Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The other side of the ethical failures of the education reform movement

There's an old denominational joke that ends with the punchline "Just don't let them see you. They think they're the only ones up here."

As mentioned before, the culture of the education  reform movement is exceptionally strong and cultural identity plays a major role in the lives of movement reformers, particularly those associated with certain institutions like TFA and KIPP. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. There are a lot smart people out there working very hard to improve education because of those cultural forces. Unfortunately, these forces can also make the movement prone to blind spots, often including the belief that they're the only ones up here.

Here's a pertinent passage from Gary Rubinstein, himself a lapsed TFAer.
The KIPP high school has a large area in the middle with a lot of tables, almost like a coffee shop.  I went out to get lunch at the nearby Fairway and came back and sat at one of those tables to eat.  At the table next to me I overheard a discussion between a KIPP administrator and a teacher.  Most of the KIPP administrators, like this woman was, are young and white, as are most of the teachers.  This teacher was black and seemed to be in her late 40s.  The conference was related to some sort of recommendation letter, maybe for some academic program, that the older teacher was writing for one of her former students.  I’m not sure who initiated this discussion, but the administrator was explaining that the letter should be re-written.  The issue was that this teacher had been a bit too ‘honest’ in the letter and it would hurt the chances of this student getting into the program.  Now I’ve written many recommendation letters, and of course you want to put the student in the best possible light, so I’m not saying that the administrator was wrong in suggesting that this teacher change the letter.  I’m just writing about this since some of the things said in the discussion were revealing.

Apparently this student had a bad attitude and failed the course.  The teacher had written about this so the administrator explained to this teacher that, yes, the student had failed, but that a lot of students fail that course (I think it was Geometry).  Also, it was important that the teacher understand that getting a 60 in that course at the KIPP school was like getting a 90 in most other schools since, I guess she felt like she knew, the other neighborhood schools have extreme grade inflation.  The conference was resolved with the teacher agreeing to rewrite the letter keeping these things in mind.  I found it interesting that a lot of students fail this course since the media would have us believe that after being in KIPP from 5th grade to 11th grade, students there wouldn’t be failing that much.  Also, the assumption that the ‘other’ schools have such low expectations that a  90 there is like a 60 at KIPP, I don’t know if she how she can be so confident about that claim.
This anecdote is troubling on any number of levels, not the least of which is fact that KIPP 60  = Other school 90 is highly debatable (there are a lot of open questions about how to interpret KIPP's numbers but I doubt even the most favorable reading would support the assertion that a D- at KIPP was equivalent to an A- elsewhere), but even if we stipulate to that part, we are still left with all sorts of concerns.

This is, after all, a case of an administrator in a fairly public setting pressuring a teacher to give a student a more favorable evaluation. That's a dangerous line, particularly when you take into account the fact that getting more students accepted into prestigious programs generates good press for KIPP, helps the administrator's career track and may well figure into funding.

There's nothing new about incentives that encourage teachers to lower standards (or about having administrators play the devil on the shoulder), but the reform movement has greatly raised the stakes, More importantly, they've provided a belief system that make it easier to justify cutting corners and ignore conflicts of interest. Minor lies are OK in a recommendation letter because your students are held to higher standards; mass dumping of students is OK because the better your school does the more schools will adopt your superior model; cooking the books to make your flagship school look good is OK because there must be something wrong with a metric that makes the school look bad.

No comments:

Post a Comment