Education reform: A Race to the Top -- or for fool's gold
Reader Comment: I prefer to call it dash for the cash.
By Rebecca Levison and Steve Novick
The Oregonian editorial board seems convinced that the state's showing in the competition for federal "Race to the Top" funding is a leading indicator of the sad state of education in Oregon. But what if the Obama administration has a distorted idea of what education reform should mean? What if the Race to the Top is just a rush for fool's gold?
Diane Ravitch's new book, "The Death and Life of the Great American School System," makes a strong case that on education policy President Barack Obama, like George W. Bush before him, is misguided. Ravitch, a well-known figure in national education circles for decades, had been a strong supporter of the so-called "accountability and choice" approach. But looking at the evidence, she's changed her mind.
Obama has embraced the idea of increasing the number of charter schools. Ravitch presents research showing that, overall, charter schools have not been more successful than "regular" schools. When they seem more successful, it's because they're skimming off the most motivated students with the most engaged parents.
Obama has demanded that states create "alternative" paths for people to become teachers, bypassing established certification requirements. (In the Race to the Top process, Oregon got dinged on this criterion.) Ravitch points to research by Linda Darling-Hammond, a widely respected Stanford education scholar, showing that certified teachers outperform those who come into the profession through shortcuts.
Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, believe (like Bush) that schools and school systems can be judged through high-stakes testing. Ravitch points out that when Duncan ran the Chicago school system, students' scores on state assessments went up dramatically. But on the National Assessment of Education Progress, Chicago's students showed no improvement, suggesting that the state results may have been illusory, the result of "teaching to the test."
Obama and Duncan have embraced the idea that if we just adopt the right methods of evaluation and compensation for teachers, we can identify and then multiply a super-race of highly effective teachers. Ravitch points to research showing that measuring teacher effectiveness by test scores is a treacherous business; even if you trust the tests, the results for particular teachers tend to vary greatly from year to year and class to class.
Yes, we can improve our students' experience. But it takes time, hard work and resources. Even good teachers can improve by observing one another's classrooms and giving one another feedback. But that only happens in a trusting, noncompetitive environment, which merit-pay schemes would undermine.
Many teachers would welcome more meaningful evaluations. But anyone who thinks that's the Holy Grail should check out Finland, whose students routinely score highest on international tests and where there are no teacher evaluations at all. Instead, Finland focuses on extensive training for beginning teachers. And as in most of Europe, Finnish teachers spend less time in the classroom than American teachers and have more time for planning.
Ravitch observes that quick-fix advocates tend not to be actual educators: "In choosing his education agenda, Obama sided with the economists and the corporate-style reformers."
The Oregonian's editorial board should consider that statement carefully before writing another editorial that assumes the administration knows best.
Rebecca Levison is a sixth-grade teacher at Clarendon-Portsmouth School in North Portland and is on leave as president of the Portland Association of Teachers. Steve Novick is a Portland political consultant and former legislative director for the Oregon Department of Education.
Rebecca Levison & Steve Novick
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