Disturbing Trend: Reformers as Compliance Police

By 11/05/2010

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Once upon a time, centrist school reform had a single, overriding theme: accountability for results. This was apparent in the standards movement, with its focus on delineating clear expectations for all students, the achievement of which was to be measured by rigorous tests and linked to real consequences for adults. And it was apparent in the charter school movement, with its famous trade-off between autonomy and accountability.

This obsession with results was juxtaposed against the then-dominant approach to school management and improvement: holding schools accountable for compliance with rules and regulations, and a never-ending demand for greater inputs of one sort or another.

But frustrated that top-down pressure for higher test scores hasn’t led to profound changes in our schools, and impatient with the plodding pace of improvement, many reformers have opted instead for a new motto: Push for change anywhere, anytime, anyhow—even if that means engaging in the same sort of regulating and rulemaking and program-creating and money-spending  that we once abhorred.

This shift is most visible in federal policy. As I wrote yesterday, for example, Race to the Top wasn’t satisfied with rewarding states that already had a track record of boosting student learning. Instead, it lavished money on those jurisdictions willing to pledge themselves to a set of prescriptive reforms that reflected the regnant progressive orthodoxy, circa 2009. Its focus was on rules, process, promises, and money.

But it’s not just in Washington where we see reformers gone wild. Take the issue of teacher evaluations, now all the rage. Advocates such as The New Teacher Project rightly point out that today’s evaluation systems are a total joke. Everyone gets a high rating, no real differentiation among teachers occurs, almost nobody gets rewarded for a job well-done, and even fewer teachers get the axe because of their performance. So, looking to make amends, reformers push for rigorous sheep-from-goats evaluation systems that take student learning into account.

So far so good. But here’s their mistake: they are doing this pushing primarily at the state level, even though states don’t employ teachers–districts do. Of course, the reformers understand this, and thus have started to worry about how to “implement” statewide teacher evaluation systems. How do you make sure that districts, and principals, actually use the new evaluation instruments that the state develops? That they truly differentiate among teachers, and take action accordingly? There’s only one way to be sure: we’d better have a strategy to enforce compliance.

This is hardly theoretical. Last month Tom Carroll, a leader of charter school efforts in Albany, New York, urged his colleagues to turn down Race to the Top money because it came with strings attached—requiring schools throughout the state, charter and district alike,  to use a prescriptive approach to teacher evaluations and performance pay. The State Education Department, he wrote, “simply has no authority to set thresholds for the use of data in teacher evaluations in charter schools. Nor do they have the authority to require us to group teachers by four categories, or require such annual evaluations to be ‘a significant factor’ for ‘promotion, retention, tenure determination and supplemental compensation.’” What if he wants to use five categories instead, Carroll asked me.  Should the state of New York really care?

So there you have it: results-based reform (charter schools) clashing with process-based reform (improved teacher evaluations). Which is it going to be?

A smart person once said that the true test of one’s character isn’t how one handles adversity, but how one handles power. The school reform movement performed magnificently when facing adversity. But now that it has power, is it going to stick to its focus on results, or is it going to become the compliance police instead? Hold on to power (for benign purposes, of course!) or give it away?

– Mike Petrilli

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  • Peter Huidekoper says:

    Mike-Excellent. Thanks for putting it so well. I tried to speak to this issue in a recent newsletter, “Questions from an Independent voter – for both parties.” Two paragraphs:

    A bigger question for both parties: How far does the state go in stepping into the day-to-day life of schools? Can efforts to improve accountability actually undermine another main goal many of us consider vital—reduced bureaucracy and increased autonomy at the school level? At what point does the urge to change and improve the system play into recreating the very kind of top-down, compliance-oriented system we have been trying to shake up these past two decades—with charter schools, innovation schools, alternative licensure, and the like?

    As one who did not see SB 191 as “no-brainer”—in part because it seems to establish state policy on the way schools develop a strong faculty (maybe it is best accomplished by careful hiring, not frequent evaluations; maybe it is done through a culture of peer support, not by visits from an administrator; maybe it is achieved by a greater commitment to mentor new teachers rather than to judge them)—I wonder if either party is clear that the end may not justify the means. Bills seeking greater accountability might perversely invite more outside control—thereby taking away with one hand what the other has been trying to offer: more freedom.

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