Data Driven Education is Not The Answer [Opinion]

Studies similar to the district's new teacher and principal observation rubric have been widely criticized and discredited as ideologically driven.


Brian Ford for is a history teacher at Montclair High School and a educational doctoral student at Montclair State University, educational doctoral student at Montclair State University, and co-founder of New Jersey Teacher Activist Group.

Revolutions are rarely, if ever, sudden. They are a final breaking point – the product of collective acts of resistance over a period of time. When we teach our own American Revolution, it is important to reinforce to students that Lexington and Concord and the Declaration of Independence were the culmination of thirteen years of colonial resistance – sometimes highly organized, sometimes spontaneous, and inclusive of far more events than what makes it into textbooks.

When it comes time to write the history of resistance to the so-called education “reform” movement, we will also tell the story of a gradual collection of acts – some individual and anonymous, some concerted and highly visible – that reversed an assault on public education that is morally bankrupt, ideologically driven, and flat out factually wrong.

The “reformers” obsession with standardization and quantification will be seen for what it is: an educational paradigm of school-as-workforce-preparation aligned with the needs of the American capitalist class rather than with our students' needs as human beings.

Wednesday was a national day of action in solidarity with the brave teachers in Seattle’s Garfield High School, who are refusing to administer the state standardized test for ninth graders, the Measure of Academic Progress (MAP). The teachers correctly critique the test as a waste of time and money, bad for students, a questionable measure of learning, and yet another attempt to match teacher evaluation to the junk science of “value added modeling” (VAM).

The Garfield resistance is the latest chapter in the nascent revolution against the so-called education “reform” movement.

While there is no neat starting point to this revolution, it has certainly accelerated in the last two years.In early 2011, education workers in Wisconsin were among the most vocal and visible members of the uprising against Governor Scott Walker's attempt to undermine organized labor in that state (as they were in similar situations in states like Ohio and Michigan).

That summer, the national Save Our Schools March and Rally united thousands of education workers, former educators, activists, families,and allies from around the country. The SOS organization still thrives today as one of the few national organs of resistance.

When the Occupy movement was most visible, education workers participated in various actions as they spread awareness of the connections between the so-called education “reform”movement and the neo-liberal economic assault on the 99%.

As the 2012-2013 school year began, the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike not just because of workers' issues such as faulty evaluations and unfair layoff procedures, but mostly because the school system, which they have accused of educational apartheid, was not implementing policies that would create the schools Chicago students deserve.

While their strike did not solve those problems overnight, it raised critical awareness of issues facing many urban schools, and reinforced the truth thatteachers' working conditions are students' learning conditions.

A few months ago, the Newark Teachers Union, amidst opposition from many rank-and-filers, had to resort to lies and scare tactics to secure a “yes” vote on the first contract in New Jersey to include merit pay, one of many “reforms” wholly discredited by research.

All this, of course, is in addition to the longstanding work of organizations like Rethinking Schools, the Education Law Center, Fair Test, and various groups of educators and community allies in cities like Oakland, Boston, and New York City.

A popular critique of this resistance used by so-called “reformers” is that it is a defense of the status quo. Nothing could be further from the truth. The money and power are behind the reformers, not the resistance, so the alternatives we dissidents propose do not get the visibility those the “reformers” propose receive.

Additionally, the resistance movement disagrees fundamentally on what the problems facing public schools really are (e.g. inequity and systemic racism vs. individualistic notions of students not prepared to compete for jobs). So while it is important to forward an alternative vision, it is first important to critique the opposition, especially since they hold sway with policymakers and much of public opinion.

The popular paradigm of “college and career readiness” may seem innocuous and apolitical, but it is in fact a framework for education as simply labor force preparation. This model conveniently abandons necessary (but difficult and expensive) comprehensive social policy and attempts to boil teaching and learning down to an easily measurable input-output process. Individualism and competition are reinforced over citizenship and the common good.

But worst of all, even if we accept this vision of public school, the “reforms” being used do not even succeed at doing what they purport to do. The cult of “data” twists good pieces of research and produces misleading ones.

As economic journalist Doug Henwood stated, “For a bunch of business-supported technocrats supposedly in love with metrics, there's absolutely no empirical support for their ambitions. You might suspect that their real aim is to bust teachers unions and save money educating a population that elites have lost interest in.”

A legion of research reports, journal articles, and entire books have been written refuting the assertions and policies of the “reform” movement, and the issue is very complex. Perhaps the best element of the “reform” agenda to discuss here, especially in light of the brave resistance of Garfield teachers, is the increase in standardized testing, since that is the engine that drives so much of the rest – student outcomes, school ratings and punishments like closings and charterization, and teacher evaluations –and since it embodies the obsession with measurement, quantification, positivism, and linearality.

These are the realities of high-stakes testing:

  • Standardized tests are often culturally and linguistically bias and disproportionately punish low-income students, English Language Learners (ELLs), and special education students.
  • Standardized tests can be poor, invalid measures of student learning and ability.
  • Standardized tests lead to a narrowing of the curriculum, “teaching to the test,” less focus on critical thinking and problem solving, and the marginalizing of untested subjects.
  • Standardized tests waste instructional time, threaten the arts and even recess, and are often expensive to administer.
  • Standardized tests become sorting and stratifying mechanisms, and some students wind up with more of the same (test prep and rigid regulations), while high-scoring schools in affluent areas maintain a more varied curriculum.
  • Standardized tests and VAM are very poor indicators of teacher effectiveness.

Let's briefly examine one local example. The Montclair school district just approved a new teacher and principal observation rubric. In doing so, it cited the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) studies as providing “decisive data.”

These studies have been widely criticized and discredited as ideologically driven, reifiying what Bill Gates wants to see, and woefully flawed and misleading, most recently by the Shanker Institute and the National Education Policy Center.

What is worse is that New Jersey Department of Education intends to take VAM one step further by using an even worse predictor of teacher effectiveness, Student Growth Percentiles (SGPs).

While the vast preponderance of research shows VAM is, at best, a statistical measure with huge margins of error and therefore only useful as part of identifying the very worst and very best teachers – the teachers at either far end of the spectrum – SGPs are such a worse indicator of teacher effectiveness, that no credible education researcher will study them.

Here is some perspective. The American Institutes of Research issued this tepid warning on VAM:“We cannot at this time encourage anyone to use VAM in a high stakes endeavor.

If one has to use VAM, then we suggest a two-step process to initially use statistical models to identify outliers (e.g.,low-performing teachers) and then to verify these results with additional data.

Using independent information that can confirm or disconfirm is helpful in many contexts,” while the very inventor of SGP, Damian Betebenner, as reported on the Jersey Jazzman blog, “has said explicitly that SGPs do not attempt to find teacher effect (or any other cause) for variations in student test scores. In other words, they are the wrong instruments to use when attempting to infer a teacher's 'value.'”

The “reformers” are wrong. They are ideologically wrong. Even if we accept their ideology, they are factually wrong about their own assertions. They are wrong for our schools, our education workers, our communities and taxpayers, and for our students. The teachers of Garfield High School have taken a brave stand against the testing juggernaut. May it be the first of many.

For information on legally opting students out of of high-stakes standardized tests, go to www.unitedoptout.com.

Brian Ford's views and opinions do not reflect the position of the institutions with which he is affiliated. 

esther February 08, 2013 at 03:31 AM
Of course Mr. Ford's opinions "do not reflect the position of the institutions with which he is affiliated". The school board in Montclair is a mayor appointed puppet system full of people who have never set foot in any classroom or school save for their own education or to meet with their children's teachers. They have no idea the high quality, hard working, dedicated professionals who deal with old schools, outdated computers, large and still climbing teacher/student ratios, outdated texts, poorly equipped science labs, low moral, battles for material, and truly the list goes on and on. They are so out of touch with what is really happening in the schools as to be laughable. Norway has one of the strongest, most enlightened, highly effective, modern education programs in the civilized world. They waste zero money on standardized testing unlike New Jersey who has spent millions writing and rewriting standardized tests, core curriculum standards just to name two money pits. There is nothing spectacular about the Marshall Plan. It is another example of Montclair trying to beat their breasts with the newest, most wonderful plan when in reality it is burdensome, untried and untested, and will have administrators trying to complete hundreds of observations a year. Who will suffer the students and the teachers when the only thing the administrators have time to do is run from class to class trying to fill out multiple pages of rubrics. Makes no sense to this resident.
tryintosurvive February 08, 2013 at 01:13 PM
The new superintendent seems experienced, smart and willing to listen. I would think that the first step of advocating a new approach would be to discuss it with her.
I'd-Rather-Be-at-63 February 08, 2013 at 01:15 PM
Brian Ford and esther have said it correctly. The approval by the Montclair Board of Education of The Marshall Plan without any serious research, evaluation, and pilot testing shows the very real lack of understanding by the BoE members of what education is about and what Montclair schools need. Combine this with their failure to disclose the costs of this Marshall Plan to the residents and the worries increase. Montclair needs a Board of Education that understands how education really works and does not continue to increase the town's debt with irresponsible decision-making.
I'd-Rather-Be-at-63 February 08, 2013 at 01:19 PM
trintosurvive, one would think it is the responsibility of the new superintendent to discuss her ideas with the parents and residents prior to reckless implementation. It is disingenuous to suggest the onus or the blame goes in the other direction.
tryintosurvive February 08, 2013 at 01:32 PM
I thought that I saw Dr McCormack holding a number of meeting and discussions to discuss her ideas.
I'd-Rather-Be-at-63 February 08, 2013 at 01:45 PM
tryintosurvive Aside from the District Advisory Evaluation Committee meetings, that included only one parent, perhaps inform us of the dates and locations of the meetings where Penny McCormack discussed The Marshall Plan with parents and residents.
Concerned neighbor February 08, 2013 at 01:50 PM
After spending 13 years in Florida raising boys in a school system that lives by standardized testing (FCAT - certainly known as a foul four letter word) I can agree with the points Mr. Ford lists above. However, I would add another important one - teaching to the test, year after year of a child's educational life, zaps the fun right out of learning - yes for the teacher but more importantly for the child. Education is about growing and expanding horizons. It's about being exposed to new experiences that excite you - teaching to the test does not provide this. My son is currently in Mr. Ford's history class and while I don't know him - judging by how my son talks about histroy this year - he provides a new perspective, excitement, creativitity and yes, a lot of learning. Kudos to you Mr. Ford! As a parent, a fellow educator and a "revolutionary" I'd like to get involved in making a difference. I'm sure others too are interested - share with us how we can best participate.
tryintosurvive February 08, 2013 at 02:03 PM
I am not sure I get understand. If NJ is doing so well in comparion to the other states (number 3 or 5 depending on the poll), then why is the path that we are on with education so wrong?
I'd-Rather-Be-at-63 February 08, 2013 at 02:31 PM
tryintosurvive What has the overall status of NJ schools have to do with the article or the discussion? Montclair ranks #99 among NJ schools. There is a legitimate concern among parents and residents about the path our schools are being led down. Our town also has a serious debt issue because of this education path the BoE and Superintendent McCormack are traveling without the proper professional or parent/residents advice and interaction. Perhaps read the article here to understand where your praise of national rankings and personalities simply misses what is at stake in a good education.
MontTaxslayer February 08, 2013 at 03:10 PM
It would appear to me that Mr Ford represents one extreme (no testing, no accountability) whereas Dr. McCormick represents the other extreme (Broad Academy business model of running schools). Why must it be one or the other? How about splitting the difference? Most of my time in the district as a parent was when Dr. Osnato was here and I think the district, for different reasons, has been on a downward slide since then. Much of this is required by the State and Feds.
tryintosurvive February 08, 2013 at 03:30 PM
I'd Rather - I think that it is incorrect to say "Montclair ranks #99 among NJ schools". Montclair high school ranks there according to NJ Monthly and their methodology. I believe this number has been fairly consistent, at least for the last 10 years. It has not gone up or down much. There are many parents and educators who will argue that this ranking is meaningless. That ranking also says nothing about out grammar and middle schools. My children have gotten a fine education there. I don't see why a major overhaul is needed.
I'd-Rather-Be-at-63 February 08, 2013 at 03:34 PM
MontTaxslayer, in all fairness to the article above and its author, Mr. Ford, there is not a suggestion that there should be no testing or accountability. What Mr. Ford is asking for is reliable and meaningful testing that contributes to a child's education. The state and federal requirements can be met in ways that benefit students and their experience in the classroom. Indeed, quite contrary to your parenthetical comment, Mr. Ford seems to be the strongest advocate of scientific and social accountability for improving education in Montclair. The decline in Montclair's education you indicate has come under a "business model of running schools" that does leave out competent leadership as well as accountability to parents and residents. It also misses financial accountability.
John Carol February 08, 2013 at 06:12 PM
Financial accountability? Have you seen the BOE budget the past four years? Flat-Flat-Negative-Flat or something similar. The Township is the real heavy spenders. Liars figure, but figures do not lie!
I'd-Rather-Be-at-63 February 08, 2013 at 06:22 PM
John Carol, it may be stretching the truth to say that "figures do not lie," but that aside here are the figures: Montclair's debt: $212 million = - $92.8 million in school debt - $38.1 million in utility debt - $80.9 million in township debt Indeed, until the Town Council and the Board of Education present their full balance sheets, it would be presumptuous to say "figures do not lie."
tryintosurvive February 08, 2013 at 06:31 PM
The BOE budget is twice the budget for the rest of the Township. They have done a reasonably good job of staying within or under their very large budget(100+ million). The town leaders, at least under the prior town council, did a very poor job of managing the rest of the town's finances. They spent everything that the BOE saved. The new council at least seems to be aware of financial issues and is looking for ways to save money. Montclairs taxes are much much higher than most towns in NJ. I think we are a long way off from that ever changing.
esther February 09, 2013 at 01:44 AM
I believe Dr. MacCormack was involved in the decision-making.
esther February 09, 2013 at 01:56 AM
It seems to me that MHS and the other schools in the district are all obsessed with passing the standardized testing, having all the classes across the board on the same page every day in every subject. Where have all the teachable moments gone, those joyful times when students get the "aha" and race home to tell about their day. I for miss that- are we hiring robots? or human beings? Montclair had excellent schools and were praised for their individuality. If the same things are going to happen every day in every room across the district and there is not individuality or personality I could have and I guess should have moved to some other district. It used to be different here.
esther February 09, 2013 at 02:00 AM
And yet the roads don't get plowed or salted or sanded or trees removed quickly after a storm. Why does everyone pick on the schools? Are they easy targets? The schools here are our strongest assets- tied to the value of our homes. Wake up! Remember location, location, location. And while the taxes are high no one made you live here.
Brian Ford February 09, 2013 at 03:58 AM
as tempted as I am, i'm not going to chime in on the discussion. i've made my statement. I want to respond to "concerned neighbor" about some ways to plug in... You can always contact appropriate legislators/officials, but as far as parent/family-centered groups, here's a good start: click on the link at the bottom of my piece, UOO does great work...there is a local org SOSNJ (different from the NJ chapter of SOS movement) http://www.saveourschoolsnj.org ... also Parents Across America http://parentsacrossamerica.org/ ... here's a story on Niagara, NY PTA passing resolution agst. testing/new evals: http://dianeravitch.net/2012/10/04/hooray-for-the-niagara-pta/ ...statewide education organizing committee (SEOC) is mainly in urban areas http://www.seocnj.org/ ... i have a specific idea or two about montclair - get in touch with me and maybe we can discuss that
esther February 12, 2013 at 01:41 AM
in reading your comment again I do not think Mr. Ford represents the position of no testing. I didn't get that idea at all reading his opinion. While I do think that Dr. McCormick has jumped in without finding out how things worked in the past. She seems to have thrown the baby out with the bath water. It's not necessary to change everything all at once- even scientists change one variable at a time when making changes- I think that would have been a better way. How did Montclair get to be one of the top districts if everything that has been done in the past was wrong.


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