Friday, August 21, 2015

The problem with the problem with reform (not a typo)

The (relatively) new trend in education is being against trends. Led by folks like Diane Ravitch, it's become quite popular to talk smack against anyone trying to do anything in education, with the exception of teachers who have been doing it for a while already. Charters? Bad. Accountability? Bad. Common Core? Awful.

Probably based in part on my love of New Orleans for other reasons, this article (by Jennifer Berkshire) - "'Reform' makes broken New Orleans schools worse: Race, charters, testing and the real story of education after Katrina" - caught my attention. It seemed at first that this article would follow in the footsteps of Ravitch and other anti-reformers, and my initial impression was on target.

First, a disclaimer - I don't disagree with a lot of what Berkshire says. I don't think charters, high-stakes accountability, and other reform strategies have been effective. The main difference I have with Berkshire, Ravitch, and others isn't on the specific issues, but how they've evaluated issues and the generalized conclusions they've come away with. Here are a few, in my own words:

  • Only people who live in a neighborhood can fix it.
  • Only demographically similar people can truly understand "their own" (e.g., only Black people can really understand Black people)
  • Anything that isn't supportive of teachers is wrong, just because.
  • Data is bad.
Yes, I'm paraphrasing, and Berkshire & Ravitch would likely disagree with these points as I've presented them. However, I don't think they're too far off.

As you can, there are a couple of fundamentally faulty ways of thinking that I think are fairly evident amongst anti-reformers:
  • A propensity to evaluate outcomes based relatively irrelevant inputs. 
    • Example: One of Berkshire's main concerns with the educational strategies/reforms used in Atlanta is that they weren't implemented by Black people, or people from New Orleans. I'm not saying that it's unimportant or irrelevant to have community input, but this is far different from thinking that the crux of the error with NOLA reforms has been the ethnic and regional backgrounds of the implementors. 
  • Over-generalization, over-reliance on anecdotal evidence, and an inability to distinguish between a failed concept/strategy and faulty implementation/specifics.
    • Example: Assuming accountability doesn't work because it didn't work in one particular instance. Make no mistake - I think most current teacher accountability systems aren't good. They over-rely on science that isn't there yet. But, that doesn't mean the entire concept is faulty - that accountability couldn't occur, that VAM will never work. It just hasn't yet
  • Personalization & emotionalization of issues.
    • Example: Reforms are bad because of who suggests them or implements them, not how well they were implemented or how well they worked. 
  • Misunderstanding of necessary vs. sufficient reform, and misunderstanding of how certain reforms are intended to perform with others.
    • Example: State tests and accountability systems were never intended or designed to be the sole agents of educational change. They may have been hallmark elements of certain pieces of legislation, but I've never heard a serious proponent of state tests exclaim that they, alone, should fix all educational problems. Anti-reformers, though, believe that if a reform effort (e.g., state tests) didn't fix education problems, they were ineffective. Not sure. Consider a cardiac patient who needs to take 2 medications to control blood pressure, but only takes one and suffers a heart attack. Did the first medication "fail to work?" No, it wasn't accompanied by the entire treatment regimen. Similarly, state tests were never designed to fly solo or fix everything by itself. Maybe Bush tried to sell it as so from time to time, but no one else really thought that. The failure or lack of inclusion of other, also necessary, strategies could have been just as much an issue.
  • Too much attack, too little suggestions of alternatives.
    • As Berkshire mentioned in her article, things weren't working before. No matter how you slice it, kids weren't learning. Schools weren't the only problem, but they were part of it. So, it's not really appropriate to merely suggest a rollback of reforms as a countermeasure. We won't get anywhere except where we've been.
So, what's my point: That Berkshire & Ravitch are right to look into reform movements and criticize them, and that they bring some important perspective. However, we need to be more specific, data-based, and objective when doing so. We need to understand exactly what is wrong with a reform before throwing the idea out completely, and we need to understand the difference between the person executing the reform and the reform itself.