Unexpected Change

Speaking of teacher evaluation (which I was in yesterday’s post), Jay Mathews has changed his mind about the use of standardized tests in that process.

I used to think student test score gains were a good way to rate teachers. I don’t think that any more. Grading individual teachers with scores is too approximate, too erratic and too destructive of the team spirit that makes great schools. Rating schools, rather than teachers, by test score gains is better, at least until we find a way to measure deeper indicators of learning.

My immediate response was, it’s about time. Teachers do not do great work in isolation. They have always had a support system of some kind and we should be evaluating and rewarding everyone as a team as well as individuals.

Anyway, so what changed the mind of Mathews? Well, he doesn’t make that completely clear in this column but it has something to do with his admiration for the teachers receiving the Agnes Meyer award, given annually by his employer, The Washington Post, to the teacher of the year in each of the DC area districts. Plus other teachers he has written about over the years.

Mathews goes on to note that the assessment system used in DC (and elsewhere) puts too much emphasis on student test schools, rarely mentioning the “creativity and vitality” of the teacher or schools, and making a “big deal” out of adhering to the rules. I actually agree with him that the teachers who do the best work for kids are usually the ones who are not afraid to challenge and break those rules when necessary.

While I’m not sure I subscribe to Mathews’ idea that we should go back to the “old fashioned” system in which teacher evaluation is based solely on principal observations, at least he’s headed in the right direction.

However, if Mathews would only change his mind and abandon the incredibly narrow and “too approximate, too erratic, and too destructive” system of evaluating the quality of high schools known as the “challenge” index (which, of course, is his invention and also ignores “creativity and vitality”), that would be very unexpected, and welcome, change.

Faulty Logic, and Downhill From There

Jay Mathews begins his recent Class Struggle post on school reform with a false premise.

Education reformers contradict themselves every day and don’t seem to know it. This includes President Obama, Mitt Romney and many mayors, scholars and activists who all say we need more charter schools, more systems that evaluate teachers based on student test scores and more merit pay.

Obama, Romney and others who are in that “mayors, scholars and activists” grouping (many of who Mathews praises) are not “reformers”. Not even close.

Evaluation systems based on standardized tests change nothing, and are instructionally regressive.

The charter concept had potential at one time but the reality is that all but a very few are little more than clones of traditional 20th century classrooms.

Merit pay is a idea that’s been tried and rejected more than once.

So why does Mathews say those so-called reformers contradict themselves?

Because charter schools don’t use the teacher assessment systems (based on standardized test scores) being advocated by his “reformers”.

An idea based on yet another false premise Mathews uses regularly: that charters know best.

But Don’t Blame The Index

Ok, I know I said I would quit my largely fruitless ranting about Post education columnist Jay Mathews’ “challenge” index but there’s too much irony in his latest defense of the list to let it pass.

In his blog Mathews responds to an email received from a local parent who is concerned about his child attending a local high school because of it’s low ranking in the index. Mathews starts by admitting “it was my fault” for the parent getting the wrong impression of the school, saying that it has “terrific teachers”.

But that contrition doesn’t last long as he quickly moves on to declare that the problem is not with the index. No way.

The school ranks low on his list because there are so many “challenging” high schools in our area. This particular one just looks bad by comparison to all the others. Not unlike a six year old Mercedes sitting next to a brand new luxury sedan*.

Mathews goes on to devote many more more words of praise for the school and in the process, completely misses the point, not to mention a heavy dose of irony in his justification.

As I and many others have pointed out, judging a high school by one, narrow, extremely simplistic criteria, one based only on how many students take a particular test, is wrong, misleading, and intellectually dishonest.

However, year after year, he and his high profile publisher (the Washington Post Company and their news syndicate) continue to promote this “challenge” index as a valid ranking of high school quality, one superior to all others. And year after year parents, students, school administrators, and the general public, fed by other media companies who reprint the list unquestioned, continue to believe it.

So, yes Jay, you are very much to blame for the confusion your correspondent has about the quality of the high school his child will be attending.

You should also take responsibility for misleading many other people when it comes to the many factors that contribute to a quality high school education, and that have nothing to do with AP.

* His analogy, not mine!

Good for Nothing

In his Class Struggle blog this week, Jay Mathews explains why Romney and Obama are “education twins”, noting that the “two major parties mostly agree on education policy”, something that goes back at least a generation.

Then he claims “this is good for schools”.

Both presidential candidates believe in bleeding off public money for less accountable charter schools of wildly uneven quality.

Both want to swamp students with even more standardized testing schemes and then tie those inaccurate assessments directly to teacher evaluation plans.

Each endorses the concept of merit pay for teachers (which even most businesses have found doesn’t work outside of their sales staff) instead of funding real professional improvement programs.

Neither seems to understand that we need fundamental changes to a basic classroom structure that’s been in place for more than a half century, along with an even more ancient curriculum.

And all that is “good for schools”.

It’s this kind of policy, based on a simplistic, nostalgic view of school and uniformly supported by most candidates, and then accepted with little or no analysis or questioning by most media outlets, that’s not good for anything, much less improving American education.

The Challenge, One Last Time

This week Jay Mathews once again unleashed on the world his annual ranking of the “top 9 percent” of American high schools in a list he calls the “challenge” index.

And once again I’ve been thinking of how to write about this far too high profile and extremely trivial approach to discussing school quality without repeating myself.

Looking over my past posts on the subject (really? that many?), I got nothin’ new.

Mathews thinks he has something novel by adding a “sampling of private schools as a way to compare private to public schools”, but, other than complaining about private schools hiding data from him, nothing about this tired exercise has changed.

His index is still based on computing a simplistic ratio of the number of AP and other college level tests taken at a school divided by the number of graduating seniors. Just ignore the number of students who actually pass those tests or any other factor of school quality you care to name.

In this week of challenge overload on his blog, Mathews also grumbles about similar competing “best high schools” lists published this month in Newsweek (former home of his index) and US News and World Report (are they still publishing on paper?), while still taking some credit for both.  But it doesn’t sound as either of the alternatives is any more substantive.

Ok, I’ve already given Mathews too many links concerning his overly-hyped ranking, both in this post and all the others.

I’m done.