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Hopes for the New Year: Begone Ghosts of Reform Past!

The first few weeks of 2013 have greeted us like a trip with old Marley revisiting school reforms of the past. In the very first weeks, we have Michelle Rhee's StudentsFirst lobby announce letter grades for states based on their adherence to her favorite pillars of reform policies. John Merrow provided us with a reprise of her greatest hits as the head of DC schools, along with some news regarding the cheating that accompanied her regime.

And next the Gates Foundation has provided us with another example of the perils of mixing research with advocacy. Their multi-year, multi-million dollar Measures of Effective Teaching project has once again supported their belief that we can predict which teachers will get the best test scores next year by looking at who got the best test scores this year. The practice of actually observing a teacher to see how "effective" they are does not apparently add much accuracy to the prediction, but they keep it in there nonetheless, perhaps for sentimental reasons. Then we have tossed in a new element - student surveys. And the perfect evaluation is some balanced mixture of these three elements, which will turn VAM lead into gold.

One reformer, Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Foundation, has come right out and admitted what public school advocates have contended from the start. Many charter schools filter out difficult students, and whatever competitive performance advantages they have demonstrated are not credible evidence that they can do more with less. They can do more with more - and with fewer of the students most damaged by the scourge of poverty. Of course, Mr. Petrilli believes this ought to be celebrated, because like the Makers of Romneyan mythology, these students are "strivers," who ought to be well-served. The laggards they leave behind are of little concern. This is a frightening educational philosophy that runs counter to the main reform narrative, which has called upon civil rights rhetoric to justify school closures and charter expansion. But how can we reconcile an ethic supposedly based on equitable opportunities for all with a bare-knuckle life boat strategy that leaves many students behind to sink in under-funded public schools?

But alongside these visits from the ghosts of reforms past, we have some auspicious evidence that there may be a different future ahead.

In the state of Washington, an entire high school staff has voted to boycott the state's standardized test. These teachers are taking a big risk, and their students appreciate them for it. Can we generate support for them across the country? Will our teacher unions and professional organizations stand with them?

Last year we saw StudentsFirst chalk up some major successes at the ballot box, helping make winners of 86 of the 105 candidates they supported (and 90 of the total number were Republican) But there were signs of voters tired of no excuses reform. National Board certified teacher Glenda Ritz was the top statewide vote-getter in Indiana, and voters in Idaho rejected several questionable reform ballot measures. Could those of us devoted to strengthening public schools develop a stronger national movement that could turn back some of the efforts to standardize and privatize our schools?

This new century has brought us reminders of the late 1800s, when monopolists in America ruled the railroads and steel industry, and gripped the nation's economy tightly. Today we have monopolists at work again, and they have their hearts set on owning the profitable aspects of education. Our institutions of public education are being converted into a public/private hybrid, with students who can be "profitably" educated placed into high-tech low-cost charters, and the difficult ones left for "government" schools to cope with.

Will education journalists begin to cover this process deeply? Shortly after the turn of the 19th Century Upton Sinclair wrote an expose of the meatpacking industry called "The Jungle." Who will be this century's Upton Sinclair and expose what is happening in education? We have a few who have begun to ask "who benefits" from the obsession with testing, but few who are willing to do the digging to document and uncover the rascals at work.

Let us hope this new year will allow us to exorcize the ghosts of worthless reforms like VAM-based teacher evaluations. Let us hope we have an honest debate over the need for schools that serve all our students well, rather than lifeboats for the lucky or virtuous. Let us hope for journalists willing to dig and risk censure by the powerful. And let us act to support our fellow teachers taking a stand in Washington, and let us get ourselves organized to push back, from the grassroots, against all the top-down, billionaire-backed reform that threatens our schools.

What do you think? Are you ready to bid farewell to the ghosts of reforms past?


Continue the dialogue with me on Twitter at @AnthonyCody

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