How the Ed-Reformers Blew It: Four Massive Screw-Ups

After arguing for decades that “schools should be run like businesses” Indiana’s education reformers simply swapped out one bureaucracy for a vastly more complex substitute.  They failed.  They blew it. Now, they’re getting you mad at me, so that you won’t turn your pitchforks on them.


It was the grand illusion.  The great promise, packaged as some sort of “educational New Deal.”  The argument, if you recall, went something like this:

    1. The tenure system has created soft, lazy, incompetent teachers.
    2. Removing the tenure system and replacing it with a pay-for-performance system will revolutionize schools across the state.
    3. Holding schools accountable for the quality of their teachers will improve schools as well.
    4. Students will thrive, and the achievement gap will shrink.

This Tuesday, when I join several thousand of my statewide colleagues in Indianapolis, I’m not going to be “taking a paid day off to complain about not getting paid enough,” as several radio pundits have been arguing.  Instead, I’m heading to the state capital to speak to the failure of the reformers.  Their plan didn’t work.  It totally and completely failed.  Let me repeat once more:  Zero. Actual. Reform. Took. Place.

The Perfect Storm of Timing

Decrying schools as dysfunctional examples of government inefficiency wasn’t a new argument.  As far back at the 80’s and 90’s business experts were touting the marvels of “Outcomes Based Education,” making the now-tired claim that market conditions would revolutionize the art of teaching a kid.  All these folks needed was a change in the political winds.

Then the property tax crisis blew up in 2006-07.  Then Obama won in 2008.  Then Obama signed the Affordable Care Act in 2010.  Had any one of those mitigating factors not played out when they did, we might be having a very different conversation about public education.  Fate had other plans, and by election day of that year, the cosmic tumblers handed the GOP their coveted landslide.


Screw Up #1: Rewarding the Wrong Result

When this started I was hopeful that real change would happen.  Some 12 or 13 years ago, I actually wanted a “pay for performance” universe.  At the time, I watched too many teachers (as a student and as a professional) go through the motions, swapping out the chance to develop interesting discussions and challenging writing assignments for silent textbook reading and “answer the questions at the end of the chapter.”  Drill and kill.  Drill and kill.  Keep the kids busy.  Run out the clock.

I thought we’d get a system that rewarded teachers for implementing good techniques.  For making classes engaging and making assignments daring and worthy of that now ugly word, “rigor.”

Instead of rewarding us for the programs we created and the lessons we delivered, the state focused on what kids cranked out.  The problems with this have been argued to the point of suffocation.  Instead of rewarding teachers for doing the things they can and should master, the reformers decided to focus on the audience.  It’s a good rubric for stand-up comedians and blockbuster film directors.  But punishing the educators because the students couldn’t be bothered with something as boring as studying or reading is hands-down the biggest delusion of the entire “reform” movement.

Once I realized that becoming a “highly effective” teacher meant I had to become a genius at manipulating data on Excel spreadsheets, I turned up my nose and waved off any interest.  I took great pride (GREAT pride) in scoring just enough on the rubric to be “effective” and only effective.  In fact, when my boss recently rated me “highly effective,” I winced.  Somehow, I had accidentally done an amazing job of data-based bullshitting.

Punishing the educators because the students couldn’t be bothered with something as boring as studying or reading is hands-down the biggest delusion of the entire “reform” movement.

Screw Up #2: No Money on the Table

Assuming the “reformers” were smart enough to know what skills to reward, the next logical step would have been to put HUGE piles of cash on the table.  I often joke* with my boss now and tell him that, for another $10K I will stay up until 2:00 AM every single night and make damn sure that every single paper is graded within the same week it’s turned in.  He laughs, but he gets my point.  There’s no money to fight for.

Instead, on good years the state doles out enough money that I can score an extra $250 bucks if I’m “highly effective” at the aforementioned art of vomiting numbers on that spreadsheet.  If I’m only “effective” however I get less.  Maybe $100 less.  Maybe $150.  It varies.  What doesn’t vary, however, is that none of it has anything to do with teaching well.  I didn’t become a teacher because I wanted to play Jordan Belfort with a boatload of worthless data.  This career was a calling for me, bordering on something almost divine.  All that empty work for $250…?  Pfffft… Forget it.

*I’m actually not joking at all.  I 100% mean this.  Grading one paper well takes 18-30 minutes.  Multiply that by my total number of students and I need something along the lines of an entire 40-hour workweek, just to grade papers.  It’s no wonder so many teachers settle for worksheets and easy-to-grade busywork.

Screw Up #3:  Trash-Talking the Profession

Radio hosts Rob Kendall and Abdul-Hakim Shabazz have been making a lot of hay for a long time, telling me and my statewide colleagues how we’ve ruined the world.  Now these two have been spouting off about the “selfishness” of Tuesday’s event, going as far as to argue that it’s going to “backfire.”

Which leaves me thinking: “Backfire, how?  In what way?” I’m pretty sure I can feel the bottom of this thing under my feet.  It’s exactly the bottom my older, wiser colleagues said we’d reach nine years ago when Mitch Daniels got this ball rolling.

After nine years of reform, no one wants to teach for a living.  Colleges can’t fill slots in their education programs.  My own English department in Greencastle has an empty room because we can’t find applicants for the job.  Last year, we let a young teacher go, assuming we’d replace her with some wunderkind daredevil.  One week before school started, that new hire bailed for another gig that paid more.  The grand “competition for talent” has turned into a desperate quest to find any adult with a pulse.

No money.  Insults from the media.  Badmouthing from the public.  Holding folks accountable for things they absolutely cannot control.  Backfire?  Whatever… Like anyone cares what Kendall and Shabazz think, anyway.

The grand “competition for talent” has turned into a desperate quest to find any adult with a pulse.

Screw Up #4:  Not Fixing the Real Problem

The sad part of this nine-year “wankathon” is that the real problems were never addressed.  As an English teacher, I still have 120-130 students each year.  I have to scale back the quality and “rigor” of the work I assign because there’s not enough time in the week to plan, teach, and grade.  My college professors had advanced degrees.  They taught half as many classes to a third as many students.  And they were better than my high school teachers.  There’s a reason for this—a systemic reason.  But the “reformers” couldn’t be bothered to turn that stone.

And yeah, I have my summers, and Christmas, and spring breaks.  So?  I’ll just tell all my seniors that I’m going to grade all their papers in the summer, after graduation, so that I can better use that time off and not be such a drain on society.

What Kendall and Shabazz and the entire “Nine-Year-Clown-Parade” want you to do is be so mad at me that you don’t notice that they are the ones who failed. There was no plan to fix anything.  The plan was always to keep the 7:00-to-3:00 meat-market grinding along.  If anything, the plan was to stuff even more meat into that supply line.  Overload it.  Wear it down. Trash it publicly.

The Accountability Fantasy

If all those reformers had stood behind what they said… If they would have let local administrators function like real bosses… If they would have put real money on the table…  I wouldn’t have feared that kind of reform.  It wouldn’t result in a dysfunctional kid from a dysfunctional family suddenly reading his homework, but it probably would have changed a lot of what was wrong in the average high school classroom.

We didn’t get that reform, however.  We didn’t get anything, in fact.  My students today aren’t demonstrably nor measurably different than the kids in my room 23 years ago.  And the percentage of my colleagues ranging from brilliant to dead weight…?  None of that has changed, either.  No changes.  No Reform.  Failure.

Meanwhile folks like Kendall and Shabazz and “Fred the Grumpy Barber” keep shouting the same, decade-old message: “It’s time for accountability.”

After nine years of failure on their part, I couldn’t agree more.

Wheeler proudly teaches AP Language to some bright and lovably obnoxious kids in a small college town. He also contributes to the craft beer website Indiana on Tap and writes for other publications. He started learning to play guitar last fall, but he remains terrible at it. [/author]

Photo Credit: Photo Courtesy of the Indiana State Teacher’s Association via the Red For Ed Action Day Facebook account.

Donovan Wheeler
Author: Donovan Wheeler

Wheeler proudly teaches English to a horde of bright and lovably obnoxious high school seniors in a small college town. He has written in the past for Indiana on Tap and STATE Magazine, and is an occasional contributor to NUVO, Indy's alternate news website. Since picking up the guitar three years, he can now play a dozens songs while singing them quite badly.

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