"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Tragedy of Education Transformation: Leadership without Expertise

The Tragedy of Education Transformation: Leadership without Expertise

South Carolina's Superintendent of Education Mick Zais makes several claims in The State (March 25, 2012) that build on one central argument: "The most important information about teachers isn’t the degrees they have or their years of seniority. Their effectiveness in the classroom matters much, much more."

Like Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Zais has no experience teaching children in K-12 public education. This complete lack of teaching experience and degrees in the field of education is a suspect position from which to claim that these two characteristics do not matter. In fact, political appointees and elected officials sit in unique positions often above both accountability (the mantra du jour of the political elite regarding education) and qualifications—unlike the real world markets they often praise.

Leadership without Expertise?

Since the early 1980s, U.S. public education has been experimenting with accountability, standards, testing, and school report cards. In 2012, every single state as well as educational leaders at the federal level have declared those public schools failures or inadequate.

Zais's solution to this dynamic echoes the national argument now facing our public schools:

Accountability, standards, testing, and school report cards have failed, they argue, thus the solution is more and different accountability, standards, testing, and report cards!

This complete failure in logic and context resonates only with those without the exact qualities Zais and Duncan reject—teaching experience and formal preparation in teaching and learning.

I have taught now for 28 years, including 18 years teaching public high school English in rural SC. What has benefited me most in those years teaching?

Without question, the single greatest contribution to my effectiveness as a teacher has been experience. I am significantly superior today to the teacher I was nearly 3 decades ago, and I am certain I am now a pale version of what I'll be in the coming decade.

Inextricable from the importance of experience are my degrees in education and my scholarship over my career.

In what profession does experience and knowledge of the field not matter? Do we want medical doctors without experience and education in medicine? Airplane pilots without experience flying planes?

But our elected and appointed education leaders are not alone in this total lack of credibility to portray education accurately or to pose solutions needed for our persistent challenges to teach and learn in our public schools. Political leadership would have much less power and influence if our media took the responsibility to challenge and confront the repeated false claims and hollow solutions coming from our state and federal government concerning schools.

Secretary Duncan and Superintendent Zais, for example, are allowed the bully pulpit of their positions, without regard to their lack of experience or expertise. As a result, the public is fed a continuous stream of misinformation and jumbled logic. Let's consider a few in Zais's commentary.

• Teacher experience and degrees do not matter, but classroom effectiveness does? This claim falls apart when we examine what constitutes classroom effectiveness. Ample research shows that teacher effectiveness includes significant correlations with experience and degrees (see HERE), thus the initial claim poses a false dichotomy and a disturbing lack of awareness of the field of education.

• Measuring teacher effective on fixed test scores is a failure but value added methods solve that problem? Again, this is a common-sense sounding argument that has power among those who haven't taught and those without knowledge of the field. But the overwhelming patterns of evidence concerning VAM-style teacher and school accountability, even by those advocating the practice, show that VAM is unstable and not a credible avenue for guiding accountability policy. [1]

• School report cards fail because they have used "ambiguous terms," but new report cards will work because they will label schools with A through F ratings? This is the most troubling and illogical argument I have seen recently. How is an "A" less ambiguous than "Met"? Both require that anyone wanting to know what either means has some sort of rubric for how this singular notation captures some set of criteria. The problem is not the labeling format, but the act of labeling and the failure to acknowledge that all labeling and ranking systems used to sort children, teachers, and schools overwhelmingly reflect the status of the student's life outside of the control of the student, teacher, or school. Test-based data remain in 2012 a proxy for the socioeconomic conditions of any child's life more so than an accurate representation of teaching or learning.*

And this leads to a final similarity between Zais and Duncan. In Zais's commentary, he fails to acknowledge or mention poverty even once (although SC sits in the bottom quartile of affluence in the nation)—just as Duncan is apt to do in his many speeches.

The unacknowledged truth about education in SC and across the U.S. is that schools that struggle are burdened by the weight of poverty and too often fail to confront social inequity by perpetuating inequity through policies such as standardized testing, tracking students, and disproportionate disciplinary practices.

Leadership without expertise is no leadership at all, and it leads only to more troubling and ironic conclusions. Zais ends his commentary with: "Student learning is at the heart of accountability and educator evaluation. Our new evaluation system puts students first. It has the potential to transform education in South Carolina."

Yes, if the new evaluation system is mandated, transformation will occur, that is if we are willing to consider destroying teacher autonomy and morale, student engagement and deep understanding, and public school stability as transformation.

[1] See Bruce Baker's detailed examinations of value-added methods at School Finance 101. Also note that Dr. Baker has experience and formal training in the areas about which he presents information.

* Leaders without experience, preparation, or scholarship in the field of education have neither current nor historical context for their claims. Even a cursory examination of the Poverty Index and school report cards used in SC reveal the powerful connection between poverty and measurable student outcomes. This same dynamic is revealed in the data from the College Board in every single year the SAT has been administered as well.

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