I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Friday, August 1, 2014

Campbell Brown: Lame

I can only hope that Campbell Brown's appearance last night on The Colbert Report is typical of what she is going to bring to the debate over school workplace protections. Because if this is the best the anti-tenure side can muster, we teachers will easily win the debate -- provided we ever get a chance to participate.

Dear lord, that's a heaping helping of word salad; it's almost worthy of Sarah Palin. And the illogic and ignorance found in Brown's arguments is everything we've come to expect from the reformy side:

- Let's start with her detractors: apparently, some folks showed up to protest outside the show, which Campbell says they have the right to do. Except she also says what they're really doing is silencing debate, which I guess is what happens when someone opposes Campbell's point of view. So yes, let's have a debate, except let's not...

Ooo, is that scary! I mean, look at these thugs, what with their magic-markered poster boards and their peaceful milling around on the sidewalk! No wonder Campbell won't say who is financing her operation -- clearly, these parents who are "trying to silence debate" are "going to go after people who are funding this"! And by "go after," I guess Brown means "hold up hand-made signs"!

Clearly, we must protect Brown's plutocratic backers from this danger at all costs -- including any normal standards of transparency.

This also explains why Brown must raise funds to pay off a high-priced PR firm with ties to the Obama administration. I mean, when 20 people can show up at one of your many media appearances and do this:

The only course of action available to a celebrity like Campbell Brown is to launch an expensive media blitz that will put oodles of money into the pockets of well-connected political consultants.

After all, it's for the kids...

- All that said, who funds Campbell is ultimately not as important as the coherence of her arguments. Give Colbert credit for starting this interview by pointing out the sheer absurdity of going after the job protections of middle-class workers who even Brown admits are underpaid. Like so many reformy pundits, she really, really wants to pay teachers more... she just won't say how much, where we'll get the money, or how to distribute it fairly. Pesky details...

- "91 percent of teachers around the state of New York are rated either effective or highly effective, and yet 31 percent of our kids are reading, writing or doing math at grade level." What Brown neglects to mention, of course, is that New York's test scores plummeted this past year when the state changed to Common Core-aligned tests. Everyone who knows anything about testing knows that New York has been monkeying with the passing rates for years, as cut scores shift for reasons having nothing to do with actual changes in student achievement.

The only test that comes close to giving us a consist year-to-year comparison of how New York students are faring is the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). In 2013, 76 percent of New York's 8th grade students were at basic or above in reading; 70 percent were basic or above in math. As Diane Ravitch has explained, "basic" is like getting a B or a C: students can do better, but are certainly not in crisis.

"Grade-level" work is, of course, a social construct: the meaning can change depending on the point of view of society at any given moment. Campbell Brown wants to paint a picture of crisis so she can take away teacher workplace protections, but there is little reason to think New York's students are in a schooling crisis when accounting for the effects of historic economic inequality.

- What's amazing is that right after Campbell makes this ill-informed argument, she then claims: "This is not about blaming teachers." But it is about blaming teachers, Campbell: you yourself just said the number of teachers rated effective doesn't line up with student achievement! Why else would you put those two statistics together? What is the argument if it's not about blaming teachers?!

You can't have it both ways: if you're going to go on national TV and make the case that teacher tenure is impeding student learning, you are, indeed, "blaming teachers." At least have the courage of your convictions on this, Campbell -- at least have the guts to stand by your argument.

- "It's all about the kids." As I've said before, that is a ridiculous argument against tenure on two levels:

1) Tenure isn't just good for teachers; it's good for parents, taxpayers, and students. Tenure allows teachers to be whistleblowers and advocates for children when doing the right thing may be unpopular with school boards and parents. As Colbert pointed out, it allows teachers academic freedom in a time when powerful interests want to teach our children junk science, revisionist history, and prejudiced attitudes.

2) Just because something is good for teachers doesn't mean it is automatically bad for students. Yes, tenure makes it harder to fire teachers; that's the point. But no one has ever shown granting tenure impedes a teacher's effectiveness or makes the teaching corps as a whole less effective.

As I've pointed out time and again, tenure has a real economic value for teachers, yet costs taxpayers very little. If you can't show tenure harms children -- and no, the Vergara decision did not show this, which is why it will almost certainly be overturned on appeal -- why wouldn't taxpayers grant it to both protect their interests and minimize the budgetary impact of teacher compensation? Getting rid of tenure is a terrible economic decision for taxpayers. 

The idea that anything good for teachers must be bad for students is one of the most pernicious arguments to come from the reformy camp. It's nothing more than an illogical appeal to emotion, and it tacitly casts teachers as villains when they dare to stand up for themselves. It needs to stop.

- Colbert very wisely makes the connection to school funding (he doesn't understand how school funding weighting works, but give the man some slack), arguing that a civil rights stance on tenure must logically also support making sure all students have adequate resources. As Bruce Baker has pointed out many times, New York is one of the worst states in the nation when it comes to school funding fairness; states like New Jersey which (until lately) have equity as a goal do much better overall in student achievement.

Brown responds that she's sympathetic to that argument (after she seems to first claim she's not -- Colbert interrupts her so it's hard to say), but then goes on to argue that the problem with tenure is that it subjects poor children to bad teaching more than affluent children. I'll leave aside the empirical evidence that contradicts this claim and simply pose this in a way I think even Brown, with her limited knowledge of education policy, can understand:

Campbell, a few miles away from New York City are some of the wealthiest and highest-performing school districts in the United States, if not the world. All of these districts have unionized teachers, step-guide contracts, tenure protections, and seniority. If tenure is the cause of bad teaching in poor districts, why do wealthy districts with tenure do so well?

And if you really believe that the teachers in poor areas are not as good as those in wealthy areas, how will getting rid of job protections help bring in better teacher candidates? Why would anyone want to teach in a city district, subject to far more political interference, when they can decamp for the leafy 'burbs and avoid that nonsense?

Trying to gussy up tenure as a civil rights issue is a distraction, especially when there is a very good case to be made that teachers of color are being unfairly targeted in this jihad against their unions. If we really care about improving teacher quality in schools that serve poor children, we ought to do everything we can to improve the work conditions in urban schools so the job is more attractive.

But that would require money, largely from the wealthy. I wonder how Brown's backers would feel about that...

- The argument that it takes too long to fire a teacher is not an argument for the courts; it should be addressed in the legislative process. We did it here in NJ, and now tenure cases have capped costs and take less than five months.

I'm always amused when folks try to make the argument that teachers unions like lengthy tenure cases. Were I a labor leader, I'd hate them: it's more money I have to spend on lawyers and less on member services. 

Brown's complaint that tenure cases take too long is predicated on the idea that we can't shorten the process. We can and we should -- but we don't have to get rid of due process.

- Of course, Brown isn't against "due process": she thinks everyone "is entitled to a hearing." Except she doesn't follow through on what that would look like. Does she want every teacher firing to go to court? Does she think layoffs based on teacher effectiveness ought to be litigated in every circumstance?

Campbell Brown refuses to articulate how a post-tenure world would actually work. The reason for that, I believe, is that any vision of system where teachers don't have tenure but do have due process is one where the courts are overloaded with dismissal lawsuits. This is an obvious recipe for disaster, and there hasn't been any proof offered that it would be a system where student achievement improves.

- Perhaps the most amazing part of this interview is at 6:00:
BROWN: When you have the teacher of the year in California being laid off and a teacher who's been found to be incompetent keeping their job, what does that do for the kids?
First of all, the Vergara plaintiffs never demonstrated any of the teachers in question were "found to be incompetent."  As has been reported in many outlets, the students offered anecdotal evidence, but no one offered any prima facie evidence these teachers were bad. In fact...

The "teacher of the year" who Campbell Brown complains lost her job due to seniority is the same teacher the Vergara plaintiffs alleged was incompetent!
• The plaintiffs couldn't demonstrate teacher incompetence.

The lawsuit claimed that three teachers were incompetent. I researched them and found that one of them, Christine McLaughlin, was actually named Pasadena's 2013 teacher of the year. The others have not only received no other complaints, but have been lauded for their dedication to the students. The students claimed McLaughlin didn't assign them any homework or classwork. McLaughlin brought in the assignments given to class. The plaintiffs (funded by the group "Students Matter") offered no counterattack to that evidence.

• The plaintiffs contradicted themselves regarding teacher incompetence.

When confronted with the evidence that so-called incompetent teacher McLaughlin was named the best teacher, Students Matter claimed she had received four LIFO (Last In First Out) layoff notices over the past seven years and used that as evidence … that she was a good teacher yet got layoff notices. Wait, wasn't this the person they named in the lawsuit as a bad teacher? Of course, she wasn't laid off, but you can't have it both ways. [emphasis mine]
Does Campbell Brown have any idea how foolish she looks when she echoes the absurd arguments made by the Vergara plaintiffs? Does she see how easy it is to demolish her poor-reasoned boilerplate?

At the end of the interview, Brown defended her decision not to reveal the names of her donors; she was met by the audience with awkward silence. Colbert, who is usually one of the fastest wits on the planet, obviously had a hard time wrapping up the interview:
COLBERT: "Well, I respect... [awkward pause] you. I was trying to figure out who I would respect at this table, and there was no one left but you."
And that is precisely the problem: the debate about tenure is now dominated by telegenic partisans who have no knowledge of education policy and won't reveal their funders -- all while the voices of teachers are excluded.

Campbell Brown can be as illogical as she pleases, because no one, as of yet, has been allowed an opportunity to debate her on equal terms. She can make as many rambling, self-contradictory, and ignorant statements as she likes, because she is the only one at the table. She doesn't have to make a lick of sense, because no one is there to call her out on her nonsense.

My guess is she's going to take the path of Michelle Rhee: refusing to publicly defend her positions against well-informed, well-reasoned critique.

How lame.

If only.

ADDING: Mercedes Schneider weighs in. And there's good stuff as always from Curmudgucation.

But you really do not want miss Mother Crusader's take:
Senor and Singer are some seriously scary dudes. 

There is simply no way they are going to be intimidated by a small clutch of protesters milling around outside Colbert's studio, but that was one hell of an act Brown put on! Singer, and presumably Brown's husband, take on entire countries for heaven's sake!

And what does it tell us that Paul Singer, the guy who "popularized" the practice of exploiting entire distressed countries, is a well known backer of Eva Moskowitz's Success Academy? And oh yeah, Campbell Brown just happens to be on their Board of Directors.
It tells me that all of these people need to be watched very, very closely.

Ani's also on this:
The bottom line is this: if Campbell Brown really cared about supporting teachers, she would work with unions to construct meaningful reforms to existing laws–instead of spending millions of dollars on a politically-motivated lawsuit that hurts teachers and the students they serve.  If Campbell Brown really cared about students, she would advocate for reforms that support the neediest children–instead of serving on a board of a charter network that excludes such students or pushes them out when they’re unable to perform well on standardized tests. If Campbell Brown really cared about public education, she would use her foundation’s money and influence to address the root of the problem, which we know to be poverty. And if Campbell Brown really wanted to understand why due process is so important for teachers, she would herself teach in a public school–preferably an urban one–and attempt to advocate meaningfully and passionately for her students without such protections.
But it doesn’t seem that Campbell Brown really cares about any of those things.
Goodness, how shrill. Of course, Ani's just a teacher, like me. What do we know that a celebrity news reader doesn't?

Sunday, July 27, 2014

@StarLedger Editorials: Consistently Wrong About Newark Education

I reached the end of my rope with the Star-Ledger Editorial Board and its chief, Tom Moran, a long time ago. When it comes to education -- particularly in Newark -- both the paper's unsigned editorials and Moran's columns have displayed massive ignorance. Frankly, I'm tired of having to address their nonsense when it's clear that Moran and his board lack the journalistic integrity to engage in good faith arguments about the schools in a city their publishing company has abandoned.

But today's editorial is so wrong, so ignorant, and so full of sophistry that it just can't go unchallenged. Fortunately, Bob Braun has already done most of the heavy lifting: as he correctly points out, the discriminatory practices in the school district restructuring plan, One Newark, are quite real and quite pernicious:

The sheer chutzpah of a newspaper that is abandoning the city to leave behind a “Dear John” letter that essentially supports the denial of civil and human rights to its people–rights enjoyed by New Jersey’s predominantly white suburban population–is breathtaking. 
Amen. I just want to add a few more points to Bob's post:

The S-L mentions the "critics" of One Newark who have filed a civil rights complaint -- but slickly chooses not to tell us who these critics are. As the paper itself reported, these aren't "people whose jobs depended on the school infrastructure"; the lawsuit is being filed by Newark's parents.

Quite correctly, these parents have pointed out that the charterization of the district and the "renewal" of several schools disproportionately affects black students (it also disproportionately affects black teachers). When Bruce Baker and I pointed this out, the district published a response to our methods (a rather weak and innumerate response); what they didn't address, however, was our claim that the plan's effects are racial biased.

Had Moran bothered to read Joseph Oluwole's excellent legal analysis in our brief about Newark's teachers, he would have learned that the issue of whether this plan deliberately discriminates against black families is, to a large extent, irrelevant: the plan can be challenged under a claim of disparate impact.

Further, had Moran bothered to read Bruce, Joseph, and Preston Green's article in the Emory Law Journal, he would have learned that moving students to charter schools abrogates the due process and other rights of families. Charter schools are not state actors and do not have to adhere to the same standards of transparency and accountability as public schools. In Newark, this discriminatory situation is compounded by the fact that the parents have no say in how the district is run, and haven't had a say for 20 years.

These are unfortunate facts that the S-L Editorial Board never, ever discusses. Instead, like cognitively impaired parrots, Moran and crew squawk out the same tired, reformy talking points over and over again:

- "By creating a universal enrollment program, she [Anderson] is making sure that charter schools don’t cater to the most advantaged students." Except that the One Newark application uses a school ratings system that is utterly bogus, mislabeling effective schools as "Falling Behind" and schools that perform below prediction as "Great." Further, there is no guarantee the charters will take on a proportionate share of at-risk students and students with greater special education needs.

- "Not a single school in Newark is being permanently closed." Sorry, but when you turn a school over to private governance, or substantially change its mission, you are, in effect, closing it.

- "Several failing schools will be gradually transferred to the management of high-performing charters, including TEAM and North Star, in communities where parents demanded better quality options." As the parent lawsuit shows, what parents really want are well-resourced public schools responsive to the demands of the community; under 20 years of state administration, that simply hasn't happened, and Chris Christie has only made maters worse.

And we've been over the TEAM and North Star thing a million times now: they don't serve the same populations of students, and their attrition rates are high -- North Star's appallingly so. It's astonishing that Moran can't grasp this simple concept.

- "In the largely black South Ward, families have long been voting with their feet — 40 percent are signed up on charter school waiting lists." It's clear the charter school wait list statistics have been artificially pumped up. But even if they weren't, why would anyone be surprised that parents want to get their children out of crumbling, dangerous, overcrowded schools

How can public schools compete with charters when they are inadequately funded; when they must serve every student, no matter how expensive; and when educational tourists like Christie and Anderson create a culture of constant disruption and chaos within them?

Moran ends with a truly foolish question:
So where is the civil rights violation? Is there a failing school in Newark with a high percentage of white students that remains unaffected by Anderson’s plan?
As Moran knows, the white student population of NPS is quite small: there isn't any school in Newark that has a "high percentage of white students." The question is whether black students are disproportionately affected compared to other students -- largely Hispanic -- in the district. Without question, they are.

Further, and far more importantly: why don't Newark's parents have any say in the governance of their children's schools? Why weren't parents -- and, for that matter, all of the hard-working taxpayers of Newark -- allowed to decide for themselves what sort of school system they want, and who they want running it?

Why is "voting with your feet" good enough for people of color, but voting with your vote is reserved only for school districts with majority white populations?

This is an ugly truth Moran does not care to address. He'd rather throw his support behind plutocrats like Chris Christie, because slamming teachers unions is more important than standing up for the rights of parents and children in distressed communities like Newark. He'd rather argue that "choice" is the same as democracy, when he knows full well that no suburban community would ever replace representative school boards with charter school expansion. He'd rather convince himself that opening a few more charters and firing a few more teachers is the solution for Newark's educational woes. 

And so Tom Moran and his dying newspaper continue to live in ignorance. How sad.

"Discrimination? Where?"

Friday, July 25, 2014

@GovChristie: Education Politics, Not Education Policy

Remember Chris Christie's big idea from this past winter? He was going to lengthen the school day and the school year. It was urgent that we do this immediately: "This is a key step to improve student outcomes and boost our competitiveness. We should do it now."

So, how's that going, Governor?
It was one of the centerpieces of Gov. Chris Christie’s State of the State address in January: a proposal to provide state help for schools to experiment with longer schooldays and years.

“Let’s face it, if my children are living under the same school calendar that I lived under, by definition, that school calendar is antiquated,” Christie said. “It’s antiquated both educationally and culturally for the world we live in." “Life in 2014 is much different than life 100 years ago, and it demands something more for our students,” he said. “It is time to lengthen both the school day and the school year in New Jersey.”
Six months later, both may have to wait. [emphasis mine]
A quick aside: as I have pointed out before, Chris Christie is a screaming hypocrite whenever he brings his own children into the debate about education. The Delbarton School -- an elite, high-spending private school where he sent his own sons -- takes a full three months off every summer. Of course, they then offer an extensive (and expensive) summer enrichment program, full of things like sports and SAT prep. I guess that's the sort of thing Christie thinks is "antiquated."

Getting back to John Mooney's piece in NJ Spotlight:

In the back and forth of the state budget hammered out this summer, Christie’s proposal for a $5 million “innovation fund” to help districts expand learning time was ultimately eliminated from the spending plan by the Democratic-led legislature.
There wasn’t much explanation, other than Democrats’ plans to instead put $2.5 million into grants to help districts implement initiatives already in place, including new teacher evaluation. The other $2.5 million went to balancing the budget as a whole.
But the cut has left the Christie administration looking for alternative resources to fund what the governor made a signature initiative, at least for this year.
“We are currently working to identify other funding sources that could be used for a pilot program,” said Michael Yaple, communications director for the state education department.
“Our goal will be to reprioritize either state or federal funds for a grant program to encourage school districts to implement innovative approaches that lead to more instruction time,” he said. “It would be less funding than we initially envisioned, but we believe we can still create a meaningful program nonetheless.”
That is, of course, utterly absurd. $5 million is next to nothing in a $33 billion budget, and the idea that it could fund a meaningful "pilot" program is beyond laughable.

You don't need a test program to know the funding problems inherent in lengthening the school day or school year. People need to be paid to work longer hours: charter schools do it (and make up the difference by largely restricting hiring to young, inexperienced teachers -- which they can get away with because they don't serve the same student populations as the public schools that feed them).

You also have to upgrade facilities so children aren't stuck roasting in classrooms without air conditioning in the summer months. Unless, of course, Chris Christie wants to give up his air conditioning in a sign of solidarity. How many of you think that's likely to happen?

The truth is that suburban kids have lots of options for summer enrichment, and parents are already concerned that the pace of their lives is too hectic as it is: there just isn't a lot of clamoring for extending the school day or the school year among more affluent families. For children in urban areas who are at an economic disadvantage, it would be obviously be very helpful to give them access to high-quality summer programs.

But does anyone think we can meet their needs with a mere $5 million? And does anyone think Chris Christie will raise the revenues needed to implement this idea?

As I wrote back in January, there is a very strong correlation between economic disadvantage and academic achievement.

But there is no correlation between the length of the school day and test scores:

So why did Christie introduce this cynical scheme back in January? Simple: Bridgegate was blowing up, and he needed a distraction. So he did what he always does: Chris Christie played politics with education policy.

This was never a serious proposal -- it was a feint, designed to get the editorial pages of the state's newspapers to stop writing about Bridget Kelly and to get the talk radio hosts to stop mentioning David Wildstein. It worked for a bit... but now that's over.

Rest assured, the only time you will ever hear Christie mention lengthening the school again is when he thinks he can get political mileage from it. Like every other public policy debate in which he engages, Chris Christie only cares how it affects his ambitions for higher office.

Governor, will you give up your air conditioning?

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Merit Pay Virus Keeps Spreading

I just noticed that the controversial teachers contract in Paterson, NJ was approved by the local union by a slim margin:
PATERSON — By a narrow margin, the Paterson teachers’ union has approved its new labor contracts, but some members question the way the voting was conducted, saying not everyone got a chance to cast a ballot. 
About 53 percent of the votes were in favor of the two contracts and 47 percent opposed. The union had been without a contract since July 2010.

Teachers and other staff members covered by the Paterson Education Association (PEA) originally had been scheduled to vote in person on the contracts last month, while school was still in session. But the union decided to delay the vote, saying members lacked all the information they needed about the proposals.

Instead, the voting was held last week and conducted through email and conventional mail because schools were closed, said union president Peter Tirri. The contract for 2011-2014 was passed by a vote of 1,142 to 1,023, while the contract for 2015-2017 was passed 1,142-1025. About 80 percent of the votes were cast electronically and the rest with the United States mail, according to numbers provided by Tirri.

The union represents about 3,300 people and has about 2,800 voting members. [emphasis mine]
There is some controversy within the membership about the vote -- but's that's only because it was so close:
Many teachers were unhappy with the new contracts because they did not boost the base pay set up on the salary guide. Union members also said the new contracts undermined the practice of giving extra money to teachers who obtained advanced degrees and that the retroactive pay is less than what they would have received under the old contract. 
[President of the PEA, Peter] Tirri has said the New Jersey Education Department, which handled negotiations for the state-controlled school district, made unconditional contract demands that the union had little choice but to accept.
There are a few things I don't do on this blog, and one is criticize teachers for accepting contracts that pay them far less than they are worth. Like many New Jersey teachers these days, I know what it's like to have to work year after year without a raise while Chris Christie's betrayals on benefits eat up more and more of my take-home pay. The truth is, when you make mid-five figures, a few hundred dollars makes a big difference -- especially in district like Paterson, where teachers have been working without a contract for four years.

So I won't ever fault the members of the Paterson Education Association who voted to ratify this agreement: it's not fair for someone like me to tell them they have to continue working without a contract when I don't have a dog in the fight. I will, however, point out what I believe are the flaws in the agreement for the benefit of other locals that are currently in negotiations. And there is one big problem with this contract that really concerns me, and ought to concern every other teacher in New Jersey:

This is the second recent teachers contract in New Jersey that enshrines merit pay -- a failed education policy that does not improve student achievement.

A few years ago, the state insisted on a merit pay scheme in Newark, fueled by the Mark Zuckerberg donation. In its first year, that system has revealed itself as a scam: the state-controled district has paid out far less than it promised in bonuses, and more teachers who opted out of the merit pay pool turned out to be "highly effective" than those who opted in.

Granted, the Paterson contract is different. I have a copy of the agreement a reader sent me; if this is still the final deal, the clause that concerns me is on page 8:
Starting with the summative evaluations for SY 2013-14 and each year thereafter, a teacher who receives a highly effective rating will advance two steps on the Single Salary Guide for the following year and a teacher who receives an effective rating will advance one step on the Single Salary Guide.
For those of you who don't know much about this: a step on a guide is basically a raise. Usually, a teacher moves up one step for each additional year of service, eventually reaching the "top of the guide," or the highest step (a typical contract will have around 15 to 20 steps, but that varies widely).

So advancing two steps is equivalent to getting a raise in one year that would normally take you two. That's a good deal for the teacher who gets a good rating, but it does beg the question:

How will the Paterson School District decide which of its teachers are "highly effective" and, consequently, will get an additional bump in pay?

This is a critical question, but it isn't addressed within the contract I'm reading. How many teachers will get the bump? Five percent? Ten? One? It seems as if the district can pretty much decide how many teachers will get these extra raises first, then determine how they will distribute the money. If they decide they can't afford the pay raises one year, all they have to do is say, "No one is highly effective," and that's that.

And given the arbitrary and capricious nature of New Jersey's teacher evaluation system, it will be easy to rig the results. AchieveNJ (code name: Operation Hindenburg) sets cut points for determining the rating a teacher receives that are based on nothing more than the whims of the state. Given that 80 percent of most teachers' ratings are determined by administrator observations, it's fair to say that the raises in Paterson will be given almost entirely at the discretion of PEA members' superiors.

And teachers in tested subjects will now be motivated to lobby their principals for class rosters that help them get higher Student Growth Percentile (SGP) scores. The biases in SGPs at the school level are now well-documented; there's every reason to believe teachers can change their scores by changing the composition of their classes. Now that they have a financial incentive, why would teachers in tested subjects want more special education or at-risk children on their rolls?

Tying pay raises to a flawed teacher evaluation system is a very bad idea. I'm not sure Paterson can do anything about it at this point, but every other local in New Jersey needs to understand the dangers involved in allowing the merit pay virus to spread.

The Merit Pay Fairy says: "First Newark, then Paterson, then your school district! It's how I roll!'

ADDING: I woud really like to hear from Paterson's teachers about this. Leave your comments below.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

What Exactly Does Campbell Brown Want?

It appears that Campbell Brown, in the wake of Michelle Rhee's continuing descent into irrelevance, is going to be the new face of reforminess for the foreseeable future. Say what you will about Rhee, at least she taught for a couple of years; Brown forms her opinions about teachers, however, unencumbered by even that little bit of experience:
Under New York law, schools must decide after just three years whether teachers are granted tenure — a supreme level of job protection that can amount to permanent employment. State law makes it nearly impossible to dismiss teachers who have been identified as ineffective. And in times of layoffs, the teachers who get priority to keep their jobs are those with seniority, regardless of how well they teach. 
Put together, those three provisions hurt our ability to ensure that every child in the state has an effective teacher. Yes, there are other important steps to improve strong teacher quality and equity, including better starting salaries and higher pay for teachers in the most in-demand fields. But what has driven parents into action is a system of laws that knowingly undermines success. 
So let us dispense with the absurd: Seeking good teachers for all does not mean you are somehow going after teachers. It means you are working to end laws that are not in the interests of children. In fact, some of those who feel strongest about removing incompetent teachers are other teachers themselves.
As I've written before: the phony juxtaposition of the interests of teachers and students is probably the most specious part of the anti-tenure/anti-seniority argument. Yes, tenure is good for teachers -- but it doesn't follow that, a priori, tenure is bad for students. I'd argue, in fact, that tenure helps children and taxpayers at least as much as it helps teachers, because it puts the brakes on corrupt and unethical behaviors from school boards and administrators.

The truth is that there are far too many cases of teachers being subject to arbitrary or malicious treatment by their superiors for anyone to conclude that the only effect of tenure is to "protect bad teachers." Contrast that to the evidence presented in the Vergara case, which, contrary to Rolf Treu's ruling, never showed that any of the plaintiffs were harmed by "bad" teachers, let alone "bad" teachers who had been protected by tenure.

In addition, as Bruce Baker points out (sadly, in a way that apparently hurt our dear Campbell's delicate feelings), there's no evidence that tenure can in any way be found to be a significant contributor to the distribution of teacher quality either across or within districts. As a matter of logic, why would it? Tenure exists in the 'burbs as well as the cities: you can't attribute any effects to tenure if it isn't the independent variable.

Now, I wouldn't expect an educational tourist like Brown to have developed any sophisticated opinions about the massive difficulties in determining who would and would not be found effective in a high-stakes decision like granting tenure or determining who gets let go in a layoff. I would, however, expect her to be able to articulate a vision for how she thinks schools would function in a tenureless world -- especially since she has decided to take on the role of an anti-tenure crusader. So here's my question:

What, exactly, does Campbell Brown want? 

Because she sure ain't saying here:
For starters, all teachers, with or without tenure, have a baseline of due process rights. And for those who have the added due-process protections of tenure, the goal here is only to make sure that system actually makes sense, without undercutting our kids’ constitutional rights. 
Consider what happened last month in the groundbreaking case of Vergara vs. California, in which a state court threw out similar state laws on tenure and seniority. The judge agreed that due process was entirely legitimate, but not the “uber due process” that had led to a tortuous process of trying to remove bad teachers. The same could be said in New York, where dismissal attempts can take years.
If Brown is saying that the system moves too slowly and costs too much, she won't find much disagreement -- especially from the teachers unions! I've had my doubts about UFT in the past, but even they weren't happy with the "rubber rooms." On my side of the Hudson, the NJEA actually pretty much wrote the fairly successful proposals for the revision of New Jersey's tenure laws that cut down the time and expense of tenure cases.

Why wouldn't they? Lengthy tenure cases cost the unions money! It's in everybody's interest, but especially the unions', to make these cases short and inexpensive. Is this what Brown wants? If so, why a lawsuit? New Jersey did it through the legislative process; why can't New York?
The nation’s top school official, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, has summed it up well: Tenure itself is not the issue. Job protections for effective teachers are vital to keep teachers from being fired for random or political reasons. But “awarding tenure to someone without a track record of improving student achievement doesn’t respect the craft of teaching, and it doesn’t serve children well.”
OK -- well if even our incoherent SecEd agrees that "tenure is not the issue," and that teachers need job protections, what do he and Brown suggest we do? What's the system they propose for granting tenure? Clog up the courts with lawsuits?
What’s more, many state tenure laws have become obsolete because civil rights legislation passed over the last 50 years already protects teachers from unfair dismissal, according to a review by the Center for American Progress. And tenure laws do not assure quality teaching.
Yeah, I guess so: lots of lawsuits in place of a system of protections for teachers. Golly, sounds great...

Brown, of course, thinks it's impolite of teachers like me to bring any of this up:
The parents behind the New York case are fighting for effective teachers. No one should undermine them by misrepresenting their motivations.
Campbell, I'd be a lot less inclined to question your motivations if you would just do us all a favor and tell us what it is you want. I went to your website and tried to find a proposal for a system of teacher workplace protections -- it wasn't there.

There were, of course, plenty of reformy talking points gussied up with research that show illustrations of the importance of teacher quality. But there wasn't anything that resembled evidence that shows tenure suppresses overall teacher quality, and there wasn't anything even remotely resembling a concrete proposal to "fix" a tenure and seniority system that still hasn't been shown to be a drag in student achievement.

If you want to have a serious debate about tenure and seniority, Campbell, the very least you should do is present some sort of alternative system of teacher, student, and taxpayer protections. If you think you can come up with something that will work better than tenure and seniority, by all means let's hear it.

But unless and until you do, your complaints are little better than whining. And no teacher worth his or her chalk puts up with that.

Whining is not a solution.

ADDING: As it's quite likely there are anti-tenure folks who will not "closely read" this post:

My preferred system is the one we have in New Jersey: tenure, with a cap on the length of hearings and the time arbitrators have to reach decisions. And four years to earn tenure seems about right, although I will be the first to say that length of time is quite arbitrary.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Civil Conversations Are Honest Conversations

Via Peter Greene, I see that Andy Smarick, formerly of the New Jersey Department of Education, is quite vexed at the idea that someone's feelings may get hurt when discussing the expansion of charter schools:

I have two concerns with the way these things are trending. The first is that our field needs someone who consistently makes earnest, objective, sturdy philosophical arguments against chartering. With rare exceptions, when I go looking, I instead find mostly snark, ad hominem attacks, and condescension. The source I had hoped would evolve into the dispassionate voice of studied dissent has instead reliably produced invective.

My second concern is that, increasingly, what at first blush appears to be a category-one contribution (a discussion of policy and practice designed to improve chartering) is just strident philosophical opposition in disguise. This long magazine article on Newark, NJ, could’ve been an invaluable contribution to our understanding of one of the nation’s highest-profile initiatives. Instead, charter-friendly reformers are painted as villains. This piece about Camden could’ve shed important light on the role of charter operators in reimagining a system of schools. Instead, it hurls nasty accusations against just about everyone involved. Similarly, what could’ve been a terrific, extensive look into Michigan’s charter sector and its relation to district schooling gave the impression that its goal was uncovering scandal and intrigue.

Here’s my request. If you think chartering is, at root, a threat to public education and believe that it must be brought to an end, please make that case publicly and straightforwardly, with conviction and tact. You’ll find a more receptive audience than you might suspect.

If you aren’t obdurately anti-charter but think there are aspects of chartering that need serious improvement, marshal the data and make your case. You’ll find a long list of organizations willing to listen because they exist to improve policy and practice. (Excellent Schools Detroit modeled this good behavior after the charter-critical newspaper series.)

But when philosophical opposition takes the form of venom, the debate is poisoned and open-minded charter supporters tune out. And when unbending philosophical opposition masquerades as commentary on policy, the standing of practical critics is undercut because advocates have reason to distrust the motives of those writing in opposition.
Mercy! Andy is so very, very concerned about the nasty tone people are taking! Why, don't they know that pointing out the utter failure of State Superintendent Cami Anderson to gain the trust and respect of the Newark community with her ill-advised portfolio plan is little more than "poison"?! Can't they see that discussing the questionable behavior and disturbing history of charter operators in Camden is just "venom"?! Don't they realize pointing out the rampant corruption of the charter industry in Michigan -- and elsewhere -- only serves to put off the "open-minded"?!

Quickly! Someone get the smelling salts!

Andy Smarick (artists's conception)

Peter, thankfully, gives the rather obvious rebuttal, and gives it well:
If charters are tired of press about how they get sweetheart deals with politicians to strip resources from public schools in order to enrich themselvesif they're tired of stories about how some charter operator got caught in crooked deals, if they're tired of being raked over the coals for using politics to grease some moneyed wheels-- well, their best move would be to stop doing those things.

If charters are tired of being attacked, they could stop attacking public education, as in the recent charter gathering in which the recurring theme was "Charters are great because public schools suck." I'm not a fan of "they started it" as an argument, but it's also specious to declare "all I did was keep calling him names and stealing his lunch, and then he just hit me for no reason!"

I'm not a fan of Smarick's first posited conversation (let's just assume charters are great), I think the second one is valuable (let's talk about how and if charters can work), but I think both are being drowned out by the third conversation, which is a mass of local conversations about the damage being done and the attacks on local schools that people feel they are suffering through. That conversation is, I believe, a direct result of the injection of huge amounts of money into the process. It's hard to have the conversation because the stakes on all sides are so high (ROI vs. local concerns for children).

I'm actually a fan of old-school charters, and it makes me sad that their promise has been swept aside by the current wave of money-driven charter chains. But asking people to please be more polite and reasonable and please stop pointing out where we've screwed you over is not likely to get the conversation back on track or reclaim the benefits that charter schools could provide.
Amen. But let me add another point:

A civil conversation requires honesty. And the conversation these days about charter schools -- and, indeed, about tenure and test-based teacher evaluation and seniority and vouchers and standards and just about every other education policy on the table today -- is anything but honest.

Let me give an example of this: Andy Smarick himself.

Here's a video clip from 2013 of Smarick talking about his latest book, The Urban School System of the Future, in which he makes the case that the urban school district as it is currently construed is a failure, and should be replaced by a "portfolio" system that would greatly expand charter schools.

How does Smarick know this will work? Starting at 29:50, Smarick cites three instances of charterizing that he claims have produced results that are "pretty extraordinary": New York City, Newark, and New Orleans.
Andy Smarick: Overview, The Urban School System of the Future from Bellwether Education on Vimeo.

Let's leave aside the fact that Smarick cherry-picks his examples under the guise of claiming these are instances of chartering "done well," and instead test the validity of his claims. Are these results "pretty extraordinary"? Well, it would only make sense to make that point if the student populations the charters served were equivalent to the populations in the public schools to which they are compared.

Note that I wrote "student populations," not "students." I will concede that the CREDO studies have found some -- some -- instances where demographically matched students did better in charters (although I would argue CREDO ran their findings through the Mountain-Out-Of-A-Molehill-Inator to make the effects seems larger than they actually are). But segregating students demographically or academically so some students can enjoy a peer effect is not a strategy that can be scaled up: it's logically impossible for everyone to go to a school where the student population is above average.

Differing student population characteristics is the central issue in charter school expansion -- and it's an issue Smarick chooses to completely ignore. I'll let others who are better informed speak to New York City and New Orleans; let me, instead, concentrate on his example of Newark, which I know quite well. As a former Deputy Education Commissioner in New Jersey, it's hard for me to imagine that Smarick doesn't know the following facts:
  • Newark's "successful" charters do not serve equivalent populations of free-lunch eligible, special education, or Limited English Proficient students; they don't even serve equivalent populations of boys.
  • The certificated educators in the Newark charter sector have less experience than their counterparts in the Newark Public Schools.
  • North Star Academy, considered by many charter cheerleaders to be the highest-performing charter in the city, has a student attrition rate so high a black boy only has about a 1-in-3 chance of making it through the school from Grade 5 to Grade 12.
  • When accounting for student differences by using standard statistical techniques, many of the "successful" charters in Newark just aren't that impressive.
  • TEAM Academy, often cited as one of Newark's best charters, spends considerable amounts of money, much of which is used apparently to recruit its staff (this is a good thing -- but shouldn't NPS have the same opportunity before we label it a failure?).
  • Perhaps most disturbing, the district, which is run by the state, has not given an honest account of the effectiveness of charter schools compared to district schools, feeding a misperception that the charters get better results when accounting for student (and resource) differences.

Again: I just can't imagine that Andy Smarick isn't aware of all this (if he isn't, he never should have held a high position at NJDOE). And yet he chooses to ignore these realities; he chooses not to address the central issue in the expansion of charter schools.

I'll be the first to admit I have, in the past, been rough on Andy and his former boss and others who are on the reformy side of the education policy debate. But it's hard to have respect for these reformy folks when they refuse to even acknowledge these basic truths, let alone respond to them. And it's more than fair for folks like me to point out that reformers like Andy Smarick are being either ignorant or mendacious when they build their cases without taking into the account basic truths that are at the core of these debates about public education.

Look, I'm all for civility; but civility starts with good faith. As Peter says: if the charter sector doesn't want folks like him and me pointing out their corrupt practices, they ought not to engage in them. Likewise, if Smarick wants a more measured tone in the debates over charters, he would do well to raise his game and stop engaging in sophistry.

Andy, any time you want to debate charters, say the word. But don't expect me to or anyone else to simply sit back and let you make specious arguments without challenge. You and Chris Cerf made this a high-stakes debate during your tenure here in New Jersey; you are the guys who have put educators' careers, schools, districts, and, most importantly, children's futures at stake with your plans.

So if you really believe you are in the right, stand by your arguments and defend them; don't just take your ball and run home because the game isn't going your way.

ADDING: Smarick repeats the famous "Scarsdale-Harlem gap" meme that NYC charter cheerleaders love. I had forgotten that Matt DiCarlo did an excellent post about this:
Now, it bears mentioning Hoxby doesn’t actually follow any student or group of students from kindergarten through grade eight (nine years). Actually, since her data are only for 2000-01 to 2007-08, we know for a fact that she does not have data for a single student that attended a NYC charter for nine straight years (K-8). She doesn’t report how many students in her dataset attended for eight straight years, but does note, in the technical report (released months later – see below) that only 25 percent of her sample has 6-8 years of “charter treatment.” The majority of her sample is students with 3-5 years in a charter school (or less).
So, how did Hoxby come up with the “Scarsdale-Harlem” finding? Well, her models estimate an average single-year gain for charter students (most of whom have only a few years of “treatment”). Those one-year estimates are her primary results. She ignores them completely in the executive summary (and I mean that literally – she does not report the single-year gains until page 43 of the 85-page report).
Instead, she multiplies the single year gain (for math and reading separately) by nine years to produce a sensational talking point. It’s kind of like testing a new diet pill on a group of subjects, who take the pill for anywhere between one and 9-10 months, finding that they lose an average of ten pounds per month, and then launching an advertising campaign proclaiming that the pill will make people lose 120 pounds in a year.
In fairness, months after the report’s release, Hoxby and her co-authors replicated their analysis on students with different durations of charter treatment, and found that there are still large, cumulative effects among those students who have attended charters for 6-8 years. In other words, the annual effect of attending a charter schools does not necessarily depend on how long the student has been there. [emphasis mine]
Sorry to be so tactless and point this out...