Flaws at the Heart of Current Education Reforms

“Teaching is an art form rooted in the wise and careful use of educational research and assessment tools. When government policy makers continue to implement evaluation methods and tools criticized by education professionals they are embarking on a very dangerous nation-wide experiment.” ~Christopher Chase

charter3The following is a Letter to the Editor which I wrote that was published on March 11, 2015, in Our Town, a local newspaper in Rockland County, New York.

There’s a scene in the film Dead Poet’s Society, set in 1959, where Robin William’s character Mr. Keating asks his students to read from the introduction of a poetry textbook. The text describes a rating method by which one can measure and assess the greatness of poems. After charting and rating a poem on the blackboard Keating tells his students this method of assessing poetry is “excrement.” Next he instructs them to rip the entire introduction out, which they proceed to do, putting the pages into a trash can.

“This is a battle, a war, and the casualties could be your hearts and souls,” Keating tells his students. We can’t understand poetry by measuring it with numbers, by comparing and ranking poems. We don’t study poetry in order to get good grades. “We read and write poetry,” Keating says, “because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion.”

The film goes on to show how the students learn to express themselves creatively, to experience life more deeply as they come to appreciate how their lives are like verses of poetry. Both Williams and his character Keating encouraged all of us to live as poets, with gratitude and passion, to cherish the beauty of life, to appreciate our own uniqueness, and not to measure, rank or compare ourselves with others.

It’s an important life lesson, which unfortunately the architects of 21st Century school reform either do not seem to understand, or do not care about. Since 2001, when George Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” policies were put into motion, we’ve experienced a nation-wide obsession with assessment, ranking, testing, measuring, and quantifying both students’ learning and teachers’ teaching. Teaching to the test and test preparation have become a national priority; while art, poetry, music, sports, creative projects, students inner lives and the professional expertise of teachers have not.

Obama’s About-face
In 2007, Presidential hopeful Barack Obama promised to change that, telling cheering members of the National Education Association during a televised campaign speech, “Don’t tell us that the only way to teach a child is to spend too much of a year preparing him to fill out a few bubbles on a standardized test. We know that’s not true. You didn’t devote your lives to testing, you devoted it to teaching! And teaching is what you should be allowed to do!”

Obama had sought advice from Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford University researcher, with expertise and knowledge of innovative learner-centered practices and school reforms. With Darling-Hammond as his primary education advisor, Obama’s message was finely tuned, and in the 2008 election he was able to get the full support of America’s teachers.

A Trojan Horse for DFER
What educators did not realize at that time, was that whispering in his ear was Obama’s advisor Rahm Emanuel, who’s many Wall Street connections included a group of hedge fund investors running a campaign financing organization called Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). They were using President Obama as a kind of Trojan horse, with a hidden agenda, more in line with President Bush’s administration than with America’s teachers unions.

Their goal was to ride into power in the shadow’s of Obama’s wings, so that they could take control of the U.S. Department of Education, and then enact even more regressive policies than Bush had been able to set in place, as part of the program Race to the Top (RTTT). Once in power they would set in place policies that used “rigorous” standards, high-stakes tests, teacher assessments and other punitive practices to take away teachers’ local autonomy and power, and reduce the number of public schools in America, while enlarging the role of centralized testing companies and increasing the opportunities for charter schools to make a profit.

Their duplicity has been described in the book “Class Warfare” by Steven Brill, and DFER’s director Joe Williams bragged about their success, in a document put out (behind the scenes) during Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign:

“[Governors] of both parties nationwide have been empowered by the “cover” that has come from a Democratic President who has been willing to embrace reforms that are not always in line with the priorities of the nation’s powerful teachers unions. The evidence of what this shift in a political messenger can bring is clear-cut. As a result of the RTTT competition, fifteen states lifted caps on the creation of new charter schools, and one state enacted a charter school law. Charter schools flourished more under three years of Obama than under eight years of George W. Bush. Funding for state charter school grants, for example, stayed between about $68 million and $81 million during Bush’s two terms, but jumped to $138 million during Obama’s first full budget year.”

After (or perhaps before) Obama was elected his Wall Street connected advisors convinced him to “throw” education expert Linda Darling-Hammond “under the bus,” as radio journalist Dr. James Miller put it, placing a non-educator charter school supporter named Arne Duncan into the top position of the Dept. of Education.

Connected to Billionaire Venture Capitalists
Duncan had aggressively supported punitive measures, public school closings, standardized testing and charter school expansion in Chicago. He is connected to a billionaire “venture philanthropist” named Eli Broad, who had created a “leadership” training school called the Broad Academy, that exists outside of education. Over the last decade Broad has been able to put hundreds of pro-testing, pro-charter graduates in leadership positions as superintendents, education department staff and charter school principals across the nation.

By doing so they were able to take control of state and district public school systems, implementing policy changes rooted in greater testing, ranking, assessment, school closings and other policies that would increase the flow of public tax funds into the pockets of testing service companies and charter schools’ private investors.

Once in power, Duncan also teamed up with Microsoft’s Bill Gates, working with an organization called Achieve to create the Common Core standards by which all the children in America could be assessed, measured, ranked and compared to one another. These standards, amazingly enough, were not based on current research or innovative and successful practices in education, but instead re-booted a method of teaching from the Cold War era called “New Criticism,” favored by David Coleman – the so-called “architect” of Common Core.

Politics of Evaluation Change
New Criticism’s pedagogy fit well with the Core’s testing agenda, as it emphasizes teaching with short excerpts from text, rather than through creative activities or reading entire books. In theory, teachers are encouraged to be creative and do interesting projects with students, but in practice they have been pressured not to, because of the introduction of punitive teacher assessments and rankings that came as part of the package state governments agreed to when they accepted money from Duncan and Obama’s RTTT grants. As the DFER document mentioned earlier explains:

“The politics of teacher evaluations changed instantly and forever when President Obama made improved teacher evaluations a cornerstone of his federal “Race To The Top” initiative. “If we are honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that in too many places we have no way – at least no good way – of distinguishing good teachers from bad ones,” Obama said, in unveiling the RTTT competition. “Let me be clear: success should be judged by results and data is a powerful tool to determine results. We can’t ignore facts. We can’t ignore data.”

In states, Republican and Democratic governors such as New York’s Andrew Cuomo & Florida’s Jeb Bush, have lined up with the President’s objectives emphasizing testing, data collection and punitive assessments as well. Cuomo recently asking that student test scores count for 50% of a teachers assessment score and that the rest of the score be determined by outside observers, not the school principal.

Policies Problematic
There are at least two major problems with these policies. First, with their jobs on the line, teachers are pressured to cut the arts and other meaningful activities to focus instead on test preparation and practice. Second, most professional researchers who study these teacher evaluation methods that state governments are using have said they are not reliable or valid tools of assessment. They don’t really measure what they were designed to measure.

Rich Children Perform Better
According to Dr. Edward Haertal, a leading psychometrician, careful analysis of the data has shown that individual teachers have only a small influence on student test scores, that there are many other factors such as family, poverty and peer pressure.

In other words, if we take three teachers and rotate them among three schools differing by poverty, safety, financial resources and community/family support, the scores of students will be more related to the school situation then which teacher they have. Rich children with parents who are professionals and go to schools that have more funding will perform much better on standardized tests than poor kids whose parents are working class or unemployed.

What the Obama administration and nation’s governors are ignoring is the data and research which shows it is wealth and socio-economic status that accounts for test scores, not “good” or “bad” teachers. This is what most research experts believe, as the Nation reporter Dana Goldstein wrote in 2011:

“The research consensus has been clear and unchanging for more than a decade: at most, teaching accounts for about 15 percent of student achievement outcomes, while socioeconomic factors account for about 60 percent.”

Value-added assessments linked to student test scores, that rank and punish teachers, are not reliable or valid instruments. They do not measure what the president, secretary of education, governors and their financial backers claim they measure. This is a critical flaw (possibly even an intentional act of fraud) with current reform policies, which place more importance on questionable data collection and punitive measurements then on the professional expertise of educators, whose understanding is grounded in decades of slow and careful research, with peer reviewed studies.

The goal of educational research is to give us a deeper understanding of the complex factors impacting on students’ lives and learning. To ignore such knowledge, when it exists, could be regarded as an act of negligence.

Junk Science Destructively Applied
The Obama administration and their wealthy corporate supporters want to measure teachers and students, to apply scientific methods in potentially destructive and inappropriate ways. When this is done in the field of medicine it is called malpractice. Teaching is an art form rooted in the wise and careful use of educational research and assessment tools. Teachers give tests, but they are trained to assess carefully, much as doctors and nurses learn to use care with needles and surgical knives.

When government policy makers continue to implement evaluation methods and tools criticized by education professionals they are embarking on a very dangerous nation-wide experiment. Focusing their attention on data collection and high-stakes testing creates the illusion of knowledge and control.

It allows people who lack understanding to assert that they have it, when in fact what they are actually putting in place is more like a marketing strategy designed to intentionally bypass the truth. They are misusing scientific measures, ignoring what is actually most important and meaningful, measuring what is not easily quantifiable with numbers.

When President Obama shifted from his anti-testing promises to teachers before his 2008 election and became “willing to embrace” policies not “in line with the priorities” of America’s teachers, he was getting into bed with people perpetrating what journalist David Sirota called (in Salon magazine, September 12, 2011) the “Bait and Switch” of the “Great Education Myth” being put forward by the Wall Street investors behind DFER, and their supporters. As Sirota described it:

“The bottom line is clear: In attempting to change the mission of public education from one focused on educating kids to one focused on generating private profit, corporate leaders in the “reform” movement are pursuing a shrewd investment strategy. Millions of dollars go into campaign contributions and propaganda outfits that push “reform,” and, if successful, those “reforms” guarantee Wall Street and their investment vehicles much bigger returns for the long haul.”

In order to do this successfully, our nation’s leaders and their wealthy supporters made a conscious decision to ignore the complaints and criticism of America’s education professionals. They are manufacturing and cherry picking data that supports their agenda, ignoring the rest.

“We cannot ignore facts,” the President said, and yet that is exactly what they have done, betraying teachers, parents and students. Betraying the lives and futures of the very people that helped get the President elected.

~Christopher Chase

Related: Why Hedge Funds Love Charter Schools by Alan Singer * The Daily News – Hedge fund execs’ money for charter schools may pay off (NY Daily News) * In 2016 Democrats Have Good Reason to Run Against Obama’s Education Record * Walmart, Gates, Hedge Funds & Charter Schools (Business Insider)Noam Chomsky on the Dangers of Standardized Testing * Why VAMs are Unreliable Measures for Evaluating Teachers * Schools That Learn – Peter Senge * Standardizing Education – Common Core’s Hidden Agenda * Toward a More Creative & Holistic Model of Education * Educational Malpractice – The Child Manufacturing Process * Real Learning is a Creative Process  * Why Corporate School Reform Will Eventually Fail *

About myself: I’m a 1979 graduate of Clarkstown South High School, in Rockland County, New York. I majored in studio art at SUNY, Oneonta, graduating in 1983. From 1988 to 1993, I worked on my doctoral degree in Child & Adolescent Development at Stanford University’s School of Education. During that time I worked for about 3 years as a research assistant with the Accelerated Schools Project. After graduating from Stanford in 1993, I moved to Japan, where I have been teaching English language and culture at Seinan Gakuin University, in Fukuoka, Japan.

About Christopher Chase

Co-creator and Admin of the Facebook pages "Tao & Zen" "Art of Learning" & "Creative Systems Thinking." Majored in Studio Art at SUNY, Oneonta. Graduated in 1993 from the Child & Adolescent Development program at Stanford University's School of Education. Since 1994, have been teaching at Seinan Gakuin University, in Fukuoka, Japan.
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16 Responses to Flaws at the Heart of Current Education Reforms

  1. Thank you for highlighting Dr. Miller and the War Report in your blog. #solidarity

  2. Reblogged this on The War Report on Public Education and commented:
    Thank you Chris from your thoughtful letter and blog post mentioning the War Report and Dr. Miller. #2015TheYearoftheStudent #solidarity

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  4. paxgirl says:

    Thank you so much for this. I am a teacher of children in poverty and a mother of a Gifted student-in Florida- who had the creativity beat out of him by the NCLB policies. I plan you share your post widely.

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