Open Letter to the Media, Politicians, Reformers, B/Millionaires, and Celebrities

First, some context for the problem with education reform and how we discuss the topic.

Cindy Scoppe, associate editor at The State, addresses grading schools, drawing several conclusions:

What we need is a single grading system, which wasn’t possible before the Obama administration decided to let states apply for waivers from No Child Left Behind….

We’re never going to make the progress we need unless we demand an increasingly higher level of performance, but we need to make sure everyone understands that, rather than mistakenly believing that lower school scores mean schools are doing worse….

Actually requiring that each subgroup meet expectations is important, because without that, schools can ignore the difficult-to-teach students, knowing that their low scores will be masked by the high scores of easier-to-teach students….

South Carolina Superintendent Mick Zais continues to push his version of accountability:

South Carolina has two systems for education accountability. One was developed in 2011 by the S.C. Department of Education and was approved by the U.S. Department of Education as meeting federal requirements. The other was developed in 2001 by the state’s Education Oversight Committee. These dual systems are redundant, confusing and expensive….

Finally, in any situation, timely information is necessary to make informed decisions. The letter grade system tells parents, educators and the public how each school and district performed the previous year. This information is publicized in early August so educators can use the data to make adjustments prior to the beginning of a new school year and so parents can make decisions about where their children are educated.

And while the media and political leadership wrangle with education reform and accountability, yet another wealthy celebrity enters the reform arena, M. Night Shyamalanhas:

Until recently, he says, moviemaking was his real passion. “I’m not a do-gooder,” he says. Still, after the commercial success of his early movies, he wanted to get involved in philanthropy. At first, he gave scholarships to inner-city children in Philadelphia, but he found the results disheartening. When he met the students he had supported over dinner, he could see that the system left them socially and academically unprepared for college. “They’d been taught they were powerless,” he says.

He wanted to do more. He decided to approach education like he did his films: thematically….

Much of his initial research was contradictory. When he asked experts which improvements would close the gap, some said smaller classes, others said school vouchers and still others said school spirit. He discovered that none of these reforms had worked across the board, but this finding, paradoxically, encouraged him. He knew he had to think more broadly.

An idea came to him over dinner with his wife and another couple who were both physicians. One of them, then the chief resident at a Pennsylvania hospital, said that the first thing he told his residents was to give their patients several pieces of advice that would drastically increase their health spans, from sleeping eight hours a day to living in a low-stress environment. The doctor emphasized that the key thing was doing all these things at the same time—not a la carte.

“That was the click,” says Mr. Shyamalan. It struck him that the reason the educational research was so inconsistent was that few school districts were trying to use the best, most proven reform ideas at once. He ultimately concluded that five reforms, done together, stand a good chance of dramatically improving American education. The agenda described in his book is: Eliminate the worst teachers, pivot the principal’s job from operations to improving teaching and school culture, give teachers and principals feedback, build smaller schools, and keep children in class for more hours.

The problem highlighted and represented in these three examples involves several key flaws inherent in education reform being analyzed and driven by people without expertise and experience as educators themselves. The media, politicians, reformers, b/millionaires, and celebrities dominate the debate, formation, and implementation of education policy—all of which focuses on how best to design (and redesign) accountability plans and thus ignores the possibility that accountability based on standards and high-stakes testing is the problem.

Scoppe, Zais, and Shyamalanhas offer common sense claims that ring true with the public, building compelling narratives of what is wrong with education and what, then, would serve as credible solutions.

Common sense claims, however, are often misleading and misguided, especially in the education reform debate. Let’s consider just a couple concerns I have about the dominant arguments found in these three pieces but typical of the wider reform debate during the past thirty years.

I taught high school English in a public school in SC for eighteen years before entering teacher education at the university level for the past twelve years, thus, when I read commentaries and media reports related to education, I feel compelled to ask the following:

“We’re never going to make the progress we need unless we demand an increasingly higher level of performance.”* Really? Does this mean that a student scoring an average score on a test in 8th grade should score above average on the 9th grade test? Or does that mean that eighth graders in 2012 should score higher than different 8th graders in 2011? In other words, the claim of constantly increasing achievement is much more rhetoric than a credible expectation. It ignores that different populations of students are incredibly difficult to compare fairly (and possibly that making such comparisons is of little value); that much that we call academic achievement may be a reflection of brain development, effort, or circumstances beyond anyone’s control and not learning; and that in an environment of ever-changing standards and tests, making valid comparisons of data grows nearly impossible as well. For just one complicating example, consider two populations of students tested in 8th and 11th grades:

2009 8th grade math score — 87

2010 8th grade math score — 72

2012 11th grade math score — 85

2013 11th grade math score — 83

It appears, if we focus on simple increases from one year to the next, that the 2013 scores dropped 2 points from 2012. But a close inspection shows that the 2009/2012 scores (same population of students plus/minus drop-outs and other population shifts) remained about the same (a small drop), but that the 2013 score of 83 may easily be a really impressive increase of the 2010 score, from 72 to 83 by the same population of students. However, what if the 2010-2013 increase was the result of an unusual loss of low scoring students due to drop outs, expulsions, and a shifting population of non-native language learners?

In short, ever-increasing outcomes is neither something we should seek, nor something we can make simple claims about. The hypothetical data above could reveal dozens of conclusions, with few having anything to do with achievement, teaching quality, or school quality.

“Over the course of his research, Mr. Shyamalan found data debunking many long-held educational theories. For example, he found no evidence that teachers who had gone through masters programs improved students’ performance; nor did he find any confirmation that class size really mattered. What he did discover is plenty of evidence that, in the absence of all-star teachers, schools were most effective when they put in place strict, repetitive classroom regimens.” Again, really? If fact, the many claims in this passage are a series of powerful public narratives (ones found,  and debunked, in the propagandistic Waiting for “Superman”) that themselves are not reflected in educational research (for example, class size, or better described as student/teacher ratio, does matter—as revealed in rigorous research and as a market mechanism represented by the small class sizes found in elite K-12 schools and universities).

The piece on Shyamalan having an epiphany about education while talking with friends who are doctors is strikingly similar to the Bill Gates phenomenon, both revealing a message that is being ignored: Wealth, celebrity, and success in one field does not guarantee expertise in other fields.

As an educator myself, one who has studied the history of educational thought from the late 1900s until today very closely, I am compelled to ask Shyamalan and Gates why they believe they have discovered ideas that no one else spending her/his whole life and career on education has considered before Shyamalan or Gates. How credible does it seem that a movie director and two medical doctors chatting could suddenly imagine ways to do schools that no one else in the field has imagined?

I’m not saying there is no chance, but it takes a great deal of arrogance and an absence of awareness to make the claims Shyamalan and Gates have made—notably since many of those claims are in fact not supported by research although Shyamalan and Gates claim they are.

There’s more, of course, because despite the simplistic claims surrounding education and education reform (“poverty is not destiny,” “no excuses”), education is a complex process that is rarely predictable and essentially never completed.

However, I remain compelled to ask the media, politicians, reformers, b/millionaires, and celebrities to set aside their assumptions and reset the education reform debate by beginning again but this time begin with the expertise and experience that already exist among educators and within the field of education.

And let me suggest that we step back from how best to create an accountability system, recognizing that accountability, new standards, and new tests have not succeeded for thirty years and thus are unlikely to work now because the key challenges of education have nothing to do with a lack of or the quality of accountability, standards, and testing.

That new beginning, then, must stop focusing on outcomes and start focusing on input and the conditions of teaching and learning. Ironically, that change is likely to bear fruit, the types of outcomes we have asked for all along.

* Zais’s argument builds on a similar argument: “This new system has many advantages over the old federal and the current state accountability systems. The new system has three important elements we are committed to maintaining: yearly progress, transparency and timeliness.”


8 thoughts on “Open Letter to the Media, Politicians, Reformers, B/Millionaires, and Celebrities”

  1. Oh you beautiful blogger, you. Thank you. I am in the middle of inservice week, asking my amazing, talented colleagues (way better at their jobs than, say, a room full of Doctors, Lawyers, or Accountants – no offense people) if anyone was offended at all the accountability hoops we have to jump through. Blank stares abounded. Thank you plthomasedd for pointing to the humongous elephant in the room.

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