In March of last year, two Teach for America alumni began Educators 4 Excellence (E4E), an organization whose "mission is to unite the education community around a shared set of goals, principles, beliefs, and actions, which place student achievement first." Evan Stone, 25, and Sydney Morris, 24 (ages as of April 8, 2010), claim they each left their full time teaching jobs because they were not being pushed to become better teachers. They started E4E (and recently received money from the Gates Foundation) because they want to help fix education's problems, or maybe because they see it as the beginning of long careers in ed policy that might result in a high-profile job, as Michelle Rhee did with The New Teacher Project (which E4E cites) after her TFA stint in a for-profit school in Baltimore.
In addition to a picture of Evan with some minority children he apparently took to the Grand Canyon, you can also find a pretty comprehensive overview of what E4E stands for on its website. Naturally, as young educators in a harsh fiscal environment, they'd like to end the policy of "Last In, First Out," which "punishes our teachers and students." They advocate making tenure more difficult and applaud Colorado for having done so. They believe teacher review should be tied to test scores, and that teachers whose students earn the highest test scores should make more money. E4E supports school choice and the charter movement, as well as employing business managers as heads of large school districts (e.g. Cathie Black). Importantly, at E4E, they "know there is no factor more important to student success than the quality of our instruction," which is interesting considering that research doesn't confirm that (see here, here, and here). There seems to be only one detail separating E4E's agenda from those of Michelle Rhee (whom they admire, but actually has a way cooler website of her own), Michael Petrilli, Whitney Tilson, or Eli Broad: E4E would like higher starting salaries for teachers. The discrepancy is important.
Almost anytime there is a strong push from the federal government toward reform in any policy arena, you can bet monied interests have something to gain from it. The policies advocated by the corporate reform movement (the same echoed on E4E's website, minus the higher starting salaries) are driven by a much larger movement whose primary aim is to turn public dollars into private dollars. The impetus is both financial and ideological. There is a belief among many of the most powerful people in our country and our world that private property is at the heart of an efficiently functioning society. Advocates are extremely distrustful of the state's ability to accomplish anything. Democracy is understood as far more of a burden than a support in moving society forward. Taken to its extreme, this neoliberal policy agenda would advocate a system in which everything could be bought and sold, in which government serves merely to facilitate private industry. This, neoliberals would say, allows society to function most efficiently, thereby generating the most productivity. However, the concentration of what would otherwise be community capital into the hands of a few is often its consequence.
In public education, the corporate reform movement's (CRM) aim of turning public dollars into private dollars manifests itself in two ways. On one hand, there are the "philanthropic" efforts of the Broad, Gates, and Walton foundations (in addition to a number of others). Their aim is to reconstitue public education in order to better serve the needs of the business community, in effect, using public dollars as private investment. They believe the most effective way of doing that is by applying principles of private business to public school children. Through their lens, education is understood as valuable only insofar as students are made capable of serving their future employers. While participation in the economy is, of course, a legitimate purpose of education, it's extraordinarily dangerous for our society when it's considered education's sole purpose. On the other hand, CRM's goal of transferring public dollars into private hands also manifests itself in for-profit testing companies, charter school operators, school support businesses, professional development and tutoring entrepreneurs, and any number of other snake oil salesmen.
With the exception of raising teacher starting salaries, the reforms E4E supports are not only not proven to improve student achievement, they also make it significantly easier for the CRM to decrease the number of public dollars going to public employees. Here's why that's true for each of E4E's advocated policies:
1) Charter schools (while originally a noble idea) have largely been hijacked by hedge-fund managers and for-profit charter operators, the vast majority of whom have little or no experience educating the kinds of children that end up in charter schools. It also seems odd that teachers wouldn't be wary of charters when those that are touted as most successful have higher rates of teacher turnover, employ unqualified teachers, allow for little public scrutiny (their financial actions are not public knowledge), seem more often to turn children into robots than engage them in critical thinking, and sometimes throw entire cohorts of students out of their schools when they don't perform.
2) The use of the value-added model (VAM) of teacher assessment is the most popular method today for using tests to evaluate teachers. Presumably, this will help districts make better hiring decisions and pay good teachers more money. However, this method, promoted by E4E member, Grace Snodgrass, is far more likely to narrow the curriculum and get rid of quality teachers (unless, of course, this is what we want our classrooms to look like - I particularly like at 3:45 when the teacher clearly ignores the girl shaking her head). Snodgrass's argument seems woefully underinformed about the deficiencies associated with the VAM method. She argues that VAM can account for many things a teacher cannot control in the face of research (and common sense) that strongly suggests otherwise (here, here, here, and here). She doesn't seem to be aware that many TDRs assigned students' math scores to English teachers' results. She ignores that VAM's principle architect, William Sanders, promoted its use for profit. She doesn't mention that despite VAM's rigorous method, it deals merely with data and says nothing of the quality of tests being given. She seems ignorant of the logical fallacy inherent in VAM measurements: effective teachers raise test scores and raising test scores makes you an effective teacher. She neglects to mention that VAM would require vertically scaled tests, which New York does not have, to be considered effective. Nothing is mentioned of the summer learning loss experienced by underprivileged students or its effects on tests. She ignores the harm that the reality from which so many students (especially in NYC) enter school has on high stakes test scores - i.e. while a teacher may make three years of progress with students six years below grade level, a test measuring grade-level improvement is likely to detect virtually no improvement at all. Snodgrass seems unaware that data from VAM has been used to demonstrate the effects of students' fifth-grade teachers on their fourth-grade learning experience, thereby demonstrating serious limitations in its model. While I could go on, I'll only mention finally that I find it particularly ironic that after touting VAM as a means by which teachers can effectively improve on their practice, Snodgrass then says that teacher evaluations should provide a "full picture of a teacher's ability to help students gain knowledge." While she writes this in the context of arguing that more than just test scores should be required in a teacher's evaluation, she seems to underestimate the degree of harm quantitative, high-stakes measures have on the public's perception, especially when tests measure so few of the things a teacher should be doing in the classroom.
3) E4E's desire to eliminate "last in, first out," which would be appropriate if valid measures of agreed-upon teacher evaluation existed (and I hope my previous paragraph explained well enough why I don't believe they currently exist), will only serve as a means by which districts may shed more expensive and experienced teachers. I explored this issue in much further depth in my letter to Jonathan Alter.
4) The implementation of performance pay, which is occurring primarily in high-needs districts, is quietly being tied to an elimination of the due process rights in places like Washington, DC. Because of the unreliability of the standardized test scores (research by Schochet and Chiang suggests they misidentify effective teachers twenty-five per cent of the time given three years of data - and I suspect that rate increases in schools with higher rates of poverty), and the staggering challenges faced by teachers and students in high-needs environments, I'm afraid our current efforts at performance pay are going to see "highly effective" teachers make lots of money one year and be fired a few years later. Whether that's the intent is debatable, but research on performance pay hasn't exactly proved it's a panacea.
5) The use of corporate managers as educational leaders is disparaging, not because business has no legitimate advice to offer public education, but because these managers often focus on making schools appear like they're improving rather than actually improving them. They treat test scores like profit and close schools that "fail." Principals are told that scores will rise or they'll lose their jobs. A laser-like focus is put on testing, administrators with little to no experience in the classroom focus their teacher evaluations on the details of appropriate classroom script (and ignore many of the much more important things a teacher does), schools are made into educational factories, TFA recruits fill the hallways, and very little valuable education takes place. It's hard to understand the negative consequences of those things if you've never been in the classroom. In the minds of Broad-trained corporate education managers, pushing schools to get test scores up and closing them when they fail is much less expensive than investing in school security (so fourth-graders don't have to watch prostitutes have sex on their way to school), well-trained and well-educated teachers and administrators, and the development of a rigorous and relevant curriculum.
The CRM talking points parroted by E4E all sound very good when they're decontextualized. It's why they win the media so easily. Few people want to sit down and really consider the complicated mess that is public education. I imagine that's why many educators with so little experience buy into the talking points so readily - that and TFA's five weeks of brainwashing. What illuminates E4E's ignorance so acutely, however, is their call for higher teacher starting salaries. To be sure, advocates of the CRM are not a monolith. But at its heart, from the place where it derives its funding and power, the CRM is about spending less on public education, not more. As new shills for the Gates Foundation, E4E is understandably confused about its place, but I have no doubt that they'll either change their stance on starting salaries or come to see this mess for what it is, and reexamine the way in which they're contributing to it.
If E4E is really about putting the kids first (haven't heard that before), and not prepping their futures for educational rock stardom, they need to learn to differentiate between the two debates we're having over ed policy. In one debate, the debate over what could happen in a perfect world, there are no boundaries. You can say whatever you want about how to change schools for the better. You can forget that there are systems and people already in place that make those changes treacherous. You can throw out any idea you want for the sake of advancing an understanding about your own opinions. That's the theory side, the fantasy land. The other debate has boundaries. It respects the limitations of reality and is careful about its proposals, because in this debate, advocating positions that have not been fully thought through can be dangerous. You can end up playing into the hands of people who are working against your interests, have been playing the game for a lot longer time, and are a lot better at it than you are. I'm afraid E4E thinks it's throwing ideas into the former debate when it's actually participating in the latter.
Whatever the case may be, E4E fails to demonstrate an appreciation for the many nuances intertwined with the policies they're advocating. I'm not sure which would be more disconcerting: they do understand them or they don't.