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Sunday, February 27, 2011

The false claims of education reform

From the Washington Posts Answer Sheet

By Paul Thomas

"Accountability," "merit," "choice," and "competition" are compelling to most Americans because they speak to our faith in rugged individualism.

As South Carolina faces yet another year of budget shortfalls that jeopardize many aspects of the state budget—notably education—we must look especially close at new policies and proposals that are driven by ideology but not supported by evidence. Two ideas being considered now that deserve our skepticism are merit-based teacher pay and increased funding for charter schools.

From President Obama and Secretary of Education Duncan to the misleading documentary "Waiting for Superman" to the new reformers (Bill Gates, Geoffrey Canada, and Michelle Rhee), the public is bombarded by a false claim that teacher quality is the most important element in student learning and public education is failing because of an inordinate number of "bad" teachers.

Evidence, however, shows that teacher and school quality accounts for only about 10-20% of measurable student achievement and that out-of-school factors are the dominant source of education problems.

Yet, teachers do matter, often in ways that cannot be measured, and since teacher pay accounts for the greatest percentage of education budgets — which continue to dominate state budgets — political leaders and the public feel compelled to call for greater teacher accountability.

Reformers such as Gates and Canada have been beating the drum for teacher accountability and weeding out the claimed "bad" teachers, and this media-driven mantra is turning many states to consider dropping traditional teacher pay scales based on experience and degrees for merit-based systems that are linked to claimed objective data, such as test scores.

Again, "accountability" and "merit" are compelling concepts, especially when we are talking about adults who are charged with educating our children. But merit-based teacher pay should be rejected for the following reasons:

• Studies show value-added methods (a popular form of merit pay) to be statistically flawed as tools of assessing a teacher's impact on student learning. In short, research refutes the effectiveness or accuracy of merit-based teacher pay.

• Teaching and learning are not singular and direct relationships between one teacher and one student. Any measure of student learning is a reflection of that child's entire life and entire education experience (including all teachers and learning experiences in that child's life). The impact of one teacher on one student, in fact, can be hard to measure for many years.

• To identify a direct and thus causational relationship between teachers and students, all other factors impacting student achievement, including out-of-school factors, would have to be controlled, resulting in a process that would cost more money and time than the state can fund.

• Decades of research show that teachers are not motivated by merit pay. Teachers are motivated by better teaching conditions, administrative and parental support, and collegiality.

• Accountability must be connected to autonomy and to the behavior of the person being held accountable. Currently, teachers are mandated to implement standards that they did not create, and their students are assessed by tests that those teachers did not design. To hold a person accountable without honoring that person's professional autonomy is unethical and invalid. And to hold one person (the teacher) accountable for the actions of another person (the student) is just as unethical.

If we believe teacher pay should be tied to merit and accountability, we must first honor teacher autonomy, and then design a system that addresses teacher behaviors—not student outcomes.

Charter schools appear to offer the choice and competition—which we have idealized—we believe can raise the quality of education, but increasing funding of charter schools proves to be as flawed as teacher merit pay.

The overwhelming body of evidence on charter schools shows that they are essentially the same as public schools. Also problematic is the inequity common in charter schools:

"The analysis found that, as compared with the public school district in which the charter school resided, the charter schools were substantially more segregated by race, wealth, disabling condition, and language. While charter schools have rapidly grown, the strong segregative pattern found in 2001 is virtually unchanged through 2007," reveals a review from the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder (NEPC).

Another review from NEPC cautions: "Federal policies that will strengthen charter schools in the longer run—rather than expanding the number of charter schools in the short run—need to be based on a more accurate and representative body of evidence." SC would do well to delay expanding charter support, especially in a difficult budget year.

The teacher merit pay and charter school movements are being driven by false claims, clearly refuted by the weight of evidence. SC's political leaders must be careful not to be swayed by our ideologies and to seek policies and funding that serve our students well.

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