Monday, February 28, 2011

Op-Ed reposted at The Answer Sheet

2 false claims that drive school reform

Also referenced at Fred Klonsky's Blog

Referenced at Walt Gardner's EdWeek Blog

See Walt's excellent post, including a kind nod to my work:

"I seriously doubt his prediction. Both Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute and Paul Thomas of Furman University have shown that even the best schools can do only so much. That's because students spend about 1,150 waking hours a year in school, compared with about 4,700 waking hours a year with their families and in their neighborhoods. If this is the case, then it's overly optimistic to believe that getting rid of dreadful teachers will catapult American students to the top"

Sunday, February 27, 2011

27 February 2011 Commentary @ The Daily Censored

Celebrity “Common Sense” Reform for Education–Legend of the Fall pt. VI

Raising Our Voices as Experts

The education reform debate has tended to marginalize, silence, and even render invisible the teacher, the educators themselves—not to mention the children. As we face a moment when speaking up may shift the tide against us, I want to recommend two new songs with lyrics that I believe speak to the need to fight, to raise our voices:

"It Happened Today"
Collapse Into Now

This is not a parable
This is a terrible
This is a terrible thing

Yes I will rhyme that, after, after all I've done today
I have earned my wings

It happened today. Hooray! Hooray!
It happened. Hip, hip, hooray!

We'll leave the allegory to a different Bible story
Out of deference, defiance, the choice
Closing on a promise, after, after all I've done today
I have earned my voice

It happened today. Hooray! Hooray!
It happened. Hip, hip, hooray!


"This is Why We Fight"
The King Is Dead
The Decemberists

Come the war
Come the avarice
Come the war
Come hell
Come attrition
Come the reek of bones
Come attrition
Come hell

And this is why
Why we fight
Why we lie awake
This is why
This is why we fight
And when we die
We will die
With our arms unbound
This is why
This is why we fight
Come hell

Bride of quiet
Bride of all unquiet things
Bride of quiet
Bride of hell
Come the archers
Come the infantry
Come the archers
Of hell

So come to me
Come to me now
Lay your arms around me
This is why
This is why we fight
Come hell

Sunday, February 20, 2011

20 February 2011 Commentary @

Investing in Deform (vs reform) and (Corporate) Results

20 February 2011 Op-Ed @ The Greenville News

Thomas, P. L. (2011, February 20). False claims drive two education reform ideas. The Greenville News.

"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 in the care of 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 (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.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Revisiting an Op-Ed from 2007

This post at The Answer Sheet by Marion Brady made me think of Lou LaBrant and her brush with accountability from 1932:

Thomas, P. L. (2007, June 13). Rethinking school accountability. The State

Superintendent Jim Rex has opened the door to revising how SC holds schools, teachers, and students accountable—reinforcing evidence that he is not simply tolerant of change but actively seeking it. While this recent move must be applauded, we must also use the opportunity to look closely at the assumptions behind any accountability system designed to improve education.

First, consider this scenario: A teacher secures a position teaching and soon finds that she must implement periodic tests to gather evidence of her students’ achievement throughout the year in order to insure that those students perform well on a year-end high-stakes test. Both her on-going and the year-end assessments are linked to standards and materials approved by the district and the state.

Does this sound familiar? Of course, both in terms of how our schools in SC work now and how Dr. Rex envisions them working better in the future.

This scenario, however, is the life and work of Lou LaBrant, and her teaching position in 1932. Holding teachers and schools accountable through testing and standards is at least seven decades old.

If we are seeking to revise our accountability system and improve learning for our students, we had better commit ourselves to a few large-scale changes in how we think about teaching, learning, testing, and accountability. That rethinking must include the following:

• While Dr. Rex is correct in calling for reducing how often we test and how often we prepare students for tests, this new system does nothing to address the disproportionate weight we place on testing. Education has always suffered from seeing tests as goals of school instead of seeing tests of tools within the teaching/learning dynamic. No accountability system will ever improve learning as long as tests remain the goals. Teaching to the test has measurable negative effects on all aspects of schooling. Tests must not remain the primary measure in our accountability system.

• Further, our commitment to testing grows from our myopic belief that accountability must by “objective” and that certain forms of testing fulfill that goal. We continue this charade despite overwhelming evidence that standardized tests—which are deemed most objective—have strong negative correlations toward distinct populations of students—including gender, race, and socioeconomic status. Our pursuit of objectivity must be balanced with other concerns—or any new accountability system will show the same weak results as in the past.

We must be deeply skeptical of any new program or system that grows from our political process. In my career as a SC educator, we have had BSAP and PACT. Neither has satisfied their stated goals—or popular perceptions of our schools.

• Accountability as a concept must also be reconsidered. Prodding schools to change either through the promise of rewards or the threat of punishment has never worked and will never work. The primary reason schools are not better is not a lack of motivation by those who run our schools, but the ill effects of poverty and the lack of concern for education by students and their parents. Traditional accountability systems address neither of those.

• Beware the promise of technology. One complaint about our current system anchored by PACT is the failure of those tests to provide valuable and timely feedback for teachers. Tthe new accountability system seeks testing that will provide quick feedback for teachers, which appears to be a move toward computer-based testing. The type of testing found on computer-based testing is highly limited, and a move to computer-based testing will have two effects: (1) Research shows that computer-based testing produces lower scores for students in poverty and students of color; (2) Computer-based testing will provide teachers with lousy data quicker.

In an effort to reduce testing, we appear to be planning to test fewer content areas—adding that this will not lessen the importance of any of the areas not tested. The reality is that as long as tests are the focus of accountability, teachers will focus on only that which is tested. Currently, we have students taking tests on SAT vocabulary words in art classes; this sort of nonsensical practice grows from that reality.

• Finally we must drop the all-or-nothing mentality of accountability. We are seeking 100% success for our schools while accepting 70% as passing for students in those schools. 100% success is a fine goal, but it can never be achieved.

Now is the time to form a line at the door Dr. Rex has opened, but let’s not allow that door to be closed until we rethink and redesign accountability in SC—creating a system that is more than a new set of letters we can associate with why schools are failing yet again.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

RECOMMENDED: Writing Kurt Vonnegut blog

From the "About" section @ Writing Kurt Vonnegut:

"Charles J. Shields’ Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee was a New York Times bestseller during the summer of 2006 and is in its 8th printing. And So It Goes, first biography of Kurt Vonnegut is due out from Henry Holt & Co. in 2011. Shields received a B.A. in English and an M.A. in American history from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He resides in Barboursville, Virginia with his wife, Guadalupe"