Money managers and economists share a common philosophy. Douglas Harris, an economist from the University of Wisconsin, described it best in a January 2011 Education Week column:
Economists tend to think like well-meaning business people. They focus more on bottom-line results than processes and pedagogy, care more about preparing students for the workplace than the ballot box or art museum, and worry more about U.S. economic competitiveness. Economists also focus on the role financial incentives play in organizations, more so than the other myriad factors affecting human behavior. From this perspective, if we can get rid of ineffective teachers and provide financial incentives for the remainder to improve, then the students will have higher test scores yielding more productive workers and a more competitive U.S. economy.
The critics see this as a soulless vision of American education, in which children are filled up with facts, tested “until they beg for mercy,” as educator Theodore Sizer used to say, and moved into college ill-prepared to analyze problems and think creatively. They say the new reformers value statistics but ignore research—a recent Vanderbilt University study on merit pay that concluded that it does not work to raise student test scores, for example, or a 2009 Stanford University study that found that 83 percent of current charter schools were either worse than or equal to traditional public schools.
Seasoned educators with long track records of alternative ideas to inspire school leaders to get the most out of their schools and teachers tend to be off the media grid; the late Theodore Sizer’s Coalition of Essential Schools is one example. New York’s Performance Standards Consortium is another; the consortium includes dozens of urban public schools with high graduation rates that use sophisticated classroom-based teacher assessments and a curriculum that mirrors those in our best colleges.
“Somebody explain this to me,” wrote principal George Wood last summer on his blog for the Forum on Education and Democracy, a national coalition of educators and reformers. Wood has served as principal of Federal Hocking High School in Ohio’s Appalachian foothills for eighteen years.
In that time we have increased graduation and college going rates, engaged our students in more internships and college courses, created an advisory system that keeps tabs on all of our students, and developed the highest graduation standards in the state (including a Senior Project and Graduation Portfolio). But reading the popular press, and listening to the chatter from Washington, I have just found out that we are not part of the movement to ‘reform’ schools.
You see we did not do all the stuff that the new ‘reformers’ think is vital to improve our schools. We did not fire the staff, eliminate tenure, or pay based on test scores. We did not become a charter school. We did not take away control from a locally elected school board and give it to a mayor. We did not bring in a bunch of two-year short-term teachers.
Nope, we did not do any of these things. Because we knew they would not work.
By December, frustration was mounting among the New York reporters as they waited for the State Supreme Court judge to decide whether the teacher data should be released or not. Reporters described “a spirited debate” that erupted during an off-the-record pizza and wine farewell party for outgoing Chancellor Klein before Christmas. Several in attendance said reporters bombarded him with pointed questions about the data, and Klein defended their release, for the sake of parents’ right to know.