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

Sunday, December 19, 2010

"Flunking Out Bad Journalism" - Part I

It's difficult to know where to begin with this massive exercise in lazy, ignorant journalism that greets us this morning in the pages of the Star-Ledger. "Flunking Out Bad Teachers" - a miserably failed attempt to address tenure reform in New Jersey - has so many flaws, it's nearly impossible to address them all.

The best I can do is start with this overall theme: your modern media does not care about education. This piece is riddled with inconsistencies, inaccuracies, and bias - but it's also, sadly, par for the course. The front page of the "Perspectives" section features a public poll that comports with the premises of this article, as if this were a justification for pushing the badly formed "solutions" the S-L is touting. I take it, instead, as an indictment of how poorly the media - in particular, the NJ media - is serving the public. If people actually knew the facts about tenure, teacher evaluations, and student performance, they would never sign on to the nonsense this article champions.

Keeping this in mind, let's dig in:

- O'Connor's piece starts with anecdotes about two teachers no one would ever want to stay in a classroom. Even a fairly bright 12-year-old knows, however, that two stories about bad teachers who were difficult to dismiss does not make a pattern. Where's O'Connor's real proof? What does she cite that shows we have such a serious problem with bad teachers who aren't dismissed that we have to radically upend the entire tenure system?

After three years and one day on the job, teachers get tenure virtually automatically in New Jersey, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality, a nonpartisan research group.
Anytime I hear a journalist say "nonpartisan research group," my BS detector switches on. There are many "nonpartisan" groups out there that are anything but. There are plenty of reasons to doubt NCTQ's research - plenty of reasons - but let's go to the actual study (I think) O'Connor is talking about:
New Jersey’s probationary period for new teachers is just three years, and the state does not require any meaningful process to evaluate cumulative effectiveness in the classroom before teachers are awarded tenure. (p.40)
No, the STATE doesn't require it - but that doesn't mean it doesn't happen, and for one good reason: in the first three years, any teacher can be removed at the end of their yearly contract, for absolutely NO REASON. I've seen this first hand several times.

Now, I hope someone here corrects me if I'm wrong, but I do not believe the state keeps any records of how many teachers are let go in their first three years under this system. We do, however, know several things about those first three years:

You simply can't have a rational discussion about tenure without taking this into account. Two horror stories do not make up for these well-documented facts.

- Back to the NCTQ report. It's only a survey of state practices, ranked by the criteria NCTQ has decided is important because... well, they say it's important. What the report doesn't do is compare state effectiveness in student learning - which the NCTQ says is CRITICAL to evaluating individual teachers - to see if the state policies actually lead to better results.

(Can I just interject here a minute to say "What the hell"? You're gonna tell us about all these "best practices", and then you won't try to see if they actually correlate to better student performance? Are you kidding me? I feel another post coming on later - especially after a quick look at the "research" the NCTQ's recommendations are based on...)

O'Connor puts a little box based entirely based on this report next to her article to compare NJ to the rest of the nation; however, she makes the same mistake. If student achievement is so important, why aren't we comparing achievement in NJ to these other states with different tenure policies?

Maybe because the results NJ gets don't neatly match up with the argument that the system is a mess:

8th Grade NAEP

O'Connor repeats this canard:
Only eight states require districts to consider any evidence of teacher performance as part of tenure decisions, according to the group’s most recent report. The remaining 42 states, including New Jersey, allow districts to award tenure virtually automatically.
It's not "automatic" if you can be fired for no reason in your first three years, is it? And unless and until you can show me statistics about how many teachers are let go in those non-tenure years, your argument is pointless - especially when so many teachers leave the profession in those first three years!

Honestly, this is so frustrating. How hard is this to understand? More to the point, why didn't O'Connor seek out someone to make this opposing case to her readers?! Did she not think that was important?

- One last thing about the NCTQ report before we go on: O'Connor says NJ got a "D" in the report "for its tenure rules." I can't find that anywhere. I did find the 2009 State Teacher Policy Yearbook, which give NJ a "D+" for state policies related to teacher quality - NOT tenure policies. Again, this has nothing to do with the actual quality of the teachers: it is merely NCTQ's assessment of state policies based on what THEY want to see.

The S-L needs to make a correction here.

- One of the big arguments of the 'formers against tenure is that it has become unnecessary. O'Connor parrots:
Today, the situation is different. Dozens of federal and state laws that didn’t exist when tenure was created now protect teachers and everyone else from being fired arbitrarily. Reformers argue teachers no longer need any special protection.
Anti-discrimination laws are critical, but they do not address the specific issues that tenure addresses: corruption, cronyism, academic freedom, grading, etc. Further, do we really want to tie up the courts with lawsuit after lawsuit? Tenure is a process which frees up the legal system; making schools more litigious is a recipe for disaster.

- This kills me:
Because it’s so hard to get rid of bad teachers, many are just shuffled between districts in what’s been dubbed “the dance of the lemons.”
As any NJ teacher will tell you, tenure is only good in the district where you earn it. If you leave for another district, you lose your tenure. How is it possible that it's so hard to get rid of bad teachers if they keep losing their tenure when they go to other districts?

If O'Connor or her editors had any idea what they were talking about, they never would have printed this illogical sentence.

- It's becoming increasingly apparent that the war on teachers is a proxy fight for the war on the middle class. Teaching is one of the last professions that has vestiges of an earlier time when income inequity didn't rob workers of their share of productivity gains.

Rather than make the argument that the compensations teachers earn should be extended to all workers, the political right makes the argument that teachers need to give up the benefits they've traditionally been given in lieu of lower pay, because those benefits are no longer being extended to other workers (in order to fund the extreme concentration of wealth in the very top of our society).

In other words: the middle class lost its pensions, so teachers need to lose their pensions. The middle class lost affordable health care, so teachers need to lose affordable health care.

And the middle class lost union protections and due process, so...
There’s little hope of improving evaluations when tenure still places such an onerous burden of proof on districts to fire people, said Brian Osborne, superintendent of schools for the South Orange and Maplewood district. The mountains of documents, the expense — it creates a chilling effect on administrators.
“It means people get away with too much,” he said. “What district wants to go through the entire process of mounting a case only to lose? Every time that happens, it tells everyone in the system that what they’re supposed to do is tolerate mediocre performance.”

Screw innocent before proven guilt; screw the burden of proof. If we get rid of those antiquated notions, we're much more like to have a servile and compliant teaching corps: one willing to accept lower pay.

- Again: everybody agrees that bad teachers need to go. How many bad teachers we actually have seems to be a question no one wants to answer seriously, but maybe we can get people to ponder this: how do bad teachers get hired in the first place?

Meanwhile, in districts across the state, reformers are chafing against tenure because it stops them from doing the one thing they are certain will help — getting rid of terrible teachers. Shavar Jeffries, president of the school board in Newark, calls tenure “an albatross on our ability to reform our district.” It makes it really tough to do anything about the “substantial” number of underperforming teachers and principals in the city’s schools, he said.
“When you have tenure, it locks in a large proportion of folks who should not be in front of our kids,” he said. “It does frustrate me, absolutely.”
Mr. Jeffries, are you saying your administration goes out of their way to hire bad teachers? Or could it possibly be that we simply don't have a large enough pool of qualified teachers, and your administrators have no choice but to take the ones they can get?

But if that's the case, how will getting rid of tenure help you in the slightest?

I'm going to tackle the rest of this - including the obligatory interview with St. Rhee of Arc - later. Right now I have to do some prep for my "job for life."

1 comment:

Teddy Bear said...

There is so much more that people need to understand about what teachers face day in and day out. Consider that some students have problems at home, danger, abuse, fearing for their life, no support at home that cares about their education, enough food to eat...There was a year I created a "jello-balloon cell lab for students to disectso they could locate cell organelles and determine what the job of the organelles do. I had one kid that was so hungry - he ate the contents of three balloons (surreptitiously). I had not made these balloons sterilely - and the student could have gotten ill. I had to stop doing this. ...and now Chris Crisco pulls money from the breakfast and lunch program...