Silicon Valley Wants to Hack Your Kid’s School

By Glen Martin

For some years now, Republicans have endeavored to “fix” American education by promoting charter schools, vouchers and merit-based raises. Progressives typically have decried these efforts, maintaining they come at the expense of public schools, particularly public schools that serve disadvantaged students. Variation in educational achievement, they claim, has more to do with student demographics, district funding and English proficiency than, say, the educational chops of individual teachers.

But it’s not just hidebound conservatives who support alt ed. The movement has garnered a starry-eyed following among elite technocrats, including Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, both nominal progressives who are pouring money into Common Core Standards, a concept originally floated by Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush but now derided by populist Republicans, who see it as government overreach.

“There’s widespread acknowledgement that you can’t institute a voucher system at scale without destroying public schools.”

Though separated by a vast gulf on most issues, then, the alt right and the technoscenti of Silicon Valley seem to share a similar contempt for public education. But is this semblance reality?  Only to a degree, says Jesse Rothstein, a professor of public policy and economics at Berkeley. For conservatives—that is to say, conservative Republicans—the main issue has been and remains vouchers. A number of socially conservative parents want them so they can withdraw their kids from public schools and send them to charter schools that conform to conservative principles. But the voucher movement has stalled, Rothstein says.

“I think there’s widespread acknowledgement that you can’t institute a voucher system at scale without destroying public schools,” says Rothstein. “So from a practical standpoint, Republicans are now largely absent from public education debate. In the last decade or so, the conversation has shifted to the right and left flanks of the Democratic Party.”

Some centrist Democrats—including many moneyed technocrats—promote charter schools, teacher evaluation and standardized testing, says Rothstein. More left-leaning Progressives maintain such policies highlight context more than true teaching efficacy; they insist that an undue emphasis on standardized testing scores distorts educational processes and ignores family backgrounds and poverty metrics.

“They feel that telling a teacher in a high-poverty school that [she or he] is failing isn’t particularly constructive and doesn’t help disadvantaged students address the problems they face,” Rothstein says.

Rothstein feels both sides make some legitimate points. Opponents to standardized testing, he says, are right in their assertions that much of the score variation in schools can be predicted by student demographics.

“It’s inadequate to say high expectations are sufficient,” says Rothstein, “but I have some sympathy for the reformers as well. You can’t just say it’s all due to poverty, and let it go at that. We need to identify specific ways to improve.”

Rothstein says there has been some coming together of the two sides in recent years, with a growing if grudging acknowledgement that teacher evaluations have been oversold. That’s because there is no deep pool of good teachers to draw on; simply put, the possibility of replacing a mediocre teacher with a stellar one is unlikely due to a dearth of stellar teachers. In fact, there is a dearth of teachers—period. National employment is at a near record high overall, but primary and secondary education remains a poorly paid vocation, as the recent teacher walk-outs in Oklahoma have demonstrated.  Qualified people aren’t flocking to the profession. This reality, says Rothstein, has tamped down reformers’ expectations to a significant degree.

As for charter schools, says Rothstein, statistics reveal that the average charter school is no better than the average public school. However, he adds, there is a subset of charter schools—the so-called “no excuses” schools—that do post disproportionately high student test scores. These schools focus almost exclusively on achieving high scores, typically through techniques similar to those in Asian “cram schools” where students are drilled relentlessly on passing tests.

But do high tests correlate with success later in life? Not necessarily, says Rothstein.

“We look at the Asian educational model, and say, ‘Oh, all this test cramming obviously has beneficial outcomes. Let’s do what they’re doing.’”

“Research indicates that students [who perform well on standardized testing] are perhaps more successful at getting into college, but it’s not clear if that leads to higher college graduation rates,” Rothstein says. “Career success is another benchmark, and we still don’t know yet if high scores correlate with that.”

Rothstein notes an irony in the fact that no excuses charter schools mimic the Asian educational model.

“We look at them, and say, ‘Oh, all this test cramming obviously has beneficial outcomes. Let’s do what they’re doing,’” Rothstein observes. “But increasingly, Asian educators are looking at western models where tests aren’t emphasized to the same degree, and they’re concluding that it leads to greater student creativity and a greater desire to learn. So in some cases, they’re adopting from us.”

Ultimately, though, two things not directly related to cramming may account for much of the success of no excuses charter schools: resources and student profiles.

“Typically, they tend to have more funding and fewer special needs kids,” says Rothstein. “So they have more money to devote to each student, and the types of students they typically have don’t require much in the way of special services or specialized curricula.”

So which way to go? Deadlock is likely to prevail for the foreseeable future. Republicans remain fixated on vouchers, says Rothstein, but again, progress on that front is unlikely. Meanwhile, Democrats are being pushed to the left on most issues, though it’s not completely unclear if that’s also the case with education. One thing is becoming clear, though: as with no excuses charter schools, high-poverty public schools can improve with a basic expedient, and that’s money. Not necessarily money for implementing rigorous means testing, but money for supplies, facilities, enrichment programs, and teacher and staff salaries, regardless of curricula and guiding pedagogic principles.

“Despite resistance to public spending [from the Right], there is growing evidence that increasing funding for high-poverty schools has beneficial effects,” Rothstein says.

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One point about the whole teacher-quality issue is that impoverished children are likely to have trauma-filled lives, and that means they’re likely to have very high needs, PTSD and health problems. So a high-poverty classroom is much more challenging to teach in than a classroom full of well-fed, privileged kids with comfortable homes and stable communities. My husband was an urban public school substitute teacher for five years. One day with one class he’d be a fantastic teacher with the students engaged and the class humming along. Another day with a different class he’d be a “failing teacher” struggling to control the students. So it’s really not simple at all — or fair or sound — to label teachers good or bad. When you understand that, you realize that the whole notion that “bad teachers” are the reason for struggling schools is out of touch and unjust.

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