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, October 30, 2010

Bambi vs Godzilla

The battle starts with this op-ed from Laura Waters, aka NJ Left Behind:
Here’s one way to get through the rational albeit provincial resistance from leaders of high-performing districts. Let’s just say, we have schools that are among “the very best in the nation.” But we also have schools that are among the nation’s worst. We’ve made this distinction for years, primarily through the State Supreme Court Abbott decisions, which mandate that we fund our poorest districts (recently revised to poorest students) at the same rate as our wealthiest. Why not take this acknowledgement of inequity to its logical conclusion and implement reform efforts -- charter school expansion, school choice, higher compensation for great teachers, data-driven instruction -- in our chronically failing districts?
Surely school leaders, legislators, New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) executives and the DOE can coalesce around charter school expansion in Pleasantville and Trenton; merit pay in Camden and Plainfield; or tying student growth to teacher evaluations in Newark and Asbury Park. While state-wide school reform will eventually come to New Jersey, our poorest students can’t wait. Targeting progressive educational strategies to failing schools may be politically distasteful, but it’s the only way to get those kids under that big white tent where they belong.
Bruce Baker responded:
In short, the author is explaining in the first part of the editorial that many wealthy, successful New Jersey school districts haven’t supported aggressive statewide “reformy” strategies because they want no part in those strategies in their own districts. The same districts have been tentative about expanded choice for inter-district transfers. But, as this editorial argues, these districts should band together… should coalesce, to RAM DESTRUCTIVE, ILL-CONCEIVED POLICIES DOWN THE THROATS OF THEIR POOR URBAN NEIGHBORS. That’ll fix ‘em! And without comparable adverse effects on their own districts!
I must say that this is about the most offensive call to arms I believe I’ve read in recent months. Yes, I’ve read some absurd arguments, like the argument that the “upper half of charters is better than average” or the argument that if current teacher evaluations are flawed, then the only answer is to replace them with student test scores (and other absurd false dichotomies).
The present NJ Spotlight argument begins with a deeply distorted, selective “factiness” about the failures of New Jersey’s urban districts (some of the nation’s worst! evidence?) and reasons for them (not enough charters, and no merit pay for teachers) and then jumps quickly to the most extreme and dreadfully oversimplified representation of the solutions (solutions, mind you, that may be far worse than the “disease”) to all of our – excuse me – their problems.
All when I thought that I might be getting too tough on the overly simplistic, bombastic and misguided logic of reform.
Waters came back with this:
It’s an old argument. There is no perfect value-added method of teacher valuation; therefore, all value-added teacher evaluation is worthless. (For a more nuanced view, see this great report from The New Teacher Project, “Teacher Evaluation 2.0.”) The success record for charter schools is mixed; therefore, expansion of charters is otiose. (See this report from Jay P. Greene: “Measuring test score improvements in eleven states over a one-year period, this study finds that charter schools serving the general student population outperformed nearby regular public schools on math tests by 0.08 standard deviations, equivalent to a benefit of 3 percentile points for a student starting at the 50th percentile.”)

The point isn’t whether there is a perfect solution out there. Newsflash: there’s not. The point is that across America there’s a growing recognition that our public education system needs to change. (Heck: even Randi Weingarten, President of The American Federation of Teachers, supports Race To The Top.) Teacher evaluations will include value-added data. School choice will expand. Teacher unions will eventually move past industrial labor models and treat members like professionals. Pay will be differentiated. Technology will transform classrooms.

Defending the status quo from misguided reformy types may be fun, but it's sort of like arguing that our agrarian school calendar, holidays coinciding with harvesting time, is relevant to the 21st century, or that the only useful model for education is one teacher in front of a desk-lined room of 25 kids.

Truly, Bruce, I respect your work. But do you really think that the NJ's traditional educational system is working well for kids in Camden, Newark, and Trenton? If not, what should we do now?

Suppose I go to the doctor with a headache. He says, "Here, take this experimental antacid, but be careful, it may cause stomach bleeding."

"But, doc, how's that going help my headache? And why put me on something dangerous that doesn't solve the problem anyway?"

"Listen, you said you have a headache - we have to do SOMETHING. Just sitting around doing nothing is not acceptable."

This is Laura's - and pretty much the whole 'former world's - argument. The urban schools are not getting the same results as the 'burbs; therefore, we must implement solutions that all the best evidence says will not work because it's better than nothing.

Let's leave aside the fact that there is plenty of evidence to contradict the notion that NJ's schools completely fail poor kids:

No one - ESPECIALLY Bruce Baker - is "defending the status quo." What some of us are saying, Laura, is that maybe the diagnosis is wrong, and, therefore, the proposed cure makes no sense.

Let's go back to Laura's original op-ed:
Example: a student in Moorestown, a wealthy Burlington County district, attends a public high school that offers 22 AP courses. Just about every student passes the state assessments.
Nine miles down the road in Willingboro, also in Burlington, a student attends a high school where in 2009 exactly one student successfully completed an AP course. Only half the kids passed the standard state assessment. Same state. Same DOE. Completely different set of educational opportunities. Separate but equal would be an improvement for Willingboro’s kids.
Laura, are you going to look at us with a straight face and claim that only one kid passed an AP in Willingboro because the kids there have a "completely different set of educational OPPORTUNITIES"? That, somehow, the school is the primary difference in the lives of kids from Willingboro versus Moorestown?

Those kids in Willingboro deserve better than that. They deserve better than the "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" garbage that conservatives love to dish out daily. (And, may I add: I really, really hate it when that one kid in Willingboro who passed an AP is held up as some kind of "proof" that we don't have huge systemic problems outside of our schools)

I've never doubted the commitment of people like Laura Waters to the kids in Abbott districts. But rhetoric like this only serves to empower charlatans like Chris Christie, who tout "solutions" like merit pay and charter schools that are really designed only to break the backs of teachers unions.

Anybody who's watched this debate carefully knows that "merit pay" is a code word for "less pay." The undeniable goal is to bring down the average teacher salary across the state; same with charters (although the aristocrats who fund his campaign are also happy to "smell the money" coming off of the charter movement and are licking their chops at the thought of the Haliburtonization of our schools).

So, Laura quite rightly asks, if not Christie's schemes, what should we do? Off the top of my head:

- Stop funding education through regressive property taxes and start funding it through progressive income and corporate taxes.

- Demand the Fed fulfill its mandate for full employment so we can stop much of the economic uncertainty these children face every day.

- Implement living wage laws.

- Implement nationwide health care like every other industrialized nation in the world.

- Take a good part of the savings from that and use it to pay teachers more so the labor pool grows and competition to enter the profession intensifies.

I can hear the response now: "You live in a dream word, Jazzman! Don't you see the polls? This will never happen."

Well, it will never happen as long as decent people who care about kids continue to empower hucksters like Christie by buying into his false premises and false choices. We have another choice besides doing nothing or doing the wrong thing:

Let's do the right thing.

ADDING: In case you're not old enough to get the joke:


Anonymous said...

Thanks. You nailed it. I really didn't think her response was worthy of continued conversation, since she really just back tracked from her own original argument. Keep up the fine work.

I'll discuss some of the problems, however, with moving too aggressively (too aggressively is the key here) away from property taxes in the future (a necessary, relatively stable, underlying, evil)

Duke said...

Thanks, and sorry to call you Godzilla, Bruce. You've never leveled Tokyo, have you?

Property taxes and schools. Yes, I know they are more stable, and I understand that's needed. But the downside is massive: highly regressive, politically toxic, and they punish retirees. I'm beginning to think the stability is not worth it anymore.

Of course, a mix would be far better than what we have right now. What kills me is that we never even talk about the POSSIBILITY of creating that mix.

Property taxes are the club politicians like Christie use to beat teachers and other public workers over the head. They are not going to give that club up any time soon, even as they rail against property taxes.

It's as much a political problem as anything else.

Unknown said...

Bambi? Really?

You seem to assume, JJ, that I don't factor the effects of poverty into the equation of school performance. Of course I do. But here's the thing: Bruce and other apologists for public urban education insist that the we can't increase achievement without ameliorating poverty and that kids in Willingboro can't succeed until we do. I think that the only way to ameliorate poverty is to improve education and the kids in Willingboro can't succeed until we do.

We're all on the same side -- Bambi and Godzilla included -- but we let politics get in the way.

BTW, I think great teachers should be paid far more than they are now.

Duke said...

Thanks for stopping by, Laura. As I said, I do not question for a minute your commitment to kids in tough circumstances.

First a question: Let's assume that we get to the point where every child in NJ has a great teacher. Do you think then that the total payroll of teachers should then be higher than it is right now?

As to your debate with Bruce:

Bruce is an academician - I really don't know much about his politics at all. What he says - and what we should all heed - is that the "solutions" being proposed by the reform movement:

1) Have no evidence to back them up.

2) Will probably cause more harm than good.

If someone has good, well-researched, well-reasoned arguments to the contrary, let's hear them. The sad truth is they don't exist - at least, I haven't seen them.

What IS abundantly clear, however, is that conservative politicians like Chris Christie are happy to use the "reform" arguments to push through an agenda that is nakedly political. It is quite clear to me and anyone who looks at this issue that Christie wants to break the unions so he can decrease the payroll of teachers in this state and keep the wealthy from having to pay their fair share of taxes.

No one seriously believes he wants to INCREASE the total teacher payroll. Well, if all kids deserve a great teacher, and not all teachers now are great, how will decreasing the teacher payroll help?

The primary purpose of this blog is to document this scheme of his. If I do say so, I think I've done a pretty good job of making my case. Teachers like me have absolutely no reason to believe he has our best interests - let alone our students' - at heart given what I've reported here over the past several months.

Further, he continues to impugn our motives while he implements these unproven plans. Frankly, I'm sick of it. The impetus is on HIM to show that what he proposes will transform NJ's urban schools. But, over and over again, his assertions come up short.

So, no, I reject the idea that WE let politics get in the way. I just want to be able to do my damn job. He's the politician, not me. I didn't want this fight, but he clearly did. HE's the one who made this a political dogfight, not us.

Well, fine then - bring it. But don't ask me to hold hands and sing Kumbaya with reformers who are providing him with the cover to decimate my profession.

Again, Laura - I believe you have the best interests of your students at heart. I admire your commitment to the kids most of our ruling elite stopped caring about long ago.

But you're being used. And I'm going to call the people who are using you out on it.

P.S. Snark is part of the blogger's art. "Bambi" is a term used facetiously - I think that's self-evident. No implication should be drawn other than I'm an old guy with a bunch of silly cultural references running around my cerebral cortex.