James Baldwin, “Unable to Believe” Edu-Refomers

O, but if James Baldwin were here to respond to Campbell Brown, Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, or Michelle Rhee …

Let’s imagine …

Baldwin unable to believe 2

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Debating the Gates Moratorium, Or Life among the Roadbuilders

As a lifelong fan of science fiction (SF), I want to start by invoking a SF convention that never gets old: time travel (but I’ll spare you the whirlwind prestidigitation mastered by Kurt Vonnegut, who married time travel and non-linear narrative in Slaughterhouse-Five).

Once upon a time (well, I must confess, I enjoy a bit of genre-splicing also), Bill Gates, billionaire and burgeoning education hobbyist, began tossing his considerable expertise (read: money) at small schools projects. Low and behold, Gates eventually looked at the research his own foundation gathered, declared the project a failure, and scuttled away—only to decide that the greatest scourge on the planet was the enormous number of “bad” teachers failing our children everyday!

Since we are now back in time (and you may notice a pattern here about history repeating itself, and such), let’s look at that Gates/small school dynamic as I blogged about this in April and May 2011:

And, Gates’s small schools experiment? While Gates himself declared the experiment a failure, Marshak explains that Gates’ small school experiment actually exposes Gates’ own inability to understand the education dynamics he claims to reform. But ample evidence reveals both that Gates is inexpert and remains unsuccessful as an education reformer. See here, here and here — including his failure to understand statistics and the charts he enjoys using to make his points here. (Accountability? Start at the Top, OpEdNews 11 April 2011)

Let’s do some truly basic math.

First, consider that Bill Gates, a billionaire whose wealth and success have been built on computer innovation and entrepreneurship, has been an education reformer for many years now–stretching back to a small schools focus:

“Bill Gates used to believe that one of the solutions to failing schools was to create smaller ones with 500 students or fewer. His foundation spent $1 billion toward this; seeing the opportunity to bring in private dollars, districts started shifting to smaller schools. Small schools became the big new trend. But then the foundation conducted a study that found that, by itself, school size had little if any effect on achievement. The foundation dropped the project and moved on to teacher reform, but by then some urban districts throughout the nation had changed to small–and more expensive to operate–schools.”

So the first formula is:

Gates initiative + Gates funding = abandoned schools in the wake of failure (with no consequences for Gates)

As the Los Angeles Times reports above, Gates is now focusing on teacher quality–including calls for teacher evaluations tied to test scores measuring student achievement against the common core standards.

This suggests a new formula:

Gates money + common core standards + testing industry = profit for Gates and testing industry at the expense of students, learning, and public education. (If There Remains Any Question, Daily Kos 1 May 2011)

Let’s return now to the present where the Gates machine has called for a moratorium on all that Common Core and VAM stuff because his own people’s research appears to refute what Gates has been pontificating about in the compliant media gaze that only Gates seems worthy of receiving (I hate to beat this to death, but do any of you see a pattern here?).

I want to offer now that this call for a moratorium is another teachable moment—those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and all that—and therein we have at least two important lessons:

First, Gates/small schools, Gates/VAM, and Gates/Common Core are all the same flawed dynamic in which political leaders, the media, and the public confuse wealth with expertise. Remove Gates’s billions and he would have zero credibility in any of these ventures—and I still maintain that the small school debacle is the most telling part of this story [1] because Gates misread his own research, declared erroneously the commitment a failure, and simply walked away leaving others to hold the bag (roadbuilder he has always been, roadbuilder he will always be).

And this leads to the debate and discussion that has blossomed from the Gates moratorium announcement.

So our second lesson is somewhat positive: If we could ever set aside confusing wealth with expertise, we may come to recognize that among educators, scholars, and researchers we already have a wealth of expertise that could better serve our goals of education reform.

And thus, I maintain my stance that the Gates moratorium is a sham, but I want to highlight here that within the credible responses to that moratorium call, we see how education reform should be debated by those who know the field:

And while I enjoy coming back to and finding new SF again and again, in education reform I am eager to step off the “Déjà vu all over again” merry-go-round.

Bill Gates, about that moratorium? No thanks. And while we are at it, no thanks to all the rest either.

If you’d stopped building your roads we never asked for right through the middle of our villages, we would have time to take care of business here, instead of constantly staying one step behind underneath the rubble of the disasters you create.

[1] Please read carefully Good Doubt and Bad Doubt from 2007 and Why Did the Gates Small-High-Schools Program Fail?: Well, Actually It Didn’t from 2010 for some really powerful time travel. And this is just must-read: Bill Gates should hire a statistical advisor.

Gates Moratorium Another Scam: Beware the Roadbuilders pt. 2

The road to hell is not paved with good intentions. [1]

The road to hell in the U.S. of the 21st century is paved with the appearance of good intentions fostered by billionaires.

Billionaires are our roadbuilders, and in education reform the main roadbuilder is Bill Gates.

Gates is a billionaire education hobbyist who started a road to small schools, only to bail, but has since shifted his roadbuilding to value-added methods (VAM) for evaluating teachers and his tour de force superhighway, Common Core.

Now that Gates has issued a call for a moratorium on the intersecting roads to hell (VAM linked to next-generations high-stakes tests of the Common Core), we must return to two important points:

  1. I cannot stress or repeat often enough: If Bill Gates had no money, who would listen to him about education reform? No one–the same as who should listen to him now.
  2. Beware the roadbuilders.

To the first point, Gates has never had and does not now have any credibility as an authority on education or education reform. Zero. His commentaries linked to his huge bribes should be ignored when he advocates for policy, and his call for a moratorium should be ignored as well.

Delaying a road to hell still means we will have a road to hell.

To the second point, as Nettie and the Olinka learn in the Color Purple, the roadbuilders have an agenda to be done to those in their way and to benefit the roadbuilders. Words such as moratorium, philanthropy, and entrepreneur are thinly veiled code for not good intentions but the self-interests of the roadbuilders.

The roadbuilders are powerful because money speaks louder than words; however, the option before us is not a moratorium but a collective non-cooperation to end their roadbuilding.

[1] The best version of this cliche is in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises when Bill responds to Jake with the wonderfully ambiguous nod to the corrosive power of materialism: “‘Road to hell paved with unbought stuffed dogs'” (p. 78). In a capitalist society, the consumer’s hell is all the fake crap that consumer does not or cannot buy. The consumer doesn’t need the fake crap, of course, and there is never an end to the fake crap dangled before the consumer.

Teflon, Fatalism, and Accountability

One legacy of Ronald Reagan’s presidency is his being tagged the Teflon president, as Patricia Schroeder explained:

As a young congresswoman, I got the idea of calling President Reagan the “Teflon president” while fixing eggs for my kids. He had a Teflon coat like the pan.

Why was Reagan so blame-free? The answer can be found in the label that did stick to him — “The Great Communicator.”

Reagan’s ability to connect with Americans was coveted by every politician. He could deliver a speech with such sincerity. And his staff was brilliant in playing up his strengths. They made sure the setting for any speech perfectly captured, re-emphasized and embraced the theme of that speech. And, let’s be honest, Reagan told people what they wanted to hear.

Teflon is, I believe, an apt metaphor for the protective veneer of privilege and power. As Mullainathan  and Shafir detail, individual behavior tends to reflect powerful contexts such as abundance and slack or scarcity, and thus, those living in abundance and experiencing slack live much as Reagan lead since nothing sticks to the Teflon of privilege and power.

Let me offer a brief example.

Since I hold a salaried position as a tenure professor (all of which have been attained from effort built on statuses of privilege), if I drive down the highway to work one morning and hit something in the road, resulting in a ruined tire, I simply call in, cancel class, buy a new tire with my credit card, and then go on with my day. As well, my next paycheck will not reflect that morning in any way.

If I were an hourly employee driving a car on its last leg and having no credit card (or more likely, one that is maxed out with little hope of paying more than the minimum next month), that same morning would be quite different, and once I missed work, my paycheck would be reduced as well—as my ability to get to work for days may be in jeopardy if I cannot somehow acquire a new tire.

The slack that comes with privilege and power (whether or not the person earns or deserves either) is a Teflon coating that allows many conditions that constitute the burdens of poverty to slip right off the privileged and powerful.

I want to transpose the Teflon metaphor onto another context, as well, related to the key figures leading the education reform movement built on an accountability/standards/testing model.

Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, and a wide assortment of political leaders (notably governors and superintendents of education) have some important characteristics in common: most have no background in education, many grew up and were educated in privileged lives and settings (such as private schools with conditions unlike the reforms they promote), many with children send those children to schools unlike the reforms they promote, and few, if any, suffer any real consequences for their misguided claims or policies. This crop of education reformers are Teflon reformers.

When Gates poured money and his influence into small school projects and then pulled the plug (a project that proves more about misunderstanding research than education reform), all the schools and stakeholders were left holding the bag, but Gates just shifted into “blame the teachers” mode and is investing his money and influence with the same gusto as before [1]. Education is his hobby, and nothing sticks to Gates while he is playing the game because of the Teflon coating provided by his enormous wealth (built on his privileged background).

The narratives around Duncan and Rhee are little different; they thrive on serial political appointments (often irrespective of the quality of their performance at any position [2]) and that their “leadership” skills (which they argue trumps experience and expertise in the filed that are leading [3]) are transportable from venture to new venture. But neither suffers any real career consequences as Teflon reformers.

Who does suffer the consequences of narratives, claims, and policies coming from Teflon reformers?

Students and teachers—who also represent two levels of relative powerlessness, sharing, however, a state of scarcity created by the high-stakes elements of the reform movement built on accountability.

Students and teachers also share a similar response to that scarcity combined with their powerlessness, fatalism [4].

For teachers, the self-defeating characteristics of that fatalism are captured in the current implementation of Common Core, which, as with all the preceding waves of new standards and tests, are imposed on teachers, not called for, designed by, or directed by teachers.

SC represents how caustic Teflon reform and teacher fatalism are for effective implementation of policy and practices. As is typical across the U.S., administrators, teachers, professional organizations, and unions nearly universally and without criticism accepted CC as a matter of course (an example of professional fatalism).

The standard line was that no one in any of those groups could stop or change CC from happening, thus they all felt compelled to implement CC as best as possible—including professional organizations explicitly saying they could not challenge CC as they had a duty to help teachers implement CC, again because no one could stop the implementation.

Now that many teachers have been given a great deal of training and a tremendous amount of CC-related materials have been purchased, SC is taking a predictable Tea Party turn against CC. Governor Nikki Haley has identified dumping CC as part of her re-election campaign and Tea Party motivated parents have begun to challenge directly schools for implementing CC.

While some states are also seeking to drop CC, others are simply renaming the standards. But in SC, the consequences of this churn created by Teflon reform policies and partisan backlashes against CC impact primarily teachers—trapped within demands for them to implement CC—and students who are bridging the years between their being taught and tested under one set of standards and soon to be taught (although some may have to mask that the lessons are CC-based) and tested under yet another.

For teachers, their own fatalism against the power of Teflon reform has resulted in low morale and scattered CC implementation (directly contradicting a central call for CC as a way to standardize what is taught across the U.S.).

Both Teflon reform and teacher fatalism doom any reform efforts in our schools. Teflon reformers continue to prosper despite the credibility of their claims or the outcomes of their policies.

And at the bottom of this power chain are students, themselves fatalistic.

Rick VanDeWeghe, expanding on the work of Rick Wormeli, in 2007 confronted how the flawed accountability paradigm remains uncontested, but at the center of Teflon reform’s greatest failure:

This research is based on a basic and controversial assumption about accountability. Quoting from Wikipedia, Wormeli states that accountability “implies a concern for the welfare of those with whom one works” (“Accountability” 16 [5]). This definition carries the message that “I’m here to help you along, to help you grow.” It implies that teachers are learner advocates and have a responsibility to help students grow as learners, just as students have a responsibility to demonstrate their growth as learners: It’s mutual accountability. This form of mutual accountability focuses on achievement—that is, we practice accountability when we focus on actual achievement and not on nonacademic factors, and we teach accountability when we demand that students show their real learning and growth. It sounds simple, but it gets complicated.

In contrast to mutual accountability, Wormeli notes, an alternative and more familiar definition of accountability values threat over concern (i.e., advocacy) for others….This is the ‘caughtya’ and ‘gotcha’ mentality,” and grading “is one of the default tools teachers use to play the ‘gotcha’ game.” When we play the gotcha game, according to Wormeli, “There is no growth in accountability within the student that will carry over to the next situation” (“Accountability” 16). Students learn to do whatever it takes to get the grade. (pp. 74-75)

Teflon reform along with with teacher and student fatalism have combined to create the exact failed accountability exposed by VanDeWeghe and Wormeli.

The current accountability paradigm embraced and perpetuated by Teflon reformers ignores the importance of mutual accountability as well as investment by all stakeholders in both the policies and the consequences of those policies.

When Teflon reformers are neither mutually accountable nor personally invested, their policies create fatalistic, and thus, ineffective teachers—in the same way that students become fatalistic (and learn less or simply check out of the learning opportunities) when teachers are above the accountability and thus not mutually invested in learning with students.

For education reform to work, we need to reject Teflon reformers for the sort of leadership accountability highlighted by Wormeli:

There is an old story about ancient Roman engineers and accountability. It says that whenever they were constructing an arch, the engineer who designed it stood directly underneath the center of the arch as the capstone was hoisted into position. He had worked hard, took responsibility, and knew his competence was true. It was the ultimate accountability if his design failed. (p. 25)

And thus, Wormeli concludes:

Accountability by its nature requires the interaction of others in our work. Individually, we are not, but together we are, accountable. (p. 26)

Together must include those leaders who rise above the Teflon veneer of authority and stand beside us, investing and risking in collaboration.

[1] For those unfamiliar with the history of Gates’s small schools focus and then shift to teacher quality (and if you jump to the assumption that my comments above are mere ad hominem), I offer the following reader (and suggest this exact pattern will occur again after teacher quality and Common Core fall as flat as small schools appeared to do to Gates):

[2] Rhee has suffered little if any career fail-out from “eraser-gate,” and Duncan attained in part his appointment as Secretary of Education on a mirage, the Chicago “miracle” (replicating the same misleading rise of Rod Paige to Secretary based on the debunked Texas “miracle”).

[3] This is the inherent problem with Teach for America, which is primarily a leadership organization, not an education organization.

[4] See Freire.

[5] See Rick Wormeli’s Accountability: Teaching through Assessment and Feedback, Not Grading

The (Lingering) Bill Gates Problem in School Reform

In his Washington Post Op-Ed (28 February 2011), Bill Gates builds to this solution to education reform*:

“What should policymakers do? One approach is to get more students in front of top teachers by identifying the top 25 percent of teachers and asking them to take on four or five more students. Part of the savings could then be used to give the top teachers a raise. (In a 2008 survey funded by the Gates Foundation, 83 percent of teachers said they would be happy to teach more students for more pay.) The rest of the savings could go toward improving teacher support and evaluation systems, to help more teachers become great.”

Gates also includes his own foundation’s survey to give his claims the appearance of evidence-based reform (although he misrepresents even that), but this claim, as well as the continuing free pass Gates and other education hobbyists and celebrities receive from the media and the public (see the softballs tossed to Gates in an interview at Newsweek, for example), proves to reveal several ironic lessons in education reform:

Wealth and celebrity do not equal expertise. The United States is a celebrity culture, and we revere wealth because we aspire to wealth. Why do we listen to Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz? Because Oprah endorsed them—not because they offered the public credible expertise in their fields. The current education reform debate is being driven by wealth, celebrity, and life-long bureaucrats—not by the expertise and experience of millions of teachers, scholars, and researchers who have credible evidence about the problems that face our public education system and the likely solutions that would move us closer to the promise of that system in our democracy.

Calls for accountability tend to come from those outside and above that accountability. As I will discuss later, the role of evidence is interesting and disturbing in the claims made by the new reformers, including Gates. A central part of the push to hold teachers accountable is tying teacher pay to evidence, but when these claims are made, Gates and others are never required to show any evidence themselves about their claims. As well, billionaires, millionaires, celebrities, and politicians all exist in lives in which they are less often held accountable for their actions when compared to the vast majority of Americans.

Teaching and learning are not the simple transmission of a set body of knowledge from an authoritarian teacher and to a passive classroom of students. The smoldering charges that our schools are overburdened by “bad” teachers, and thus we need to improve our teaching core, has distracted us from considering first exactly what the teaching/learning process should look like in universal public education system built to support a free people and a democracy.

The new reformers have framed teaching as both the most important element in educational outcomes (although evidence refutes that simplistic claim) and a simple act of transmitting knowledge to a large group of students to raise test scores linked to national standards.

If we need the best and the brightest and if teachers alone can overcome the weight of poverty, then reducing teaching to a service industry contradicts internally an argument that is also easily disproved since both initial claims are false. Teaching and learning are messy, idiosyncratic, and nearly impossible to measure or trace to single points of causation.

The political and corporate elite as well as the general U.S. public simply do not respect teachers and do not value education. The United States, as the wealthiest and most powerful country in the history of humanity, has and can make anything happen we want. We move forward with wars when we decide we should, we bail out failing banks when we feel we should, we make a whole host of celebrities wealthy when we want (and we never hold them accountable for their egregious lack of respect for anything), and we could eradicate childhood poverty and support fully a vibrant and world-class education system–if we wanted to. But we don’t.

Evidence doesn’t matter, but it should. As the first point above suggests, the public seems content with celebrity and wealth, but skeptical of evidence. I have had dozens of experiences offering public commentary on education, citing extensively why I hold the positions I do, but one of the most common replies I receive is, “Anybody can make research say whatever they want.” While I empathize with the sentiment, this belief is flawed because it oversimplifies the research debate in the same way that the new reformers oversimplify the education reform debate. The truth about research is that one study is interesting, but that one study proves little.

Once research has been peer-reviewed, while no guarantee, that study gains credibility. Then, as research builds to a body of peer-reviewed research with clear patterns, we reach safe ground for public claims and policy (see this about charter schools, for example). Neither cherry-picking studies to advance an agenda nor being cavalier and cynical about research is conducive to advancing humanity through our greatest gifts as human — our minds.

Poverty is the unspoken and ignored weight on education outcomes, and while U.S. public education needs significant reforms, education reform will never succeed without the support of social reforms addressing childhood poverty and income equity.

This final ironic lesson from a billionaire holding forth repeatedly on education reveals its problem by the obvious complexity of the statement itself. The sentence is too much for our sound-bite culture that politicians feel compelled to appease. While we revel in making international comparisons to demonize our schools (falsely), we fail to acknowledge international evidence of how to address school reform.

Let me suggest two international approaches we should be considering, both from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (UK)—a compilation of evidence on the impact of poverty on educational success and adetailed consideration of wide-scale social and education reform.

In 2013, again, U.S. political leaders and the public appear disgusted with a public education system, but this sentiment has been with us since the Committee of Ten declared education inadequate in the 1890s. We must, then, come to terms with two facts: (1) We must drop Utopian claims about education because education is not the sole key to overcoming social failures, but a single element in the larger working of our society, (2) claims of crisis in education are misleading since the problems we are considering (student outcomes and drop-out rates, for example) are patterns that have existed for over a century.

Many are arguing that the new reformers must be valued since they are creating a debate about education and rattling the cage of an entrenched status quo that is failing. I find this argument weak since we have no evidence that inexpert celebrity claims are resulting in a close consideration of what is truly wrong with our schools and what should be pursued to create the world-class schools we claim we want.

In fact, this current round of school bashing and calls for accountability and reform are an intensifying of the exact same failed solutions we have tried for three decades–all the while ignoring the genuine problems and the weight of evidence for what reforms would work

And this leads to a question I have: If Bill Gates had no money, who would listen to him about education reform? No one–the same as who should listen to him now.

* Reposting of original piece from The Answer Sheet (March 2, 2011). See why Gates remains a lingering problem at Jersey Jazzman.

Revisiting Legend of the Fall Series

With the seemingly never-ending media attention paid to Michelle Rhee, I want to share my Legend of the Fall series first posted at Daily Censored during late 2010 and early 2011 (posts confront Rhee [see Parts II and III], Bill Gates, and Geoffrey Canada’s roles in corporate/”no excuses” reform). I regret that much of this remains relevant:

Legend of the Fall

Part I

Thomas, P. L. (2010, October 19). Legend of the fall: Snapshots of what’s wrong in the education debateThe Daily Censored.

Part II

—–. (2010, December 2). The education celebrity tour: Legend of the fall, pt. II. The Daily Censored.

Part III

—–. (2010, December 17). Fire teachers, reappoint Rhee: Legend of the fall, pt. IIIThe Daily Censored.

Part IV

—–. (2010, December 28). Wrong questions = wrong answers: Legends of the fall, pt. IVThe Daily Censored. 

Part V

—–. (2011, January 10). Supermen or kryptonite?—Legend of the fall, pt. VThe Daily Censored. 

Part VI

—–. (2011, February 27). Celebrity “common sense” reform for education–Legend of the fall pt. VIThe Daily Censored.

Part VII

—–. (2011, May 14). Maher’s “Real Time” education debate failure redux: Legend of the Fall, pt. VIIThe Daily Censored.