Saturday, September 15, 2012

School reform by the numbers

Posted By on 09.15.12 at 01:19 PM

CTU boss Karen Lewis
  • Andrew A. Nelles/Sun-Times Media
  • CTU boss Karen Lewis
I've never had a boss who didn't have a pretty good idea how well I was doing my job. If schools were run along the lines of most workplaces, principals would reward their best teachers and get rid of the worst ones, and no one would question whether they should all be held accountable for the education of their students. Simple common sense said that of course they should.

"Union leaders don't want teacher evaluations tied heavily to student academic growth . . . " said the Tribune the other day in an editorial telling the striking Chicago Teachers Union that it's on the wrong side of history. "Look around, Ms. Lewis. Nationwide, this fight is over. Reforms that hold teachers and principals accountable for student growth won. What used to be the status quo has lost."

In education, common sense has somehow turned into education reform, and a strike is under way in Chicago to determine whether reform shall be implemented. But what is the reform movement predicated on? Science. Numbers. Testing.

Reform-minded educators have decreed that the progress of students will be measured by testing and retesting them. There are dangers in this, the chief one being that to facsimilate progress, students will be taught to the tests they will be measured by. But flawed data is better than no data at all. The reformers—many of whom send their children to private schools that reject this kind of incessant testing and skewed teaching—believe that in imposing their tests they are serving the public well.

Maybe they are. Maybe the testing is a something that's better than a past nothing. But a lot hangs on these numbers. Just as they measure the presumed progress of the students, so with a little massaging do they also measure the presumed worth of the students' teachers.

Do they? A lot of smart people want to think so. "Evaluations that rely in part on test scores really do identify the best teachers," wrote the New York Times's David Brooks, looking at Chicago's schools from afar. "Teachers who score well on these evaluations really do produce measurable improvements in their students' performance for years to come. Rigorous teacher evaluations will give reformers a measuring tool."

Here in Chicago, the Tribune's Eric Zorn was a lot less sure. "Conventional measures of student achievement provide an unreliable and erratic gauge of teacher quality," he wrote. "Because studies show that from subject to subject and from year to year, the same teacher can look alternately like a golden apple and a rotting fig."

A recent report on NPR's All Things Considered began by commenting that teacher evaluations have historically been "haphazard" at best; then reporter Tovia Smith let both sides speak. "Experts concede that teacher evaluation formulas are still a work in progress," she reported. "But Dan Goldhaber, director of the Center for Education Data and Research at the University of Washington, Bothell, says algorithms are now sophisticated enough. They measure student improvement, not just scores, and they adjust for everything from socioeconomic factors to class size. He says how much weight to give test scores is debatable, but they shouldn't be ignored."

I have never worked for an algorithm, and for all I know they make excellent supervisors. But it's hard to believe they're the last word in judging performance. Numbers don't lie, say reformers. Actually, numbers have been known to lie up and down and all day Sunday. But reformers have only numbers to fall back on after they've made it clear they do not trust and do not respect the teachers, and do not trust and do not respect the principals teachers report to. And for that matter, they must have decided the superintendents the principals report to aren't doing their jobs either.

The Tribune spoke of the reform measures Rahm Emanuel supports as "empowering principals to hire the best." That's fine as far as it goes. But truly empowered principals would be free to hire and fire and run their schools, and when need be to shield their faculties from the whims and theories of the idealists upstairs.

The Tribune argued that City Hall is fighting for "vital reforms." The weakness in its case that the CTU stands in the way of progress is the assumption that progress is waiting in the wings.

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