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Thompson: Living in Dialogue with the Gates Foundation

VickiPhillipsAnthony Cody is hosting a dialogue with the Gates Foundation at Living in Dialogue.  In the latest round, the Foundation’s Director of the College Ready Education, Vicki Phillips, says that “Education debates are often characterized wrongly as two warring camps: blame teachers for everything that's not working in our schools or defend all teachers at all costs.”  Dr. Phillips also asserts, “But there's actually serious work going on in the middle.”  The good news is that the Measuring Effective Teaching (MET) project, and districts from Hillsborough to Tulsa, have made constructive, collaborative efforts to serve a “common purpose.”

If the past continues to be prologue, there will be state and local leaders with the moral integrity necessary to help teachers use Gates’ research to “get better at their craft.”  There will also be plenty of administrators who use a new evaluation system as a weapon against “the status quo,” i.e. teachers and our unions.  Others will use it to settle scores and drive out dissenters.   So, it seems certain that some schools, educators, and students will benefit from the MET, while others will be damaged by its misuse.

Most districts in the middle, I bet, are waiting to see whether they are expected to tilt toward the anti-teacher camp of the “teacher quality” movement.  Moreover, they will be looking for signs of whether the Gates Foundation really believes the words that Dr. Phillips expresses or whether they are supposed to use the MET results (despite what its social scientists want) as fig leafs to fire their way to the top.
That is why the bifurcation with which Dr. Phillips began her constructive post is unfortunate.  I have never met a teacher who sought to “defend all teachers at all costs.”  Moreover, Cody showed how the Gates Foundation has funded some of the worst teacher-bashers. And, as much as I welcome this opportunity for civil discourse, the discussion is being conducted only through blogs.  Just this week, the Gates-funded TNTP issued another intellectually dishonest report, “The Irreplaceables,” to huge audiences across the media and the political world. 

I am also worried by Dr. Phillips' statement that, "Student learning has to be part of a teacher evaluation system because advancing students' learning is a central goal of great teaching."  That is a political sound bite, not a logical or evidence-based statement.

When the Gates Foundation started to push for the risky tactic of value-added evaluations, it should have assumed the burden of proving that they would advance student learning.  Advocates of high-stakes value-added also have the burden of showing that their policies will not encourage more mindless bubble-in testing, rampant test prep, narrowing of the curriculum and an exodus of teaching talent from schools where it is harder to raise test scores.  

 I would quarrel on one point with Cody, and perhaps Dr. Phillips, before exploring areas where we agree, as well as areas where we might be able to articulate an agreement.  My experience as an inner city teacher convinces me that the fair and efficient termination of perhaps 5 to 10% of teachers who are not doing their job should be a top priority.  I just maintain that those teachers are easy to identify, that value-added is not necessary to do so, that due process has very little to do with retaining ineffective teachers, and that there is no reason to risk serious damage to the entire profession in order to fire bad teachers. 

That being said, in my experience, "exiting teachers" has become the new metric for ambitious administrators.  In my experience, which ironically is consistent with some of the TNTP’s numbers, districts are just as likely (or more likely) to drive out the best teachers who resist non-stop test prep, and who often have higher salaries. 

On the other hand, I appreciate Dr. Phillips candid statement that state English Language Arts tests “may not be capturing what students are actually learning in language arts classrooms.” Dr. Phillips thus seems to be making a huge concession with such a statement. Surely, she must have problems with firing teachers with flawed tests that are being phased out. 

She then makes recommendations that are worthy of banner headlines:
States and districts could consider weighing student gains on state ELA tests less heavily than they weigh gains on state math tests. They also could provide room for sound judgment, rather than relying solely on a mathematical algorithm to combine different aspects of teaching performance. Particularly when it comes to making important personnel decisions, principals should be able to weigh in, and teachers should be able to appeal the final rating, based on additional evidence. 

Those finding are consistent with the "Matthew Effect" which explains why it is much more difficult to increase performance of students who did not “learn to read,” so they can’t “read to learn.” This helps to explain why the MET has yet to show that value-added can be made valid for high school teachers. 

I would remind Dr. Phillips of the work of value-added expert Douglas Harris who explains why value-added must always be valid for all teachers before it would withstand legal scrutiny.  Now that advocates of value-added have access to the above information, they should seek ways to repeal and/or amend the laws that were rushed through before they were subject to adequate study. If they do not succeed, I would hope that Dr. Phillips would volunteer to testify in defense of teachers terminated by districts that ignore the above findings. 

Dr. Phillips also writes, “One cause for optimism is that the new assessments being developed by the two multi-state assessment consortia, based on the Common Core State Standards, will be much more similar to the SAT-9/Open- Ended than to existing state tests.”
But, there is a greater cause for pessimism – at least as long as we have test-driven accountability. The most likely scenario is that value-added will undermine the transition to Common Core.  During the next two years, principals and teachers will be urged to abandon the primitive bubble-in mentality, but their jobs will be at risk if they don’t focus on rote instruction for high-stakes NCLB tests. 
For instance, my district is putting its discretionary money into two contradictory efforts, leaving almost nothing for the student supports necessary before students in a 90% low income district can meet Common Core standards. One priority is paying consultants to urge teachers to teach for mastery of Common Core.  The problem is that principals and teachers risk termination if they don’t wait two years before starting to teach in that way.  The main priority during the transition is to double-down on “drill and kill” for obsolete End of Instruction (EOI) tests. The name of the test prep regime, “EOI Boot Camp,” is illustrative.
As long as test-driven accountability persists, the rational approach for administrators is to circle the wagons and blame teachers.  And the worst case scenario for Common Core is likely.  Rather than turning on a dime and allowing the exact opposite type of instruction when the game changes, the chances are that many districts will take the same teach-to-the-lowest common denominator and “juke the stats” mindset to Common Core.
I must also quarrel with Dr. Phillips’ faith in “multiple measures.” The MET, being a scientific enterprise, has an incentive to study the potential of multiple measures in an objective way.  Districts that receive funding from Gates (like Hillsborough and Tulsa) have a similar incentive.  In an age of accountability, especially when operating under policies encouraged by the Duncan Administration or the Broad Foundation, districts have the greater incentive to turn multiple measures into multiple hurdles.  As Bruce Baker notes, the percentage of weight given to test scores versus human observations is irrelevant when both are seen as hoops that educators have to jump through.  When districts send the message that test score growth is paramount, principals understand the unspoken message of how those systems want evaluations to work.  Baker astutely concludes, "It [value-added] may be 50% of the protocol, but will drive 100% of the decision.” 

The reason to conduct scientific research is to learn new things.  Consequently, it would not be fair to expect the Gates Foundation to know in 2009 what it knows now.  I hope that Dr. Phillips would be willing to discuss what she thinks the Gates Foundation would have done differently if it had known what the MET research would reveal.

 Regardless, given the results of the MET, it is time for the foundation to reconsider its earlier political positions. States and districts are being granted equal leeway to use or misuse the evaluation process. The prime victims of these mixed messages are students.  So, I ask Dr. Phillips and other reformers whether they would demand concrete protections if their children were subjected to an educational experiment.  Would they support innovations where one of their children was likely to benefit but the other was likely to be harmed?  If not, I ask them to join with teachers in nailing down concrete measures to prevent misuse of their work.-JT(@drjohnthompson)Image via.


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What I honestly hope to see is a Gates Foundation that admits its faults, and illustrates how its views have changed.

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