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, March 30, 2019

Jersey Jazzman: Year 9

I keep of list of stuff I'm supposed to blog about, and right now that list is long. I've yet to give my thoughts on Bruce Baker's excellent report on New Jersey school funding, which you really need to read. There's also the tax incentive nonsense happening here in Jersey, which is a cautionary tale for the rest of the country. There are the great reports about charter school abuses in New Jersey and California we need to examine.

I still haven't discussed my own work on how charter school growth negatively affects the finances of public school districts. I want to talk about my field trip to Kansas City to party/parry with labor economists. And it's time to go back and look again at all the problems with measuring student growth and attributing that growth to teachers and schools.

But before I get to all that, let me take a minute and talk about this blog on its ninth anniversary.

When I told Mrs. Jazzman last night I've been at this for nine years, she didn't believe it. But in my mind, it makes perfect sense: I started this thing in response to the nonsense coming from the Chris Christie administration way back in the spring of 2010. Now Christie's gone, after wreaking havoc on the state for two terms. Nine years seems just right.

At the time, Christie was running around the state demanding teachers take a pay freeze and pay more toward their health care. He claimed this would make up for a $800 million shortfall, which was largely caused because he refused to renew a millionaire's tax that had been in place for years. Of course, his claim wasn't true, and he forgot that freezing teacher pay would bring down income tax revenues for the state.

What frustrated me at the time was that no one in the press appeared interested in asking about the specifics of Christie's plan -- and yet the specifics were what made the plan viable or not. If there's a running theme for this blog over the last nine years, it's exactly that: In public policy, the details matter, because that's how we determine whether policies will be effective and whether they will have unintended consequences.

Take merit pay for teachers, which is getting a new look thanks to Kamala Harris's recent proposal to increase educator's pay. It sounds like a good idea... until you get to the details. How are you going to determine who gets merit pay? Through biased, noisy "growth" measures? What about the majority of teachers who don't teach tested subjects? Will you assess their availability for merit pay based on observation rubrics that have scant evidence to support them and are used in innumerate ways? Or will you use measures of growth not linked to tests -- measures for which we have absolutely no evidence of validity or reliability?

How will you distribute the teachers who do get merit pay? Will you force them to take more "difficult" assignments? What will you say to the parents of students who don't get a merit pay teacher? Will you be taking away money for merit pay from less "meritorious" teachers (the answer is inevitably: "Yes")? What happens to the pool of teacher candidates when you do that?

Or take school choice. It sounds like a good idea... but as we've seen, there are all kinds of unintended consequences that come from injecting market forces into public institutions. Same with high-stakes testing, or implementing new standards, or changing how school revenues are allocated, or any number of other education policies.

Questioning policies like these isn't nit-picking; it's doing the work. And if this little blog has helped inform the discussion, and put bad policies under the microscope, it's been worth the effort.

One of the nicest outcomes of writing this blog has been meeting so many dedicated stakeholders: parents, students, teachers, policymakers, analysts, and others who care enough about education to enter the conversation and defend their positions publicly. My blogroll on the left (which I try to keep current, but isn't always) has links to many of these folks. If you care about education, get to know them -- it'll be worth your time.

If you'll indulge me, a few more personal notes:

- I just finished a PhD in Education Theory, Organization, and Policy this fall. This has led me to become involved in several different education policy projects, even as I continue teaching in the classroom. I do think it's important to have working teachers -- or, at least, people who have significant prior experience working in schools -- involved in the education policy world.

But I still intend to keep this blog active, no matter what else I have going on. Sometimes education policy issues are best addressed through an objective policy brief or academic paper; other times, however, call for a little snark.

- The laziest critique of any analyst is to claim that they are not "objective." I'm all for being clear about positionality, but if the best you can lob at someone is where they get their funding or who they hang with, you're not doing the work.

A good analyst comes at an issue with an open mind, but not an empty one. I arrive at my positions based on study and practice. I'll have a good-faith debate with anyone, and I'll change my mind if you've got a good point -- I've done it plenty of times before. But I've largely given up sparring with the indolent. Life is short.

- Over the years, I've spent a lot of time writing blog posts. I don't know if my family considers that a sacrifice -- it has kept me out of their hair -- but Mrs. Jazzman and the Jazzboys have been very patient and supportive. Thanks, guys.

And so on to Year 10...

The Merit Pay Fairy says: "After nine years, dat Jazzman still ain't objective!"

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