Erstwhile progressive and fan of educational reform, Matthew Yglesias, sets up this strawman:
It’s useful to have these two points juxtaposed together, because it helps isolate what the controversy is actually about. When people look at the idea that for-profit colleges shouldn’t get taxpayer subsidies unless they can deliver demonstrable quality, a lot of folks on the right see that as an argument that’s “really” about undue suspicion of the private sector. And when people look at the idea that K-12 schools shouldn’t get taxpayer subsidies unless they can deliver demonstrable quality, a lot of folks on the left see that as an argument that’s “really” about undue suspicion of labor unions. But in both cases, the issue is “really” about getting value for our money. Why subsidize something that’s useless?
This is a canard, because educational ‘reformers’ have a completely skewed view of what “demonstrable quality” means–and I emphasize demonstrable.
I have no problem with using testing to assess either curricular or pedagogical methods (i.e., what you teach and how you teach). Nor am I unfriendly to ‘standardized’ tests, as long as we use reasonable tests (i.e., the NAEP), and understand their limitations. In fact, I’m not sure how else one assesses if various interventions actually work (hell, I’ve analyzed the MCAS data on this very blog). And even small positive effects are worth implementing.
The problem is that “demonstrable quality”–positive educational outcomes–has morphed into ‘assessing individual teacher performance using dubious methods.’ (And dubious is too kind). If educational ‘reformers’ were serious, they would spend time talking about curriculum and pedagogy–which they ignore to the point of disastrous neglect. To use Yglesias’ college example, MIT spends a significant amount of effort and resources trying to figure out how to better teach science–to students who are very bright and very motivated. Compared to many, they’re already doing well. So does MIT focus on value-added testing and individual teachers? No. They focus on curriculum–what should a freshman learn about science–and pedagogy (e.g., does interactive teaching work better than lecturing?).
At the K-12 level, curriculum and teaching methods can make a significant difference. But reformers incessantly focus on teacher ‘quality’ to the exclusion of everything else. Instead of focusing on teaching, ‘reformers’ focus on teachers. That single-minded focus implies most teachers are doing a poor job and only remain at their jobs due to union protection. At least, it certainly seems that way to me and many teachers.
The issue isn’t that we can’t make improvements–any scientist who has been involved in continuing education programs targeted towards science teachers will tell you that teachers are dying to know how to better teach science to their students. Even if they’re doing a good job, they want to do a better one (these seminars and programs are always well booked). But ‘reformers’ aren’t interested in improving teaching–and critically, figuring out how to teach the most challenging students (and, yes, many of these efforts will involve things outside of the classroom–such as getting kids to show up in the first place). Instead, they view education–and the failures of poor students–as a labor management problem. So teachers understandably react in kind, and the most needy kids aren’t helped.