Accountability Charter Schools Corporate Reform Disruption Education Industry Education Reform NCLB (No Child Left Behind) Privatization Race to the Top Testing

John Thompson Reviews SLAYING GOLIATH, Part 2

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John Thompson, historian and retired teacher in Oklahoma, reviews SLAYING GOLIATH. This is the second part of his review.

This is an excerpt of a long and thoughtful review.

This second post will focus on Ravitch’s analysis of the research which predicted the defeat of accountability-driven, charter-driven policies. Perhaps the most striking pattern documented in Slaying Goliath is how they failed in the way that scholars and practitioners anticipated.

Decades of Disruption-driven reform began with the false claim “that American education was failing and the only way to fix it was with standards, tests, competition, and accountability.” As Arne Duncan’s public relations officer and Walton-funded reformer Peter Cunningham said, “We measure what we treasure.”

Ravitch’s response was, “I was taken aback because I could not imagine how to measure what I treasure: my family, my friends, my pets, my colleagues, my work, the art and books I have collected.” And that foreshadows the victory of the Resistance over Goliath. Most educators, patrons, and students agree that children are more than a test score.

No Child Left Behind and the Race to the Top set impossible test score targets. They were based in large part on the weird idea that “no-excuses” behaviorist pedagogies could be quickly “scaled up,” providing poor children of color a ladder to economic equality. Drawing on the tradition of Edward Thorndike and B.F. Skinner, reformers “rigidly prescribed conditioning via punishments and rewards.” Previewing their fatal flaw, Ravitch observes, “Behaviorists, and the Disrupters who mimic them today, lack appreciation for the value of divergent thinking, and the creative potential of variety. And they emphatically discount mere ‘feelings.’”

When educators resisted, corporate reformers became livid and doubled down on the punitive. Perhaps their worst debacle was using value-added teacher evaluations to hold each individual educator accountable for test score growth. It combined inappropriate test outputs with an unreliable and invalid algorithm, the VAM, as a club to enforce compliance. In the short run, it forced educators, who had previously tried to keep their heads down and “monkey wrench” testing mandates to join patrons and students in the Resistance. By 2018, however, pent up anger exploded as teacher strikes spread across the nation.

Today, many or most of Goliath’s coalition have become disenchanted with standardized testing, but their Disruption model can’t function without it. Few have gone as far as Paymon Rouhanifard, the former Camden superintendent who abolished report cards after listening to complaints, and denounced standardized testing as he left the job.

The more common path is to spin their punitive tests as “personalized” learning, and their incentives and disincentives as the “portfolio model.” As Ravitch explains, “A portfolio district is one where the local board (or some entity operating in its stead) acts like a stockbrokerage, holding onto winners (schools with high test scores) and getting rid of losers (schools with low test scores).”

As was also predicted by Campbell’s Law, test-driven accountability (made more intimidating by the dual threat of test-driven competition with charters) led to corruption. The cheating was far greater than just the scandals where adults erased and changed bubble-in answers. Graduation rates were easy to manipulate. For instance, NPR reported a “heartwarming story” in 2017 about a school with 100% graduation rate. A subsequent FBI investigation and a district audit found 1/3rd of the school’s graduates lacked credits and only 42% were on track to graduation.

And that leads to the corruption associated with school choice. Today’s Disrupters seem to be doubling down on charters to drive transformative change. As explained in a previous post, in 1988 Al Shanker saw charters as a path towards innovation. Within two years, however, the promise of win-win experimentation started to be undermined when conservative reformers Terry Moe and John Chubb claimed “choice is a panacea.”

In this case, it was choice-advocate Paul Peterson who predicted the political future. Charters didn’t take off because of the balanced approach of Shanker, but because reformers “radicalized” the concept. And, of course, there was plenty of big bucks available for pushing their radical but false narrative.

Within a decade, a shocking number of non-educators had been convinced by Goliath’s spinsters that the KIPP’s behaviorist model could be scaled up. As Slaying Goliath explains, “The biggest innovation in the charter sector was the invention of ‘no-excuses’ schools.” It took nearly another decade for policy makers to accept the fact that charters get average results except for those with high attrition.” And it took nearly as long to reveal the much greater down sides of charters…

Regardless of whether we’re discussing high-stakes testing, charter expansion, or the other pet theories, we should all heed Ravitch’s most important lesson of the past few decades is that “Reform doesn’t mean reform. It means mass demoralization, chaos, and turmoil. Disruption does not produce better education.”

Slaying Goliath celebrates a great victory for public education and democracy. However, Ravitch reminds us that the Disrupters are still threatening. She compares today’s danger to that which faced a man who decapitated a rattlesnake but who nearly died after being bitten by the detached head.

So, we can’t lower our guard until the principles that inspired the Resistance are safe in our schools.

 

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