"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson 1820

"There is a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn't be doing at all." - Dr. Gerald Bracey author of Rotten Apples in Education

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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Economists Running Classrooms? Is This a Good Idea?

We've raised concerns in this blog about the current plan to change the educational system in Missouri to align with standards not set by the state, but rather by a consortium of states; signing onto underfunded mandates; and the increased privatization of the delivery of educational instruction.

We are supportive of competition in education. There is healthy competition between public institutions, particularly on the university level. What concerns us is the path the privatization is taking in the K-12 sphere on a national level. There is increasing alarm among individuals and groups on both sides of the aisle of the investment in schools from hedge fund and venture capitalist organizations. This is a growing trend in California, Washington state, New York and Chicago, to name a few areas.

While we know this is not the current trend in Missouri, we are concerned we will follow the same trajectory. I'm not the only one who questions the action of turning over failing schools or opening charters for the idea of competition without thinking through the ramifications of this action. Educator Historian Diane Ravitch from the Washington Post Answer Sheet and "The Pitfalls of Putting Economists in Charge of Education":

It is astonishing to realize the extent to which education debates are now framed and dominated by economists, not by educators or sociologists or cognitive psychologists or anyone else who actually spends time in classrooms. My bookshelves are chock full of books that analyze the teaching of reading, science, history, and other subjects; books that examine the lives of children; books that discuss the art and craft of teaching; books about the history of educational philosophy and practice; books about how children learn.

Think back when you were in school. Did you ever think a banker or an investment manager would be the best person to manage a school? Probably not, because those individuals didn't know education theories; they were trained in the financial sector to learn how to invest and make the best turn on said investments. Ravitch continues:

Now such considerations seem antique. Now we are in an age of data-based decision-making, where economists rule. They tell us that nothing matters but performance, and performance can be quantified, and those who do the quantification need never enter a classroom or think about how children learn.

There are many references in new educational reform to rate teacher effectiveness based on "value-added assessment". These assessments will be heavily based on student performance. Ravitch questions the teacher assessment process:

So the issue of our day is: How do we measure teacher effectiveness? Most of the studies by economists warn that there is a significant margin of error in "value-added assessment" (VAA) or "value-added modeling" (VAM). The basic idea of VAA is that teacher quality can be measured by the test-score gains of their students. Proponents of VAA see it as the best way to identify teachers who should get merit pay and teachers who should be fired. Critics say that the method is too flawed to use for high-stakes purposes such as these.

Last July, the U.S. Department of Education published a study by Mathematica Policy Research, which estimated that even with three years of data, there was an error rate of 25 percent. A few months ago, I signed onto a statement by a group of testing experts, which cautioned that such strategies were likely to misidentify which teachers were effective and which were ineffective, to promote teaching narrowly to the test, and to cause a narrowing of the curriculum.

Ravitch continues with her argument and details how the Gates studies promoting the effectiveness of this teacher assessment is questionable. She concludes with this:

If we step back a bit, don't you think there is a certain kind of madness in thinking that economists who never set foot in a classroom can create a statistical measure to tell us how best to educate children? It seems some will never be satisfied until they have a technical process to override the judgments of those who work in schools and are in daily contact with teachers and children. I don't know of any other nation in the world that is so devoted to this effort to turn education into a statistical problem that can be solved by a computer. It is not likely to end well.

I happen to fall in the Ravitch camp vs the Arne Duncan and Gates group. I know many legislators are for much of the Duncan style reform, but like Ravitch, I don't think education is a "statistical problem that can be solved by a computer". The good teachers will leave when they are rated "ineffective" because they have a class of low performing children who are unable or unmotivated to learn and perform badly on testing. It may have less to do with the teacher and more to do with the child's temperament, IQ or family situation. In that scenario, is it the teacher's fault the child can't and/or won't learn? The statistical model doesn't take into consideration those types of variables.

We have an important educational decisions in Missouri. Do we believe education should be the status quo it has been the last 20, 30, 40 years? No. Federal spending has increased 180% and test scores have flatlined. Do we believe we should turn schools over to private financiers who have no educational experience? Ravitch has her reservations about them; Gates sings their praises. What is a parent to think about all this?

If you think this is true competition, I would ask you what competition really means. Does competition of a product mean the selling of a same product in different packaging, or does competition mean some unique feature sets a product apart from another that makes you want to purchase one over another? If the uniqueness is innovation in education, I'm on board. If the product includes the same mandated content, then maybe it's not true competition.

Charter schools can be viable options. They need to have the legal protections of local control of ownership and board positions so they are not co-opted by financiers who have no community connection. They should operate autonomously as charters were intended to operate. Thinking about autonomy, teachers in all educational settings should be given the freedom to teach, rather than parrot pre-conceived lessons and tests. Bad teachers should be shown the door, but perhaps should be done in a manner that measures effectiveness in many ways, not just from test scores from unwilling and/or incapable students.

What is our hope for Missouri children? We hope our children are seen less as human capital in which to invest and more as individuals whom we have been charged to educate.

We'll talk about our concerns about the enormous ties of charters to billionaires, both Democrat and Republican, in another post and hopefully you will begin to understand our growing concern of educational changes wrought without due and careful diligence.

1 comment:

  1. we're trying to apply quantitative data (ie test scores) to qualitative data (ie students) so the whole assessment and accountability movement is inherently and statistically flawed.


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