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Neoliberal Education Reform Is What's "Not Fair": A Response to Dana Goldstein

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In a February 24, 2012 piece for the Nation, "NYC to Release Teachers' "Value Added' Ratings: Why It's Not Fair" , Dana Goldstein criticizes the planned publication of the value-added ratings of 12,000 NYC public school teachers, including teacher's names, by the NY Times and WNYC. "Value-added" refers to the statistical estimation of a teacher's impact on students' standardized test scores in math and reading.

While Goldstein points out that value-added ratings have been proven unreliable in studies conducted by The Economic Policy Institute , which found the margin of error for determining teacher influence on student test scores to be in the 35% range for math and up to 50% for reading, she does not criticize the use of high-stakes tests as a metric of both student learning and teacher effectiveness. Instead, Goldstein condemns the publication of teacher's names alongside the data and cautions that value added, while a "promising tool", must be "refined and deployed with extreme caution."

Goldstein's myopic focus on the reliability of value-added ratings ignores the larger context of education reform efforts in the US. The wisdom of reform initiatives focused on standardization, accountability, and school choice (privatization) is never questioned. Indeed, this reform model has become bi-partisan consensus since the implementation of Obama's "Race to the Top", which enshrined as orthodoxy much of Bush's NCLB approach to federal education reform. Once bi-partisan agreement is reached on an issue, the parameters of the debate are set and ideas and opinions that fall outside of those parameters are relegated to the margins.

Any reasonable approach to nationwide education reform efforts would begin by comparing US outcomes with those of other nations to determine what policies have been effective elsewhere. Fortunately, such a comparative tool already exists in the form of the Program for International Student Assessment , the most recent results of which were released in 2009. Every 3 years since 2000, PISA has measured the proficiency of 15-year-old students per nation around the world in the areas of math, reading and science. In 2009, Finnish students posted the highest scores on the PISA for the fourth consecutive year. In contrast, US students ranked somewhere in the middle of the pack with math scores slightly below the OECD average.

Policy makers concerned about improving education in the US would look at the PISA results and conclude that Finland might have something to offer the US in the realm of education reform. So what does education reform look like in Finland?

In 1960, Finland's international education ranking was close to average, as the US's is today. Around that time, Finnish policy makers decided that in order to compete economically with resource rich nations, Finland would have to grow its high-tech sector, and it could only do that by first improving its schools. Education reform in Finland took the form of reduced class sizes, increased teacher salary coupled with greater requirements for certification (all teachers in Finland must complete a master's program), superintendents and principals with significant teaching experience, and greater autonomy and curricular control for teachers and administrators. Rather than implementing a system of test-based accountability schemes, Finland relies on the competence and discretion of experienced administrators to evaluate teacher performance and make decisions about salary and retention.

How does this compare with education reform efforts in the US?

Firstly, there has been an effort on the part of reformers in the US to fast-track teacher certification through alternative programs that allow candidates to circumvent traditional pathways. This has been accompanied by an increase in funding for programs like Teach for America, which take recent graduates from leading universities headed for eventual careers in lucrative professions in business and law and place them in underperforming urban schools to teach for up to 2 years. The underlying assumption, of course, is that teaching is not a profession that requires specialized training and education, but simply a job that anyone can perform, or an act of charity when it's done in impoverished urban schools. Meanwhile, teachers' unions and the benefits and salaries they have fought to secure are under attack on the state level from anti-labor politicians who are determined to use the recent financial crisis as a pretext to justify their assault on workers' rights. Taken together, these efforts have operated to deprofessionalize teaching and eliminate incentives for intelligent, passionate individuals to pursue teaching as a career.

Secondly, a major thrust of recent federal and state level reforms has been in the area of charter schools and vouchers. Both of these are designed to use public tax dollars to subsidize the profits of private educational institutions, thereby undermining public education while enriching the private sector. A recent (2009) nationwide study by education researchers at Stanford University compared learning outcomes of charter schools with those of traditional public schools. The study found that 50% of charter schools nationwide have results no different from the local public school, and 37% of charter schools deliver results that are significantly worse than the student would have realized at the traditional public school. Unsurprisingly, "public-private partnership" schools are not a feature of education reform in Finland. Finland has invested its resources in improving public schools rather than transferring wealth from the public sphere to for-profit institutions.

Lastly, standardized curricula and testing have been the centerpiece of reform in the US. Increasingly, high-stakes tests are determining everything from the amount of funding schools will receive, to teachers' salary and tenure eligibility. This is placing greater pressure on schools and classroom teachers to improve student's test scores. Often, this results in a "teach to the test" culture where the focus is on improving student's scores in math and reading to the exclusion of other subjects like science, social studies, art, music, foreign language, physical education, etc. This curriculum narrowing takes place within a framework of top-down curriculum implementation. Rather than allowing teachers to design effective curricula, reformers are placing curricula drafting in the hands of bureaucrats, businesspeople and education "experts," all of whom are far removed from the classroom context. In contrast, Finland has virtually eliminated high-stakes testing and replaced it with exams given to small but statistically significant student samples to collect data. Finland also allows teachers to design their own curricula using national guidelines as a blueprint, not an instruction manual.

From these comparisons, one can conclude that either US policy makers, despite overwhelming empirical evidence, do not believe Finland can serve as a model of successful education reform, or US policy makers are not interested in improving education.

If policy makers aren't interested in meaningful education reform, what are they interested in?

The answer is meaningful neo-liberal reform. All of these policies are designed to transfer public wealth and collective decision making to unaccountable private institutions. Privatization and test-based accountability go hand in hand. When under-resourced schools, particularly those in inner cities serving low-income and minority populations, struggle to meet the standards forced on them by the state, politicians point to this as evidence of the failure of public schools to educate America's youth and offer privatization as the only logical remedy.

Over the past thirty years, politicians aligned with business/corporate interests have worked tirelessly to diminish the public sphere and dismantle essential social services in the name of privatization. From trash collection and parcel services to health care, education and the military, privatization has wreaked havoc on the social contract and placed profits over the basic needs of people. Privatization, however, is simply one weapon in the neoliberal's arsenal alongside deficit reduction, deregulation, slashing corporate taxes, liberalized trade, etc.

When liberal/progressive commentators like Dana Goldstein debate the merits of value-added ratings and other accountability schemes without placing them in the larger context of reform efforts focused on standardization, accountability and privatization, they are limiting the scope of public debate and unwittingly advancing a neo-liberal education reform agenda.


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I am a graduate student of journalism at UNL interested in international affairs, politics, economics, social justice issues and education.
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