Thompson: Russo & Porter-Magee Miss The Point
Kristina Rizga's Mother Jones article, “Everything You’ve Heard About Failing Schools Is Wrong,” shows that just about everything that NCLB advocates said about the way to improve schools is wrong. A history teacher also nailed it, "I have seen about 20 rounds of classroom reform in my teaching career. You know what I haven't seen? Serious dialogue with teachers, students, and parents. They can identify successful teaching."
Not everyone agrees with me, however, including this blog's Alexander Russo and FordhamEducation Sector's Kathleen Porter-Magee.
However, as I'll explain below, they're wrong, too.
I read Alexander Russo’s "Everything You Read in That Mother Jones Article Is Wrong," and Kathleen Porter-Magee’s "Is Everything You've Read About School Reform Wrong?" and their attacks on Rizga's title before I read her article.
So I was confused when I found little or nothing in Rizga’s substance that deserved their criticism.
Russo seemed annoyed that she did not get into the weeds about the nuances of NCLB and School Improvement Grants, but I saw no reason why she needed greater detail. Russo accurately writes, "There may be handfuls of schools like Mission HS, but not enough to make them representative of low performing schools over all. A more typical low-performing school wouldn't have let Rizga in to report on it." I did not read Rizga as disagreeing with him. She "was looking for a grassroots view of America's latest run at school reform: How do we know when schools are failing, and why is it so hard to turn them around?"
On the other hand, Rizga cited a statistic that reveals one of the greatest unintended or (more likely) intended effects of NCLB. In June of 1997, 95 stories were published about failing schools, but the number in June of 2012 had risen to 248. As I recall, in 2001, that outcome was often predicted. Promoting the inevitable headlines about schools failing under the law's impossible targets was routinely seen as one way that NCLB was designed to attack teachers and public education. Perhaps Russo can recall reformers who sought such publicity for constructive reasons. But, in my experience, I never met an educator who believed that the steady stream of stories about failing schools was likely to be constructive.
Porter-Magee cited Robert Pondiscio’s question about seeing “any good schools with bad scores?” I am like Pondiscio in having taught in failing schools with bad scores. I suspect that Rizga has significantly overestimated the number of entire schools that are like Mission Hill. But, the more important point is that test-driven "reform" imposes collective punishment on great individuals for choosing to teach in tough schools. And, nothing in Rizga’s narrative caused me to doubt her judgment. She described what I have invariably seen in the effective parts of the troubled schools that I have known.
Rizga also explained dynamics that seem lost on accountability-driven reformers. When classes, or a school such as Mission Hill, are identified as the “dumping ground,” the efforts of the best educators are undermined. In my experience, educators all knew which classes and halls were the district’s dumping grounds, but administrators stubbornly maintained the fiction that teachers all had “the same kids.” This is important, because if “reformers” were aware of the pervasive practice of turning some schools and classes into dumping grounds, it is hard to believe that they would have advocated test-driven accountability.
Even more importantly, Rizga shows that test-driven accountability ignored the longstanding wisdom of social and cognitive science, and even their own awareness of the flaws of those metrics as they committed to a doomed set of policies. She cites the research of Robert Glazer who:
Warned in 1987 about the dangers of placing too much emphasis on test scores. He called them ‘fallible and partial indicators of academic achievement’ and warned that standardized tests would find it ‘extremely difficult to assess the key skills people should gain from a good education: ‘resilience and courage in the face of stress, a sense of craft in our work, a commitment to justice and caring in our social relationships, a dedication to advancing the public good.’
Rizga also cites the Education Trust’s Arun Ramanathan, who had endorsed primitive bubble-in accountability despite his statement that reliable metrics were necessary to improve schools. He seemed to acknowledge that they were just another failed silver bullet. She raises the specter of history repeating itself as Ramanathan and others are pushing Common Core while admitting that “there's a disconnect" between the standards and reality.
Rizga then reports on the benefits of mentoring and peer review at Mission High which helps teachers figure out ways for helping struggling students. She notes the “ample evidence” for the effectiveness of those efforts. As was true in my schools, those sorts of strategies were largely "steamrolled" by NCLB's focus on high-stakes testing.
And that brings us back to the unfortunate way that Porter-Magee read Rizga’s work. The teaser to Porter-Magee's post began, “we can all agree that one (accountability system) that gets it wrong as often that it gets it right is in need of serious reform.” That is an amazingly low standard. The question is whether test-driven accountability is dysfunctional under any realistic standard.
Ironically, Porter-Magee finally points to the obvious conclusion that should be drawn from Mission Hill and the scholars cited by Rizga. Data-driven accountability has failed “not because the idea of struggling or ‘failing’ schools is an illusion; rather it’s because the struggles run deeper and are more vexing than they first seem.” That is a conclusion that all of Rizga's readers could agree on.-JT(@drjohnthompson)Image via.