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John Thompson: Texans Debunk Test-Driven Reform

Guest post by John Thompson.

Addressing the Save Texas Schools rally in Austin on Feb. 23, Superintendent John Kuhn nailed the essence of test-driven "reform." "Some people have forgotten that good teachers actually exist. They spend so much time and effort weeding out the bad ones that they've forgotten to take care of the good ones. This bitter accountability pesticide is over-spraying the weeds and wilting the entire garden." He later rebutted a key argument of market-driven "reform," reminding us that "They say 100,000 kids are on a waiting list for charter schools. Let me tell you about another waiting list. There are 5 million kids waiting for this Legislature to keep our forefathers' promises." (you can read and view his entire speech here.)

After the rally, the Texas Observer sponsored a panel discussion at the LBJ School of Political Science at Texas University. It began with a reality check for "reformers" who claim that charters have a 100,000 student waiting list. Texas charters have not even reached their current authorizations. Since charters aren't full, why is there a waiting list? Surely charters aren't "creaming" and leaving thousands in line until as they seek the easier-to-educate students.

Trinity University's Michael Soto, who serves on the State Board of Education, started the discussion with data from Bexar County, where 42% of charters are academically unacceptable. Then Jane Lincove, of the University of Texas, reported that the state's $200 million a year incentive pay program produced no positive effects, and incentives using value-added produced a negative effect. Lincove's research indicated that properly developed incentives could be beneficial, but that flawed plans could create disincentives for teaching at challenging schools.

Julian Vasquez Heilig then punched holes in "reformers" claims that Texas had increased graduation rates from 75.4% to 86%. Just as the Houston "Miracle" that was to justify NCLB was an illusion, recent claims were the result of "Enronized" data. To believe the new stats you have to believe that 50,000 school leavers went back to Mexico, found private schools, or discovered the joys of online tutorials.

Heilig's Cloaking Inequality blog is a comprehensive and witty guide for Texas data. It shows that the apparent success that the state has produced on its own tests have not translated into improvements in the ACT, SAT, or NAEP. Outcomes for African-Americans appear to have actually declined. Since I believe that the 8th grade NAEP read scores are the single most important metric, I was struck by his summary of that measure. Texas was the only state to have declined from 2002 to 2009, dropping eight spots in its national ranking.

The quick summary of Heilig's message is that the "Cheapista's" test-driven policies won't work. Check out his blog for a detailed model of holding entire schools and communities accountable. I must warn you, however. Once you start reading Cloaking Inequality, you'll be hooked.

What do you think? Will are testing backlash slow or stop the bubble-in madness? What will our turnout be at the Occupy the DOE, April 4 to 7?

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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