Academic Honesty in the Ed Reform Debate

It seems like I'll be writing a lot about Susan Moore Johnson this semester. Another reaction I had to my first class with her last Wednesday was to a simple, but well-worn statement she made.

"Teachers are the single most important school-based factor on student achievement as measured by standardized tests."

This sentence isn't particularly extraordinary, but I chose to highlight a few words that carry profound truths, often overlooked in our current conversation about education debate. I chose to emphasize them, because Susan Moore Johnson is someone who through her research and her associations could be considered pro-reform. And yet, as a professor she makes certain to make evidence-based claims in class. It's frustrating this honesty rarely carries over to the broader discourse on education reform.

Instead, what we're getting from both sides are abridgements and misinterpretations of the basic statement above, and many others. This isn't unique to the discussion of education reform obviously. Pundits and policymakers are always looking for the most effective way to make their argument, usually at the expense of nuance. However this dishonesty is having an impact that is both polarizing and counterproductive.

Take away those bold words and this is the statement we're left with: "Teachers are the single most important factor on student achievement." It's not just simplistic, it creates a false framework for fixing our schools. Instead of talking about all the factors that need to be addressed to improve educational equality - parenting, peer culture, community support, and yes, teachers - we've let the teachers become the sole focus of reform.

Admittedly, teachers are the "low hanging fruit" of reform. It's easier to "fix" teacher quality than poverty, which explains its appeal to reformers. As a teacher, the emphasis on the importance of teachers was empowering, in a way. Working in two schools that were sometimes frustrating work environments to put it mildly, I liked thinking I had control over what mattered most to my students' success. Other times though, the pressure to be great felt overwhelming. I'll admit I may have bought too heavily into the Superman myth, in the hopes I could close the achievement gap in a single year. But returning to the larger debate, the focus on teacher quality has allowed the debate to devolve into talk of "poverty deniers" and "status quo defenders". And those are the polite labels.

As I start my year in academia, the time to learn more about policy and reflect upon my own practice has been refreshing. Even more so, I appreciate that our discussion of American schools is bound by norms of honesty that seem missing in the larger debate.


Unknown said…
Love reading your musings Rubes
same said…
Thank you SO much for the work you are doing in getting involved. In my 12th year now at higher than 60% Title I schools--people like you keep me inspired and keep me going--like I really feel your support and I really feel like you're advocating for me. Thank you. After only one year of being involved in a field of strategies called "complex instruction" or "equity and access" based on the work of Liz Cohen, I have one year's data making me feel like superman is possible--I'll keep you posted if I can make it two. Thank you again, I would never in a million years want to do what you are doing, but I am so grateful and feel so valued that you are doing it. Thank you.

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