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

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Burden of Reformy Proof

Once again, leave it to Matt DiCarlo to cut through the rhetoric and clearly state the issue:
One final note: The truly important point about the “year and a half of learning” argument, just like the ubiquitous “three great teachers in a row can close the achievement gap” talking point, is what they mean for policy (especially since they’re usually used to make policy arguments). They are both stylized ways of saying the same thing, about which there is really very little disagreement – teachers are important. But, even if you take these points at face value, they do little to help answer the critical question that comes next, which is how the distribution of teacher quality can be improved. This is inarguably one of the most urgent issues facing education policy today, from which arguments about these talking points may just serve as a distraction. [emphasis mine]
In other words: yes, having good teachers is important. But that doesn't mean doing just anything will give you better teachers. You've got to do something that you've shown will actually work.

We keep hearing again and again from the reformyists that we are in an educational crisis, and that improving teacher quality is the best way to "save" our schools. Pretty much their entire argument is based on this premise.

We'll leave aside the counterpoint that the high achievement of our most affluent students and the near perfect correlation between poverty and test scores strongly suggest that the issue is not teacher quality, but rather income inequity and economic instability. We'll also put aside the generally accepted precept that only about 10 to 15 percent of a student's educational outcome can be attributed to a teacher.

Let's instead, for the sake of argument, agree that we need to drastically improve the quality of teachers in America. The reformyists have an agenda for doing just that: merit pay, test-based teacher evaluation, ending seniority and tenure, and gutting collective bargaining.

But more than that: they want to implement all of these changes before presenting any proof that they might actually work.

I mostly scratched my head and copied everyone else's notes in Philosophy 101, but I do believe I have a handle on the concept of "burden of proof." Like the hypothetical chumps who point at Russell's teapot revolving around the Sun, those who advocate for the Merit Pay Fairy or charter schools or test-based teacher evaluations or vouchers or the end of seniority or getting rid of the masters bump or any number of other reformy policies have an affirmative obligation to make their case.

In other words: I don't have to prove the Merit Pay Fairy or the Tenured Boogeyman don't exist; the reformyists have to prove they do. And, I'm very sorry to say, not only have they not made their case - the vast majority of the evidence we have is stacked against them.

Take teacher evaluation based on tests; here's Valerie Strauss:
These experts have said over and over and over that the method by which test scores are factored into an evaluation of how effective a teacher is are dramatically unreliable and unfair. Some say it will destroy the teaching profession because it will identify effective teachers as ineffective and ineffective teachers as effective. Some bad teachers will be fired but some good ones will too. Others will leave in disgust.
That’s what happened, for example, in New York City when Carolyn Abbott, who teaches mathematics to seventh- and eighth-graders at the Anderson School, a citywide gifted-and-talented school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, learned that her “value-added” score made her the worst eighth grade teacher in the entire city. The score of course didn’t reflect that her students already scored near 100 percent proficiency and were doing advanced math — but the formula didn’t care.
The value-added formulas actually compare how students are predicted to perform on the state ELA and math tests, based on their prior year’s performance, with their actual performance, as Teachers College Professor Aaron Pallas wrote here. Teachers whose students do better than predicted are said to have “added value”; those whose students do worse than predicted are “subtracting value.” By definition, he wrote, about half of all teachers will add value, and the other half will not.
No, Abbott’s case wasn’t an aberration. Lots of scores are wrong. Yet state after state insists on foisting this on teachers and even principals. [emphasis mine]
So we've tried value-added modeling (VAM) for teacher evaluation. It doesn't work. And we've tried merit pay. It doesn't work. Not only have the reformyists failed to carry the burden of proof; the evidence we do have is overwhelmingly against them.

And yet these people soldier on. Not only are they convinced that they are correct; they demand their agenda be implemented immediately. It's an incredible state of affairs.

Folks, I'll admit that I am taking a position on these things that is self-interested, both as a parent and as a teacher. I don't want to work in a school that worships at the false idol of the bubble test; I don't want to send my kids to that school either. I don't want to lose my tenure, and I would hate to see merit pay turn my workplace into a scene from Glengarry Glen Ross.

But if anyone could meet the burden of proof about any of this stuff, I'd be forced to admit they had a point. If someone could show, with reasonable certainty, that charter schools can help all children succeed, or that VAM isn't riddled with error, or that the Merit Pay Fairy is real... well, I'd have to agree that we should try out their ideas.

The problem is, they can't. Again, I don't have to disprove reformy theories; they have to prove them. And they haven't even come close.

Whaddyu mean, "I ain't real"?!

ADDING: Let me be very, very clear: no one has shown there are masses of bad teachers in our schools. I'm only buying into that premise to show how shallow the argument of the reformyists is.


Seth said...


I just wanted to say that I recently came across this blog and I'm finding it to be a really excellent source of information and arguments. I just wanted to thank you for it. I'm a parent of a 5th grader in Philadelphia. Keep up the great work!

I particularly enjoyed your deconstruction of the Arne Duncan interview.


Duke said...

That means a lot, Seth. Many thx.

5th Grade is where it's happening! Enjoy your child's last year in elementary school - it goes fast.

nikto said...

Good Edublog.
You are telling the truth.

Unfortunately, the privatizers have been working for years to make the truth seem false, and the false seem true.

This American malady got its jump-start in the 1980s with the dishonest tome, America At Risk, which has largely been disproven (but not to the general public yet).

As a retired teacher from Los Angeles, I can attest to the myths that now dominate Public Education while proven data (beside test scores) and daily reality are discredited.

This blog, along with Perimeter Primate and the Susan Ohanian Site, and a few others, is a real source of light.

Duke said...

Susan Ohanian is the godmother to us all; she's been fighting this fight for a long time. PP is always doing good stuff.

If you like them, check out some of the other bloggers to the left. There are many people doing good work.

Thx for the kind words.

Deb said...

A good teacher in front of every classroom is their cure for all that is wrong with our schools, and yet these same people promote virtual schools with no teachers or classrooms. Is it just me that finds that disturbing?