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

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Define "Reform"

I really have no interest in turning this blog into the "Tom Moran Watch." The Star-Ledger editor has been making me nuts as of late, but it isn't all about him.

So I'm going to take a pass on criticizing this piece, and instead focus on this one graph:
The governor calls education reform his next “big thing.” He wants to effectively end lifetime tenure, pay teachers based on merit, expand charter schools, provide vouchers for private schools and strip away rules that protect senior teachers during layoffs, regardless of merit.
This is as good of a list as I've seen encapsulating the "reform" agenda. But if you read the rest of the piece, you'll notice Moran skips two rather important pieces of the puzzle:

1) Do we really have such a problem with our schools that we need large-scale "reform"?

2) If we do have a problem, do any of these "reforms" actually work?

In all of the talk about "reform," these two questions always seem to get lost. But they are the crux of the issue; why don't Moran and the rest of the media ever stop to explore them?

The fact is, as we continue to look at the data and make apples-to-apples comparisons, the US is hardly an educational disaster. Quite the contrary; considering our diverse population and massive income inequity, we do better educating poor, immigrant, and minority students than just about any other country in the world. We should be taking pride in this; instead, our media has convinced us we are in the throws of an educational crisis. Even as our students who are not minorities and are not poor do exceptionally well by any international comparison.

It is not "making excuses" to point this out. It is not "only caring about rich, white kids" to look at the facts. It is not "lacking urgency" to show that the difference between high-performing and low-performing schools has nothing to do with the list above, and has far more to do with the characteristics of the students who attend those schools.

Of course we want to close the achievement gap. But if that's the cause, why are we:

a) Screwing around with "reforming" the parts of our educational system that already work so well?

b) Wasting time on "reforms" that only have to do with teachers when the problems quite clearly do not lie with them?

Which brings me to the second question: will anything on Moran's "reform" list actually help students?

As usual, I can count on Bruce Baker to put things into perspective:
We've got quite a bit of Moran's "reform" list here:
  • Eliminate tenure
  • Merit pay
  • Eliminate seniority
Where is the evidence that eliminating tenure, instituting merit pay, or eliminating seniority will help low-performing schools when high-performing schools all have tenure, seniority, and no merit pay???

This is so fundamental to the entire argument that it astonishes me every time it's ignored. The fact is we have no conclusive evidence - NONE! - that tenure is a significant impediment to student learning; but we have plenty of cautionary tales (some right from Moran's own newspaper) that teachers need protections to keep their jobs from becoming subject to the whims of political hacks.

We have no conclusive evidence - NONE! - that students will learn any better if their teachers have to compete for more pay; but we have plenty of evidence merit pay does not work. I mean, plenty of evidence (by the way, studies like this that imply that merit pay works are ridiculous; it gets exactly to my point that we can't compare ourselves to other countries when they have homogenous student populations and far less difference in income).

We have no conclusive evidence - NONE! - that seniority is a significant impediment to student learning. All we hear is that teachers "plateau" in their effectiveness after a while; maybe, but is there any evidence that eliminating seniority will make the teaching force any better? Will "better" candidates to become teachers be lining up to make careers when we eliminate seniority? That's the question that never get asked, but who cares - full speed ahead!

As for charters and vouchers: just type the words into the search engine above. Charters and average private schools do no better - and, in many cases, worse - than publics when accounting for the differences in student populations.

So, here we are: the "reform" movement wants to impose "reforms" that have not been shown to work on schools that are both high-performing and low-performing. And, rather than challenge the premises that the US is falling behind and that there is no evidence that these reforms will work, the media continues to buy the corporate reform line. All while I and many others - both in the edu-blogosphere and in the traditional media - have extensively documented many reasons to be wary of the "reformers" ulterior motives.

I will admit - I'm increasingly frustrated. I shouldn't have to point out to the Tom Moran's of the world how absurd it is to push a "reform" agenda on schools that are doing a great job. I shouldn't have to make the case that these "reforms" are almost certain to have no effect on student learning, and are quite likely be extremely harmful in both the short- and the long-term. I shouldn't have to state, yet again, that teachers, while important, are not nearly as important as student and family backgrounds, and we can't reasonably expect to solve the achievement gap without addressing poverty, racism, inequity, and lack of opportunity.

I often take a comical approach to things here, but this stuff is deadly serious. In true Shock Doctrine style, we are getting ready to destroy everything good in our nation's schools and replace it with a system that all the evidence shows will not work.

We can't afford this sloppy thinking any longer. It has to stop.


Anonymous said...

Terrific points! Your thoughts remind me of a quote by FDR: "There will be — there are — many false issues. In that respect, this will be no different from other campaigns. Partisans, not willing to face realities, will drag out red herrings as they have always done — to divert attention from the trail of their own weaknesses."

Keep up the good work!

calugg said...

More grist for your mill, Duke. Please see: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/11/nyregion/charter-school-sends-message-thrive-or-transfer.html?hp

Duke said...

Why can't we have an FDR today? Where is he?

Catherine, that story breaks my heart. I worry it's quite typical.