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Radical Eyes for Equity: Moving Beyond the Cult of Pedagogy in Education Reform

As a teacher for forty years and a teacher educator for more than half of that career, I have always struggled with the tendency to oversell teacher quality and instructional practice.

Does teacher quality matter? Of course.

Does instructional practice matter? Again, of course.

But both teacher quality and instruction (pedagogy) are dwarfed by teaching and learning conditions within schools and more significantly by the conditions of any child’s life.

As I have noted recently, the peak era of focusing on teacher quality, the value-added movement (VAM) occurring mostly under the Obama administration, instead of identifying high-quality teachers as a driver for improving student achievement found out something much different than intended:

VAMs should be viewed within the context of quality improvement, which distinguishes aspects of quality that can be attributed to the system from those that can be attributed to individual teachers, teacher preparation programs, or schools. Most VAM studies find that teachers account for about 1% to 14% of the variability in test scores, and that the majority of opportunities for quality improvement are found in the system-level conditions. Ranking teachers by their VAM scores can have unintended consequences that reduce quality.

ASA Statement on Using Value-Added Models for Educational Assessment (2014)

Teacher quality necessarily includes two types of knowledge by a teacher—content knowledge and pedagogical knowledge.

Yet the VAM experiment revealed something we have known for decades—standardized tests of student learning mostly reflect the student’s relative privilege or inequity outside of school.

Despite the refrain of Secretary Duncan under Obama, schools have never in fact been “game changers.”

While neoliberal/conservative education reforms leveraged the “soft bigotry of low expectations” and unsubstantiated claims that the Left uses poverty as an excuse, people all along the ideological spectrum are over-focused on instructional practices. And that overemphasis is used to keep everyone looking at teachers, students, and instruction instead of those more impactful out-of-school (OOS) influences on student learning.

A companion to the cult of pedagogy in education reform is the “miracle” school claim, but “miracle” schools rarely (almost never) exist once the claim is interrogated, and even if a “miracle” school exists, it is by definition an outlier and essentially offers no guidance for scaling outward or upward.

The paradox of the cult of pedagogy in education reform is that until will directly address OOS factor we will never have the context for better teasing out the importance of teacher quality and instructional practices.

The current education reform trapped in the cult of pedagogy is the “science of reading” (SOR) movement which oversells the blame for student reading achievement as well as oversells the solutions in the form of different reading programs, reading instructional practice, and teacher preparation and professional development.

The “miracle” of the day in the SOR propaganda is Mississippi, which is very likely a mirage based on manipulating the age of students being tested at grade level and not on teacher quality and instructional practices.

Not a single education reform promise since the 1980s has succeeded, and the US remains in a constant cycle of crisis and reform promises.

Yet, the evidence is overwhelming that many OOS factors impact negatively student learning and that social reform would pay huge dividends in educational outcomes if we simply would move beyond the cult of pedagogy in education reform.

For example, see the following:

My entire career has existed within the neoliberal accountability era of education reform that oversells education as a “game changer” and oversells teacher quality and instructional practices.

Like time-share frauds, we are being duped, and teachers and students need us to move beyond the cult of pedagogy in education reform and focus on the much larger influences on students being able to learn and teachers being able to show that their quality and instruction can matter.


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P.L. Thomas

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education (Furman University, Greenville SC), taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. He...