Near the end of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson sought to reassure Americans that what was known at the time as “The Great War” was a just cause. In a speech to Congress, he outlined America’s war aims in “Fourteen Points” that were as broad as insuring freedom of navigation on international waters and fair trade, and as specific as redrawing the borders of several European nations and restoring their pre-war populations. French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, in one of history’s finer bon mots, quipped, “Fourteen points? Why, God Almighty has only Ten!”
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan goes Wilson one better. Five, actually. He has Nineteen Points. God has fallen nine back, well off the pace.
According to detailed guidelines being released today in Washington, states that hope for a piece of the $4.35 billion Race to the Top Fund will have to abide by 19 detailed criteria on academic standards, data-tracking, teacher recruitment and retention, and turning around low-performing schools. “You can’t pick or choose here,” Duncan tells USA Today.
EdWeek’s Michele McNeil notes the guidelines “send a strong message that any state hoping to land a grant must allow student test scores to be used in decisions about teacher compensation and evaluation.” While opposition to that will be summarily dismissed as the product of accountability-averse teachers unions, Dan Willingham has cogently described why this particular reform is not ready for prime time. Still, states like New York and California, which currently forbid by law using test data to evalute teachers will not be eligible for Race to the Top funds, as McNeil points out:
Being able to link teacher and student data is “absolutely fundamental—it’s a building block,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in an interview. “We believe great teachers matter tremendously. When you’re reluctant or scared to make that link, you do a grave disservice to the teaching profession and to our nation’s children.”
To be sure, there is much to like about this Ed Reform Early Christmas, and the sense of urgency is welcome and laudable. But let’s be clear, No Child Left Behind, however well-intentioned, did little to advance the idea that children benefit from a robust, well-rounded curriculum. It did much to advance the idea that children must be taught whatever might appear on a year-end test. If time was limited, anything that did not contribute to this near-term payoff was jettisoned. Thus, aggressive accountability measures actively worked against the patient, steady development of background knowledge that creates both well-educated children and, ultimately, higher test-scores. It beggars credulity to think that using data to hold individual teachers directly responsible for student gains will result in a sudden outbreak of big picture thinking in classrooms across the country.
The idea that reading comprehension is a function of background knowledge has not taken deep hold in America’s classrooms. And what teacher — especially the new, young and relatively inexperienced teachers who disproportionately fill struggling urban schools — will have the wherewithal to insist on the steady buildup of knowledge across the curriculum? Indeed, if we are to have 19 points, why not round up to 20 and insist that a Race to the Top cannot happen without attending to a well-rounded curriculum? Instead we are almost certain to have more — much more — of the deleterious effects of our data-driven, muscular accountability age: endless focus on reading strategies that have limited impact, mind-numbing test prep, and no attention to the essential long-range development of background knowledge that will make reading gains possible years down the road.
“Language comprehension is a slow-growing plant,” observes E.D. Hirsch. “Even with a coherent curriculum, the buildup of knowledge and vocabulary is a gradual, multiyear process that occurs at an almost imperceptible rate. The results show up later.”
This is clear, this is obvious, and this is certain. But there is simply no room for this kind of thinking in an accountability system that insists –for every good reason under the Sun–on results right now and encourages individual teachers to compete instead of cooperate.
Fast-forward. It is 2016. After a years of holding teachers accountable for short-term gains, and creating incentives that actively work against the buildup of knowledge, with disappointing results, we wake up and realize we are going about this the wrong way. A few look back and say we should have listened to our Cassandras. But other energetic, well-meaning reformers see it another way. Instead of realizing we have fatally neglected a robust curriculum, that we are reaping what we have sown, they will conclude that as a nation we simply have no good 8th grade reading teachers. Aggressive, immediate action is needed.
Because after all, the data doesn’t lie, does it?