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Where's the Research in 'Race to the Top'?


There goes that swinging pendulum: Much was made of the fact that the phrase "scientifically based research" appeared more than 100 times in the federal No Child Left Behind Act. But in the rules proposed last week for the U.S. Department of Education's $4 billion Race to the Top competition, the terms don't appear at all.

The omission hasn't gone unnoticed by the research community. Both the 25,000-member American Educational Research Association and the Knowledge Alliance, which represents research organizations, federal laboratories, and technical assistance centers, submitted comments that make a case for adding a definition for scientifically based or scientifically valid research to the proposed regulations and for requiring grant applicants to rely more on research in crafting their reform plans.

The AERA, in particular, also urges federal policymakers to take the opportunity to address the fact that the research base on charter schools and on turning around persistently low-achieving schools is disappointingly weak.

But that group's most controversial recommendation—one that is echoed by Helen Ladd and Dan Koretz, two researchers who also contributed comments—warns against basing evaluations of teachers and principals on student-achievement data alone. They write:

"Neither research evidence related to growth models nor best practice related to assessment supports the proposed requirement that assessment of teachers and principals be based centrally on student achievement"

You can find a bit of counterpoint to that suggestion in this blog entry posted yesterday by Amber Winkler over at Flypaper. Check out the full text of the comments from AERA and the Knowledge Alliance, as well as those from the more than 1,130 other individual and groups who weighted in, at this link. To get the gist of what all those commenters had to say, I also recommend my colleague Michele McNeil's story today in EdWeek.



The difficulty here is that there is so little research out there to begin with. States would be hard-pressed to base their plans on compelling research, given how thin the research is in areas like school turnaround or performance pay....

Let me preface this by saying both my parents are lifetime educators, and I am in the education business myself. So I do think education is the answer to most of life’s issues. But equally important is accountability, and setting/maintaining high standards.

For those who have never held a job outside teaching: it is very much the norm elsewhere in life to have job performance evaluations that are based on one's interactions with bosses, co-workers, clients/customers and subordinates.

And, by the way, nobody is ever thrilled when one of these other people says or does something that reflects poorly on the person being reviewed, especially if we do not agree that it is all our “fault” (but of course we all love and agree with any glowing opinions). But in the real world the "good and bad" observations are still included in the review...

In school teaching, pretty much the entire goal is to impart information to the students (clients) in a way that helps the student to retain, or "learn." As an analogy; say I go to a computer learning center to take a Word class. I go through the course and receive a certificate that says I have attained a certain proficiency level. Then I go for a job and am required to demonstrate that competency in Word. If I don’t pass the exam, should the computer learning company not have some responsibility in the matter? And it’s the same in any teacher (mentor)/student relationship; the teacher definitely does have a shared responsibility with the student to prove the skills are being learned.

So if school teachers do not believe that how the students demonstrate what they have (or haven’t) learned is any reflection of their job performance, then WHAT IS a valid method to determine the teacher’s effectiveness?

Using ONLY test scores is not the answer; but to EXCLUDE them from the review process is one of the most ludicrous things I have heard in a long time. When I realized the teachers’ union in Nevada had successfully negotiated the exclusion of test results in teacher assessments, I had to laugh out loud (the only reason I didn’t cry is probably because I don’t have kids in school). But the laugh quickly turned to a groan when I found out we are now ineligible for federal Race to the Top funding because of that ludicrous contract concession.

In what other industry could you begin to dream that you would have automatic raises and ironclad job security, even though the most tangible proof of your competence and effectiveness is not allowed to be part of your performance assessment? This “I’ve got mine, now everyone else worry about theirs” mentality is another crippling effect of the protectionist, union pendulum swinging much too far. What a joke…

Bottom line: accountability is not comfortable to most people, but it’s the only way the vast majority of people will continue striving to perform. When we take away the NEED to perform, and accept the “Just trust me, I’m doing a great job!” method of performance review, then we will get what we deserve: mediocre to poor performance from 80% of people, and great performance from the 20% who are high performers and don’t need as much accountability to work hard.

It is a truism in job assessment that you will receive the aspects performance that you measure. This seems to favor “pay for performance” using student assessment as a major criteria. But is the goal of education should not be to produce test takers, but to produce students that are competent in life skills, including math, science, language, social skills, and even vocational skills.
In addition, if you measure someone by criteria that is not in their control, you decrease moral and increase frustration. While teachers do have some influence over students achievement, there are many other factors. It can be argued that previous teachers, home life, health, diet, social groups, peer expectations, etc. can have as large an impact as a single teachers impact.
Another negative aspect of “pay for performance” is that it will exasperate the recruiting and retention of teachers for challenging schools.

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