What If There Was an Educational Civil War and Nobody Came?

02/07/2011 06:24 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A recent Education Week commentary explained the unintended damage done by the standardized testing craze, "A positive and well-intentioned determination to improve our nation's schools has become a devastating attack on good teaching." All too often, data-driven accountability has turned schooling into an un-funny version of the famous scene in "I Love Lucy" where she struggled to keep up with the assembly line at the candy factory.

Perhaps the best example of the irony of school "reform" is the Gates Foundation's Measuring Effective Teaching Program (MET), which seeks to help build better teachers. By studying videotaped class instruction, the project will help many educators learn best practices for teaching in a caring and challenging manner, while maintaining control of the classroom environment. By taking the judgments of students seriously, it will help many teachers clarify instruction as they teach in a more captivating manner in districts that use the MET results as they are intended.

It is equally certain that the project will be misused by other school systems and further encourage soul-killing, rote instruction and teach-to-the-test. The value-added methodologies used in the MET project also threaten "a flood of litigation like none that has ever been witnessed."

Now is the time to ask what would happen if we had an educational civil war and nobody came? What would happen if the Gates Foundation demanded checks and balances to prevent the fruits of its labor from being misused by union-bashing and teacher-bashing "reformers"?

What if the Gates Foundation, the teachers unions and the Obama Administration jointly announced a legal defense campaign against standardized testing abuses? They could start a press conference by recounting successful collaborations, as in the schools of New Haven, Pittsburg, and Hillsborough County. They would pledge continued collaboration on using multiple metrics to improve classroom instruction.

Building on MET research, these partners would explain why it would be invalid to use data from low-poverty or selective schools when setting growth targets for the most challenging schools, where it is more difficult to raise test scores. Gates scholars could then take the microphone and explain why they have barely scratched the surface in accounting for the effects of peers, and intense concentrations of generational poverty, on student performance. Above all, they also would warn districts that intend to expand standardized testing, in order to expand value-added analysis, that test prep is not an effective strategy for increasing student performance.

Next, union leaders could agree that some of the problems with today's value-added models will be addressed by subsequent research. Districts who seek to fire teachers, today, based on models that may be made valid in the future, would then be condemned by all press conference participants. The Gates Foundation could then announce that their social scientists stand ready to testify in amicus law suits against districts that use not-ready-for-prime time data to terminate teachers or principals.

The next logical step would be for Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to repeat the same assurances in regard to the misuse of Race to the Top funds. Finally, union leaders would commit to fast-tracking reforms to mend, not end seniority systems. Together, the Gates leaders, teachers, and the Administration could commit to negotiating new agreements, while rejecting the demands of other "reformers" who seek to unilaterally abrogate existing contracts that were negotiated in good faith. The key to such an agreement, of course, would be a joint commitment to use, but not misuse, ongoing teacher quality research.

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