Life of Desperation

Henry David Thoreau famously stated in Walden that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”  He thinks misplaced value is the cause: We feel a void in our lives, and we attempt to fill it with things like money, possessions, and accolades.  We think these things will make us happy.  When they don’t, we just seek more of them.

THE PRIZE: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools? Book Reviewed by Pat Cummings, Tacoma School District

It was a bold experiment in educational reform. In 2010 Newark, New Jersey was the laboratory to document the effect of educational reform in a city raked by poverty and crime just eight miles west of Manhattan. Respected journalist Dale Russakoff chronicles the study in her new book, “The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?” (256 pp., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27).

With great flair, Cory Booker (Democrat mayor), Chris Christie (Republican governor), and Mark Zuckerberg (26- year old founder of Facebook) found their way onto the Oprah show to announce a pact to “fix” Newark’s troubled school system. Zuckerberg would donate $100 million with an understanding that it would be matched from other sources. Booker and Christie would work together, consolidate their political power, and make this initiative a blueprint for how to turn around a dysfunctional public school system. All three men had good intentions…the philanthropist and politicians really wanted this to work and be a blueprint for hope to some of our country’s most vulnerable children. So the independent variables are the increased funding, focused cooperation, educational reform, and systemic change that will result in the dependent variable of a transformed school system.

What was the result of the experiment? The 5-year plan got off to a rocky start, then, on a steady slope, continued downhill. Rather than being a model for how to fix a broken school system, the experiment is now a road map for how not to do educational reform.

What went wrong? The list is long and may include poor communication, out-of-touch reform consultants, problems with collective bargaining, school closures and subsequent expansion of charters, just to name a few. But what I would like to focus on in this book review is specifically related to education statistics, the Student Growth Percentile (SGP) developed by Damian Betebenner (he presented at WERA’s March 2012 conference). Betebenner’s model for measuring student growth is used in half the states, including Washington.

When Mark Zuckerberg pledged his millions, a good portion of the money was to be targeted to financially reward effective teachers (merit pay). Christie and Booker were very interested in disrupting the Last In, First Out (LIFO) union contracts that supported traditional tenure rules with an aggressive test-based teacher evaluation metric. And all of this would be accomplished by taking a page from Arnie Duncan’s Race to the Top book and using SGPs to measure student learning, then tie teacher evaluations and rewards to the student test outcomes. Easy peasy.

Unfortunately, it appears that the creator of the SGP later proclaimed that the algorithm was designed to measure student gains and losses but not to specifically assign blame or credit for the changes. Betebenner stated, "Simply focusing on teachers as being the only potential cause of growth of students is pretty obviously myopic." Most would agree that SGPs are a good starting point to begin discussion with teachers on why a population of students might be improving or losing ground. However, there are many, many factors that might contribute to change and the "teacher effect" is only small portion of the equation.

Betebenner noted, "A lot of high-stakes accountability has become self-defeating - focusing on the identification of bad schools, the bad teachers, as opposed to creating a signal and involving teachers in processes that lead to investigations and changes.” But it turns out that the primary metric to measure teachers' effectiveness is somewhat unreliable and imprecise for the purpose. Thus, the ranking and sorting of teachers to award a bonus or determine layoffs is a bit arbitrary. Oops.

The Prize should be required reading for all interested in educational reform, especially those for whom accurate measurement is a professional priority. 

Published The WERA Educational Journal, November 2015