Jim Horn’s and Denise Wilburn’s The Mismeasure of Education chronicles the history of test-driven accountability that true believers in accountability-driven reform have ignored. Sadly, Horn and Wilburn document the timeless truth that “the past is prologue.” The history that contemporary school reformers do not know has come back, and I would not be surprised if Tennessee is their Waterloo. A first post focused on Horn’s and Wilburn’s history of the roots of accountability-driven reform. This one will concentrate of their account of Tennessee’s recent history and how it has become the classic example of the logic and practice of outputs-driven school reform.
I saw much of the early history described in The Mismeasure of Education as a blue collar worker in another Sunbelt state, Oklahoma. With the Energy Crisis of 1973, the deindustrialization of America sped up. It was accelerated by competition between states to give tax breaks to big business. In Oklahoma, 10% of jobs disappeared in 1983 as the Reagan Administration gave three sets of tax breaks for closing profitable factories and relocating them. Reaganism also turned a blind eye to corporate raiders, who used those subsidies to purchase companies, fire workers, sell off assets, and invest their profits overseas.
Obviously this unrestrained greed and subsidized competition was a disaster for families in the industrial north. The overnight disappearance of an economic future wrecked communities, created intense concentrations of extreme poverty, and killed the hope that is the key to successful schools and societies.
In the short run, however, Southern states like Tennessee and Oklahoma seemed to be winners. For the price of some tax breaks, automobile and tire factories, not to mention blue jeans factories and food processing plants, relocated to border states. Had we adopted the common sense approach and invested this new-found bounty (that, of course, was gained at the expense of Northern workers), the quality of life in poor Southern states would have increased. Had we really believed the rhetoric about competing in a global marketplace and invested in the “human capital” that would be required for good jobs, maybe trickle down economics would have benefited us, as it impoverished our fellow citizens.
In my home state, however, jobs disappeared overnight in the inner city and reappeared in the exurbs. It did not take long before the good and the lousy jobs were relocated to Mexico, then, China, then Vietnam, and to the latest place where wages remained lower.
Until reading The Mismeasure of Education, however, I had forgotten that Tennessee was the highest-profiled example of the Sunbelt’s embrace of corporate reforms of all types. Tennessee, of all places, was positioned to prosper in the global marketplace. And, if you believe their hype, it did. Japan invested in union-free car manufacturing. Remember the 1990s claims that Big Data had put an end to economic cycles? Memphis, being the site of Fed X, was supposed to to be the archetype of a 21st century economy with overnight delivery and instant adjustments to the market’s demands.
As Horn and Wilburn explain, since the 1990s, Tennessee became a leader in privatization and replacing the post-New Deal/Fair Deal public social safety net. It invested in private prisons and was almost successful in attempts to privatize the state prison system. TennCare was the name for the new model of health care delivery, which funneled huge sums of public monies to health management organizations. And, outputs-driven accountability would supposedly allow school reform to create a workforce to compete in the international marketplace.
Horn and Wilburn briefly describe Tennessee’s educational reforms within the context of its reforms in health, prisons, and corporate salesmanship. They provide a reminder that turning public welfare over to the market did not work any better in other sectors than it did education. They then give an in-depth analysis of how the state’s commitment to using a statistical algorithm, in lieu of real investments in the human side of schooling, was bound to fail.
Tennessee’s iconic contribution to data-driven school reform was its TVAAS, or its value-added model for using test scores to drive school improvement. Developed by William Sanders, a local agricultural statistician, value-added became the cornerstone of the market-driven school reform model. Armed with value-added, it was claimed, a revolution in teacher quality could overcome intense concentrations of generational poverty and trauma.
Drawing on state studies and the work of value-added scholars, Horn and Wilburn showed how Tennessee’s model could only predict the effect of demographics and socio-economic status in school systems where student were consciously integrated by race. This should have been no surprise given the findings of James Coleman (who they had previously discussed in detail.) For instance, in a middle school in Knox County where teachers only had a 1% chance of teaching a black student the state’ accountability model, TVAAS gave them an “A” for producing a 2.1 gain score. In the same county, teachers with a 68.7% chance of teaching a black student had a -1.1 test score, earning an “F” and a “D” on the state metrics. TVAAS might document the way that black and poor students tended to “fall further back over time,” but it offered no solutuion.
Before long, value-added became the quick fix for whatever ailed reformers. As the flaws inherent in No Child Left Behind became obvious, Tennessee became one of the primary sites of a pilot study using growth models to fix NCLB’s discredited API targets. And, when Bill Gates became a convert, value-added became foundation of his “teacher quality” approach to reform. Then came the RttT …
As Horn and Wilburn note, Tennessee was poised to come in first – or last – in the Race to the Top. The state was first in hyping William Sanders’ miracle cure of value-added, but its actual record was bleak, and the RttT grant application required evidence that states would follow through on their promises. Due to Tennessee’s long history of using “accountablism” or outputs-driven accountability as a shortcut towards educational equity, the state had conducted audits of both its testing metrics and the capacity of its education department to monitor reforms. Both were found wanting. Tennessee was notorious for its low learning standards, and yet it had to promise to implement college-ready standards.
Tennessee not only won in the first round of RttT competition, but it carved out a space as #1 in terms of commitment toward the corporate reform policies that earned it the $500 million grant. An Achievement School District (ASD) was created in order to move the state’s bottom 5% of schools into the top 25% in five years. The ASD was flush with cash for converting traditional public schools into charters and contracting with charter management organizations. Top-down “turnarounds” were mandated. In contrast to other RttT winners, even those who were true believers in value-added teacher evaluations, Tennessee rushed full speed ahead with their theories. Tennessee hired former Teach for America attorney, Kevin Huffman, the ultimate reform ideologue, to frantically implement Common Core, as it also attempted to meet its promises in terms of school readiness, 3rd grade reading, and special education. And, in Memphis, reformers tackled all of those challenging as they faced the daunting prospects of merging the urban school system and suburban districts.
Memphis brings the story of Tennessee full circle. As Horn and Wilburn explain, the Coleman Report documented the need for desegregation as the most method of raising achievement. With the end of race-based desegregation efforts, socio-economic integration became the most promising solution. As in the rest of the Sunbelt, globalism provided Tennessee a burst of economic opportunity that could have been invested in creating equitable social, educational, and health services. It would not have been cheap or easy to create the supports necessary to build economic opportunities for all, and the temptation to take the accountablism shortcut proved irresistible.
I have no idea if the Memphis and Shelby County merger would have created socio-economic desegregation and laid a foundation for real justice and schools where everyone would enjoy the educational opportunities to compete in the global marketplace. It would have been a great experiment in democracy. The idea that Memphis could implement those democratic reforms, while also implementing corporate reform on steroids, is implausible.
Finishing The Mismeasure of Education, the real question seems to be whether Tennessee’ RttT will end as a tragedy or a farce. The state’s experiment in market-driven reform is likely to be the next most-watched experiment in corporate reform. Just as spectators in sports events are told, “you can’t tell the players without a program,” outsiders can’t fully understand Tennessee’s experiments without a written guide. Horn and Wilburn have provided that document for watching the story unfold. Unless I miss my guess, as the RttT craters, we will need to keep dog-eared copies of their great book handy. I expect that their narrative will predict with great accuracy the future of test-driven reform in Tennessee and much of the ways that the market-place mentality will drive national school improvement efforts.