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Living in Dialogue: Autopsy of NCLB Reveals Contempt for Teachers

The morning presenters at the recent American Enterprise Institute’s conference, Bush-Obama School Reform: Lessons Learned, were scholars who mostly documented the failures of test-driven reform. The afternoon panelists were policy people for the Bush and Obama administrations and, as a first post on the conference also explained, they clearly remain in denial.

More than once, researchers documented the principle that explains accountability-driven reform; to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. True believers in rewards and punishment, armed with a 34% increase in federal spending, rushed their preferred policies into place, ignoring the professional judgments of practitioners. As Robert Pianta explained, reformers reacted against the “soft and descriptive science” which had been the norm before the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. They sought to emulate the hard science of the medical sector. However, their pursuit of “evidence-based” practices fell far short of what would be needed to turn their dreams into reality.

As explained by Patrick McGuin, reformers focused on equity and closing the achievement gap, but they demanded “too much, too quickly.” What they got was compliance and superficial changes. As Sara Dahill-Brown documented, reformers put state departments of education (SDEs) in a “lose-lose” situation. Most SDEs that supposedly had a capacity for monitoring accountability had systems that were less than three years old. Even a decade later, SDEs lacked capacity for monitoring reforms. In 2012, 47 state SDEs worked with outside groups. In a rational era, hiring so many consultants would not be such a problem. As Pianta explained, however, state education leaders don’t read high-quality research. They looked at summaries of the studies, presented from the perspectives of “intermediaries” pushing their own agendas.

In one sense, Mathew Kraft was more “upbeat” about the legacies of the teacher quality movement. On the other hand, Kraft’s review of the real-world effect of accountability is very consistent with that of teachers. Kraft and I disagree on many things but his main observations were on target. Reformers ignored the opportunity costs of their policies. The rush to reform undermined its credibility. Under NCLB, states had four years to make sure that every teacher would be “high quality.” When the Gates Foundation and the Obama administration rammed its tougher teacher quality theories into place, they didn’t seek buy-in from practitioners. They ignored context, seeming to be unaware of basic labor market dynamics. They didn’t even ask where they would find replacements for the teachers that would be exited.

Since then, Kraft and E.J. Brunner, S.M. Dougherty, and D. Schwegman published a paper which found “evaluation reforms resulted in a steady decline in the statewide supply of new teachers, whereas tenure reforms produced a sharp but more temporary contraction.”

I was most anxious to hear Robert Pianta’s thoughts. Pianta explained that Gates’s teacher quality effort and Common Core “failed operationally and politically.” He also contrasted education with medical research. Since the 1980s, when AIDS and standards-based school reform burst on the scene, we’ve made huge breakthroughs in treating the epidemic. During the same time, we’ve learned a lot about teaching 3rd graders to decode, even though we haven’t learned how to scale up reading for comprehension. Given the talent and money poured into research during an era dominated by an accountability-driven ideology, that’s not much of a record in terms of improving real-world schooling.

The good news is that Pianta predicts that future research will tackle neurological issues. The bad news, I believe, is that it is corporations rather than educational institutions that are taking the lead in those studies. Given the sorry outcomes produced by corporate school reform, I worry about the way that the private sector will conduct and implement cognitive science research.

Even if 16 years of school reform didn’t waste tens of billions of dollars on the eve of an era of austerity, given the resources provided for education research, there should be reasons for hope that science will be used more appropriately. But the afternoon panelists obviously blocked out the lessons that should have been learned.

Nina Rees condemned teachers and unions for launching “the anti-narrative” as soon as reform policies were introduced. Demonstrating her disrespect for teachers who united in opposition to their theories, Rees said that Lyft and Uber do more than criticize taxi cabs. Roberto Rodriguez even denied that the Obama administration ignored the views of teachers, claiming that it was second to none in reaching out to educators. Joanne Weiss used the same type of alt facts when saying that the Race to the Top empowered states and denying it was federal overreach. Weiss added that teachers don’t understand scale, so presumably we have no right to reject the way Arne Duncan pushed for the overnight implementation of his one-size-fits-all agenda across our diverse nation.

The weirdest statements were made by Hannah Skandera, the former head of the New Mexico Education Department. Her musings were so unusual that it’s hard to know exactly what she was saying. However, it sounds like she sees teachers who oppose her policies as children. Skandera started by saying that reformers should listen but then she acknowledged that reformers exhibited “arrogance in the sheer will.” This willfulness supposedly resulted in unidentified “double digit returns,” and “double and triple” improvements for teachers who bought in to her policies.

Skandera acknowledged that the initial quest to bring students to proficiency resulted in unintended negative results. But, when bubble-in test prep is criticized, she said that means we’re having the “wrong conversation.” When we have what Skandera calls the “right conversation,” holistic instruction will occur. When you’re young, she said you are told “no, you can’t do that.” Presumably, she decides when teachers are grown up enough to reclaim their professional autonomy.

Listening to researchers diagnosing the failure of accountability-driven reform and the reformers’ refusal to listen, I had plenty of flashbacks. I recalled the time when Robert Pianta offered to help the Oklahoma City Public School System improve its professional development but how the effort was killed by the micromanaging required to apply for the RttT and to implement the School Improvement Grants. We had a second chance for learning from Pianta’s University of Virginia when (through no fault of the UVA) our 90% low-income district was told to invest its Stimulus funding on curriculum. Our vendor, America’s Choice, explained how student supports must be in place before its instructional supports would work for our lowest-skilled students, but we were in the Great Recession and the OKCPS had no money for laying the necessary foundation for better teaching and learning.

I wish some of the national policy makers could have been in the room when one of our most talented administrators displayed the America’s Choice graphic showing how the lowest performing 20% of students would need additional supports, and then she muttered, “in our district, I think it’s the bottom 80%” who would need those services.

Around that time the union also had no choice but to remain a team player and support the law, pushed by Democrats, mandating value-added evaluations. Since we were unanimous in seeing those evals as a recipe for drill and kill, I cheered when Tea Party legislators, led by an extreme member of the Religious Right, temporarily kept it from passing. “Thank god for Mary Helm!” I exclaimed when entering the office. My colleagues acknowledged that the bill was awful, but said we had agreed to make the sacrifices necessary to receive federal money, so the union had no choice but to persuade some of our allies to change their votes and support an anti-union bill.

Above all, I wish reformers could have been in the room with state leaders and superintendents when we studied the Ohio NCLB plan. Because of its electoral college votes, Ohio was given the most freedom to kick the can down the road. The reformers on the panel would not be surprised to hear how we hoped to avoid NCLB accountability until, as we were told, western governors forced its repeal.

What reformers don’t seem to understand is why we believed that. We were doing it for the kids. We’d devoted ourselves to our students. Rather than ridicule our motives, today’s reformers should listen to why we sincerely believed that resisting test-driven accountability was our duty. We may lose, but if they continue to impose their accountability theories, we will continue the fight.

What do you think? Is it surprising that reformers are now so open in acknowledging their contempt for educators? Had they listened, would any rational reformers have believed that “accountability” could drive school improvement?

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John Thompson

John Thompson was an award-winning historian, lobbyist, and guerilla-gardener who became an award-winning inner city teacher after crack and gangs hit his neighbo...