In the third installment of the Rubinstein-Barnum discussion (see parts 1 and 2), Matt and Gary dig into two issues that deserve our attention and scrutiny: education research vs experience/intuition and the role of teacher evaluation systems.
What’s particularly interesting in this dialogue, and indeed about both Matt and Gary, is that they defy some of the standard labels tossed around in the education discussion. Both are TFA alumni, but highly critical of Teach For America itself. Both believe in the importance of assessment, but have widely different views on the utility of “high stakes” tests. And finally, both want to see change in the system, but have very different view points on their own personal role in that change. This is what makes this dialogue (and the commentary afterward) so important and why I’m glad both are participating.
The two also represent very different sides of the “alumni path” that Wendy first envisioned. Gary was among the earliest corps members (CMs) in TFA’s history and is still teaching (albeit at one of the most privileged and prestigious schools in the country) while Matt is pursuing a law degree, looking to tackle the “larger” issues of education policy.
In short, this represents one of the most open, richest, and thoughtful dialogues about education reform that I’ve read in a few years. It’s far from an echo chamber, and I commend them both for the continued effort.
Assessments and Research
A recurring theme from the Matt/Gary dialogue boils down to two questions: how do we measure progress and what do we do with that information?
Many reformers have taken fondly to new and old assessment measures like the NAEP, PISA, Value Added Measure (VAM), and growth-model school ratings. They’re pairing it with programs like merit-pay, closures/turnaround schools, and charter expansion to demonstrate growth and improve standards (at least in theory). Publicly and privately, we’ve spent billions on the new world of assessment. Tests have become the standard bearers of progress in the public dialogue.
This concerns me deeply. First of all, this is not what tests are supposed to do at all. The best teachers and schools use assessment daily to improve their practice, not to rate, boast, or shame themselves, their students, or their teachers. They look to improve a lesson they tried for the first time or identify students that are struggling with a particular concept so they can find the right intervention. I don’t know a single educator who would seriously argue that assessment isn’t one of the most important tools that they have.
Assessments also opened our eyes to the glaring gaps in educational equity across the nation. Our schools are far from equal. And thanks to a wave of high-stakes testing owned and operated by essentially one company (Pearson), we’ve been largely led to believe the gap is because our teachers are unequal (interestingly, both Gary and Matt seem to agree that reformers tend to overstate the difference in teacher quality, with undue influence and time spent on removing low-performing teachers). In turn, the way we’ve managed this crisis of inequity over the last few decades is by measuring growth and change through the test lens.
Tests bring us more data upon which to enact more reforms. This works on the assumption that tests measure what “school is for” (to take a phrase from Seth Godin).
This brings us to the second issue, and one that Matt and Gary have dug their heels in quite deeply: the value of research.
From “A Nation At Risk” to the growing flow of position papers and peer-reviewed academic research, policy is being shaped by research that is in turn largely based on tests. Matt has argued at several points in the dialogue that this is essentially a good thing – not a perfect solution, but a “good proxy for learning.” His argument rests largely on one study (Chetty) that found higher standardized test scores correlating with better life outcomes.
Set aside your thoughts on standardized tests and the Chetty study in particular for a moment. What Matt is essentially arguing is that if the research is to believed, then standardized tests should be welcomed, not spurned, by the educational community because it tells us if schools are providing value to society.
Gary’s response might sound “old fashioned” to reformers. He argues that despite what the research “says”, his experience shows that the vast majority of teachers are good or really good, that our herculean efforts to fire bad ones are drops in the ocean, that smaller class size is hugely important, that critical thinking isn’t tested well on the tests used in research, that teachers are important but not transformational, that the “myth of high expectations” is dangerous for teachers and children alike, and that the culture of high-stakes testing is poisonous.
The issue has less to do with what their opinions are, but how they view research. Gary shuns it as largely circumstantial, unscientific, driven by private interests, and pushing a dangerous agenda of more testing. Matt points to research as the main way to discuss education reform, even if it takes “a few decades” to get results. My opinion is that they’re both partially right.
But for every piece of research that comes out in support of a new reform program, we lose something equally as valid: an opportunity to dig deeper into the ills that make our system so unequal. We have fallen into a pattern of building and stacking new ideas on top of new data and then developing tests to validate them when we skip the harder questions (like do we even know what school is for, what students should be learning and why and how to evaluate that in the short and long term).
I don’t know when we started looking at assessments as primarily a lubricant for research which in turn acts as a validation for change, but this is a dangerous, and in my opinion, wrong-minded direction to take.