Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Faith and the Power of Free Markets

In his book, One market under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy, Thomas Frank documents the quasi-religious faith many Americans place in the power of the free market to regulate the economy and the behavior of ordinary people. This faith in the power of free markets stands behind a wide range of educational reforms including teacher merit pay, charter schools, vouchers, and paying students for doing well on tests (or just coming to school). Vouchers, for example, are based on the assumption that schools will (necessarily) have to reform themselves if they have to compete for students. Chronically underperforming schools will disappear because parents (read: consumers) will not choose them for their children. In a free market environment schools will have to respond to market demands (for higher test scores) by either improving or going out of business.

This faith in the power of the free market to reform schools is largely ideological, unsupported by research. The evidence does not support the claim that free markets necessarily result in higher quality. The de-regulation the broadcast industry, for example, certainly has not resulted in better TV programming (we get over 300 channels and still can’t find much worth watching).

But reports on the economy over the last few months ought to shake the faith of even the most committed believers in the power of unfettered free markets. The commitment to unregulated free market capitalism has left financial markets in shambles and most of us are going to suffer the pain. My 401K plan has taken a beating the last six months or so.

This experience ought to give us all pause when we consider educational reforms based on unquestioned faith in free markets. As current events indicate, the invisible hand of the free market is capable of delivering a painful blow.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Who is responsible when children fail in school

The (un)comic strip Mallard Fillmore is continuing its attack on teachers for a second straight week. Yesterday the National Public Radio show, On Point, featured educational reform (as if schools haven’t suffered from enough reform). There is also a blog on Slate.com that has been featuring stories of educational reform. Yesterday, Barack Obama outlined his vision of educational reform. Perhaps the reform story that has gotten the most attention lately is the effort of Washington, DC School Superintendent Michelle Rhee’s to push for merit pay for Washington teachers. I’m not opposed to merit pay in principle. I work at an institution where pay increases are largely based on merit. The problem with merit pay for teachers is how to determine which teachers are meritorious.

The most common approach rewards (or punishes) teachers based on student test scores. This approach ignores the complexities of student learning. It is difficult to claim, for example, that gains made by a particular fourth grade student are attributable only to the efforts of her fourth grade teacher. Learning does not follow a neat trajectory even in the best of circumstances. More worrisome is the assumption that the fourth grade teacher should be held solely responsible for students who don’t do so well as if previous teachers no longer influence student learning. Or that class size, curriculum, classroom resources, and school learning climate don’t matter. Or that, in the case of schools districts like Washington, DC which serve large numbers of poor children, that the conditions of poverty don’t affect student achievement.

When students fail in school it isn’t just the teacher’s fault. Many students fail despite the best efforts of teachers. Nor can the blame be placed solely on students themselves or their parents. When students in poor urban schools like Washington fail it is everyone’s responsibility. It may take a village to raise a child, but it takes a nation to allow her to fail.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Get Ready for some Teacher Bashing

The Boston Globe carries a cartoon strip called “Mallard Fillmore” which presents itself as a conservative alternative to Doonesbury. Except that “Mallard Fillmore” is neither clever nor funny. But it does give some idea of what’s on the minds of conservatives and this week it’s teacher bashing in its most mean-spirited form. This week’s strip is set up as series of examples of “teacher speak” and “translations.” Yesterday, the teacher speak was “I'm not going to make you memorize a bunch of dull, dry dates and places….” Translation: “I have no idea when or where anything happened.” Today is worse: Teacher speak: “Real communism has never been tried….” Translation: “I was stoned for most of the 20th century.” I’ve heard the accusation before that progressive educational practices are evidence that teachers are lazy, but this is the first time I’ve seen teachers libeled as “dope heads.” That the comic strip can get away with this is a measure of teachers’ low standing with even the readers of the Boston Globe.

And while teachers are being maligned in an unfunny, third-rate comic strip, a series of articles this week in Slate indicates that some educational reformers are gearing up to push hard for merit pay which is also based on the assumption that teachers need incentives to work harder. Teachers certainly deserve more pay, but the teachers I work with cannot possibly work harder.

My advice to teachers is to get ready for another round of serious teacher bashing as reformers get ready to push once again for market-based solutions to educational problems -- at the expense of teachers.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Being Political

Politics is dominating the news as the presidential election nears. In the context of the upcoming elections, being political means keeping abreast of the campaigns and taking the time to vote in November. But we educators need to be willing to go beyond just casting our ballots and do what we can to influence candidates’ positions. After all, one of the big issues in the campaign is about us. Writing in Slate today, Paul Tough writes: “The next big debate in the politics of education is going to be about teachers: how to attract them, how to compensate them, how to evaluate them, how to fire them, and, perhaps most importantly, how to get good ones in front of the students who need their help the most.”

Most of us assume that one of the political parties is more sympathetic to the voices of teachers and I think that’s true. Still, neither party has been willing to give teachers much credit or trust. In his acceptance speech at the recent Democratic Convention in Denver Barack Obama gave some indication of his education priorities. “I’ll recruit an army of new teachers and pay them higher salaries and give them more support. And in exchange, I’ll ask for higher standards and more accountability.”

I like the parts about recruiting teachers and higher salaries. I’m a bit uneasy about the desire for “higher standards” and “more accountability.” To me, the desire for “higher standards” implies that teachers are at fault. If only teachers had higher standards students would do a lot better. And “more accountability.” What do we make of this? Isn’t the demand for accountability (in terms of higher test scores) part of the problem?

The point I want to make is that over the last twenty years or so neither political party has been particularly warm to teachers. NCLB has been described as “George Bush’s policy” but Ted Kennedy has been an enthusiastic support of this legislation. So, again, we must write to our congressional representatives and let them know what teachers think about “standards” and “accountability.” I’m sure most agree with me that teachers MUST be accountable for student learning but tests scores are a poor measure of what students have learned.