By coincidence, I read Joel Klein’s long article on ‘enduring obstacles to school reform’ in this month’s Atlantic last night. After 8 pages, I still couldn’t tell you anything more about the situation than Unions Bad, Noble Administration Good – he quotes almost no data, nor does he allow any input from students or (heaven forbid) teachers into the piece, only a series of maddening anecdotes about the machinations of Randi Weingarten and her colleagues. This is rather ironic given his broader theme of accountability and the lack thereof in the school system.
Given the stakes, the onus is on the reformers to provide proof that what they’re offering is the best approach, and so far it hasn’t been there. If anything, there is mounting evidence that standardized testing is exactly the wrong solution to a very important problem, though you wouldn’t know that from Klein’s article. To take the most glaring example, Klein mentioned Michelle Rhee’s restructuring of compensation in the D.C. school system twice in the article without ever acknowledging the recent revelations about the fabricated test scores that were used as the basis for that restructuring. The widespread nature of these fabrications – which by their nature only become apparent after the fact, as happened with the “Texas miracle” used to sell No Child Left Behind – hasn’t stopped the push toward more testing, even though the incentives point so clearly toward cheating (as proven quite elegantly by Steven Levitt of Freakonomics fame and his colleague Brian Jacob in a fascinating study of the Chicago school system). And as for Klein’s assertion that monetary incentives are the best incentive for improving test scores, I would note that a recent study by the Rand Corporation found no evidence for this. Not that you hear this mentioned.
Where I think Klein is on more solid ground is his push for higher teacher salaries. It’s hard to argue with the logic that higher pay will draw more qualified candidates (or induce self-selection in keeping with the Roy model, whatever terminology you prefer). But it’s also hard to take his push for higher pay on its own merits when he couches it in a tradeoff of eliminating the defined benefit pension in order to get the higher pay, though that is slipped into the article about two thirds of the way in as something he ‘simply’ proposed.
Healer, heal thyself. When I start seeing accountability and rigorous proof from the people pushing testing, I will take it more seriously. Until then it just looks like more union and pension busting.