Four years ago, I was in Colorado to discuss education policy. This was in the heady early days of Race to the Top (which Colorado did not win, despite its whole-hearted embrace of everything Arne Duncan wanted). On one occasion, I was scheduled to debate State Senator Michael Johnston, the darling of the “reform” crowd. Johnston had written a bill that was coming to a vote that very day. His bill made student test scores count for 50% of every educators’ evaluation. An effective evaluation, his bill decreed, required growth in student scores. Johnston called his bill something like “Great Schools, Great Educators.” Or something like that. Every bill these days must contain at least one impossible promise in its title.
As I said, we were supposed to debate in front of a packed room of civic leaders, maybe 80 or so people. I waited and waited. No Johnston. Finally, I got up and spoke my concerns in his absence. No sooner did I finish than the doors at the back of the room opened and out popped young Senator Johnston. I say young because he appeared to be about 25, though I think he was actually 32. He was then considered the leading voice of education reform in the Legislature, despite members who were retired and experienced educators. Senator Johnston had served two years in Teach for America, then was principal of a school for two years, then ran for state senate. And now he was rewriting the state’s education laws! Truly a whiz kid!
Since he did not hear me, he did not have to respond to anything I said. Instead, he spoke in glowing terms of his legislation. He had an almost mystical faith in the amazing results that would automatically materialize as soon as teachers and principals were evaluated by the academic growth of their students. He seemed to believe that the only source of low scores was the absence of incentives and sanctions for those unmotivated, possibly lazy educators. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to believe that he knew what he was talking about.
Now, we know it takes time to phase in new policies and practices. As Bill Gates famously said, “It will take a decade to know whether this stuff works.” What he meant by “this stuff,” I guess, is the idea that privatization and measuring teacher quality by student scores will make students better educated. My own view is that we should stop looking for the “secret sauce” because it is a chimera. Instead, we should do what we know works, which is reduced class sizes, early childhood education, family education, experienced teachers, healthy children, a full and rich curriculum, and the wraparound services that children need. But all that is complicated, not simple; our data-driven reformers like simple solutions, the bumper sticker ideas.
But surely we should see some positive movement in Colorado, don’t you think? And it should be cumulative, stronger every year as the “reforms” take hold.
The latest state scores from Colorado–which has been dominated by data-driven reformers for a decade– are unimpressive. Actually, the scores of third-graders, who have known nothing other than a testing culture, took a slight dip. In truth, they were flat.
Oh, well, maybe next year, we will see the miracle that Senator Johnston promised. Or the year after that.
Meanwhile Senator Johnston has been invited to be Alumni Commencement Speaker at Harvard Graduate School of Education, which has aroused some protest. This is allegedly a tribute to his great accomplishment in Colorado, where every year his promises grow more hollow. How many of the graduates at HGSE would want to work under Johnston’s law? Presumably, students at HGSE read research and know that VAM is Junk Science.