Waivers, turnarounds and other examples of Obama’s “reforminess”
The Obama administration, acting while Congress was still dragging its feet on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, has offered states an opportunity to be granted waivers from some of the more oppressive aspects of the current No Child Left Behind law. The tradeoffs for receiving a waiver include adopting college- and career-ready standards, developing teacher and principal evaluation systems using a variety of measures (including but not limited to student test scores), and “rigorous” programs to turn around the lowest-performing schools. This last is a bit redundant, as states receiving School Improvement Grants have had to adopt the “turnaround” strategies demanded in Race to the Top (RTTT):
- Transformation model: Replace the principal, strengthen staffing, implement a research-based instructional program, provide extended learning time, and implement new governance and flexibility.
- Turnaround model: Replace the principal and rehire no more than 50 percent of the school staff, implement a research-based instructional program, provide extended learning time, and implement a new governance structure.
- Restart model: Convert or close and reopen the school under the management of an effective charter operator, charter management organization, or education management organization.
- School closure model: Close the school and enroll students who attended it in other, higher-performing schools in the district. (A Blueprint for Reform, U.S. Department of Education)
The waiver language on evaluations is perceived by many to be code for using student test scores in teacher evaluations via value-added methodology (VAM), or some euphemism for VAM like Academic Growth over Time being unilaterally enacted in Los Angeles.
It is not unfair to suggest that the Obama waiver process is just a back-door effort to impose RTTT reform efforts onto the states, but this time without the attendant funding. It is clear from the administration’s rhetoric, both in the Blueprint and elsewhere, that they continue to perceive charter schools as the sine qua non reform for low school achievement. This in the face of research indicating otherwise. For example, charter school achievement was examined by one research group at the conservative, pro-charter Hoover Institution, CREDO, which did a massive study on charters and found only one in five outperformed regular public schools, while two in five did worse, and the remainder were no different than local public schools.
It can, in fact, be demonstrated that all of the reform and school turnaround strategies advocated by the federal Department of Education are contradicted by research. To explain this phenomenon let’s talk about the proposals in the context of Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness.” Truthiness is a “truth” based on gut feelings without regard for evidence, logic, or facts. In that sense, the “reforms” can be seen as one of many examples of educational “reforminess.”
Diane Ravitch began the deconstruction of reforminess with her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. Ravitch was present for the “big bang” of recent “school reform,” traceable back to A Nation at Risk, when she was part of the conservative think tank cabal. Their “truths” were based on fantasies of market-based concepts of competition and choice, with pragmatic programs including test-based accountability, charter schools, and vouchers. Much of this became the basis for NCLB and the unholy alliance of neo-liberal and conservative school reform efforts: that is to say, reforminess.
Ravitch’s epiphany came at a think tank meeting when, one after another, the testing gurus, the charter school proponents, and the voucher propagandists stood up to report on a decade’s worth of “progress.” But there wasn’t any. Ravitch realized that the fundamentals of neo-liberal/conservative reform were reforminess – based on gut feelings and intuition, and with no basis in evidence, logic, or facts. She examined the empirical research and all the beliefs were found wanting. Ravitch concluded that reforminess was not just resulting in little to no improved achievement; it was actually narrowing, damaging, and corrupting public education.
Enter the Obama administration, which inexplicably appointed Arne Duncan, with experience in neo-liberal private sector foundations but not a day as a teacher or school administrator, as Secretary of Education. He comes up with Race to the Top. If the fundamentals of NCLB were utter failures then the only solution was to double down with even more draconian reforminess: “turnaround” proposals including, but not limited to, shutting down schools, dismissing teachers and principals, turning public school management over to private sector charter operators – all based on his gut, but absolutely no empirical research.
It goes without saying that the other cornerstone of Duncan’s reforminess, teacher evaluations using student test scores, has been relentlessly debunked by education experts. The National Research Council asserts that we have no research base to support using student scores to evaluate teachers and, if we did, we still shouldn’t do it because of negative effects on instruction.
Obviously, the main objective of reforminess is to draw attention away from the real illness ailing public education today: severe underfunding and extreme levels of childhood poverty. The billionaires continue to buy their education “reforms” through well-paid talking heads like recycled state legislators and failed school superintendents. That’s much cheaper for them than the actual solution: restoring fair tax rates on the wealthy to fund education for all.
Reforminess, with all due respect to Stephen Colbert, is no laughing matter.
Gary Ravani taught middle school for more than 30 years in Petaluma. He served for 19 years as president of the Petaluma Federation of Teachers, is currently president of the California Federation of Teachers’ Early Childhood/K-12 Council, and is a vice president of the CFT. He chairs the CFT’s Education Issues Committee.