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

Saturday, May 21, 2011

A Reformy Confession

Via Bruce Baker on the Twitter machine - the very reformy National Council on Teacher Quality admits that even the best teachers aren't the X-Men:
As someone who runs a teacher quality organization, clearly I'd love it if that statement were even remotely accurate but,to be blunt, it's dead wrong. The 'teachers matter' refrain has been spouted so much in the past ten years that, predictably, we've lost important perspective. The truth is that SES and family background still swamp school effects by a 3:1 margin.
In spite of these odds, we can still have daily reminders that teachers matter plenty. But we do schools and teachers an injustice by inflicting upon them superhero powers, especially when we also wrongly insist that superhero status can be achieved just by being basically smart and stupendous results are possible no matter what curriculum is used.
Make no mistake about it. Overcoming the learning deficits of many poor and minority children is a monumental task, one that will take even more collective resolve than putting the first human being on the moon. Teachers deserve an honest accounting of the challenge.
If that's true, Kate, then why are you guys pushing so hard to pay teachers based on (highly inaccurate) measures of student performance?

I still contend that one of the largest problems of the corporate reform movement is that it is being run by people who don't have enough real-life teaching and administration experience. This is a great example. Walsh admits SES "swamps" school effects (of which "teacher quality" is still a subset). Yet she supports using student test scores as a basis for awarding merit pay.

But every elementary teacher knows classes are different. Yes, principals will makes class lists that attempt to distribute academic talent, but they also take into account special needs, disruptive behavior, parents (yes, folks, they do), friendships, and a whole host of other factors. I've seen principals who've unintentionally given a teacher a rough group try to make up for it by giving them an "easier" group the next year. I've seen principals who identify a teacher in a grade level as the one who can get "tough" kids back in line; their Value-Added Modeling scores would never be as high as their peers, but that doesn't mean they aren't doing the job well.

If we're hellbent on using test scores and VAM to rate teachers, all of that has to be thrown away. The only fair way to proceed would be to instead sort the students demographically and then evenly distribute them among classrooms. Let's leave aside that sorting the kids would be impractical, invasive, and probably illegal ("This kid goes in the Asian/male/lower-middle-class/single-parent/heterosexual(we think)/non-college-educated-parents/ESL pile..."). How would you distribute them? By school? Across a district? Across a region?

"Hey, your school has too many white kids; I'll trade you for three free-lunch students and a Pacific-Islander to be named later..."

Are we prepared to go through this just so we can have a teacher evaluation system based on invalid and unreliable measures that is supposed to root out an unspecified number of "bad" teachers? It's insane to even consider it - if you know something about how schools work.

These people clearly do not; further evidence is found in a footnote to Walsh's piece:
*Dale Ballou and others have observed that the teacher contribution is probably somewhat larger the statistics indicate, given that achievement may be mistakenly assigned to SES because parents with the capacity to do so choose their schools and teachers (e.g. through residential choice). Still it would only be marginally larger.
So higher SES parents "choose" "better" teachers. Does Ballou think those teachers who teach high-SES kids would be just as good at teaching low-SES kids?

I'm not even referring to the obvious circular logic here ("good" students make "good" teachers - duh): I'm asking, does a teacher who knows how to reach affluent, suburban, white kids necessarily know how to teach poor, urban, minority kids? Could it possibly be that some teachers teach particular groups of kids better than others?

The answer is obvious, and it negates Ballou's argument. But that's hardly surprising; this stuff is being worked out in the rarified air of Washington think tanks, far from the odor of Crayolas and mystery meat. These people have not reached out to those of us down in the trenches; they consider us the problem, and have convinced themselves it's their duty to "fix" us.

If they'd just stop and listen, maybe they'd see that they are making mistakes that are going to haunt public education for years to come.


Anonymous said...

That SES is socioeconomic status--I think it's important to write out the words, perhaps using all caps!

Plenty of folks are looking to defund (destroy) public eduction, and these evaluation systems, along with new efforts to "raise the bar" while cutting funds and staff will make it all look like a "reform effort."

My classes will have 40 kids in them next Sept. Yeah, I know, if our teachers had accepted a pay freeze, the number would be 37.

Of course, many folks remember when teachers could handle 40 kids--the good old days of bathing once a week, polio, and . . . racism--you won't hear the elderly relatives of my students going on about how wonderful things were.

Lisa said...

They won't stop and listen because they're not trying to reform anything; they're putting their agenda into action. It has nothing to do with education, it's purely political, a two-flanked attack. 1. They want to corporatize education to gain control over public $ and divert it to their cronies and causes for profit and power. 2. Concurrently, they want to disempower and break up the labor unions, starting with the teacher unions under the canard of "Reform", because the unions are the only institutions that raise $ and are organized to get out the Democratic vote in a big way, and the only means the Dems now have to compete with the unlimited corporate $ going to elect Republicans in the wake of the awful Citizens United ruling.

It has nothing to do with education or reform. Education is only a political tool to advance their national agenda on a state-by-state basis to disempower the strongest Democratic political institutions and divert $ to their political supporters who in turn can now give unlimited $ to get Republicans elected.

So, they won't listen, and making educationally sound arguments won't matter. It's all political, and that's the front on which we need to fight them.