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, August 12, 2011

When "Liberal" Elites Do Education Reform

This time, we hear from a guy I normally like a lot - Matt Yglesias. He's critiquing a post by Dana Goldstein, so let's start with the dead-on point she made:
Although Brill, by the end of Class Warfare, comes to recognize the limits of the education reform movement he so admires, he somehow maintains his commitment to the idea that teachers can completely overcome poverty. There’s a reason, I think, why this ideology is so attractive to many of the wealthy charter school founders and donors Brill profiles, from hedge funder Whitney Tilson to investment manager and banking heir Boykin Curry. If the United States could somehow guarantee poor people a fair shot at the American dream through shifting education policies alone, then perhaps we wouldn’t have to feel so damn bad about inequality—about low tax rates and loopholes that benefit the superrich and prevent us from expanding access to childcare and food stamps; about private primary and secondary schools that cost as much annually as an Ivy League college, and provide similar benefits; about moving to a different neighborhood, or to the suburbs, to avoid sending our children to school with kids who are not like them.
The fact of the matter, though, is that inequality does matter. Our society’s decision to deny the poor essential social services reaches children not only in their day-to-day lives but in their brains. In the face of this reality, educators put up a valiant fight, and some succeed. The deck is stacked against them. [emphasis mine]
Those of you who drop by my little lemonade stand regularly know that I'm down with this, but I take it a step further: the reason the corporate "reformers" spend so much time on teacher quality and school choice is to deliberately move the debate away from this obvious point. They set up outfits like Tilson's Democrats For Education Reform (DFER) that push charter schools and teacher evaluation based on test scores and merit pay as a way of implying that inequity would be solved if we could just fire some more teachers and set up a few more charter schools.

It's a deliberate attempt to move the focus off of the rich people who fund these shops; people who have gamed the financial markets and the tax code to allow themselves to make obscene amounts of money while doing absolutely nothing to help America's economy. David Tepper, who funds the corporate "reform" outfit B4K, admits he made $4 billion through a market manipulation based on the government's bailout of failed banks. I'm just a dumb music teacher, but I don't see any societal worth - economic or otherwise - that comes from this sort of fiscal hocus-pocus. Now he's using this money - that he got off of the backs of the taxpayers - to fund a non-profit that insists that it's really a few bad teachers who are holding large groups of poor people back from the American Dream.

Am I really the only person in America that finds this more than a little fishy?

Now, I know the response some of you are having to my unpleasant wailings: "How can you be so cynical? Why don't you believe that these people have good intentions?"

It's simple: research shows that the stuff they are pushing does not work. They go on and on about the virtues of charter schools, when the evidence increasingly shows that charters don't do any better at teaching poor or minority or special needs kids than regular schools (in fact, many times they do worse). They promote the use of standardized tests to evaluate teachers so districts can make decisions on hiring and layoffs, when the research shows this is a terrible idea. They stay up nights waiting for the Merit Pay Fairy do arrive; she never does.

In short: I doubt these people's sincerity, because they insist on pushing an agenda that has no evidence to back it up. 

Was it wrong to doubt the sincerity of the tobacco companies when they insisted there was no evidence that cigarettes cause cancer? Is it wrong to doubt the sincerity of oil companies who pay pseudo-scientists a pretty penny to come up with ridiculous denials that the earth is heating up due to the use of fossil fuels? Is it wrong to doubt the sincerity of health insurance companies who back astroturf outfits that scream about "death panels"?

Then why is it wrong to question the sincerity of those who want to radically change our schools when there is no meaningful research to support them?

This is a point that seems to be continually lost on the likes of Matt Yglesias:
The fact that things other than schools matter to the lives of poor children is, of course, important. But precisely because life is complicated and many things matter, you could make this critique of anything. “Why worry about the low quality of bus service when even the best buses in the world can’t make up for the lack of affordable housing?” “Why worry about high crime and bad policing when even the safest streets don’t necessarily bring a good job?” Well, people need to be able to afford to live in a safe neighborhood with a decent school within a reasonable commuting distance from an economically vibrant downtown! And people whose markets earn low market wages still need access to high-quality food and medical care. But to get those things, specifically individuals have to work on specific problems. What’s wrong with that? But while the world surely does have specific influences of people who talk about better schools with the one hand while pushing social service cuts with the other, that seems to me to be an accusation that should be leveled at specific people with specific evidence. Why create a generalized presumption that people who care about education have a hidden agenda?
Again: these "people who care about education" are pushing prescriptions for schools that have been shown not to work. I and everyone else affected by those prescriptions has every right - in fact, I'd say a duty - to question their motivations.

Whitney Tilson is calling for me to lose my tenure and get paid on "merit." He's promoting politicians who say that a teacher's contribution to student learning is more important than out-of-school effects when we know that is absolutely not true. He's bashing my union (slide 92) as if collective bargaining is the greatest threat to student achievement in the country. And he's selling a false picture of failure in our schools (slide 19), when, in fact, the United States does very well in international comparisons IF you account for poverty and race (inequities Tilson blames on... teachers!).

So you'll forgive me, Matt, if I do question Tilson's motivations. This is my career we're talking about here. I'm the one who has to live with the consequences of not having tenure in this hyper-politicized age. I'm the one who is going to be waiting up nights for the Merit Pay Fairy. I'm the one who is going to have to abide by a new policy of drill-and-kill so my colleagues, my principal, and I can get a few more dollars in our already modest paychecks - even though we all know those tests are as accurate as rolling dice.

If there were any evidence that this would help kids, I'd be willing to listen. Guess what? There isn't.

So you can be damn sure I am going to question why Tilson and the rest are coming after me and my colleagues. And you, Matt, should be questioning him as well.

ADDING: Robert D. Skeels was on the case way before I was.


Robert D. Skeels * rdsathene said...

I'd been following the exchange regarding education policy between Rachel Levy and Matthew Ygelsias online. Ygelsias is a well known supporter of reactionary corporate education reform, despite his reputation of progressive politics. In the following essay we examine those contradictions and offer some possible reasons for Ygelsias' intransigence: OpineRegress: Matthew Yglesias' reactionary education policy pandering

Duke said...

Great piece, Robert - adding a link at the bottom.