The achievement gap: whose problem is it?
On Monday night I went to see Boston College professor Henry Braun speak about the Value-Added Model for teachers (VAM) at Teachers College, right here in my hood (hat tip Sendhil Revuluri).
I wrote about VAM recently, and I’m not a fan, so I was excited for the event. Here’s the poster from Monday:
The room was not entirely filled with anti-VAM activists such as myself, even though it was an informed audience. In fact one of the people I found myself talking to before the talk started mentioned that he’d worked on Wall Street, where they “culled” 10% of the workforce regularly – during downsizing phases – and how fantastic it was, how it kept standards high.
I mentioned that the question is, who gets decide which 10% and why, and he responded that it was all about profit, naturally. Being an easily provoked person, I found myself saying, well right, that’s the definition of success for Wall Street, and we can see how that’s turned out for everyone. He stared blankly at me.
I told that story because it irks me, still, how utterly unscathed individuals feel, who were or are part of the Wall Street culture. They don’t see any lesson to learn from that whole mess.
But even more than that, the same mindset which served the country so poorly is now somehow being held up as a success story, and applied to other fields like public education.
That brings me to the talk itself. Professor Braun did a very good job of explaining the VAM, and the inconsistencies, and the smallish correlations and unaccountable black box nature of the test.
But he then did more: he drew up a (necessarily vague) picture of the entire process by which a teacher is “assessed,” of which VAM plays a varying role, and he asked some important questions: how does this process affect the teaching profession? Does the scrutiny of each teacher in this way make students learn more? Does it make bad teachers get better? Does it make good teachers stay in the profession?
Great questions, but he didn’t even stop there. He went on to point something out that I’d never directly considered. Namely, why do we think individual responsibility – i.e. finger pointing at individual teachers – is going to improve the overall system? Here he suggested that there’s been a huge split in the profession between those who want to improve educational systems and those who want to assess teachers (and think that will “close the achievement gap”). The people who want to improve education talk about increasing communication between teachers in a school or between schools in a district, and they talk about improving and strengthening communities and cultures of learning.
By contrast the “assess the teachers” crowd is convinced that holding teachers individually accountable for the achievement of their students is the only possible approach. Fuck the school culture, fuck communicating with other teachers in the school. Fuck differences in curriculum or having old books or not having enough books due to unequal funding.
It got me thinking, especially since I read that book last week, The New Prophets of Capitalism (review here). That book explained how hollow Oprah’s urging to live a perfect life is to people whose situations are beyond their control. The problem with Oprah’s reasoning is that it ignores real systemic problems and issues that radically affect certain parts of the population and make it much harder to take her advice. It’s context free in a world where context is more and more meaningful.
So, whose problem is the achievement gap? Is it owned in tiny pieces by every teacher who dares to enter the profession? Is it owned by schools or school systems? Or is it owned by all of us, by the country as a whole? And if it is, how are we going to start working together to solve it?