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Posted at 12:30 PM ET, 01/ 5/2011

Resolutions someone should make for 2011

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Mike Rose, who is on the faculty of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and is the author of "Why School?: Reclaiming Education for All of Us” and "Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America."

By Mike Rose
The beginning of the year is the time to be hopeful, to feel the surge of possibility. So in that spirit I want to propose just over one dozen education resolutions that emerge from the troubling developments and bad, old habits of 2010. Feel free to add your own.

1) To have more young people get an engaging and challenging education.

2) To stop the accountability train long enough to define what we mean by “achievement” and what it should mean in a democratic society. Is it a rise in test scores? Is it getting a higher rank in international comparisons? Or should it be more?

3) To stop looking for the structural or technological magic bullet – whether it’s charter schools or value-added analysis – that will improve education. Just when you think the lesson is learned – that the failure of last year’s miracle cure is acknowledged and lamented – our attention is absorbed by a new quick fix.

4) To stop making the standardized test score the gold-standard of student achievement and teacher effectiveness. In what other profession do we use a single metric to judge goodness? Imagine judging competence of a cardiologist by the average of her patients’ cardiograms.

As a corollary resolution I would like to have school reformers pledge to read Stephen Jay Gould’s classic The Mismeasure of Man or just about anything by Canadian philosopher of science Ian Hacking to remind them of the logical fallacies and scientific follies involved in trying to find a single measure for a complex human phenomenon.

5) To assure that teacher professional development gets increased and thoughtful support. For this to happen, we will need at the least: a) A major shift from the last decade’s punitive accountability system toward a program of growth and development. b) A rejection of typical development fare: a consultant jets in, lays down a scheme, a grid, a handful of techniques and aphorisms, then jets out. c) A replacement of said fare with ongoing, comprehensive, intellectually rich programs of the kind offered by the National Writing Project and the National Science Foundation.

6) To ensure that people who actually know a lot about schools will appear on Oprah and will be consulted by politicians and policy makers. When President Obama visited my home state of California, the person he met with to talk about education was Steve Jobs.

7) To have the secretary of education, the president, and other officials stop repeating the phrase “We are going to educate ourselves toward a 21st Century economy.” It is smart economic policy more than anything else that will move us toward a 21st Century economy.

8) To convince policy makers and school officials to stop using corporate speak (or whatever it is) when talking about education: “game changer,” “non-starter,” “leverage,” “incentivize,” and so on. We would chastise our students for resorting to such a clichéd vocabulary. Education of all places should reflect a fresher language. And while we’re at it, how about a moratorium on this phrasing: “We’re doing it for the kids” or “It’s good for kids” when referring to just about any initiative or practice. Talk about clichéd language; the phrase is used as a substitute for evidence or a reasoned argument.

9) To rethink, or at least be cautious about, the drive to bring any successful practice or structure “to scale”. Of course we want to learn from what’s good and try to replicate it, but too often the notion of “scaling up” plays out in a mechanical way, doing more or building more of something without much thought given to the fact that any human activity occurs in a context, in a time and place, and therefore a simple replication of the practice in one community might not achieve the same results it did in its original setting.

10) To make do with fewer economists in education. These practitioners of the dismal science have flocked to education reform, though most know little about teaching and learning. I mean, my Lord, with a few exceptions they did such a terrific job analyzing the financial and housing markets – something they do know a lot about – that the field of economics itself, according to The Economist, is experiencing an identity crisis. So tell me again why they’re especially qualified to change education for the better.

11) To have the media, middle-brow and high-brow, quit giving such a free pass to the claims and initiatives of the Department of Education and school reformers. There is an occasional skeptical voice, but for any serious analysis, you have to go to sources like The Nation or Pacifica radio. Journalists and commentators who make their living by being skeptical – David Brooks, Nicholas Kristof, Arianna Huffington – leave their skepticism at the door when it comes to the topic of education.

12) To have education pundits check their tendency to resort to the quip, the catchy one-liner. If you’ll indulge me, I’ll give an extended example. I believe it was Hoover Institute economist Eric A. Hanushek who observed that if we simply got rid of the bottom 10% of teachers (as determined by test scores) and replaced them with teachers at the top 10% we’d erase the achievement gap, or leap way up the list on international comparisons, or some such. His observation got picked up by a number of commentators. It is one of those “smartest kids in the class” kinds of statements, at first striking but on reflection not very substantial.

Think for a moment. There are many factors that affect student academic performance, and the largest is parental income – so canning the bottom 10 percent won’t erase all the barriers to achievement. Furthermore, what exactly is this statement’s purpose? It seems to be a suggestion for policy. So let’s play it out. There are about 3½ million teachers out there. Ten percent is 350,000. As a policy move, how do you fire 350,000 people without creating overwhelming administrative and legal havoc, and where do you quickly find the stellar 350,000 to replace them? Also, since the removal of that bottom 10 percent one year creates a new 10 percent the next (I think Richard Rothstein also made this point), do we repeat the process annually?

It is this kind of quip that zips through the chattering classes, but really is a linguistic bright, shining object that distracts us from the real work of improving our schools.

13) To have my hometown newspaper, The Los Angeles Times, stop advocating for the use of value-added analysis as the key metric for judging teacher effectiveness and return to reporting as comprehensively as it can news about education and employing the journalist’s skepticism about any technique that seems too good to be true. The Times does offer the contrary voice, but in a minor key, and too often from teachers union officials who lack credibility rather than the wide range of statisticians and measurement experts who raise a whole host of concerns about value-added analysis used this way.

14) I’m going to end by repeating my initial resolution in case the universe missed it the first time around: That through whatever combination of factors – from policy initiatives to individual effort – more young people get an engaging and challenging education in 2011.


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By Valerie Strauss  | January 5, 2011; 12:30 PM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Learning, Mike Rose, School turnarounds/reform, Standardized Tests, Teachers  | Tags:  2011 resolutions, ian hacking, mike rose, new year's resolutions, obama and education policy, oprah, oprah winfrey, president obama, standardized tests, stephen jay gould, student achievement, teacher effectiveness  
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Great list! I agree with everything on it and think it should be sent to every official who thinks they are part of the current 'reform' movement.

I would just add one major item:

Please let's bring back an emphasis on a balanced education; that means giving the Arts and Humanities their rightful place at the table, not made to scramble for a few after-school crumbs at the feet of myopic policy makers.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | January 5, 2011 1:22 PM | Report abuse

I started bobbing and weaving at #4. The cardiologist analysis thought might change if we decided her licensing based on the number of deaths from misdiagnosis. Just a point of reference.

5. What is wrong with self-development? I am not sent to classes by my employer. If I want improvement I pay and find time to attend.

12. Applause. I have long held the issue that differences in learning aptitude, time, absorption, and environment are beyond teacher control. Watching kids race at recess should clue adults about kids and their abilities.

1 & 14. I'm with you Sir.

Posted by: jbeeler | January 5, 2011 1:42 PM | Report abuse

Just one example of the studied ignorance characteristic of those so willing to impress with their econometric tools: This is from the second footnote of Richard Buddin, LA Times economist-consultant's paper on value added measurement:

"An empirical concern is that if a school is particularly effective in teaching kindergarten and 1st grade students, then they may have less potential to improve the outcomes for students in 2nd through 5th grades.
Alternatively, schools with poor kindergarten and 1st grade preparations may set the stage for strong performance in 2nd through 5th grades. In our analysis, we implicitly assume that school elementary school performance is relatively consistent across grades.

There it is: agnositicism covering complete lack of interest in everything every neuro-scientist or developmental specialist FOR ANY SPECIES has learned, ever. Just pretend thousands of scientists have studied and learned nothing. Buddin cannot distinguish from data he's been handed between prior performances due to student OR TEACHER BASED unconcern for testing on the one hand; and seriously consequential developmental retardation because students didn't receive the stimulii most productive of later learning on the other,the issue goes away.

Biostatisticians know to treat such idiocy in evaluating outcomes from medical treatments with derision. It really makes no difference for the outcome when in the course of a trauma or a disease treatment begins?

And the corruption of data and data systems, including endemic cheating? Because we can't estimate it,we'll just assume it is randomly distributed, "captured in the error term."

Posted by: incredulous | January 5, 2011 3:22 PM | Report abuse

I agree with everything except #2. There is going to be accountability; it's a given. If we want it to rest on more than test scores, then it's up to the education profession -- teachers, unions, superintendents, ed school faculty, State-level education agencies, principals -- to define what other factors should be taken into account, and how. That they haven't represents a huge failure that must be addressed.

Posted by: jane100000 | January 5, 2011 4:52 PM | Report abuse

Brilliant. Especially number eight. More people need to confront the buzz word addicts of education and ask them the simple question "what do you mean when you say that?" In public education a myriad of meaningless words are thrown around and heads nod in agreement. It would be laughable if it did not affect the futures of students, teachers, and parents.

Posted by: holland21 | January 5, 2011 8:14 PM | Report abuse

"Journalists and commentators who make their living by being skeptical – David Brooks, Nicholas Kristof, Arianna Huffington – leave their skepticism at the door when it comes to the topic of education."

Add Jonathan Alter of Newsweek to that list.

Great article.

Posted by: educationlover54 | January 6, 2011 1:14 PM | Report abuse

Great article once again Ms Strauss. I love reading your column. One thing jumped out at me on the list.

"To have my hometown newspaper, The Los Angeles Times, stop advocating for ..."

I would add to that to have the Washington Post editorial staff stop picking on the great teachers that we have here in Montgomery County. I hate to say how many editorials your newspaper had last year about teachers in general, and Montgomery County teachers in particular. We won the Baldridge award, we were a qualifier for the Broad award, and Maryland was voted best state for education in the country - again! We have a system of getting rid of ineffective teachers here in our county that is being used as a model for other school districts in the country. We have not had any raises in two years (meaning, with inflation, we are making less money than before). We have Intel and Siemen's award winners here in our county every year. We do well in Rubik's Cube competitions, and UN competitions, and programming competitions, and lots of others as well. We have state and national teachers of the year from our county.

Whatever it is that the Washington Post editorial staff doesn't like about us, please tell them to get over it and find places where educational systems are not working as well as they do in Montgomery County.

Thanks, and keep up the good work.

Posted by: JackS2 | January 7, 2011 12:35 PM | Report abuse

We would all be better off if we read everything Mike Rose writes...and even better off if Barry and Arnie read it as well.

Posted by: DocWood | January 7, 2011 5:55 PM | Report abuse

"Imagine judging competence of a cardiologist by the average of her patients’ cardiograms."

This appropriate analogy reminds me of my favorite analogy related to education.

Blaming the failures of American students on teachers and schools is like blaming the obesity problem in America on doctors and the the healthcare providers.

Of course, we do not blame doctors (nor should we) for America's declining fitness brought on by things (fast-food diets, sedentary lifestyles) out of healthcare providers control.

Likewise, teachers should not be blamed for student failures brought on by numerous variables (poverty, inequity, family divisions, etc.) out of teachers control.

Posted by: sjstrieker | January 9, 2011 11:08 AM | Report abuse

great list, mike, but the columnists you list (brooks, kristof, and huffington) aren't really the ones who are paid to be skeptical -- they're paid among other things to find things to be enthusiastic about. the folks you REALLY want / need to be skeptical are the national education reporters: sam dillon NYT, stephanie banchero WSJ, greg toppo USAT, nick anderson WP, etc. -- they're the ones who are supposed to cover the news with a skeptical eye towards shiny new things but at least part of the time fall down at the job since they want their stories on page one, etc.

alexander /

Posted by: alexanderrusso | January 10, 2011 11:43 PM | Report abuse

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