Education reform should be rational, and should work in practice

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As a teacher in his 16th year in education, I wish to offer Judge Thomas Moukawsher both praise and some advice in response to his recent landmark ruling.

On the issue of school funding, I applaud him for holding our collective feet to the fire to come up with a cost-sharing formula that is fair to disadvantaged communities. His laser-like focus on abolishing achievement gaps echoes Brown v. Board of Ed.,which challenged Topeka and the entire country to make good on the Constitution’s promise to give all Americans “equal protection of the laws.” The fact that it has been decades since Sheff v. O’Neill was handed down and so little progress has been made toward ending disparities in educational resources is indisputably disgraceful.

But despite the best of intentions, in an overly-broad ruling Judge Moukawsher has also prescribed some other remedies that I believe would lead us to repeat past mistakes at great cost to many. I respectfully ask the judge and state leaders to seek policies that are not just rational, but ones proven to actually work in practice. Borrowing a phrase from another judge, I argue further that many of his demands are “decided upon an economic theory” which a large part of education research does not entertain.

In just about every area of education policy Judge Moukawsher asks us “to get rid of an irrational policy and adopt a rational one.” This is a loaded phrase with a long history in American law. It originates in the 1819 case, McCulloch v. Maryland where the Supreme Court mandated that for a law to deemed Constitutional, the government has to prove that it can achieve a “legitimate end.” This principle has been applied to just about every area of law, demanding that every regulation have “a rational relationship to a legitimate governmental purpose.”

In his ruling, Judge Moukawsher echoes this phrase, stating “a rational education plan has a substantial link between educating students and the means used to do it.” I invite the judge and all lawmakers to practice what he preaches, to look to see if there is a proven connection between the policies he favors and their real-world effectiveness. But just a quick look at the recent history of educational reform reveals a huge gap between conventional wisdom and the facts.

The judge laments the fact that “Connecticut has no state standard with any teeth for student to pass from elementary to secondary school.” Presumably he means a policy with bite would be some sort of high-stakes testing regime including various sticks and carrots to induce students and teachers to perform. But we don’t have to look very far back to see that this doesn’t work in practice.

We have seen this movie before, and spoiler alert, it ends badly. In 2001 an unlikely coalition of the liberal lion Ted Kennedy and the compassionate conservative George W. Bush, united by a shared disgust for achievement gaps, pushed through a law that linked federal funding to test scores at every level. It seemed like a common sense approach to align the incentives of schools with student achievement. But a decade later the effort earned poor marks. A comprehensive 2013 Stamford study of the No Child Left Behind Act concluded that the law had no impact on achievement gaps.

Sure, NCLB seemed like a rational policy at the time, but in the end it was a national experiment that proved that tests with teeth fail to deliver the promise of social justice.

Judge Moukawsher also takes the state to task for graduation requirements that result in “diplomas without the education we promise them.” We all cringe at the ease that late-night comics have in exposing public ignorance, so I sympathize with the sentiment, but I do not think the answer lies in high-stakes exit exams.

If that were the answer, why do states with a long histories of high-stakes graduation tests have any achievement gaps? Nobody has a longer history of testing than New York with its famous Regents Examinations, but since 1990, Connecticut’s achievement gap is narrowing at the basically the same rate as New York’s. And by some measures we are doing even better than the Empire State. Consider outcomes for high school students with limited language proficiency. New York had a 33 point achievement gap with this population in 2011 while Connecticut’s was a full 10 points smaller.

To be clear, I don’t wish to excuse poor performance, I don’t believe any achievement gap is acceptable, but the belief that state-wide testing mandates will fix it is just not supported by the facts. If after 150 years of experimenting with just every kind of assessment there is New York has not manage to test their way to equality, shouldn’t they be there by now?

An obvious rebuttal to my argument is to point out the fact that there are other statistics that show Connecticut trailing New York. But to reduce the debate to a battle of cherry picking obscures the greater truth, that neither state has closed their achievement gaps, with or without tests.

Moukawsher also wrote that, “the way educators are hired and fired isn’t sensibly linked to its value in teaching children.” He goes on to bemoan the fact that “Good teachers can’t be recognized and bad teachers can’t be removed.”

This is a thinly veiled mandate to weaken due process protections for teachers and probably an endorsement for merit pay. Alas, there is there is no research that shows that union busting or pay incentives can narrow achievement gaps.

Of course it makes sense to assume that rooting out the bad apples would have a positive effect, but I ask the judge to test his assumptions against the facts. Would it surprise him to learn that there already are thousands of American public schools where there’s no tenure and where administrators are allowed to hire and fire at will? They are called charter schools. Some of these schools even have the ability to effectively fire students, too, denying them admission or expelling them if they don’t perform well on tests.

If the judge’s theory about competition were correct, charters should crush regular public schools, but they don’t. Despite having nearly infinite discretion to decide who is and isn’t in the building, and the ability for districts to dissolve the schools at will, thus far charter schools have not shown the capacity to close achievement gaps.

The best recent study of charters, a massive 2013 Stamford comparison across the 42 states where they exist “noted that while these gains are beneficial for charter students, as with the racial/ethnic analyses above these gains are not large enough to offset the differences between students in poverty and students who are not in poverty.”

I do not mean to disparage the important work done by my colleagues at charter schools, but there is just no data to support the conclusion that we can fill achievement gaps with pink slips and broken unions. In fact, a look at other countries like Finland indicates that the opposite might be the case.

Judge Moukawsher also asserts that in the current system “good teachers can’t be recognized.” The fact is that there are dozens of non-monetary ways in which the state and local districts use to praise including the Presidential Scholar Teacher Recognition Award and the Teacher of the Year program. But I suspect his actual intention in this line is to advocate for merit pay.

And yes, it is perfectly rational to think that those who do a good job should get paid more than those who do not. Unfortunately,rigorous studies of recent merit pay programs in New York, Nashville, and Texas by Vanderbilt University’s National Center for Performance Incentives have found that these strategies do not impact student performance, much less close achievement gaps.

A colleague of mine taught me about something called Campbell’s Law. It basically stipulates that the more social importance is put on a statistic, the more likely it is to be corrupted. The proof in the pudding comes from the Washington D.C. testing corruption scandal that occurred under the leadership of Michelle Rhee. It and other horrible headlines are symbols for what can go wrong when you tie evaluations to specific stats. As soon as you define merit, you immediately create perverse incentives for people to cook the books instead of actually doing the business of educating.

So why do so many of these strategies that rely on market forces not pan out in the classroom? The reality is that most of what works on Wall Street doesn’t transfer to School Street. I don’t think many teachers have ever thought, “Gee, if only I made a extra few dollars per hour, I’d bring my ‘A’ game to class today.” If I know anything about success in education, it’s that it’s built more on cooperation than competition between teachers, students, administrators, the community, and civic leaders. We rise or fall together.

I’m not saying that schools shouldn’t be held to account for their work, but the fact is that no school system anywhere has ever closed any achievement gaps by monkeying with teacher evaluations or other teacher incentives. Go ahead and look, but you won’t find any.

So as we enter another cycle of education reform, I ask that you along with other state leaders do more than simply look for policies that are rational. In my classes reasonable claims are not enough, students need evidence to earn credit.

Having taught through two previous waves of reform, one in 2002 and another in 2013, I witnessed thousands of work hours used for administrators and teachers to bring their practices into statutory compliance with little to show for it. In the end, it was the kids who paid the price given with so much of their teachers’ energy consumed outside of the classroom on tasks with little relationship to student learning. Please, let’s not do that again.

Answers are out there. But to find them, you must resist the temptation to take short cuts. If we want smarter kids, we need to set the example and and not just lift our policies out of a lobbyist’s binder or a cranky pundit’s latest screed.

Please do the homework and look at the history of education reform both here and abroad. Thank you for listening.

Randall Smith is a social  studies teacher and debate coach at Joel Barlow High School in Redding.

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