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A standardized path to school ruin

Gov. Rick Scott seems determined to ruin public education in Florida. Not only is he devastating school budgets with multiple-billion-dollar cuts, but he is intent on crushing the morale of the state's teachers. One can't expect to improve the public schools while demeaning the professionals who work in them.

Scott approaches school reform as if public education were a government scam that needs to be privatized and as if teachers are lazy scoundrels who need a swift kick in the pants or the promise of a bonus to motivate them. He has a naive belief in the value of test scores that is not shared by the nation's testing experts. So he is promoting the proliferation of privately managed charter schools to compete with neighborhood public schools, more testing of all subjects, and at the same time, tying teachers' compensation and evaluations to their students' test scores.

Floridians need to know that none of his policies is supported by evidence or research.

The overwhelming majority of studies of charters finds that they do not get better results than regular neighborhood public schools. Charters vary dramatically. Some (about one-sixth) get better results than the nearby public school. Some (about one-third) are worse. The rest get test scores no different. On the federal tests given to samples of students in every state, charter students do not perform better in math or reading than their peers in regular public schools.

Some of the high-performing charters skim good students from the local district or accept disproportionately small numbers of students who don't speak English or who have disabilities. Some have high attrition rates, as low-performing students leave or are encouraged to return to the neighborhood public school.

Charter operators vary dramatically. Some run responsible corporations. But others are incompetent or are in it for the money, either because they are for-profit operations or they pay high executive compensation. Others may have sectarian interests, like the Turkish Islamic group that runs the nation's largest charter chain.

Merit pay, another of the governor's favorite ideas, is one of those incentive schemes that sounds good but never works. The most rigorous evaluation of merit pay was published last fall by Vanderbilt University, which found that a possible bonus of $15,000 for higher test scores produced no results. The teachers who were not eligible for the bonus got the same test scores as those who were eligible.

Worse than being ineffective, merit pay damages the culture of the school by destroying teamwork and collaboration. Teachers in successful school agree that the fundamental elements of school improvement are trust and collaboration, not competition for monetary rewards.

Evaluating teacher quality by student test scores is another truly bad idea that in Florida's case was instigated by the federal Race to the Top program. Testing experts have strongly warned that this approach is inaccurate and unstable. It penalizes those who teach children with profound disabilities and children who are gifted, because neither group — for different reasons — is likely to make large gains on annual tests. Teachers may also be incentivized to avoid schools with concentrations of low-performing students, especially English-language learners, because score gains are harder to produce.

Just recently, two major research studies were released that show how wrong are the policies of Scott, former Gov. Jeb Bush and Race to the Top. The National Research Council of the National Academies of Education published a nine-year review of incentives and test-based accountability.

The panel, a who's who of the nation's leading social scientists, concluded that tying incentives to test scores has not improved education in the United States. The gains have been small to none, and the negative consequences include inflated test scores and gaming the system. Over this past decades, as the stakes have grown higher, we have seen numerous cheating scandals, another way of gaming the system to win the carrot or avoid the stick.

Another important study was produced by the National Center on Education and the Economy, which compared our school reform strategies to those in the world's highest performing nations. Unlike us, none of them tests every student every year. None of them ties teacher evaluations and compensation to student test scores. They placed their bets on recruiting, developing and supporting the best possible corps of teachers. They became the best by treating teachers with the dignity and respect that professionalism deserves.

It is also worth noting that no other nation relies as much as we do on standardized multiple-choice tests. Such tests are not scientific instruments, finely calibrated to measure achievement. They are written by humans, and they are prone to error. Some questions have more than one right answer. Students who think differently will be marked wrong for doing so. The very nature of the test teaches children that there must be one right answer to every question, instead of teaching them to ask better questions and seek alternative solutions to difficult problems.

Other nations expect their students to demonstrate knowledge, understanding, thinking, and imagination. A sustained diet of multiple-choice testing for 12 years is likely to discourage the creativity, ingenuity and innovation that have been the driving forces of our nation's economic success in the past century.

Florida is on the cusp of a dangerous transformation, one that will not prepare its children to be the thinkers, inventors, and entrepreneurs of the 21st century. On its current course, Florida is developing a school system that will prepare young people for the repetitive factory jobs that left our shores long ago. And Florida will be a state that self-respecting teachers leave or shun.

Save public education before it's too late. Save it as an inheritance for future generations. The public schools can and must be far better than they are today. Every child should have a great education, one that includes the arts, science, foreign languages, history, geography, and much more.

Floridians must stop the mindless and destructive assault on the teaching profession.

Spend more on teaching, not more on testing. Make Florida a state that attracts teachers and businesses because of a great system of public education.

A standardized path to school ruin 06/11/11 [Last modified: Saturday, June 11, 2011 5:30am]
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