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

Friday, May 6, 2011

Casual Reformy Thinking

You'll not find a better example of the casual thinking that characterizes so much of the corporate "reform" movement than this piece by Rick Hess:
On Wednesday, I stirred a bit of a hornet's nest when I wrote, "I think that...many people teaching today probably shouldn't be." Given the charged response from readers demanding that I justify this assertion, I'll say a few more words.
First, it strikes me as a banal, unremarkable statement, one that I've uttered regarding attorneys, professors, journalists, salesmen, federal bureaucrats, think tankers, and district administrators. In this context it wasn't intended as an attack on educators, which is what made the heated response so noteworthy. People vary in talent, energy, and performance, and this means there are poor performers everywhere--even in fields with relatively stringent selection or hiring requirements.
See, the last I checked, Rick, no one was leading coordinated, nation-wide attack on the compensation and evaluation of attorneys, professors, journalists, salesmen...

It's completely disingenuous for anyone who writes about education regularly to say that what's going on is just an acknowledgement of a bell curve effect. This has been an attack across the board on the entire profession; an attack that is meant to distract from both the excellent work our schools do with students who do not have racial and economic problems to overcome, and from the real reasons for those racial and economic problems.
Second, education hires a lot of educators. We've 3.4 million teachers in the U.S., which represents more than ten percent of the college educated workforce. That's twice the number of lawyers and doctors, combined. The more people you need, the more challenging it is to ensure quality. In 2005, The New Teacher Project (TNTP)reported that, "Urban schools are forced to hire large numbers of teachers they do not want." It's no surprise that supes struggling with class size mandates, from Florida to California, have told me they've sometimes had to hire lousy candidates just to fill classrooms.
I just love how these think-tank types hang their hats on a study or two that favors their point of view; or how they use a combination of argument by authority and anecdote to make their case ("I'm an expert, and people tell me that blah blah blah..."). But the logic here is ridiculous: Hess provides no evidence that teachers do their jobs any worse than lawyers or doctors (I personally think we've got the lawyers beat by a country mile).

If Hess wants to make the argument that the skill set required to be a good doctor is more difficult to come by than the set required to be a good teacher, and that leads, in part, to smaller numbers of doctors, OK, I agree. But that doesn't a priori make the distribution of doctors across the bell curve of "good/bad" any different.
Third, the challenge is aggravated by weak quality control. As I wrote Wednesday, "Teacher education programs and school districts generally do a mediocre job of preparing educators and a pretty awful job of screening out lousy educators." Several years ago, University of Texas professor David Leal reported that teacher preparation programs actively screen out about two percent of aspiring teachers (including during candidates' student teaching). In its 2009 The Widget Effect report, TNTP reported that districts consistently judge 99 percent of their teachers to be satisfactory, suggesting (in TNTP's estimation) that district performance evaluation is broken.
I'm not going to comment on Leal's research until I've read it, but there's a lot here Hess is leaving out. What does "screen out" mean? Students who were actively removed from their programs? If so, I'm surprised the number is that high; like in the tenure debate, the number of people who are actually removed through the tenure process is a fraction of the total who are eased out through persuasion.

The question here is whether Leal, Hess, or the reformers who rely on their research have ever taken into account self-selection. This is a very hard job to do when you do it badly. If you don't like kids, if you're not organized, if you have poor communications skills... you're going to figure out pretty quickly that this is not the career for you.

The implication is that there are significant numbers of "bad" teachers who slipped through the system when they should have been weeded out, but that the perks of the job are so fantastic that these "bad" teachers stay anyway. If that's true, then why aren't more people lining up to do the job? Why are those supers in FL and CA hiring "bad" teachers? Surely, if this is a job that takes poor performers and rewards them fantastically, there must be many more people lining up to get into the profession, and some of those people must be "good."

Of course, that's not the case. What's really happening is that those supers are hiring people for short stretches, who leave when they can't do the job. The turnover rate on new teachers is anywhere between 25% and 50%, depending on whom you read. That's a far better indication of self-selection working than anything Hess cites indicating "bad" teachers run rampant in our schools.
Fourth, teachers themselves say that they teach alongside colleagues who shouldn't be in classrooms. Public Agenda has reported that 78 percent of teachers say there are at least a few teachers in their school who "fail to do a good job and are simply going through the motions." In a Public Agenda focus group, one New Jersey union representative confessed, "I've gone in and defended teachers who shouldn't even be pumping gas."
Of course they say that: everybody says that in any job (ever watch The Office?). Whether it's true or not is another matter. And defending due process is not the same as admitting that there are significant numbers of "bad" teachers.
My take is also informed by a half-decade supervising student teachers and research and school observations in a lot of districts. [more argument by authority... yeesh...] But let's keep it simple. If 75 percent of the nation's 100,000 schools have at least a couple teachers who shouldn't be teaching, that means teachers themselves are reporting that 150,000 or more of their colleagues probably shouldn't be teaching. In my book, that's "many."
Oh, come on. 150,000/3.4 million = about 4.4%. That's the crisis? We have to radically transform the entire school system for that small of a percentage? We have to institute teacher evaluations by tests we know for a fact - and Hess admits - are unreliable on the basis of less than 5% of the teaching corps?

This is absurd. We are going to put our kids through a massive testing regime on the basis of a "crisis" that Hess can't even make a decent argument exists.

This lack of rigorous thinking from the corporate reformers is going to lead us down a dangerous road. We are seriously looking at breaking our schools to fix a problem that does not exist. It's disturbing.

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