Sunday, January 8, 2012

Greenville News 8 January 2012: Don't jump from NCLB frying pan to the fire

[expanded and cited version at The Daily Kos: "Government "Options": A Contradiction in Terms*"]

[original submission]

The largest federal education initiative, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), has proven in a decade to be the worst federal education initiative as well. Under the Barack Obama administration we are experiencing Orwellian double-speak in more federal programs—Race to the Top (RttT) and opting out of NCLB—that claim to be addressing NCLB flaws but are in fact guaranteed to make bad even worse.

South Carolina created controversy during the RttT application process, and our state is poised for even more controversy as Superintendent Zais plans to pursue opting out of NCLB. The problem with opting out of NCLB is that the Obama administration is using the language of offering states relief from federal education intrusion to insure even greater and more damaging federal education intrusion.

A notable danger in opting out of NCLB is that many states are moving teacher accountability and evaluation toward a test-based system, often referred to as value-added modeling (VAM) and merit pay. SC should find every alternative to the damage being done by NCLB, but we must not fall prey to jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire by embracing the exact elements of NCLB—standards, testing, and accountability—that have caused the legislation to fail students and public education.

Over the past thirty years, we must acknowledge, all fifty states have implemented large-scale experiments in standards, testing, and accountability, resulting in all fifty states claiming today that public schools are failing. The reason for this outcome—one we should have anticipated—is that educational quality is not linked primarily to standards, testing, and accountability, but to the larger social and community characteristics of every child in the U.S. and SC.

The accountability era, then, has failed to improve the education of children across the U.S. and in SC; thus, it makes little sense that the same process will improve teacher quality directly and student outcomes indirectly, simply because we mandate that accountability. But, beyond the shear failure of logic of this next step, teacher accountability and evaluation should not be linked to student test scores for many reasons:

• Standardized testing remains strongly correlated with gender, socio-economic, and racial biases—making them inappropriate for evaluating students and their teachers.

• Every test is designed for a specific reason, and no test should be used for accountability or evaluation of a different population than the one for which the test was designed. A classic example of this mistake is the SAT—a test designed only to predict freshman college success, but mistakenly used each year to rank and evaluate schools and entire state’s education quality. Tests designed to measure student learning are not necessarily valid for evaluating teacher quality.

• Merit pay, even in the free market, has been shown repeatedly through research to be ineffective for increasing quality of worker outcomes; in fact, merit pay proves to be counter-productive—especially when applied to education, where teachers are more interested in the conditions of their teaching assignment than with increased pay.

• Merit pay and linking teacher accountability and evaluation to test scores increase the competitive nature of education, a process deterred by competition and enhanced by collaboration and cooperation.

• The current research on VAM has proven to be highly volatile, meaning that the status of a teacher one year varies significantly over the following years. In other words, the labeling and ranking of teachers—as with the labeling and ranking of students—have more to do with characteristics unrelated to teaching and learning such as the home characteristics of the students.

• Linking teacher accountability and evaluation with student test scores will discourage teachers from working with the most challenging student populations—high-poverty students, special needs students, and English language learners—that need high quality teachers the most.

• Focusing on revamping teacher accountability and evaluation shifts time, resources, and energy on a bureaucratic process that allows our state to ignore the primary source of educational failure—social inequity, poverty. The conditions of a child’s life associated with her/his home—access to health care, food security, eye care, personal safety—remain conditions neither students nor their teachers have any control over but those conditions are the strongest correlation with the tests used to label and judge students and teachers.

A central flaw of NCLB has been a misguided approach to solutions, one that ignores identifying the problems before mandating those solutions. NCLB and now both RttT and opting out of NCLB are all making yet another flaw: Seeking to mandate outcomes by holding students and teachers accountable for situations over which they have little or no control. High-stakes testing, despite our best efforts, remain a reflection of conditions that are not academic.

SC is now best served by opting out of opting out, if the only options we have are to implement more harmful federal mandates cloaked as relief from federal mandates.

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