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

Monday, April 30, 2012

The Last Straw

All of you teachers reading me right now, get this straight, for once and for all:

They do not respect you!
Albany, NY (April 30, 2012)

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo today established the New NY Education Reform Commission, bringing together nationally-recognized education, community, and business leaders to recommend reforms to the state's education system in order to improve performance in the classroom so that all of New York's students are fully prepared for their futures.

The Commission will examine the current structure of the state's education system including teacher recruitment and performance, student achievement, education funding and costs, parent and family engagement, problems facing high-need districts, and the best use of technology in the classroom. The Commission will also analyze the organization of school districts to ensure they are structured to meet the needs of New York's students while also respecting the taxpayer. 
Membership of the Commission includes: 
Richard (Dick) Parsons, Retired Chairman, Citigroup, Chair of the New NY Education Reform Commission
Randi Weingarten, President, American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO
Geoffrey Canada, Founder & CEO, Harlem Children's Zone
Irma Zardoya, President & CEO, NYC Leadership Academy
Elizabeth Dickey, President, Bank Street College of Education
Mary Anne Schmitt-Carey, President, Say Yes to Education
Lisa Belzberg, Founder & Chair Emeritus, PENCIL
Michael Rebell, Co-Founder & Executive Director, Campaign for Educational Equity
Karen Hawley Miles, President & Executive Director, Education Resource Strategies
José Luis Rodríguez, Founder & CEO, Hispanic Information and Telecommunications Network, Inc.
Sara Mead, Associate Partner, Bellwether Education Partners
Eduardo Martí, Vice Chancellor of Community Colleges, CUNY
Thomas Kane, Professor of Education & Economics, Harvard Graduate School of Education
Jean Desravines,CEO, New Leaders
Michael Horn, Executive Director & Co-Founder, InnoSight Institute
Chancellor Nancy Zimpher, Chancellor, SUNY
Chancellor Matthew Goldstein, Chancellor, CUNY
John B. King, Jr., Commissioner, New York State Education Department
Senator John Flanagan, Chair, Senate Education Committee
Assembly Member Cathy Nolan, Chair, Assembly Education Committee
Not one working teacher. Not one working principal. Not one superintendent, with the possible exception - if we really stretch it - of the very reformy and chartery Geoffrey Canada.

This is a disgusting and completely unacceptable slight to all of the people who work every day to serve the children of New York State. How dare Governor Cuomo treat the educators of this state in such a manner.

Randi Weingarten, I am talking to you right now: You had better go straight to Cuomo and demand that he appoint at least six teachers, three principals, and three superintendents or other administrators immediately to this commission. If he refuses, you need to resign from this commission and publicly denounce it as an affront to all of the Empire State's educators.

Folks, the reason they get away with garbage like this is because we let them. NO MORE! We here in Jersey had to put up with a Educator Effectiveness Task Force with only one working teacher, and the results have been a disaster.

This is about respect. If you politicians and business titans and other members of the elite refuse to give us just the courtesy of having a place at the table - correction, at OUR table - then we will refuse to cooperate.

You owe it to the children of this nation to sit down, shut up for a minute, and listen to the people who actually do the job.

Preach it, Aretha:

ADDING: Parents, they don't respect you, either.

Can You Get a Tomato Pie in LA?

It looks like ACTING NJ Education Commissioner Chris Cerf has decided to relocate control of New Jersey's schools from Trenton to Los Angeles:
Broad Residency fellows such as Bing Howell and Rochelle Sinclair are chosen, trained, paid and placed by the Broad Foundation’s decade-old educational transformation initiative.

Broad has placed them with the New Jersey Department of Education, which has three high-level leaders, including acting Commissioner Christopher Cerf, with ties to Broad.

Howell and Sinclair are young middle-level employees with MBAs, but relatively little experience in education. Despite that, they serve important roles central to the future of the Camden school district.

Howell serves as a liaison to Camden for the creation of four Urban Hope Act charter schools. Howell reports directly to the deputy commissioner of education.

Sinclair is assigned to the office of school improvement, which will oversee the creation of a regional achievement center, or RAC, in Camden. The RAC is meant to turnaround 23 of the district’s failing schools.

Sinclair reports to Penny MacCormack, the chief academic officer and assistant commissioner of academics for the Department of Education. Like Cerf, MacCormack is a graduate of a Broad Foundation training program for superintendents.
Eli Broad started with Newark; then he moved on to Jersey City. Now, his brood will be running the whole state. And they multiply like rabbits:
One of Broad’s most substantial critics is Diane Ravitch, who was assistant secretary of education in the administration of President George H.W. Bush. She has questioned the “education venture philanthropy” practiced by the foundation.

Last week in an email she said that “Broad graduates are known for their predilection for closing down public education and handing it over to private agencies.”

Ravitch, now an education historian at New York University, was quoted in the Education Week story.

“What I see happening is that they colonize districts. Once there’s a Broad superintendent, he surrounds himself with Broad fellows, and they have a preference towards privatization. It happens so often, it makes me wonder what they’re teaching them.”

The colonization Ravitch spoke about, the placement of Broad superintendents and resident fellows where there are already Broad alumnus, is known as pipelining, which appears to be happening at the DOE.
It's worth repeating that these people have very limited education experience or training, and the Broad Academy is not an accredited program in higher education. The fact that they play-pretend to have gone through a rigorous program is an affront to real educators and real education schools everywhere.

We've talked before about William Cox and his conflicts of interest with the NJDOE; here's an update from this article:
In addition to the hiring of Broad-trained personnel, the DOE is using a $60,000 grant from the foundation to pay for a consulting contract with a man who has taught at Broad.

The three-month contract is with William Cox's DSA Capital. Cox has taught at Broad's academy for superintendents. DSA's review is expected to suggest restructuring plans for the DOE.
So the DOE took a grant from Eli Broad to pave the way for more of his acolytes to infiltrate New Jersey's schools. I have enormous problems with that. These are New Jersey's schools, not Eli Broad's. The people of New Jersey should be deciding how to run them, through their elected representatives. Unconfirmed appointees should not be taking private money to restructure our school system, if only because a lot of baggage comes with these funds:
But the committee's chairman, Louis D. Greenwald, D-Camden, questioned awarding the contract to Cox’s firm without a public bidding process; no bidding was done because Broad picked up the tab for the DSA contract. Greenwald did not respond to a request for comment last week.

The makeup of the foundation’s education board and their connections adds grist to critics’ comments.

• The chairman is Joel Klein. He was chancellor of the New York City Board of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He is now an executive vice president of News Corporation, Rupert Murdoch’s media company.
Joel Klein's company is expanding rapidly and no doubt is looking at many business opportunities in New Jersey's schools. It is completely inappropriate for the NJDOE to take money from a foundation where he serves on the board. Another example:
Dan Katzir is secretary/treasurer. He once ran the Broad Foundation and still serves as an advisor to Broad. An MBA, he is a former regional director for Sylvan Learning Systems, which provides educational coaching.
Sylvan offers test prep in the SAT and the ACT. Well, just today, the NJDOE released a report that recommends the following:
RECOMMENDATION 7- The Task Force recommends that the state Department of Education carefully examines the following issues during the time of transition.
Time Potential Need for Changes in Teacher Education Programs Bridging the Gap
Most importantly, perhaps, the Task Force examined the need for transitional programs. In order to bridge the gap between the present and 2017-18, when the Accuplacer® will no longer be necessary, the Task Force has introduced an idea to establish a short term interim process. High school students who do not achieve agreed-upon levels of proficiency on the SAT or ACT at the end of grade 11 will have the option of taking the Accuplacer® test (during the transitional period) to identify remediation needs and provide guidance for their placement in one or more appropriate bridge courses. [emphasis mine]
Think there's a conflict of interest here, now that we're talking about putting SAT scores on student's transcripts? And how about this member of Broad's board?
• Michelle Rhee is the founder and CEO of StudentsFirst, which advocates transforming education. She is the former chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools, where she clashed with unions and was criticized for not working with parents.
Students First partners with B4K, which recently ran a big public relations campaign in defense of suspended Perth Amboy superintendent Janine Caffrey. Reports are the NJDOE came in to mediate. Do you think the people of Perth Amboy would see the NJDOE as an impartial adjudicator when so many of their staff owe a debt to an organization where Rhee serves on the board?

Newark, Jersey City, Camden, Perth Amboy... what's that suburbs? You think you're immune? That this tide of reforminess couldn't show up at your door?

As if.

The infestation of Broadies into the NJDOE leaves the department open to charges of nepotism and conflict-of-interest. There are too many people with too many personal and financial interests in New Jersey's schools to allow this to continue. The department needs to cut its ties to Broad and return any money he has invested in the NJDOE. If they won't, the Legislature has an obligation to investigate exactly what conflicts of interest arise from this unseemly intrusion.

(About the title: this is a tomato pie. You put the cheese on first, then the sauce. Trenton's famous for them; they do everything backwards there...)

Sunday, April 29, 2012

There IS a Teacher Labor Market

I find it hysterical that so many of the "corporate reformers" also love to sing the praises of the free market. They seem to believe that they can cap salaries and take away pensions, benefits, and workplace protections, but somehow still attract loads of qualified people to the field - in complete contradiction to their stated beliefs about the private sector.

Take tenure; somehow, the reformies think you can take it away and teachers (and potential teachers) will never notice:
Teacher tenure, in both higher-education and K-12 schooling, is an important mechanism for attracting talent. Stanford’s Terry Moe, a strong union critic, finds in his polling that “most teachers see the security of tenure as being worth tens of thousands of dollars a year.” His survey suggests a majority of teachers would need to be paid 50 percent more to give up tenure. Take away tenure without substantially increasing pay, and the pool of qualified candidates for the teaching profession is likely to shrink. (Although some might argue that talented teachers will feel confident and flock to teaching even without tenure, research has long found that self-confidence and actual ability are not as tightly correlated as one would hope.) [emphasis mine]
"Talented teachers" are most likely talented in other areas as well. Why would they "flock" to teaching when they can be paid much more in other jobs that don't offer tenure?

There used to be some logic in the way teachers were compensated. Yes, they made less than other parts of the labor market, but society made it up in other ways: pensions, health care, tenure, etc. This was a good deal for taxpayers: it saved them money by providing non-pecuniary compensations to educators.

Well, we've pretty much destroyed any advantage teachers had in health care and pensions at this point. Now we're going to take away tenure. Politicians like Chris Christie and Arne Duncan keep saying they'll make up for this by "paying the best teachers more," but why should any teacher (or potential teacher) believe them when they won't come up with a serious, concrete plan to do just that? They want us to give up our benefits and tenure just on their promises?

Look at the top of this blog, and tell me what a promise from Chris Christie is worth.

This entire reformy movement has been all about cutting teacher compensation. The hope among the reformy is that we have so decimated the middle class that teachers will have no choice but to give in, because everyone else has sucky benefits, pay, and workplace protections.

The problem is that, even though the American aristocracy has done some real damage over the last 30 years, they haven't yet brought down the entire labor market. Teachers (and potential teachers) still have other options. They don't have to teach if they don't think it's worth it; they can go do something else.

Now, at this point in the argument, the reformyist will trot out his appeal to sainthood, a la Chris Christie:
I think for those people who are feeling discouraged right now, because they're going to have to pay a percentage of their health insurance premium, or they're going to have to pay one or two points more towards a lifetime pension, then I would suggest to you respectfully that those people have completely lost touch with reality, and probably didn't have the passion to begin with.
See, a good teacher must be a saint. The regular rules of the marketplace - the ones Christie cheers as he provides tax giveaways to the "job creators" - just don't apply to teachers. It's OK to be motivated by money if you're in business, but it's not OK to passively accept lower wages, broken promises, and the abolition of tenure if you're a teacher. Anyone who does that isn't "passionate" enough.

Like Chris Christie was "passionate" about corporate lobbying. Of course, his passions paid off...

Just a couple of the sacrifices Chris Christie made to follow his "passions"...

Tom Moran Doubles Down


Tom Moran, op-ed editor of the Star-Ledger, tried to make a folk hero out of Janine Caffrey in his pages. And he will not allow his hard work in making her an icon to be undone:
Janine Caffrey, the superintendent of Perth Amboy schools, has been shut out of her office and sent home.
No one disputes that she works hard and that she was putting in place exactly the reforms she promised when she was hired less than a year ago. No one questions her integrity or her intelligence.
This has to be a record: two paragraphs and already Tom is wrong. Someone does question her integrity: Perth Amboy school member Israel Varela. I know this not because I read Tom's outrageously biased op-ed pages, but because I read a tiny hyper-local, The Amboy Guardian, which seems far more interested than Tom in getting the story right:
Varela also stated that Dr. Caffrey has been misinforming the public. He named one case in which the Superintendent claimed that an employee of the school system was on drugs and because of tenure she was not able have her removed. “First of all if someone is on drugs they must be taken to the hospital and it has to documented and those documents must be brought before the Board. Again, show me the proof, Dr. Caffrey! (The documentations of this occurring.) And again I will resign immediately. If not, you need to leave!”
“There was also an incident where a staff member reportedly washed out a student’s mouth out with soap according to Dr. Caffrey which turned out to be totally untrue.” Varela stated that this incident occurred two years before Caffrey was hired, “And I knew who the educator was that was falsely accused. As a matter of fact, this child was acting up in school and the students grandfather showed up to the school to see what the problem was. After being told about his grandchild’s being disrespectful in class, the grandfather proceeded to take something out of his pocket and put it in the child’s mouth which turned out to be a small bar of soap. This action was done so quickly that the teacher did not even notice it. The teacher was not aware of what was actually put into the child’s mouth until the object was spit out by the student. If we Board Members did not find out the truth, that teacher would have been fired. This was just one instance of a case that Dr. Caffrey jumped the gun and was about dismiss an educator before finding out the facts.”
“Money is not being spent wisely. Dr. Caffrey should take a look at what programs are currently being used to educate our students and see if they can be updated instead of displacing them completely with brand new ones.”
“I do not view Dr. Caffrey as constantly going to the media as being professional.”
That is a direct accusation about Caffrey's integrity. Is it correct? I don't know - but neither does Moran!

You'll notice that Varela has a problem with Caffrey "constantly going to the media"; I am assuming that means Moran. This is, of course, a matter of opinion, but there's no doubt Caffrey resides in the media spotlight quite frequently. All the more reason to be skeptical of this, from Moran's column:
"I’m not a politician," Caffrey says. "I didn’t think I signed on to be a politician. I’m an educator. I think superintendents in these communities are forced to think like a politician in order to survive. And my biggest mistake is that I don’t think that way."
First of all, like any politician, Caffrey uses the media to her advantage. She's now been on 101.5 multiple times, she's practically got her own column in the S-L, and B4K has been running a public relations campaign in her defense. Protesting that she "isn't a politician" while working the press this hard is more than a little dissonant.

Second: if Caffrey had ever worked as an administrator in a New Jersey school district before she took this job, maybe she would have known something about how to work with school boards. According to her own resume, her only public school administration experience was in NYC from 2009 to 2011: years when the schools were under direct mayoral control. So if she's right and she made this mistake, it's reasonable to assume she made it due to inexperience.

Which brings us back to Moran: he made her a star-witness in the media against tenure, even though she had not completed even one year as a superintendent in New Jersey. He didn't bother to check whether her anecdotes were true. He barely published any dissenting voices to her opinions. Instead, he gave her the patented Moran-style hagiography (a la David Tepper).

Let me be clear: there's nothing wrong with talking to a first-year superintendent about tenure. There's nothing wrong with that superintendent making a case against tenure, weak as it may be. But this is a matter of balance. Where are the experienced voices of educational leadership in New Jersey? Where are the teachers and administrators who would make the case for tenure? Because I don't see them in Tom Moran's op-ed page.

What I see is knee-jerk, ill-informed, facile finger-pointing, like this:
This is a cautionary tale about how politics can derail school reform. Because when you try to change the way schools do business, it upsets the adults every time.
Some of that is based on old-school greed. Teachers unions, for example, generally want sturdy raises every year and no accountability. Some of it is genuine, based on skepticism about charter schools or tenure reform. Some, especially in Newark, is rooted in suspicion of outside influences.
Those forces, when combined, make for a potent defense of the status quo. And if we expect superintendents to overcome that by themselves, then reform is never going to gain momentum. They need help.
"Old-school greed." Yeah that's why I got into teaching, Tom: the greed. You know, fast times, loose women, pots of money...

More like pay cuts, destroyed pensions, and a media that keeps blaming us for problems we didn't create. A media that is run by folks, like Moran, who would take away our workplace protections on the say-so of people who have minimal experience leading this state's schools.

UPDATE: From the comments of Moran's piece, Moran himself weighs in:

Tom Moran/ The Star-Ledger April 29, 2012 at 9:14AM
I think we can do better than this. How about we elevate the discussion to the substance, and move off the personal insults?
I don't see it as teacher bashing to say that tenure protects those teachers that are incompetent. There are incompetents in all fields, including journalism. The point is there has to be some way to try to improve them, and if that fails, get rid of them. Current tenure laws don't allow that.
If you have a problem with Caffrey's credentials, your beef is with this board who hired her, less than a year ago. She's doing exactly what she said she would do.
As for charters, I don't see them as a panacea. The bad ones should be shut down, just as persistently failing traditional schools should be. But there is no doubt that many charters are succeeding wildly. You can visit them. Why else would 10,000 kids in Newark be on waiting lists?
As for families, yes, clearly poverty and parental neglect are key factors in student failure. Where does that leave us? Should we then say that nothing can be done, or should we try our best? It is not hopeless. You can see in almost every district there are a handful of schools that are doing well, despite this problem. And low income kids from broken families in New Jersey do a lot better than the same kind of family in Mississippi, where they spend far less.
These are tough questions. Hurling insults and indulging your own biases to shoo the issues away is a cop out.[emphasis mine]
From the article itself:
Some of that is based on old-school greed. Teachers unions, for example, generally want sturdy raises every year and no accountability. Some of it is genuine, based on skepticism about charter schools or tenure reform. Some, especially in Newark, is rooted in suspicion of outside influences. [emphasis mine]
If you look at the details in Perth Amboy, you want to scream. The charge against Caffrey is led by board president Samuel Lebreault, who is under investigation by the state Attorney General’s Office because he applied for free school lunches for his kids, even though he says he knew he didn’t qualify.
He has no cogent explanation for why he filed that application. So here’s a good guess: He wanted to cash in on some old-fashioned Jersey favoritism. When state investigators started sniffing at this, his application mysteriously disappeared from the district files. Local police are investigating that. [emphasis mine]
Lebreault did promise last week to reconsider the district’s policy on student suspensions, put in place by Caffrey. When she arrived, 38 percent of high school students had been suspended in the previous year. That had become the go-to response on discipline, the lazy response.
So a new policy was put into effect: Caffrey had to approve any student suspension. The rate plunged to 10 percent, closer to the norm.
But rumors spread that she had banned all suspensions, leading to chaos. Dozens of parents complained at a raucous school committee meeting.
Somehow, Caffrey got the blame, even though this policy was approved in advance by the school committee. Also worth noting: All four board members who voted to oust her face re-election this year.
They grew weak-kneed, in other words. And like Pontius Pilate, they threw Caffrey to the crowd. [emphasis mine]
No personal insults here, no sir. Nothing to see here; move along...

 As to the rest of the comment:

  • Current tenure laws most certainly do allow for the removal of incompetent teachers; the problem - which everyone acknowledges - is that the procedure is too lengthy, costly, and ambiguous. That can be fixed; even the NJEA wants to fix it. This is a straw man argument.
  • Anyone who has a beef with Caffrey's credentials should question why the PA BOE hired her. But they should also question why the woman was given multiple platforms to spout off against tenure in the Star-Ledger. That was Moran's choice; not the PA BOE's, but Moran's. He put this woman on his pages, gave her a heroine's treatment, and never once questioned whether what she was saying was accurate or informed by relevant experience. The readers of the S-L have every right to express their displeasure at this, and Moran's pearl-clutching call for civility does not lessen the validity of their complaint.
  • I would address the charters comment, but I think I've already written the same thing about one-hundred-billion times, so what's the point?
  • About Mississippi and tenure:
The film's treatment of teachers and unions drew some criticism at a screening and discussion of the movie sponsored by Parents for Public Schools Jackson last week at the Malco Grandview Theatre in Madison.

With its anti-union, right-to-work status, Mississippi has no full-fledged teachers' union. The state does have two "professional organizations," Mississippi Professional Educators and the Mississippi Association of Educators, a chapter of the National Education Association--which organizes as a union in other states and is the largest labor union in the country. 

MAE President Kevin Gilbert took offense at the documentary's portrayal of groups like his. "It was obvious that the movie's statement was that teacher organizations are part of the problem," Gilbert said later.

The critique of teachers' unions also has little relevance for Mississippi, as the state lacks the tenure protections of other states, Gilbert argued. Organizations like Gilbert's have no collective bargaining status. The state Legislature sets the standard teacher's contract.

The state's employment laws for teachers actually provide considerable protection, though. After working for a school district for two consecutive years, a teacher is protected by the state's Education Employment Procedures Law. The law requires administrators planning not to renew a teacher's contract at the end of the school year to notify them in writing by March 1. Administrators must also document their reasons for non-renewal. In practice, Gilbert says, this means that principals must observe the teacher and write out an improvement plan--which the teacher must fail to complete--before issuing the non-renewal notice. The teacher is then allowed to request a hearing with the school board.

The EEPL does not list justifiable reasons for non-renewal, but a separate code section lists reasons for dismissal as "incompetence, neglect of duty, immoral conduct, intemperance, brutal treatment of a pupil, or other good cause." [emphasis mine]
Tenure-ish? Unionization-lite? Doesn't seem like neutering the unions and gutting tenure helped much down in Mississippi, did it? Well, maybe if they got rid of even those small protections they give to teachers, things will turn around. They just need to make themselves even less like a unionized, tenured-teacher corps, high-performing state like NJ, right?

That would make total sense...

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Why Teachers Need Tenure

Diane Ravitch responds to a particularly bad piece in The New Republic (did I really used to subscribe to this rag?) calling for the gutting of tenure:

In an editorial called “Making the Grade: The Case Against Tenure in Public Schools,” the editors argued that it was a fine idea to remove any job protections from public school teachers because they don’t need them. In making this assertion, the editors of this once-liberal magazine were giving support to the far-right Virginia legislature, which was at that moment not only trying to strip teachers of tenure but to require women to have “a trans-vaginal ultrasound before having an abortion.” The editorial of course condemned the latter as harsh, but thought that the far-right effort to remove job protection from public school teachers as a “halfway decent idea.” Indeed, the editorial went on to decry teacher tenure as “the least sane element” in our country’s education system.

The editorial claimed that after a few years, teachers get job protection that “makes it extremely difficult to fire them for the rest of their careers.” The source of this claim is the conservative National Council on Teacher Quality. TNR goes on to say that university professors deserve tenure because they are “our country’s idea factories,” so they must be free to explore unpopular ideas and to be protected from “ideological or intellectual retribution.”
By contrast, the editorial maintains, K-12 teachers need no such protection. They don’t create ideas, they don’t delve into controversial subjects. Their job is so important that they should be fired if they aren’t doing it right (let us assume for the moment that “doing their best work at all times” in Virginia means teaching what the Virginia legislature wants to hear and not teaching what it finds abominable).
But why do teachers need due process rights? Are they merely transmitters of information or do they too deal in ideas? I would argue that teachers must be free to teach and students must be free to learn. In the states trying so hard to eliminate teacher tenure–and in those that long ago succeeded–teachers put their jobs in peril if they teach about evolution, abortion, global warming, or many of the other hot-button issues of the day. If they teach a book that offends community values (and the American Library Association has a list of the 100 most-challenged books of the year, which includes Harry Potter books), they can be fired. [emphasis mine]
Is Ravitch overstating her case? Is this really a problem? Are K-12 teachers under the gun to adhere to ideological views rather than teach what has been arrived at through the scientific method or the application of reason and logic?

You tell me:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Don McLeroy
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Again: "Someone has got to stand up to the experts." Says it all, doesn't it?

This cat, who holds a degree as a medical professional (!), believes that dinosaurs lived at the same time as humans. And he served as the Chairman of the Texas State Board of Education.

These people are everywhere; don't try to convince yourself they aren't. They serve on boards of education throughout the country - even in the smart, sophisticated, "we-would-never-do-that-here!" Northeast.

How would you like to be a librarian at a school where Don McLeroy served on the local board? Would you like to justify the dinosaur books you check out to kindergarteners? Or the menorah you put up on the windowsill next to the Christmas tree?

The New Republic, in all their condescension, forgets the most important thing about schools: they're where we train children to think. Unfortunately, there are many adults out there who don't like it when children think; they prefer unquestioning rote behavior, like filling in the correct bubbles on a sheet of paper.

If we are to ever have any hope of retaining our prominence in the world, we'd better make sure the Don McLeroys of the world do not get to interfere with the work of our teachers. We need tenure.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Why Newspapers Are Dying: Perth Amboy Edition

Whoo, boy:
PERTH AMBOY – In an exclusive interview with School Board Member Israel Varela said he puts his money where his mouth is.“What is the most important to me are the students, community and school staff,” states Israel Varela. Varela was responding to the allegations brought up by the Superintendent accusing him of going to her to try to place his friends in jobs in the school system.
“If Dr. Caffrey could produce evidence of this infraction I will resign immediately. If not, I think she should resign effective immediately.”
Varela also stated that Dr. Caffrey has been misinforming the public. He named one case in which the Superintendent claimed that an employee of the school system was on drugs and because of tenure she was not able have her removed. “First of all if someone is on drugs they must be taken to the hospital and it has to documented and those documents must be brought before the Board. Again, show me the proof, Dr. Caffrey! (The documentations of this occurring.) And again I will resign immediately. If not, you need to leave!”
“There was also an incident where a staff member reportedly washed out a student’s mouth out with soap according to Dr. Caffrey which turned out to be totally untrue.” Varela stated that this incident occurred two years before Caffrey was hired, “And I knew who the educator was that was falsely accused. As a matter of fact, this child was acting up in school and the students grandfather showed up to the school to see what the problem was. After being told about his grandchild’s being disrespectful in class, the grandfather proceeded to take something out of his pocket and put it in the child’s mouth which turned out to be a small bar of soap. This action was done so quickly that the teacher did not even notice it. The teacher was not aware of what was actually put into the child’s mouth until the object was spit out by the student. If we Board Members did not find out the truth, that teacher would have been fired. This was just one instance of a case that Dr. Caffrey jumped the gun and was about dismiss an educator before finding out the facts.”
“Money is not being spent wisely. Dr. Caffrey should take a look at what programs are currently being used to educate our students and see if they can be updated instead of displacing them completely with brand new ones.”
“I do not view Dr. Caffrey as constantly going to the media as being professional.”
This comes from a little hyper-local in Perth Amboy: The Amboy Guardian. Yes, the writing could stand a little polishing (I know what it's like to regret not having an editor). The paper itself admits it's "quirky." But guess what? Unlike the op-ed pages of the Star-Ledger, this little outlet is willing to give both sides of the story; here's part of their interview with Caffrey:
Amboy Guardian: In the beginning Sam Lebreault was your biggest cheerleader. When did you notice a change in his attitude toward you from positve to negative?
Janine Walker Caffrey: About September 21, 2011 an investigation of Sam Lebreault began in the Attorney General’s Office. Lebreault then started to bring a list of 14 allegations against me. After a lengthy process there was a special meeting on Saturday, October 29, 2011. That morning there was a snowstorm. At that meeting it was discussed about the issues at hand. I thought things were going well. I began to have discussions with every Board Member individually.
AG: When did Sam Lebreault approach you about hiring his friends for district jobs?
JWC: Sam Lebreault attempted to hire the individual in June after I was appointed but before I officially started to work as a superintendent.
AG: Is there any proof of Lebreault asking you to hire his friends for district jobs? How was this communicated? Phone? Email? Person? at a school or non-school function? Was there any witnesses?
JWC: I cannot get into specifics because of ongoing legal investigations.
Following this is an interview with another school board member, in which he drops a fairly big bombshell:
I am really blessed to have the Board attorney looking out for me. Since I have close relatives that are still employed in the district. I will not be a part of the voting process in determining the outcome of Dr. Caffrey’s employment. I fear if we let Dr. Caffrey go we will lose the new High School. The state will look upon the Board as wasting taxpayers dollars because we do not know how to manage our own money. Then the state will not give us a new High School. [emphasis mine]
That's an interesting new wrinkle, to say the least.

Again: I have no idea who is a fault here. But this little paper/website is willing to do what Tom Moran is not: give both sides of the story. They haven't pre-judged the matter before the facts are all in.

For all their faults, I find myself admiring the journalistic ethics of small outlets like this more than the big boys.

Phony Precision in Teacher Evaluations

Let's talk more about phony precision in teacher evaluations:

As I said before, using standardized test scores for even a small part of teacher evaluations is problematic, because the test is only part of the evaluation, but it's all of the decision. Because the rest of a teacher's evaluation is based on imprecise measures like observations, the very precise score a teacher gets on his or her students' tests takes over the rest of the evaluation.

For example: let's say a teacher in a district has to be cut. If two teachers are rated in their observations as "partially effective," the one with a lower ranting based on testing will lose her job - even if her observation shows she was almost rated "effective," and the other teacher was almost "ineffective."

What's worse is that all of the evidence shows that the the use of tests in teacher evaluations leads to high error rates: the teachers' ratings will show a phony precision. We will be making precise high-stakes decisions based on evidence that is not accurate enough. This is a serious problem; I would wager implementing this arbitrary decision making will be enough to delegitimize the profession of teaching so much as to fundamentally change the profession for the worse.

Now, one of the responses to this argument is to say that we should try to make teacher observations more precise. We should use observation tools, like Danielson's Framework, to give us a more accurate "score" of a teacher's effectiveness than merely saying the teacher is "Ineffective, Partially Effective, Effective, and Highly Effective."

Washington D.C. already tried this under Michelle Rhee's IMPACT system. Let's see how they make it work:

This is a sample of a teacher's score after five observations. In each observation, the teacher was rated on a scale of 1 to 4, 4 being the highest. All of the scores are averaged to give us a final teacher score of 3.7.

Let's suppose that this year, DCPS decides to give a merit pay bonus to every teacher who earns a 3.7 or higher. Hooray! It's bonus time for this teacher. Sorry all you 3.6's; you were so close! Well, better luck next year...

"Wait!" says the reformyist. "At least this is fair! At least we're not giving breathing bonuses just for getting through another year! This is much better, because the better teacher is getting the bonus. Sure it's only a 0.1 difference, but at least it's fair!"

Is it? Allow me another inperfect metaphor:

A grant for snow-removal is available after a week-long blizzard for the town with the biggest average snowfall. Two cities claim to average the most snowfall: Ravitchton and Rheeville. Snowfall in both is measured in feet:

Mon3 ft.3 ft.
Tue3 ft.3 ft.
Wed3 ft.4 ft.
Thurs2 ft.3 ft.
Fri3 ft.3 ft.
2.8 ft.3.2 ft.

Well, there you have it: Rheeville averages more snowfall.

Except we then find out there were more accurate readings taken*:

3.9 ft.
3.1 ft.
3.6 ft.
3.2 ft.
3.8 ft.
4.1 ft.
2.9 ft.
3.1 ft.
3.8 ft.
3.0 ft.
3.6 ft.
3.3 ft.

Uh-oh: looks like we gave that grant for extra snow removal to the wrong town...

Averaging the multiple ratings in the first table did not make the snowfall measurement more accurate; it merely gave the illusion of precision. Only when we can make the initial measurement more accurate can we derive an overall score that we can confidently act upon.

Now, I have yet to see a teacher evaluation rubric that claims observers can make distinctions between various elements of teaching practice at more than a few different levels. Danielson uses four; Impact uses four. No more precision should be attributed to a teachers "score" from an observation than that.

And if that's true... well, we're back to where we were with standardized tests. The test is only part of the evaluation, but it is the majority of the decision.

And if a teacher's livelihood depends on that test's score, what do you think she's going to do? Not teach to the test?

I doubt it.

* Some of you may be reading this thinking: "Wait a minute; you're not rounding correctly. If that 3.9 of Ravitchtown's was rounded to a 4, you wouldn't have nearly the disparities. So teacher evaluations won't be as inaccurate as you suggest." Good point, except:

1) We're still dealing with ranges of values captured under a single numeric value; that means we're still going to have margins of error. Here's the table if we rounded:

4 ft.
3 ft.
4 ft.
3 ft.
4 ft.
4 ft.
3 ft.
3 ft.
4 ft.
3 ft.
3.8 ft.
3.2 ft.

Uh-oh: now we've exaggerated the actual difference between the cities. If we had more cities competing, that shift may have made a difference.

The point stands: you can't generate precision simply by adding more observations or more things to observe.

2) I think my analogy is more apt when it comes to teacher ratings. You get an "Effective" if you meet a minimal requirement; you get "Highly Effective" if you meet the next minimal requirement. A 3.1 is functionally the same as a 3.9 in this system: neither got a 4.0, even though the 3.9 was close.

But make your case in the comments; I'm always glad to see something I may have missed. Just don't be a jerk about it, OK?

ADDING: Look at the IMPACT TLF Framework again. Notice that the scores are all two-digit numbers, but the values are only one-digit. In other words, the score is given as "3.0," but there is never a "3.1" or a "3.2." It's always rounded to an integer.

That's deceptive garbage, and I'm amazed no one's called this system out before. Well, maybe they have, and I haven't seen it.

You don't add a ".0" to a value unless you are going to actually have the possibility of using that digit after the decimal to assign a value. Danielson's framework doesn't allow for that: you give a 1, 2, 3, or 4, and nothing in between.

Whoever put this together is using math to create phony precision. It's completely fraudulent and I'd say unethical.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Best Piece on Education This Year

Seriously, it is, from Paul Thomas:
One distinct flaw in that development has been a trickle-down effect reaching from presidents and governors to state superintendents of education and school board chairs and members: people who have no or very little experience or expertise as educators or scholars attain leadership positions responsible for forming and implementing education policy. 
The faces and voices currently leading the education reform movement in the U.S. are appointees and self-proclaimed reformers who, while often well-meaning, lack significant expertise or experience in education: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, billionaire Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee (whose entrance to education includes the alternative route of Teach for America and only a few years in the classroom), and Sal Khan, for example. 
Bureaucracy bestows authority and a hierarchy on education that allows and perpetuates leadership without expertise or experience. The consequences include the two most vivid examples of why education reform has failed and will continue to fail: (1) Inexpert leadership is ideologically committed to solutions and thus implements solutions without identifying and clarifying the problems first, and (2) inexpert leadership that is in constant flux, with the perpetual changes in administrations, is apt to implement the same solutions over and over with different outcomes expected. 
Inexpert political leaders believe in and act upon a faith in the effectiveness of their cult of personality. They say by their actions, "I can do this where others have not" -- triggering the American cultural faith in rugged individualism. [emphasis mine]
Yep. Yep. Yep.

Read the whole thing. Please. He just nails it.

Tom Moran: Reformy Mind Reader

What are we going to do with Tom Moran?
Congratulations to the Perth Amboy school board for the double-whammy last night when it voted to place Superintendent Janine Caffrey on administrative leave.
This move will waste money and hurt kids. Nice going.
Caffrey did nothing to deserve this. The charge against her was led by the board president, Samuel Lebreault, who is under investigation for trying to get free lunch for his kids even though he acknowledges he doesn't qualify. Caffrey has been cooperating with that investigation, which may be the reason Lebreault is aiming at her.
On the other hand, maybe that's not it. Maybe it's because Caffrey wouldn't hire any of the cronies Lebreault has tried to force on her since she arrived in Perth Amboy less than a year ago. Lebreault won't comment on that one. But let's just say that his credibility is not exactly inspiring after the school lunch bit. If you have to pick the more credible source, Caffrey wins this one with a slam-dunk.
Let's stop right here and acknowledge a few things:

  • The only indication we have that Caffrey did anything wrong are the charges brought by the PA school board. They did not need to substantiate their charges with evidence in order to dismiss her. It may well be that the board is railroading her and she is in the right, but the fact is, we only have her word and theirs. We just don't know yet.
  • The only indication we have that Lebreault did anything wrong is that he is under investigation by the state Attorney General's office. Maybe he did find a way to illegally remove a copy of his free lunch application; maybe he didn't. He claims his kids don't even get free lunches; if that's true, this is a different case than Elizabeth. But we just don't know yet.
  • The only indication we have that Lebreault pressured Caffrey into hiring his friends is her word. She admits she didn't hire them, so there's no actual cronyism that happened. This is a classic case of he said-she said. We just don't know yet.
And yet, in spite of all of these unknowns, Moran is prepared to pass judgment in the Star-Ledger, the largest paper in the state. Why? Well, continuing directly:

The 22-point complaint against Caffrey is filled with pure nonsense. One of her offenses was that she spoke to the media. That's not usually considered a firing offense in a democracy. But whatCaffrey did in an interview with The Star-Ledger is frankly discuss how insane the state's tenure rules are. That probably explains why the audience last night, packed with union teachers, erupted in applause when the board voted to chop off her head.
Now, Tom could conjecture that's why the teachers cheered... or he could ask them, like a real journalist. Just like Tom Haydon, a reporter at Moran's own paper, did:
The vote was met with a roar of cheers and applause from the audience. Of about 400 people at meeting, about half were district employees, said Donna Chiera, president of the local teachers union.
Chiera said Caffrey had lost the "trust and confidence" of the staff.
"The issue has always been that decisions have been made in what is to be done to the staff, and not with the staff," Chiera said. [emphasis mine]
According to Moran, Chiera just isn't being honest here: she's really upset about Caffrey speaking out on tenure. How he is able to read minds, I have no idea.

Of course, Moran neglects to mention that Chiera was appointed by Chris Christie to his Educator Effectiveness Task Force. This group provided a report which is the backbone of the TEACHNJ bill - a bill that will gut tenure as we know it in New Jersey. I don't know if Chiera supports TEACHNJ or not; I do know she's hardly against "reform."

But even if she weren't: Moran is way out of line assuming that Chiera is not being straight in describing her problems with Caffrey. Just like he is way out of line to take Caffrey's word over Lebreault's. Just like he is way out of line in making this prediction:
Caffrey will probably sue over this and surely win. That will cost taxpayers money. But for now, the loss can be counted in the kneecapping of her attempts to improve performance in the district, moves that impressed acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf and Mayor Wilda Diaz, both of whom think it's nuts to fire Caffrey.
Any way you look at this one, the kids in Perth Amboy are the big losers. And for that, this board deserves all the credit.
First of all, if Caffrey's firing results in stopping a bad technology-based curriculum from getting a toehold in Perth Amboy, I'd say the kids will be the ultimate winners. That aside: again, Tom, how do you know that the board doesn't have legitimate greivances? And are you saying all 200 of those employees (your count) who showed up to wave goodbye to Caffrey don't have the best interests of Perth Amboy's kids at heart?

In fact, Tom, I'd say you're leaving out one very important person who has a vested interest in all of this: yourself. You tried to turn Caffrey into a folk hero, lauding her for her stance on tenure. Caffrey knows how to play the media, having promoted herself as an author and speaker for years; I'm sure she made a very alluring pitch to you.

Unfortunately, Tom, you didn't do your homework; if you had, you would have discovered that Caffrey did not have any experience as a public school teacher*, principal, or head superintendent in any state, let alone New Jersey. You would have found she spent two years buried in the NYC school bureaucracy, and seven years before that running a tiny private school in Florida: hardly sterling credentials for running a large school district with a significant limited English proficiency population.

Tom, you promoted her; now you're stuck with her. Unlike me: I have said all along I don't know who's right here. Caffrey may well be exonerated, but we just don't know yet. It's probably best to wait until we get the actual facts before we rush to judgment.

Of course, that hasn't stopped Tom before, has it? Don't worry, buddy: just keep reading here, and I'll get you up to speed on real education reform soon enough...

* That isn't correct according to Caffrey's website: she did work as a public school teacher, but not a principal or superintendent. I apologize for the error.