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

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Ryan & Rhee: Phonies Only a Pundit Could Love

Whatever your feelings about Paul Ryan, I'm going to ask you to read what Paul Krugman says here with some detachment. Because he's making a brilliant point about our nation's current education debate - without even mentioning it:
So, let me clarify what I believe is really going on in the choice of Paul Ryan as VP nominee. It is not about satisfying the conservative base, which was motivated anyway by Obama-hatred; it is not about refocusing on the issues, because R&R are both determined to avoid providing any of the crucial specifics about their plans. It is — as Jonathan Chait also seems to understand — about exploiting the gullibility and vanity of the news media, in much the same way that George W. Bush did in 2000.
Like Bush in 2000, Ryan has a completely undeserved reputation in the media as a bluff, honest guy, in Ryan’s case supplemented by a reputation as a serious policy wonk. None of this has any basis in reality; Ryan’s much-touted plan, far from being a real solution, relies crucially on stuff that is just pulled out of thin air — huge revenue increases from closing unspecified loopholes, huge spending cuts achieved in ways not mentioned. See Matt Miller for more.
So whence comes the Ryan reputation? As I said in my last post, it’s because many commentators want to tell a story about US politics that makes them feel and look good — a story in which both parties are equally at fault in our national stalemate, and in which said commentators stand above the fray. This story requires that there be good, honest, technically savvy conservative politicians, so that you can point to these politicians and say how much you admire them, even if you disagree with some of their ideas; after all, unless you lavish praise on some conservatives, you don’t come across as nobly even-handed. [emphasis mine]
Krugman is not only outlining our current political dialogue; he is precisely describing our current debate about education. All he would need to do is substitute "Michelle Rhee" for "Paul Ryan" and his description of the current situation would be perfect.

Rhee, like Ryan, is not a serious wonk; they are fantasists, creating worlds completely detached from reality, based on nothing more than ideology. Rhee, for example, claimed that her students made astonishing gains when she was a teacher:
At issue is a line in Rhee's resume from that year that described her record at Harlem Park Elementary School: "Over a two-year period, moved students scoring on average at the 13th percentile on national standardized tests to 90 percent of students scoring at the 90th percentile or higher."
That is an astonishing claim. If it were true, Rhee would have had every education professor in America surrounding her school. But it wasn't true; in fact, the claim is so preposterous, no one in their right mind would have accepted it without incontrovertible evidence. But the press did, and she is almost never challenged on the claim to this day.

Rhee is also lauded for her "success" in running Washington D.C.'s schools, as is former NYC schools chancellor Joel Klein. In both cases, it's mostly hot air: their "successes" were, at best, incremental and no better than their predecessors or peers. Yet pundits continue to praise both, even as they lash out at teachers and their unions.

How about NJ Education Commissioner Chris Cerf? He continues to say that his tenure at Edison Schools was a success, when any reasonable account would show it to be riddled with disappointment. He makes claims about charter schools and teacher evaluations and New Jersey's public schools' successes and the effects of poverty that are transparently absurd. I've called this "data abuse," and I'm certainly not alone in pointing it out. I will say he is finally getting some push-back, but it's been a long, hard slog from me and Bruce Baker and Matt DiCarlo and ELC and others to finally get even the smallest acknowledgement that we may have a point.

I've often puzzled about this state of affairs: to me, the evidence is simply undeniable. Teacher evaluations through test scores are fatally flawed. Charter schools are not replicable. There is no evidence that tenure hurts student achievement; same with seniority. Vouchers have never worked; neither has merit pay. If you account for poverty, the US does well in international comparisons. Test scores across the county have been rising for years in all demographic groups. And the best thing we could do to help raise scores even more is to address poverty.

Is anyone willing to deny any of this?

The evidence is absolutely indisputable, and it shows that the reformy side of the argument is worthy of great suspicion. I feel for Paul Krugman when he looks at the absolute phoniness of Paul Ryan's schemes, because I feel exactly the same way when I look at the nonsense that StudentsFirst puts out.

And, like Krugman, I am completely exasperated at a punditocracy that refuse to see the truth:
The trouble, of course, is that it’s really really hard to find any actual conservative politicians who deserve that praise. Ryan, with his flaky numbers (and actually very hard-line stance on social issues), certainly doesn’t. But a large part of the commentariat decided early on that they were going to cast Ryan in the role of Serious Honest Conservative, and have been very unwilling to reconsider that casting call in the light of evidence. [emphasis mine]
This is the exact situation with Michelle Rhee: she has been cast as the Serious Honest Reformer, and the pundits refuse to change their minds despite the large pile of evidence that stands against her.

So what do we do about this? The only thing I can think of is to continue to call out the media when they fall into the reformy trap. I know that means we have to put ourselves on the line, which can be embarrassing when we inevitable make a stupid mistake of our own (ahem...). I know that means pissing off some people in the press. I know that means fighting the same fight and saying the same damn thing over and over and over and over...

But what else can we do? We can't sit this out; we owe it to the parents and the teachers and - most important of all - the kids to keep reformyists like Rhee and Klein and Cerf from trashing the American public school system. Someone has to stand up and fight for the teacher who is wrongly dismissed due to a flawed evaluation system, or the student who is "counseled out" of a charter school, or the principal who knows a failed merit pay scheme is going to destroy the morale of her staff. Someone has to point out the utter phoniness of the reformy types - repeatedly, if needed.

As Diane Ravitch has said, there will come a day when we look back at this and sigh, "What were we thinking?" When that day comes, I'd like to be able to look at myself in the mirror and think I did all I could to stop it. I'd like to be able to say that I wasn't silent, even as the pundits I challenged continued to push policies that they didn't fully understand at the time.

I'd rather say I stood with the Krugmans and the Ravitches and the Bakers than the Rhees and the Kleins and the Cerfs. Wouldn't you?


Galton said...

You have fought the good fight: you hold the moral high ground.

Duke said...

Thanks Galton, as always!