Yo Teach…! Or how to avoid teaching like Jason

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Sep 08 2012

Into the Belly of the Beast

In my very short life as an educational thinker and teacher, I have had just about every view on education reform. As a freshman in college, I immersed myself in Marxist critiques in our public school system, believing that NCLB was the culmination of a capitalist takeover of our schools to proletarianize students, prepping them for low-skill jobs. It’s certainly a romantic argument, but a year of actually reading Marx, as well as foundational economic thinkers (Smith, Ricardo, Schumpeter, and Hayek) was enough to make me skeptical of a Marxist view of politics, that extended to my view on education. I still saw NCLB as a case study of unintended consequences in badly thought out policy, but I now saw the market as a potential solution to this problem: the government has failed for a century to reform our schools, why haven’t we tried giving the market a shot, just like we have so successfully in almost all other sectors of the economy?


That led me to the most important book I’ve ever read in the development of my thoughts about schools, Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, which makes an incredibly thorough case for an egalitarian-ish (no students can be charged more than a voucher but schools can select students and profit) voucher system. Their arguments were primarily institutional, founded upon the bad incentives that stem from democratic control of organizations, but also rested on the inability for the government or a test to adeptly measure the quality of education a child receives. Their argument certainly explained the failures of NCLB. I was intrigued, and traveled to Sweden, a country that implemented a very similar system universally in the early 1990s to write my thesis on how well this experiment turned out. I was expecting they would be vindicated.


Alas, this was not the case. After digesting my interviews, I realized how just like with democratic control, a market-based system produced incentives for teachers, principals, and school leaders that were not in the best interests of children. I was vindicated midway through when PISA released its newest batch of results and Sweden’s scores had tanked in both quality and equality. Yet, I could not jump in with those against school choice, mainly because I found their arguments to be intellectually hollow. They termed NCLB, teacher evaluation and Obama’s race to the top as “neoliberal”, citing Milton Friedman, when Friedman’s neoliberalism argues for school choice as a way to stop federal over-reach in our schools. I was convinced the market was not a panacea, and would likely have an overall negative effect, but that, unlike most reform critiques, left me believing that a smarter government role was the only way to improve schools.


My point is twofold. First, I love being proven wrong by a book, a series of interviews, or a good argument. It’s happened several times to me now, and I am continually looking for experiences that will do this (this is why I write). Second, I have fallen as a cautious and passive advocate for marginal (relatively costless) reforms (improved standards, better assessments that measure growth, better teacher evaluation systems, better teacher training, etc.) since costly fundamental reforms are not politically feasible at the moment. Yet, I also realize how difficult it is to design education policy so that schools are not at times incentivized to do detrimental things for students. The most obvious and pernicious example of this is “teaching to the test.” This will happen in some schools as long as we use standardized assessments to measure school performance, even if these tests are improved to consider growth over proficiency and to test skills that are higher on the Bloom’s scale as well.


For this reason, I am excited that this year I will be venturing into the belly of the beast, or rather, a privately managed charter school that lives and breathes by its scores on the MEAP, and has turned off many teachers because of its rigid control of what they do, forcing them to be in constant test-prep mode. As a TFA corps member I did not choose this school, and I am certainly not excited because I think it is a model to spread. In fact, I think this school may represent the nightmare of most education policymakers, since it will do whatever it takes to make gains on a mediocre standardized test. Instead, I think this experience will challenge my optimism about the role government can have in education, and provide me with yet another opportunity to have my mind changed. To help with this process, I thought of a natural experiment. If at the end of this year, I find that

  1. I was able to honestly say that my students grew in a meaningful way and the data the school gathered generally reflected that growth


  1. Such a school culture, with all its flaws, was in some ways useful in helping my students succeed

Then I will continue to be a cautious supporter of Duncanian optimism about smart government involvement that incentivizes, supports, and measures school quality. However, if either of those things is not true, if I cannot succeed, if I find that their conception of my classroom was flawed, or if I find that regardless of my success, the testing-oriented school culture inhibited my teaching in almost all ways, then I will leave it on reformers to prove me wrong. If anyone has suggestions about other ways to think about this year, I’d love to hear them. In general, I will try to write about this about once a month. I will not talk much about my classroom; mainly for fear that loathing criticism will send me on a neurotic and insecure spiral into pedagogical nihilism. That said, I assume it will inevitably come up because this discussion will be about the conflict between teacher autonomy and accountability.  Please be nice!


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