The first few weeks of 2013 have greeted us like a trip with old Marley revisiting school reforms of the past. In the very first weeks, we have Michelle Rhee's StudentsFirst lobby announce letter grades for states based on their adherence to her favorite pillars of reform policies. John Merrow provided us with a reprise of her greatest hits as the head of DC schools, along with some news regarding the cheating that accompanied her regime.
And next the Gates Foundation has provided us with another example of the perils of mixing research with advocacy. Their multi-year, multi-million dollar Measures of Effective Teaching project has once again supported their belief that we can predict which teachers will get the best test scores next year by looking at who got the best test scores this year. The practice of actually observing a teacher to see how "effective" they are does not apparently add much accuracy to the prediction, but they keep it in there nonetheless, perhaps for sentimental reasons. Then we have tossed in a new element - student surveys. And the perfect evaluation is some balanced mixture of these three elements, which will turn VAM lead into gold.
One reformer, Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Foundation, has come right out and admitted what public school advocates have contended from the start. Many charter schools filter out difficult students, and whatever competitive performance advantages they have demonstrated are not credible evidence that they can do more with less. They can do more with more - and with fewer of the students most damaged by the scourge of poverty. Of course, Mr. Petrilli believes this ought to be celebrated, because like the Makers of Romneyan mythology, these students are "strivers," who ought to be well-served. The laggards they leave behind are of little concern. This is a frightening educational philosophy that runs counter to the main reform narrative, which has called upon civil rights rhetoric to justify school closures and charter expansion. But how can we reconcile an ethic supposedly based on equitable opportunities for all with a bare-knuckle life boat strategy that leaves many students behind to sink in under-funded public schools?
But alongside these visits from the ghosts of reforms past, we have some auspicious evidence that there may be a different future ahead.
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