Education Reform and the Canard of “Demonstrable Quality”

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.

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9 Responses to Education Reform and the Canard of “Demonstrable Quality”

  1. becca says:

    You’ve actually nearly convinced me that evaluating individual teachers is worthless (perhaps intrinsically so, and in any event it’s just plain deleterious in practice).
    That said, citing MIT is a terrible example. MIT is stuck with the tenured professors it already has, and has every incentive in the world to choose them based on research. I’m sure some are awesome teachers, but it’s kind of irrelevant.
    They focus on curriculum because they CANNOT focus on who is teaching.
    Very bright and very motivated students teach themselves. It’s MITs job not to get in the way of their educations too much.

  2. Eric Lund says:

    Becca, even though MIT may not be the best example, Mike’s point still stands. Getting curriculum and pedagogy right may not be a sufficient condition for success, but it is a necessary condition. It doesn’t matter how good the teachers are at teaching; if the curriculum doesn’t cover material it should, then the students will not be properly educated. (Arguably a feature rather than a bug in certain states such as Texas.) And in the real world there isn’t always much control over who your teachers are: tenure is in effect at most traditional universities, and K-12 teaching is held in such low esteem (not to mention underfunded) that recruiting top quality candidates is often difficult.

  3. CC says:

    Michigan just passed laws that will remove teacher tenure status from teachers that are deemed ineffective (they haven’t exactly chosen how to deem this yet…). After two years of unsatisfactory performance a teacher can be put back on probation and a school board can then remove them from the classroom without due process.
    A quote from one of the legislatures in favor of this reform, “This way good teachers won’t be negotiated out of a job.” In other words, if you cost the district a lot of money we now have a way to deem anyone ineffective at anytime and we can keep the people that don’t cost as much around.
    True story, we have a teacher who many feel is not a very good teacher. I have no personal experience with this teacher in their classroom so I cannot comment one way or the other. For the past two decades this person has received all top marks on their evaluations from the same administrator. If this teacher was truly bad, then this administrator has not done his job properly for the last 20 years! How is the tenure process to blame for this. Administrators don’t need an easier way to get rid of teachers. Administrators need to do their effing job properly and this wouldn’t be a problem. How come no one is looking at ineffective education leadership?!
    Unless this is really about something else besides education. I mean, Michigan’s governor is sending his kid to a private school that uses about $20,000 per student annually as part of the education process. However, he feels that a minimum foundation grant of $7,000 is too much for Michigan’s public schools because teachers are overcompensated (he’s cut about $350 additional for the next school year.)

  4. Scott E says:

    CC touches upon two important ideas concerning the evaluation of teachers. What makes a teacher not a very good teacher? Outside of an occasional observation, almost no one has personal experience with a teacher in his or her own classroom except the students in that classroom. Is the perception that this particular teacher is not a very good teacher driven by what’s observed outside the classroom, by student comments (and not whether they are learning or not), or by parent complaints or is it truly driven by what’s going on (or not) within the classroom. Additionally, teachers can have very differing styles or approaches to teaching that are effective with students, but not necessarily preferred by other teachers, parents, or administrators.
    This touches upon a second idea which is the what is best for adults versus what is best for kids controversy. In many (most) schools, it’s the school and district administrators (and school boards) that make most of the decisions about how a school is run and what kind of support a teacher receives. This teacher mentioned above might not be a very good teacher, but is protected because he or she has a positive connection with this administrator. The opposite could just as easily be true, especially if the administrator and the teacher have very different ideas when it comes to what is best for children. Without the protection of tenure or unions you might truly have a world in which the interests of children routinely take a backseat to the interests of (some) adults.

  5. becca says:

    “Getting curriculum and pedagogy right may not be a sufficient condition for success, but it is a necessary condition.”
    Is it? I come from an unschooled background. I know for a fact you can take a smart kid at age 10, let them roam free on the internet and read as much as they want, and end up with someone prepared to start college in four years. No curriculum. No pedagogy. So why shouldn’t you be able to take the (likely much smarter) 18 year olds entering MIT, let them roam free on the internet, talk to each other, read as much as they want, and expect them to not learn every bit as much (and perhaps more than) what MIT might have them learn?
    I can grant that curriculum and pedagogy matter; though I’m not sure how much of that is circular (i.e. how do you evaluate the efficacy of an educational program without a curriculum? Isn’t defining the goals basically supplying one part of the curriculum?). However, I’m not at all sure they are necessary… it’s not like MIT has done the control (admitted students and then assigned them randomly to the ‘no curriculum’ condition).
    “Without the protection of tenure or unions you might truly have a world in which the interests of children routinely take a backseat to the interests of (some) adults.”
    Ok, wait a sec. I’m pro-union. My mom was a Teamster and all that good stuff, and I *in no way* think schools would be better off without tenure or unions. But WHAT? We do truly have a world in which the interests of children routinely take a backseat to the interest of adults. In dozens of ways. Otherwise so many schools wouldn’t be so underfunded. Sometimes we even (*gasp*!) choose the interests of unionized teachers over students. It does happen. It’s just that we’re often choosing between that and the interests of administrators or selfish taxpayers. The interests of students often don’t really enter into it one way or the other (even it’s very possible for people to claim they do).

  6. You’ve actually nearly convinced me that evaluating individual teachers is worthless perhaps intrinsically so, and in any event it’s just plain deleterious in practice.
    That said, citing MIT is a terrible example. MIT is stuck with the tenured professors it already has, and has every incentive in the world to choose them based on research. I m sure some are awesome teachers, but it’s kind of irrelevant.
    They focus on curriculum because they CANNOT focus on who is teaching.
    Halı Desen

  7. Wow says:

    “”Getting curriculum and pedagogy right may not be a sufficient condition for success, but it is a necessary condition.”
    Is it? ”
    Yes.
    If you don’t learn History, you’ll not have learned from others and the only difference between humans and apes has just gone poof. Good luck rediscovering all the things you’ll need to know.
    If you learn Sarah Palin history, you’re even worse off than the one who didn’t learn any. They’ll think they DO know history.
    “I know for a fact you can take a smart kid at age 10, let them roam free on the internet and read as much as they want, and end up with someone prepared to start college in four years.”
    And I know for a fact that you can go dumpster diving and come back with a full Victorian silver set.
    That kid will also be too immature to handle life with adults. Humans need to bounce off other humans to remind themselves that other people exist.
    “We do truly have a world in which the interests of children routinely take a backseat to the interest of adults. In dozens of ways.”
    You don’t manage to list even two.

  8. Lynxreign says:

    becca:

    So why shouldn’t you be able to take the (likely much smarter) 18 year olds entering MIT, let them roam free on the internet, talk to each other, read as much as they want, and expect them to not learn every bit as much (and perhaps more than) what MIT might have them learn?

    Because they all do that anyway in addition to their coursework. Their coursework provides guidance, depth, nudges in the right direction from professors, resources, necessary background they might otherwise find too boring to bother with, teaches them how to learn better, research better, evaluate sources, etc…
    You’re implying college has no benefit at all. You couldn’t be more wrong.

  9. becca says:

    @Wow- Your assertion only makes sense if you believe that no one without a college education has can possibly learn from history. Which is balderdash, of course. Dare I say… it is easier for the vast bulk of people to learn history now than it has been in the past?
    “And I know for a fact that you can go dumpster diving and come back with a full Victorian silver set.”
    You flatter me. I am certainly not a full Victorian silver set.
    I actually very much wish I knew exactly how atypical an example I am. Based on my own (tragically biased) assessment of my capacity for self-structured education of traditional academic subjects, I might be as high as in the top 3% or so (I am only middling of people I have met who get PhDs, but that is only about 1% of the population). But then, the claim I was making was in reference to the people who get into MIT. I’m guessing they have a much higher % of students who eventually get PhDs than the general population. I strongly suspect a non-trivial number of entering MIT freshman are the sort of people who would learn an enormous amount of traditional academic subject matter, irrespective of the curriculum you set in front of them. Of course, I cannot prove it.
    That said, I think it’s also important to stress that I do not believe my level of capacity for education outside of a curriculum is remotely rare, if you simply look at what people are motivated to learn (rather than only looking at traditional academic subjects). Any two year old mastering language is probably ahead of me in terms of sheer learning power. I really am not rare at all, and you could probably learn quite an enormous amount without a curriculum. Curricula can be a blessing and a curse in the way they focus your energy for learning.
    “That kid will also be too immature to handle life with adults. Humans need to bounce off other humans to remind themselves that other people exist.”
    On one level this is a perfectly legitimate point. I was exceptionally immature in certain respects, and for all I know I still am. Although I actually tended to get by all right as long as adults treated me as an adult.
    That said, *any* socialization that is atypical from the norm can cause friction when interfacing with others from more mainstream paths. That doesn’t mean kids raised by two lesbians, or military kids who move all the time, or all kids who have ever been in foster care, are sociopathic monsters who don’t know other people exist. Why would it be true of kids with unconventional educations?
    Secondly, unschooling might better be termed worldschooling. I in no way implied actual social isolation. Everyone needs other humans for all kinds of reasons. I do wonder why people seem to assume that if you were unschooled (or homeschooled) you might as well have been in a cave (a cave like Tora Bora, not a cave like Plato’s cave, which, of course, I might still be in).
    “You’re implying college has no benefit at all. You couldn’t be more wrong.”
    I did not imply that, though I did not specifically exclude that possibility.
    First, I feel that even if it had no pedagogical benefit (which I am not claiming, exactly), colleges serve as: *credentialing services *networking arenas *institutions capable of providing necessary infrastructure for scholarly research (e.g. libraries and labs are pretty awesome) *socialization services… and probably many other valid functions.
    Second, what I am claiming is that you can’t know what a particular individual would have learned without college. And that we tend to value the sorts of things colleges teach very highly, even when they are not the most critical things for a particular outcome (happiness, creativity, maturity, appreciation for other people, understanding of the human condition…).

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