Over the last week or so, there has been an unusual spate of news reports, research studies, and op-eds published suggesting that the current teaching quality reform—or perhaps better titled “Rhee-form”—agenda may be beginning to wither.
The narrow focus on judging teachers by student test-score gains is losing ground. No longer can we use value-added measures (VAM) on once-a-year, bubble-in, multiple-choice assessments, and then pay teachers with higher VAM ratings more and fire those with lower ratings. Perhaps the withering reform agenda, owned by both Republican and Democratic presidents, has something to do with the indictment of Beverly Hall, former superintendent in the Atlanta Public Schools, and the claims of the enormous pressure she put on principals and teachers to immediately raise test scores.
Or it could be the news broken by John Merrow about Michelle Rhee, the “poster child” for promoting high stakes accountability and blaming teachers for poor student test scores. A memo John uncovered reveals that Michelle is likely culpable for rampant cheating on standardized tests in the beleaguered inner-city schools of Washington, DC.
Even well-meaning politicos and policy wonks struggle to admit that their favored teaching quality strategies are flawed. However, I am beginning to see a chink in their armor. For example, more than five years ago, the Aspen Institute, in efforts to overhaul teaching evaluation, recommended that states be “required to put in place systems for measuring the learning gains of a teacher’s students through value-added methodology.” Moreover, “student achievement [could] count for no less than 50 percent” of the formula for identifying those who are effective or not.
Now, as reported in a New York Times op-ed piece, the Aspen Institute is claiming that “an obsessive focus on holding teachers accountable for test scores without an equal emphasis on actually improving classroom teaching—could fatally undermine the effort to create meaningful evaluation systems.” The Aspen Institute now is taking a page out of the teacher unions’ hymnal.
Focusing on the right types of reforms
At the same time, the New York Times, in a dramatic reversal of its typical opinion page promotions, suggests that charter school reforms and Teach for America-type shortcuts into teaching are distractions at best. Jal Mehta, following in the footsteps of Linda Darling-Hammond’s 1996 NCTAF report, reminds readers that “teaching is a complex activity that is hard to direct and improve from afar.” Jal asserts, much like Linda did, that it is time to professionalize teaching—which will no doubt require “money, political will and the audacity to imagine that teaching could be a profession on a par with fields like law and medicine.”
In the vacuum created by indicted reformers, and amid growing evidence of the limitations of their policy prescriptions (and the harm created by them), I suspect there will be another effort to professionalize teaching in America.
Unlike in the past, when attempts to invest in the profession have routinely dissipated, this time America’s teachers will be more clearly heard and embraced by a public who has deep trust in those individuals who teach our nation's students. The Internet and online networks will help the public understand the complexity of teaching, the potential of professionalism to transform public education, and the wrong-headedness of narrow, top-down Rhee-forms that do not come close to serving students first.
Linda Darling-Hammond, a mentor and friend for 30 years, often reminds me (and so many others) that the “process of creating better schools is hard work” and is never “without struggle.” In light of all the efforts to de-professionalize teaching of late, from those on both sides of the political aisle, I can hear Linda echo one of my favorite poets, Langston Hughes (and the many who inspired him): “Keep your hand on the plow! Hold on!"