the survey show that many would not be disappointed if public education did not survive our reform wars. On the other hand, such contempt for public schools by many education policy makers is a given, and the split within their coalition is welcome news.

What do you think? Are "reformers" finally seeing the light in regard to value-added evaluations? Can we pry away the parts of their coalition that do not favor privatization? Will the Duncan administration also reconsider high-stakes testing as the political and educational evidence becomes even clearer?

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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