How Good Intentions Turn Into Bad Ed Policy

/ 10 February 2014 / eunice

Michael Diedrich, Minnesota 2020, February 10, 2014 – Tennessee, one of the leading states for the testing-and-competition model of education reform, is conceding that at least one of its policies went too far. At the same time, outside groups including Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst are pouring thousands of dollars into state elections to create a voucher system. It’s a cautionary tale for those worried about that particular brand of reform gaining too much momentum.

Let’s first recognize that, for many advocates, the policies come from a place of good intentions. What started with a focus on student outcomes and equity, however, turned into a state policy that threatened teachers’ licenses if their test scores didn’t come out right. The policy failed to grapple with the instability of those scores, the perverse incentives that come with such a policy, and the existence of teachers (including those of gifted students) whose work is not captured by any test-based “value-added” calculation.

The end result was a recent decision by the state board of education to strike the provision that would link teachers’ permission to teach in Tennessee to those simplistic calculations. It’s a case of a reasonable idea — “Students’ learning deserves more consideration in our assessment of schools and education policy” — being turned into a nonsensical policy.

Unfortunately, this sort of momentum, once started, is tough to stop. An echo chamber has been built to reinforce exactly the sort of decision Tennessee now regrets. For example, the National Council on Teacher Quality (a nonprofit advocacy group) gave Tennessee a B- on its recent report card evaluating states for compliance with NCTQ’s preferred policies. (Minnesota got a C-, tying Alabama and right behind Mississippi.) Tennessee’s grade put it in company with other favorite states like Louisiana and Florida, who were also the top scorers on StudentsFirst’s recent report card. (Minnesota got a D on that one.)

Speaking of StudentsFirst, they’ve already dumped thousands of dollars into pro-voucher candidates’ races for 2014, after putting over half a million dollars into 2012’s races. StudentsFirst is run by ex-chancellor of D.C. schools Michelle Rhee, who was a recent keynote for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce’s Education Summit.

There is a clear network of money and advocacy energy that has built up around this particular set of testing-and-competition policies. Once the momentum gets rolling, it can lead people with good intentions to make bad decisions. We need to make sure we don’t make Tennessee’s mistakes.