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John Thompson: Education Reform Party is Over -- What a Mess!

Guest post by John Thompson.

Back when "Dandy Don" Meredith was host of Monday Night Football, when the game was all over but the shouting, he would break into song. We need a 21st century way of saying the obvious. Test-driven school "reform" failed. To borrow a phrase regarding "closing time," test-driven "reformers"do not have to go home, but they can't stay here in our children's schools.

In the short run, educators can read the tea leaves and speculate how and when the big boys will pull the plug on Michelle Rhee. D.C.'s local school system, such as it is, does not seem curious about the extent of cheating in its schools. Maybe, it will be the billionaires who say that she is no longer the face they want to put on "reform?" Could it be Secretary of Education Arne Duncan who calls for an investigation of Rhee's disinterest in the "smoking gun" memo describing the possible extent of cheating under her watch? If Rhee is subpoenaed, the chances are that she will again have to reinvent herself. This time, I suspect that Rhee will be reborn as a Fox News analyst.

Now is the time to discredit the technocrats' theories by showcasing the sheer absurdity of another bit of teacher-bashing, also pioneered by Rhee. The idea of using an algorithm, known as a value-added model, to drive the supposed improvement of teaching, never passed the smell test. It was a weapon to defeat teachers, as opposed to helping students. At bottom, value-added evaluations were collective punishment of teachers whose crime was opposing test-driven accountability.

It is conceivable that some accountability hawks merely saw high-stakes value-added as a tool not unlike the proverbial club used to get a mule's attention; once the mule/teachers were compliant enough, then those "reformers" hoped to rebuild schools in their own image. By now, however, it seems inconceivable that wonks could still believe that value-added evaluations are a tool for helping students. The idea of creating evaluations that are systematically unfair to teachers in the toughest schools in order to encourage new teaching talent to flock to those schools is no longer tenable.

For awhile, the accountability hawks' political skills kept their educational defeats out of the news. As recently as last year, the bubble-in crowd was able to get away with using test scores as part of the evaluation of D.C. school janitors!

In the medium run, I expect that litigation will help drive a stake through the heart of bubble-in "reform." To nail down such a victory, we need is a high-profile case where a teacher is deemed Unsatisfactory under an evaluation system in a way that outrages everyone. Perhaps it will be a case where a teacher is punished for the performance of students who she never had in class. Even better, it might be a Teacher of the Year who the district tries to fire. And, to seal the deal, perhaps it will be a "reform" leader, like Florida, which is imposing collective punishment on teachers to meet its Race to the Top commitments. Perhaps, it will be the case of Kim Cook and these other teachers.

Too often, educators have relied on evidence and logic to oppose the contemporary reform movement. We would have been smart to showcase the laughable aspects of its theories. But, these quirky ideas have often been implemented as parts of a whole that is truly reprehensible. Perhaps, while we have the "reformers" on the ropes, we should appeal less to reason and more to moral outrage at what they have done to children.

Not surprisingly, it was the ideologues in D.C. who have created the last "have you no shame?" moment. The turning point could be the district's raising the stakes on "rigorous assessments" for 3-and 4-year-olds to 15% of pre-school teachers' evaluations.

I do not have access to the top corporate board rooms, but the CEOs who I know do not believe this testing mania makes sense. My guess is that most business and political leaders who have been open to high stakes testing have been willing to be team players.

Some market-driven "reformers," undoubtedly, are motivated by profits. Mostly, I suspect, it is the egos of the true believers in Big Data that have kept this testing alive. With the help of the best public relation flacks that money can buy, the top corporate "reformers" and the top state and federal accountability hawks might be able to fend off the evidence-driven protests of teachers. But as these testing outrages grow, they will not be able to stop the ridicule. As more of these absurdities are lampooned, we get closer to the endgame chorus of, "Good night, the party's over."

What do you think? Is the testing mania about to collapse under its own weight? Will Common Core testing be the last straw? How is the best way for us to ask "reformers" the classic question, "Have you no shame?"


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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