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, July 3, 2014

Hey Professor: There IS a War On Teachers

Speaking for myself, one of the most frustrating things about being a teacher is when non-teachers in positions of influence tell me that my profession isn't really being targeted -- it's all just in my head, silly!

Take the intellectual godfather of reforminess, Eric Hanushek, speaking here of the Vergara decision, which struck down California's tenure laws:

The five statutes in question were struck down because the State of California, helped by the California Teachers Association, could not show that the laws in any way supported the education of children. To the contrary, these laws have the effect of retaining and protecting some grossly ineffective teachers – thus, denying equal protection to the unfortunate students who are assigned to them. Moreover, the trial showed that the system is stacked against poor and minority students who are more likely to get the bad draw of teachers. [emphasis mine]
This is a bizarre argument at many levels. First: the burden of proof is not teachers and their unions to show that tenure "supports the education of children"; the burden of proof is on the billionaire who brought the lawsuit to show that tenure harms children. And it's clear that the Vergara case did no such thing.

There is nothing inherently wrong with policies that support teachers so long as they don't harm students. If the state wants to save money and protect taxpayers by offering tenure to teachers in lieu of increased wages, they should be able to do so, provided there is no evidence tenure causes harm to children.

Which brings us to the next problem in Hanushek's argument: he says the trial showed tenure protects "grossly ineffective teachers" -- but the teachers cited in Vergara weren't ineffective at all. Christine McLaughlin was a Pasadena Teacher of the Year, and the plaintiffs' treatment of her was self-contradictory:
• The plaintiffs couldn't demonstrate teacher incompetence.

The lawsuit claimed that three teachers were incompetent. I researched them and found that one of them, Christine McLaughlin, was actually named Pasadena's 2013 teacher of the year. The others have not only received no other complaints, but have been lauded for their dedication to the students. The students claimed McLaughlin didn't assign them any homework or classwork. McLaughlin brought in the assignments given to class. The plaintiffs (funded by the group "Students Matter") offered no counterattack to that evidence.

• The plaintiffs contradicted themselves regarding teacher incompetence.

When confronted with the evidence that so-called incompetent teacher McLaughlin was named the best teacher, Students Matter claimed she had received four LIFO (Last In First Out) layoff notices over the past seven years and used that as evidence … that she was a good teacher yet got layoff notices. Wait, wasn't this the person they named in the lawsuit as a bad teacher? Of course, she wasn't laid off, but you can't have it both ways. [emphasis mine]
It's stuff like this that underscores what a truly awful decision Vergara is. But the actual evidence didn't seem to matter much to Judge Treu, and it doesn't seem to matter much to Hanushek:
The teachers unions will undoubtedly fall back on the tired rhetoric that this is a “war on teachers.” But there is no such war. These laws protect just a very small minority of teachers who are harming children and who should not be in the classroom. Indeed, protecting these grossly ineffective teachers seriously harms better teachers who are unfairly tarnished by association with unquestionably bad teachers sheltered by the unconstitutional statutes.

Read more here: http://www.ledger-enquirer.com/2014/06/20/3163637/jhn-a-tures-a-bogus-case-against.html#storylink=cp
What's especially nutty about this post is the links: within just these two paragraphs, there are three links to the text of Vergara, and two to news reports on the decision. But neither Judge Treu nor Hanushek cite any case of a "grossly ineffective" teacher who couldn't be removed because of tenure laws.

I, on the other hand, can give several examples, just from the last few months and right off the top of my head, of educators who are far from "grossly ineffective" yet have needed workplace protections:

- Mike Mignone of Belleville, who is, by all indications, being unfairly targeted by a superintendent and a school board who themselves are so ineffective that a state monitor has been assigned to the district. Mignone is -- surprise! -- the president of his local teachers union.

- Kelly Mascio, who suffered from an overblown reaction by administrators when she reported two kindergarteners in her care were being inappropriate in the bathroom (Not her finest moment as a teacher, no doubt, but "grossly ineffective"? Come on.).

- David Zauner, who saved a child from drowning in his school's pool, only to be fired later for cooperating with an investigation of the incident.

- Lisa Capece, a building rep for her local union who, the state appellate court ruled, was unfairly singled out for criticism by a vindictive principal after standing up for her members.

- Sarah Wysocki, a victim of Value-Added Modeling (VAM), who was fired from the Washington, D.C. schools and immediately hired by another district.

There are also examples on a larger scale: the teachers in Elizabeth, NJ, have been living under a climate of political favoritism for years. Newark's teachers of color are far more likely to be assigned to the most difficult schools; as a result, they are more likely now to face an employment consequence, even though their students show comparable levels of growth compared to their white colleagues' students.

And, of course -- despite Campbell Brown's protestations to the contrary -- teachers are regularly accused falsely of sexual misconduct. Folks, I could spend all day Googling examples like these. How many good teachers would have been fired if not for their workplace protections? And if good teachers are so important, why would we risk having them fired for bad reasons?

But Hanushek, happily ensconced in his ivy-covered office, would rather not think about these things:
The decision brings into sharp focus the central policy issue of student achievement. As the court noted, students facing grossly ineffective teachers suffer long term economic losses, amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars for each classroom of students subjected to these teachers.

There is also a larger national interest in resolving this problem. The economic future of our nation rests on the skills of our population. My own research suggests that replacing just 5% to 8% of the least effective teachers with an average teacher would noticeably boost the achievement of our current students and would pay off lavishly in the future, through their enhanced productivity and faster economic growth. The gains according to historical economic patterns would be measured in trillions of dollars and would be sufficient to solve our national fiscal problems as well as the vexing income distribution issues currently being debated.
 Let's leave aside Hanushek's use of the Mountain-Out-Of-A-Molehillinator...

... and the problems that have emerged with some of the research on which he founds his claims. The one point Eric Hanushek has never addressed -- neither in his own work (so far as I know -- I admit I haven't read all of it) nor in his testimony at the Vergara trial -- is that there is no way of knowing how more teacher dismissals will affect the overall quality of the teacher corps.

We simply don't have any idea as to whether or not the teachers who would come in to the system to replace those "ineffective" teachers who were fired would be any better than the teachers they would replace. If they were new teachers, they would, as a group, almost certainly be worse, as new teachers gain most of their effectiveness in the first few years of teaching. But even if they weren't, we don't know what sort of person would want to be a teacher in a brave, new, Hanushekian world.

And there's another point that gets lost in the econometric speculation: teachers who are effective in one environment are not necessarily effective in another. Even if we could incentivize "great" teachers from the 'burbs to work in urban districts, there's absolutely no guarantee those teachers would do just as well in different schools with different students. So even if we buy into the notion that "bad" teachers are distributed unequally, with more found in less-affluent districts, we shouldn't ever assume that shuffling teachers around -- even if that was possible -- will lead to better teaching in urban districts.

But Eric Hanushek's doesn't account for these contingencies; instead, he builds a world-view based on these beliefs:
  • The United States' economic problems are caused by its schools.
  • The schools don't perform poorly because of inadequate funding or rampant student poverty; they underperform because of poor teacher quality.
  • If we just get rid of the bad teachers, good teachers will appear and raise student achievement to the point that economic inequality and our fiscal problems will be wiped away.
  • The policy that's keeping us from firing bad teachers is the enshrinement of their workplace protections.
From my perspective, every one of these assumptions is wrong. Economic disadvantage clearly produces unequal education outcomes, not the reverse.  Teachers are certainly important, but a student's environment is far more important. There is no evidence we can improve the quality of the teaching corps by firing our way to better outcomes.

And the actual evidence from the Vergara trial shows that the reformy types have yet to prove there are hordes of bad teachers roaming the halls of America's schools who would have been removed were it not for tenure.

Professor, as someone who's actually on the job, let me explain something to you: given the amount of money America is willing to spend on its schools, the teaching corps we have right now is as good as it's going to get. As an economist, you of all people should understand that if you take away tenure, which has a real economic value to teachers, and don't replace it with other compensation, you run a real risk of damaging the pool of workers willing to teach. If you really think teachers are so important, why would you take that risk?

I know my view on this is very different from academics like Hanushek, launching their quantitative bombs at the teaching profession miles away from the nearest school. For those of us in the trenches, however, the War on Teachers is quite real and quite dangerous. We are being blamed for problems we didn't create and can't possibly solve on our own. Our compensation is being eroded, our prestige is fading, and we have little say left in how we get to run our classrooms.

Taking away our workplace protections is just the latest salvo. I wish Hanushek and his ilk would take a moment to think about that before designing the next reformy rocket to fire at us.

"'Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
That's not my department!' says Eric Hanushek Wernher von Braun."


Giuseppe said...

"Since 2000 he [Hanushek] has been Paul and Jean Hanna Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution,[1][2][3] an American public policy think tank located at Stanford University in California." Well, as Paul Krugman would say, Hoover is a think tank that takes the think out of think tank. It's a far right wing libertarianish propaganda tank. I'm so shocked.

Giuseppe said...

Hanushek mentions nothing about the fact that teachers don't hire themselves, don't observe, rate and evaluate themselves. All that is up to the principals and administrators. If there are supposedly grossly ineffective teachers in the classroom, then don't the administrators and principals bear any damn responsibility? Oh wait, it's so much more fun blaming unions, tenure, seniority and LIFO. There's no war on teachers?? Ha, ha, too funny except that it's not funny and the war is deadly serious.

caroline said...

Hanushek pays what he's paid to say. Think of him as an actor mouthing his lines, assume no sincerity and don't bother arguing.

Giuseppe said...

Off topic but in relation to that Tom Lehrer video clip. Von Braun was a Nazi and even belonged to the SS ( I think he was an honorary member of the SS). Mort Sahl once made the clever quip about Von Braun that he aimed for the stars but missed and hit London instead. Von Braun was in charge of the Nazi rocket program which means that he was in charge of all the slave labor used, abused and worked to death constructing all the rocket manufacturing sites above and below ground. One historian estimated that more people were killed manufacturing the V-2s than were killed in their actual impact areas in the UK and other countries. Von Braun should not have been lionized he should have been brought to justice.

Rene Diedrich said...

The ad below that post said Become a teacher in 11 months!
Bad teachers are usually promoted to administration in
LA, where it's ground zero for what awaits teachers . We are in a Kafkaesque nightmare, a term I used when I was put in Deasy's dungeon after reporting an abusive colleague and noncompliance in SPED. I am mandated by las but the district isn't. Neither is the union. But the beleaguered chairs at our schools tend to be getting ground up in this because they are earnest,
I know we need solidarity, but we cannot trust our Judas unions. I think we must MAJE some sort of statement before summer is lost. If we don't none of it matters not in LA. Hopefully others will learn from the implosion over here.