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Amrein Beardsley Takes on Thomas Kane Pronouncements on Teacher Reform

Publication Date: 2014-09-27


Ohanian Comment: Thomas Kane on Education Reform was sent to subscribers of Amrein Beardsley's blog on Sept. 25, 2014.

It's worth remembering that Thomas Kane, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution as well as Brookings,was the senior staff economist for labor, education, and welfare policy issues within President Clinton's Council of Economic Advisers. Just remember: Clinton badly wanted a national test, and only Republican opposition kept him from getting it.

Here's some more about Kane from a 'search' on this website.

It should also be noted that Thomas Kane, along with Douglas Staiger predicted what would happen with NCLB, that it would hit integrated school districts more than districts that are homogeneous with regard to ethnicity and socioeconomic status. Policy makers didn't care.

I don't feel nearly so positive about much of the rest of his research, for example:

In 2009, Joel Klein used his bully pulpit to write a US News & World Report piece highlighting Kane's work on charter schools, saying, "Harvard Prof. Thomas Kane and a team of researchers for the Boston Foundation show that popular charter schools in Boston do in fact rapidly narrow the achievement gap, even after taking account of the characteristics of the students attending the charters."

Likewise, op ed columnist Nicholas Kristof likes to quote Kane in his facile solutions to public school problems.

Kane, working with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, came up with 180-degree cameras to aid Memphis teachers in their professional development.

A Kane Observation: "Paying teachers on the basis of master's degrees is equivalent to paying them based on hair color."


You might recall from a prior post the name of Thomas Kane, an economics professor from Harvard University who also directed the $45 million worth of Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) studies for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Not surprisingly as a VAM advocate, he advanced then, and continues to advance now, a series of highly false claims about the wonderful potentials of VAMs.

As highlighted in the piece Kane wrote, and Brookings released on its website on The Case for Combining Teacher Evaluation and the Common Core, Kane continues to advance a series of highly false claims and assumptions in terms of how "better teacher evaluation systems will be vital for any broad [educational] reform effort, such as implementing the Common Core." Exerting series of “heroic assumptions” without evidence seems to be a recurring theme, which I cannot myself figure out knowing Kane's an academic and quite honestly should know better.

Here are some examples of what I speak (and protest):

  • Educational reform is "a massive adult behavior change exercise. . . [U]nless we change what adults do every day inside their classrooms, we cannot expect student outcomes to improve." Enter teachers as the new and popular (thanks to folks like Kane) sources of blame. We are to accept Kane's assumption, here, that teachers have not been motivated prior to change their adult behaviors and teach their students well, help their students learn, improve their students' outcomes, and the like.

  • Hence, when "current attempts to implement new teacher evaluations fall short--as they certainly will, given the long history of box-checking--we must improve them." We are to accept Kane's assumption here, despite the fact that little to no research evidence exists supporting that teacher evaluation systems improve much of anything including "improved student outcomes," that new teacher evaluation systems based on carrot and stick measures are going to do this.

  • Positioning new and improved teacher evaluation systems against another educational reform approach (which I have never seen positioned as a reform approach, but nonetheless), Kane argues "professional development hasn’t worked in the past" so we must go with new teacher evaluation systems? Nobody I know who conducts research on educational reform ever suggested professional development was or could ever be proposed to reform America's public schools. Rather, professional development is simply a standard of a profession, the teaching profession that (at least to many of us) it is still meant to be just that. If we are to talk about research-based ways to reform our schools, there are indeed other solutions. These other solutions, however, are unfortunately more expensive and, hence, less popular among those who continue to advance cheap and "logical" or "rational" solutions such as those advanced by Kane.

  • Ironically, Kane cites and links to two external studies when arguing that "[b]etter teacher evaluation systems have been shown to be related to better outcomes for students." While the first piece Kane references might have something to do with this (as per reading the abstract, but not the full piece), the second piece cited and linked to by Kane, rather, is about how professional or teacher development focused on supporting teacher and student interactions actually increased student learning and achievement. But "professional development hasn't worked in the past?" Funny. . . .

  • Kane also exerts that "The Common Core is more likely to succeed in sites that are implementing better teacher evaluation and feedback as well." Where's the evidence on that one. . . .

  • There is really only one thing written into this piece on which we agree: the use of student surveys to provide teachers with student-based feedback (this was the source of a recent post I wrote here).

  • Thereafter, Kane goes into a series of suggestions for administrators and teachers on how they should, for example, conduct "side-by-side comparison[s] of the new and old standards and identify a few standardsâ€"no more than two or three in each grade and subjectâ€"to focus on during the upcoming year" -- and -- how administrators should "schedule classroom observations for the days when the new standards are to be taught." Indeed, "[e]ven one successful cycle will lay the foundation for the next round of instructional improvement."

    I do have to say, though, as a former teacher, I would advise others to not heed the advice of a person who has conducted a heck of a lot of research "on" education but who has, as far as I can tell or find on the internet (see his full resume or curriculum vita here), not ever been a teacher "in" education himself, or much less set foot in the classroom. I'm sorry practitioners, for my colleague for doing this from (as you sometimes criticize us as a whole) atop his ivory tower post.

    Kane concludes with the following: "The norm of autonomous, self-made, self-directed instruction--with no outside feedback or intervention--is long-standing and makes the U.S. education system especially resistant to change. In most high-performing countries, teachers have no such expectations. The lesson study in Japan is a good example. Teachers do not bootstrap their own instruction. They do not expect to be left alone. They expect standards, they expect feedback from peers and supervisors and they expect to be held accountable--for the quality of their delivery as well as for student results. Therefore, a better system for teacher evaluation and feedback is necessary to support individual behavior change, and it's a tool for collective culture change as well."

    So much of what he wrote here, really in every single sentence, could not be further from the truth, so much so I care not to dissect each point and waste your time further.

    As I also said in my prior post, if I was to make a list of VAMboozlers, Kane would still be near the top of the list. All of the reasons for my nomination are highlighted yet again here, unfortunately, but this time as per what Kane wrote himself. Again, though, you can be the judges and read this piece for yourselves, or not.


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