Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Legitimizing Education Reform

I've been thinking a lot about education reform and the Common Core lately.  I had a very interesting and enlightening conversation recently with someone who has some perspective from inside the system, and it's got me thinking.

So much of the debate about education reform is entirely unproductive.  Everyone has already decided what's right (themselves) and what's wrong (the other guy) and is simply shouting pre-canned arguments at the other side.  Okay, that state of affairs is not unique to education, but education is what I've been thinking about lately.

Maybe it's because I've got one kid who's out of public school and off at college, experiencing that very, very different environment.  Maybe it's because I've still got another kid in middle school who's dealing with common core math.  Since we need to help him with that math, I'm learning Common Core math, too.  And it seems strange to me.  Precise terminology.  Oddly specific phrasing.  But I'm starting to learn.

Anyway, I've been looking (as I'm prone to do) for the structural elements of the debate that, if repaired, could change the conversation for the productive.  I came across a discussion of the legitimacy (and effectiveness) of authority in Malcolm Gladwell's David and Goliath, and found that it clicked for me.  Specifically, it gave me some insight on why the rollout of the common core in NY has been so rough (at least in part):
This is called the "principle of legitimacy," and legitimacy is based on three things.  First of all, the people who are asked to obey authority have to feel like they have a voice -- that if they speak up, they will be heard.  Second, the law has to be predictable.  There has to be a reasonable expectation that the rules tomorrow are going to be roughly the same as the rules today.  And third, the authority has to be fair.  It can't treat one group differently from another. (ch 7 pp 207-208)
 What the state has done with respect to education reform in the past few years has violated all three of these things.

  1. When criticisms of reform, testing regimes, and new standards have voiced their objections, they have frequently been blown off.  They've been told that they're being obstructionist, that they don't want accountability, or whatever, rather than acknowledging the valid portions of their concerns and engaged to discuss.  The teachers, the parents, even the administrators feel like they don't have a voice.
  2. The rules are far from predictable.  The most egregious example of this is Cuomo's recent proposal to change the basis of teacher ratings based purely on the fact that the old system failed to flunk enough teachers.
  3. The lack of fairness is a bit more subtle.  If all teachers are subjected to the same APPR, then it's fair, right?  Unless in fact the assessment ratings are dependent on a lot of factors that very widely between schools and school districts.  If the results of the assessments were in fact dependent solely on a teachers ability and performance as a teacher, then they would be fair.  However, there are so many external factors (income/poverty being the big one, but far from the only one) that drive the results just as much that there is no way it can be fair unless you have formulae that are so complex and convoluted that nobody could understand them.
As a result of this, Cuomo's legitimacy is compromised.  And as Gladwell points out, "when the law is applied in the absence of legitimacy, it does not produce obedience.  It produces the opposite.  It leads to backlash" (p. 222) Unfortunately, Cuomo's reaction to having his authority challenged seems to be to double down and declare war on the teacher's union.  If he was handling things properly, the teachers could be his ally in this effort, rather than an enemy. To get there, he'd need to swallow some of his ego and make some concessions.  He'd need to actually listen to people's concern.  He'd need to stop changing the rules of engagement capriciously.  And he'd need to open up discussion of the deeply flawed funding model that plagues public education in this state.

With that, and with a corresponding willingness on the part of teachers, parents, and districts to accept standards and accountability, we might start having a productive (if still difficult) conversation.