Thursday, March 17, 2011

School Reform We Can’t Believe In

Illustration: Michael Duffy

"...Standardized multiple-choice tests have become the “credit default swaps” of the education world. Few understand how either really works, but both encourage a focus on illusory short-term gains over more lasting long-term goals and drive bad behavior on the part of those in charge. The blame-the-teacher potential in pay-for-test-score schemes is hard to overstate.

Obama claims his reforms are “a classic example . . . of evidence-based policy making,” but the administration has systematically ignored the record on some of its key initiatives. From the outset, it equated charters with innovation, far beyond any levels justified by their actual impact. The most credible national study of charter school performance showed that, even on test-score terms, only 17 percent of charters outperformed comparable public schools, while 37 percent scored worse. Charters drain resources, staff, and energy for innovation away from other district schools, often while creaming better prepared students and more committed parents. They function more like deregulated “enterprise zones” than models of reform, providing subsidized spaces for a few at the expense of the many. Little attention and few resources have been invested in translating the elusive successes of charters into system-wide improvement. Nowhere have charters produced a template for effective district-wide reform or equity.

...This will mean still more tests. And more jargon to justify them. RTTT applications are loaded with plans for “benchmark” testing in the name of “formative assessment.” Some “growth models” will require multiple tests throughout the year tied to accountability schemes. Other supporters of common standards want to add tests in subjects besides reading and math to offset the narrowing of curriculum spawned by NCLB. Teachers and students, already sinking in a swamp of data-driven drivel, may drown. Test publishers and data systems companies will get richer.

...A number of progressive groups are trying to stay ahead of the reauthorization curve and work with Congressional staff on changes that would ease the testing plague, replace punitive sanctions with more constructive supports, and address some of the broader social and economic deficits that translate into test score gaps. The Forum on Educational Accountability (, the Forum for Education and Democracy (, and the Broader Bolder Approach to Education project ( have all made useful proposals. A Rethink Learning Now campaign ( is attempting to bring “powerful learning” and “fairness” stories from teachers and students to bear on the federal policymaking process. Progressive proposals include: roll back the mandate for annual testing, insert opportunity-to-learn standards, allow more varied classroom and teacher-made assessments, and develop more supportive processes for assessing and building the capacity of schools to improve."

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