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Ed Reform’s Atari Problem

on Jan 4, 14 • by • with Comments

My cousin, John Michael, had the first Atari I ever saw. Not long after, my cousin Philip got one. I went to their houses every chance I got, and while I was there I hogged their video game machines as much as I could. I still remember the spongy feel and new plastic smell of [&hellip...
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My cousin, John Michael, had the first Atari I ever saw. Not long after, my cousin Philip got one. I went to their houses every chance I got, and while I was there I hogged their video game machines as much as I could.

I still remember the spongy feel and new plastic smell of the black joystick. The word joytick itself, as vintage as it seems today, was back then positively futuristic. We played the biggies: Space Invaders, Asteroids. I liked a game called Stampede and another game where you ran back and forth catching bombs in a bucket of water. Philip showed me Haunted House at some point. I thought it was a dazzling mystery. You had to navigate rooms in search of stuff, and you had to find that stuff in order to be able to find other stuff. Agatha Christie had nothing on that game. Once, I spent the night with a friend named Micah and he introduced me to Defender. This was a game I’d seen in the movie theater arcade, and here we were playing it on a little TV sitting in my buddy’s bedroom floor. These were incredible times for a fifth grader.

I thought I had seen the future. I thought Atari would take over the world, especially after John Michael asked me to come over and play a new game called Pitfall. It was a whole new experience: instead of Asteroid’s black background and two or three faded pastels coloring the ship and the hurtling space rocks, Pitfall had a blue sky, brown dirt, and bright green vines and alligators.

“These graphics are amazing,” I must have said. It would have probably been the first time I said it, but like all video game fans I would say it countless  more times during my youth, though not about Atari.

Atari was the fastest-growing US company in history. It was, that is, until “Atari Shock” hit in 1983. The unthinkable happened: the future that I had held in my hand, complete with its springy red button, died an inglorious death.

We kids wondered what happened to Atari when the console and its games disappeared from store shelves.

There were, I would discover years later from a documentary, many reasons for the abortive start to the home video game industry. Atari wouldn’t pay royalties or list credits, so its best programmers quit and founded Activision. Imitators followed, and Atari lost the ability to ensure game quality. The market became oversaturated with poor quality games and knockoffs of successful titles. Home computers hit the market in those days, too, compounding the other issues.

But the biggest problem was one facing my industry of education today: high-profile products were rushed to market and disappointed end users. Specifically, Atari rushed the development of Pac-Man and a game based on the hit movie E.T., hoping to have them in stores for the Christmas shopping season.

They met their deadline with inferior products, and word of mouth spread. Atari produced large numbers of each title in anticipation of brisk sales that never came. After the Pac-Man debacle, Atari’s CEO was let go. E.T. was in development for only six weeks and was panned by everyone with thumbs when it came out.

The home video game industry would come roaring back in the Nintendo era, but the lessons of Atari’s false start are instructive. They are especially instructive in today’s high-profile education-innovation industry, which is so keen on rushing untested ideas into practice that multiple people in multiple contexts have described their activities as akin to “building an airplane in the air.” (If that doesn’t instill confidence, I don’t know what will.) When one of the trademark analogies used to express foundational values of a movement is literally an impossibility of physics, stalwarts of said movement might want to specifically rethink their attitude toward the market.

Here are some examples of poor quality control in the industry, in case a single hackneyed saying isn’t enough evidence for you.

1. No Child Left Behind insisted on judging schools based on the absolute passing rates of students. Years later, it is fairly universally-admitted that schools serving large percentages of at-risk, impoverished, or special needs students should have been recognized for progress, as it was unlikely that they would ever meet the absolute passing rates easily attained by suburban schools that are often hubs of family stability and learner security. Educator protestions along these lines were quickly dismissed with the label of “soft bigotry of low expectations.” Suddenly the nation’s most egregious racists were inner city teachers being tsk-tsked for saying, “Hey, wait a minute. This isn’t fair.” Years later, the gripes of those teachers are commonly acknowledged as completely legit and progress measures are being built into next-generation accountability consoles (at least in my state). But has anyone ever admitted that what was derided as “soft bigotry” was actually sensible accommodation in the face of our nation’s long-standing and little-challenged inequities? The injustice of this boggles the fair mind.

2. Value-added measures have unapologetically rated teachers based on the test scores of students they never taught, in subjects they never taught. The thrill of ranking drives reformers so giddy (efficiency-drunk is the scientific term) that, when confronted with the inconvenient reality that half the teachers teach stuff that doesn’t have a state standardized test (like art, agriculture, business, or culinary arts, to name four examples), they felt justified in having those teachers simply pick a subject that was tested and then get stuck with those results as their personal “value-added” score. “How much value did you add this year?” you could ask these teachers. “Well, based primarily on the scores of students I never taught on a test over a subject I know nothing about, I added x amount of value this year,” they might reply. Bitterly. This is textbook. The title of the textbook is How You Create an Intense Opposition to Your Movement of Education Reform. These are the indiscriminate drone strikes that turn entire families against your imported governance. The injustice of this boggles the fair mind.

3. Common Core tests were unleashed on schools in certain states when large numbers of teachers were saying they hadn’t had time or sufficient professional development to get their students ready. Before the tests were given, leaders in multiple sites predicted 30% pass rates. This prediction would have been more impressive when it came true if these same leaders didn’t set passing scores after collecting the tests and finding out what percentage would pass given one cut score versus another, thereby allowing them to guarantee that 30% would pass. Meanwhile, the Godfather of Reform (Jeb Bush, not James Brown) spouted that he hoped the sure-to-come dismal results on Common Core tests would open the eyes of suburban parents to the crappiness of their by-all-appearances-successful public schools. “Don’t believe your lying eyes,” he may as well have said. “Believe these ‘objective scores’ that my friends and I play with behind closed doors.” One of those good friends, of course, insisted on secretly adjusting the A-F school grading scale in Indiana when a charter school owned by a campaign donor would have scored a C under the previously-established grading rules. (People pull this same sort of junk–changing the rules midseason to benefit a certain team–in fantasy football leagues and lose friendships over it.)

This same guy–defended as the ‘class act of the reform movement’ after the grade-changing incident–had repeatedly refused to make adjustments to the system when traditional schools’ leaders complained of problems with the accuracy of the grades. Is it any wonder, then, that reform critics are so fired up when confronted by reform’s perfect storm of incompetence, hubris, disdain, and tonedeafness? When teachers and school leaders have called for a moratorium on CCSS testing in order to give teachers and students a moment to learn them, ‘the fierce urgency of the now’ has shouted them down. These test scores needed to be released in time for the Christmas rush, when reform revelers line up to condemn public school teachers and need fresh ammunition. And again, when Diane Ravitch suggested piloting the standards before rolling them out wholesale to the entire nation and testing kids on them (and denying kids graduation based on them, and firing teachers based on them) she was dismissed as over-cautious. The product would be rolled out, asap. There would be no time for de-bugging, no matter the (human) consequence. The injustice of this, again, boggles the fair mind.

Ultimately, the free market school reform movement will be undone or perfected by the free market of ideas, whether its champions and CEOs like it or not. The consumer of reform will reject half-baked ideas and false gods of faux excellence (faux-cellence?). The final judgment may be delayed by political games and marketing, but it can’t be avoided. The education-like products peddled by think tanks may easily win over politicians, but the consumers (parents and teachers) won’t buy it unless it is good for the kids and the students and subjects they cherish. Word of mouth is tearing down the reform monolith at the local level even as I write, only the reformers can’t entertain the notion. They are ordering millions of units of their latest buggy brainchild, supremely confident that the moms of suburbia will buy it. And when the moms don’t buy it, the politicians will beat a hasty retreat and the reformers will flash their teeth and insult them as uneducated consumers on their way out the door of the market where their wares don’t move.

And school reform Atari will close up shop, to be replaced by the Nintendo of sensible, responsive, and collaborative education reform that admits it needs teacher and parent support, and can only get it by listening instead of lecturing. I predict that this–2014–is the year that reforms driven by teachers and parents take center stage, and reforms driven by hedge-funders and ex-governors finally get gonged.

The only real question I have is whether the top-down Common Core State Standards will survive their association with the hot mess that has been top-down test-and-punish reform. I sense either a restart wherein CCSS is visibly divorced from the larger reform movement and opened up to a messy democratic process of critiqueing-and-tweaking by educators and parents in each state–over the vigorous protestations of the in-control-crowd–or else it goes down with the ship.

Either way, the end of the story will be buy-in among end users. If the reform camp can’t get that, their competitors will.

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