So far in this series of postings I’ve concentrated on or less pragmatic details and failings of the present school reform efforts in Texas. You know the litany high-stakes testing, denial of adequate resources/spending, the increasing presence of a self-interested corporate lobbying, and the false hope presented by charter schools and their myopic  idealist supporters. This time they look at the flawed foundational theory of school reform – the corporate model if you will.

Diane Ravitch, in The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education , puts it this way…

The new corporate reformers betray their weak comprehension of education by drawing false analogies between education and business. They think they can fix education by applying the principles of business, organization, management, law, and marketing and by developing a good data-collection system that provides the information necessary to incentivize the workforce—principals, teachers, and students—with appropriate rewards and sanctions.

the basic strategy was a market model, which relied on two related assumptions: belief in the power of competition and belief in the value of deregulation. The market model worked in business, said the advocates, where competition lead to better products, lower prices, and leaner bureaucracies, so it would undoubtedly work and education as well.

How badly this model has worked in practice is illustrated by a recent pronouncement form StudentsFirst – Michelle Rhee’s organization . Ms. Rhee was shown the door after turning the troubled DC school system into a demoralized mess and failing to demonstrate any advantage for the corporate, take no prisoners, high stakes testing approach to reform.

Rhee Quits as Washington, D.C., Schools Chief Amid Clash With Teachers

Rhee, 40, favored measuring teacher quality by students’ test scores, firing underperforming instructors and pushing merit pay – ….. In July, Rhee dismissed 241 teachers and put 737 on notice to improve within a year or leave. Washington has languished for years near the bottom of national rankings in student proficiency in reading and math.

In a tribute to ideologue’s everywhere, she had the gall to publish a report grading the states on their educational policies.

Rhee’s StudentsFirst grades education on ideology, not results

  • Louisiana is the top-rated state, according to StudentsFirst. It ranks 49th of 51 on eighth grade reading scores and 47th of 51 on eighth grade math scores.
  • Florida is StudentsFirst’s second-best state according to ideology. According to educational results, Florida is 35th on reading and 42nd on math.
  • StudentsFirst says Indiana is third. The "nation’s report card" says it’s 30th on reading and 23rd on math.
  • The District of Columbia, where Rhee had her way from 2007 to 2010, comes in fourth according to Rhee’s ranking system. According to the NAEP? Dead last.
  • Rhode Island is fifth in Rhee-land. It’s 29th in both reading and math on the NAEP.

By contrast, of the 11 states Rhee rates as having the worst policies for education, three are in the top six for eighth grade reading scores on the NAEP, and four more are in the top 20. Another contrast: The three highest-scoring states on reading are Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Rhee scores them 14th, 21st and 18th.

In other words in Rhee world, being true to the ideology is more important than actually teaching kids to read and write.  This perverse priority is NOT a bug of corporate education reform it is a feature.

Please notice also where the blame is laid for the poor test results in Rhee world – the teachers. Both HISD and Springbranch ISD , IMHO, seem to be moving in the same direction. All of a sudden decorated, veteran teachers are being given poor evaluations and put on “improvement plans”. The threat , of course , is that if your students scores don’t improve, you will be gone. The presumption here is that the test actually measure what each teacher adds to the “value” of the produce, i.e. increased student performance. As in corporate America, the worth of the employee is the measurable value added to the product and the bottom line by the employee .  HISD’s version of all this was delayed in 2011 until the 2012-13 school year and , with the legislature showing every sign of revamping radically the STARR testing program , who knows when it will be in place. Never, I hope.

HISD teacher evaluations may be delayed

Roughly half of a teacher’s rating was supposed to be based on student performance, including their students’ annual progress on state exams. Teachers of electives such as art and music would be rated on other measures, which Baker said are still being determined.

Classroom observations

The new evaluation system requires principals to observe teachers in the classroom at least four times a year, taking note of their teaching strategies, ability to engage students and other factors. The old process, used by most Texas districts, requires only one observation, and many veteran teachers are exempt from annual reviews.

HISD board president Paula Harris, who, like most of the trustees opposed a pilot of the evaluation, said she can support giving teachers a "bye" on the performance data in the upcoming year because of the difficulty of the new state exams.

"I’m hoping it’s going to increase morale and make people see we’re trying to be fair and still expecting great things," Harris said.

A program which attempts to pit teacher against teacher for “merit” pay is going to raise morale – how? This kind of gentle intimidation is , ironically out of favor in corporate America, even as it lives on in  school reform. Team building and collaboration is the new approach, but not in education.  In the case of education there is the additional and intractable problem that students are NOT widgets – standardized in production process and final form, they are  human beings. They mature and develop at different rates, respond to different strategies on different time tables. So, how do we decide if it Mrs. Jone’s or Mrs. Smith’s class that finally got Johnny reading at grade level?  Surely not be a single high stakes test. Even worse it might have been a combination of both. Who gets the bonus then?

And , by the way, who really believes that all teachers are waiting for is the extra incentive of test validated extra pay to turn on their secret strategies for success which they have been with holding until incentivized? 

The theory behind this part of the reform movement is called “value added” education:

Value-added modeling (also known as value-added analysis and value-added assessment) is a method of teacher evaluation that measures the teacher’s contribution in a given year by comparing current school year test scores of their students to the scores of those same students in the previous school year, as well as to the scores of other students in the same grade. In this manner, value-added modeling seeks to isolate the contribution that each teacher makes in a given year, which can be compared to the performance measures of other teachers. VAMs are considered to be fairer than simply comparing student’s achievement scores or gain scores without considering potentially confounding context variables like past performance or income.

The problems with is corporate inspired idea are myriad:

Seven misconceptions about vaue-added measures

Misconception 1: We cannot evaluate educators based on value-added because teaching is complicated.

Harris says the complex nature of teaching and learning is obvious, but value-added can bring some clarity. Student outcomes are just one factor, but an important one. My problem is that the focus on each teacher’s effect on student academic growth detracts from the team spirit that animates the best schools I know.

Misconception 2: Value-added scores are inaccurate because they are based on poorly designed tests.

Many tests are flawed, Harris says, but you can’t blame that on the value-added approach. If we had better tests, such as an assessment that caught the content of International Baccalaureate exams, we could “still use value-added methods with these richer assessments.” That sounds nice, but I think even my grandsons will be beyond IB age before we figure out how to do that reliably.

Misconception 3: The value-added approach is not fair to students.

This means that if we abandon our current system of calculating how many students reach proficiency, and instead assess how much each improves, students who have failed to achieve proficiency will be ignored. Harris says our current system is no better because it usually focuses only on students close to reaching proficiency. He is right.

Misconception 4: Value-added measures are not useful because they are summative [he does use some jargon — this means focused on how well teachers have done] than formative [focused on how to make them better.]

Harris concedes the point, but says value-added can be used with other measures to guide improvement. We need both summative and formative measures, he says. This, I think, overlooks the greater power of measuring yourself daily against your fellow teachers by trading thoughts about students.

Misconception 5: Value-added represents another step in the process of “industrializing” education, making it more traditional and less progressive.

The factory model of education, by this way of thinking, focuses too much on making every widget, and every student, the same way. Harris argues that “if policy makers concentrate on results, they can reduce the rules” that constrain imaginative educators and make schools more progressive. This topic makes me cross. It betrays an academic desire to categorize what schools are doing rather than see if they are helping kids.

In the end the problem with the corporate model of education reform is that it has little to do with the realities of real classrooms and what it takes to teach real students. It it an attempt to solve a complex problem by the blind application of an inappropriate abstract theory .

Let’s give an analysis named Stan Karp  the last words as he points out some of the less obvious subtext of the reform effort:

A primer on corporate school reform

These proposals are being promoted by reams of foundation reports, well-funded think tanks, a proliferation of astroturf political groups, and canned legislation from the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Counsel (ALEC).

Together these strategies use the testing regime that is the main engine of corporate reform to extend the narrow standardization of curricula and scripted classroom practice that we’ve seen under No Child Left Behind, and to drill down even further into the fabric of schooling to transform the teaching profession and create a less experienced, less secure, less stable and less expensive professional staff.  Where NCLB used test scores to impose sanctions on schools and sometimes students (e.g., grade retention, diploma denial), test-based sanctions are increasingly targeted at teachers.

A larger corporate reform goal, in addition to changing the way schools and classrooms function, is reflected in the attacks on collective bargaining and teacher unions and in the permanent crisis of school funding across the country.  These policies undermine public education and facilitate its replacement by a market-based system that would do for schooling what the market has done for health care, housing, and employment: produce fabulous profits and opportunities for a few and unequal outcomes and access for the many….