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, September 18, 2011

B4K Decides To Engage Me

I must admit, I was quite surprised to see B4K take issue with anything I write on this blog: I thought any mention of me was banned over there (again, I think we're just skipping right past the "then they laugh at you..." part).

I want to apologize to Mike Lilley, who wrote the post: I would have responded earlier, but I really didn't know you had written about me. I haven't had a chance to check B4K's site lately, as I am a working teacher and this is the beginning of the year. Well, better late than never:
You can use B4K’s “facts” – which, as you note, are unembellished and unspun – but please don’t presume to speak for us.   As the person who built B4K’s “facts” section, I take issue with a number of your points:
I would never presume to speak for you: I will, however, quote you all day long. And I always provide links so people can check things out for themselves.
1)      Questioning the independence of the sources.  Are they not “independent” simply because they don’t agree with you?  Are you suggesting that Editorial Projects in Education (EPE), the publishers ofEducationWeek, aren’t independent?  Are you suggesting that the Center for American Progress (CAP) isn’t independent?  I note you still manage to use one of CAP’s ratings when it suits your agenda.  I went out and tried to gather every rating of New Jersey’s education system I could find, and I made sure that they were all from reputable sources, which they are.  Rather than engage the facts, you seek to denigrate the sources wholesale.  
Mike, I don't know if you're new to the education policy world, but those of us old dogs who've been around the track a few times have a very different perspective on this. CAP, NCTQ, and Fordham have an agenda: everyone knows it, it's not a surprise to say it, and any assessment they make of New Jersey's schools is going to be colored by it.

The studies that you cite primarily measure whether a state is following the policy prescriptions each organization favors. That's fine, but it doesn't say much about student achievement, teacher effectiveness, or whether the policies they advocate actually work.

So, no, I don't find this data to be "independent" - more accurately, I don't find it objective. This is not peer-reviewed, academic research that is subject to the oversight that you find in serious journals and publications. It is think-tanky policy work that, again, is designed to promote an agenda. And I'm not alone here: serious researchers do not consider these objective studies.

So, no, I'm not "suggesting" CAP isn't independent - I'm stating it clearly and upfront. They have an agenda and they should not be presented as independent or objective, any more than I or B4K or the NEA should. They have every right to promote their agenda, but let's be honest about what this stuff really is.
2)      Selectively picking facts I: You cherry-pick the one “A” grade CAP gives NJ while ignoring the one “B,” one “C” and five “Ds” we received.   If CAP ratings merit mention for the one “A,” why not for the 5 “Ds”?  Perhaps because it suits your agenda?  And of course if you took the time to read CAP’s report, you would know that NJ got its “A” for removing ineffective teachers because only 38% of principals said personnel policies were a barrier (10% below the national average of 48%). But you would also see that 70% of NJ principals say that teachers unions are a barrier.  I don’t presume to question CAP’s methodology, but taking their data at face value, there really is a “problem” when it comes to removing ineffective teachers: the teachers union.    
Mike, what I did - and readers, check it out for yourselves - was point out that even in these clearly subjective assessments, New Jersey didn't do poorly on all of them. You're the one who pointed out that "A" Mike, not me. If you don't think New Jersey really didn't deserve it, why did you publish it?

Don't expect me to make your case for you, Mike - I linked to your work and did not mischaracterize what you wrote. Do, however, expect me to point out that your case is pretty weak - especially when some of the subjective indicators you use contradict one of your organization's core messages.

Further: of course teachers unions are a barrier to removing teachers: that's their job! The question is not whether the unions are barriers - it's whether the barriers are so strong that large numbers of ineffective teachers are not being dismissed. As I have pointed out repeatedly, ineffective teachers are removed from schools at a far greater rate than B4K's ads suggest.

I keep asking - begging - for some serious research about how many "bad" teachers are actually in the schools due to unionization or tenure. Post some, Mike, please. You guys keep saying this is such a huge problem; well, it's up to you to prove that it is. But understand that asking principals whether the union makes it more difficult to dismiss a teacher is a completely different point, and not the data we need to see if what B4K is calling for will actually make a real difference in our schools.
3)      Selectively picking facts II:  You cite EPE’s ranking of NJ as 2nd in the nation in terms of student achievement on the NAEP tests, which is indeed true.   You neglect to mention NJ’s overall ranking by EPE – for all six of its rating categories, not just one as 7th in the nation.  Not bad, actually, except when you consider that we are 2nd in the nation in spending per student at $17,000, a full 70% above the national average of $10,000.   Moreover, if NAEP is the “gold standard” as you say, I urge you and your readers to go to our “fact” section entitled “Performance on National Tests.” There you will see how NJ students actually did on ALL the NAEP tests: in eight out of nine test groups, fewer than half of NJ students were proficient.  For example, in 12th grade math, only 31% of NJ students were proficient: 69% were not.  Regardless of how this ranks against other states, is this sufficient?  
Mike, let's get you up to speed, shall we?

- As I pointed out in my original post, almost every item here does NOT measure student achievement. For an organization that focuses so much on teacher quality, you seem to give great weight to things in the EPE report that have NOTHING to do with teachers, their effectiveness, or actual student achievement: financing, standards, transitions to employment, etc.

Notice I said this in my original post. Perhaps if B4K focused more of its energies on curriculum and fiscal policy, rather than unionization, you could affect some changes in these areas and improve education. But you folks don't seem much interested in that.

- The NAEP is the gold standard in educational research to discern trends, but you cannot use it to judge things like "proficiency" against other measures; in other words, don't mistake 31% proficiency on the NAEP with 31% proficiency on the NJASK, or any of a number of assessments. 31% proficiency on the NAEP does not mean 69% of kids can't do math.

From Diane Ravitch's Death and Life of the Great American School System (which, Mike, you really should read):
The term "proficiency" - which is the goal of the law - is not the same as "minimal literacy." The term "proficiency" has been used since the early 1990s by the federal testing program, the National Assessment of Education Progress, where it connotes a very high level of academic achievement. (p. 102)
So let's not imply a universally accepted criterion-based standard where none exists.

- I am not an expert on school finance; luckily for us both, we happen to have a nationally renowned one right here in New Jersey! And he has a blog! Start here for Dr. Baker's post on state spending comparisons, and understand any comparison you will make with other states must take into account the relative differences in wages and cost-of-living, as well as the commitment of the state to bring resources to the neediest children. I'd also recommend you read this post by Dr. Baker. Maybe we're spending more than other states, but you really didn't think that 70% more money (NOT regionally adjusted) would lead to 70% better performance on tests, did you?

In any case, since you like state ranking so much, how about this? New Jersey gets two "As" for funding  fairness. Maybe that's where the money is going. Is that a bad thing? I thought you folks wanted ALL kids to succeed: "zip code is not destiny," yes?

Lilley continues:
I urge you to drop the cant and spin and ad hominem attacks and embrace the facts.  The stakes are too high.
I urge your readers to see the facts – unembellished and unspun for themselves on our website:www.b4njkids.org.   Then they can make up their own minds.
Mike Lilley – B4K
Mike, I'm all about the facts. But you guys really have got some nerve talking about ad hominem attacks when you go around bad-mouthing my union. Want me to back off? You first.

Oh, look, a postscript:
One last related point: JerseyJazzman criticizes the independent ratings because they do “NOT measure student achievement“ and cites the NAEP tests as “the ‘gold standard’ of education research.”  Do we then take it that he agrees with B4K that student achievement and standardized tests are useful measures of educational attainment? Should we then also assume he supports the use of student achievement as measured by standardized tests as part of a new teacher evaluation system?  And thus would be comfortable basing tenure and other personnel policies based on such evaluations?
Do I agree that standardized tests are useful measures? Of course.

Would I be comfortable using them to evaluate teachers? No way in hell.

Mike, the NAEP is NOT used to evaluate teachers; it is a research tool. No one pays a penalty when students do poorly on the NAEP (yet), which is one of the reasons it's so effective for formulating educational policy.

The NJASK is currently a valuable tool for gathering information on a student's progress, a school's outcomes, and a district's curriculum. It also - and I am the very first to say this - has value in helping a teacher to reflect on his or her practice. No one thinks we should stop administering standardized tests (although we should stop trying to do so on the cheap and open up the tests to scrutiny after every administration).

What we have to do is stop MISUSING them and putting faith in evaluation systems that everyone - even the VAM cheerleaders - knows contain high rates of error. It is foolish beyond belief to use instruments to do a task that they were never designed to do. I honestly do not understand where this passion for judging teachers by how well a kid fills in bubble sheets comes from.

I will say one last thing, and I am sincere here: I'm glad you're reading the blog. You should also check out Ed Reform 101 if you haven't already. You folks need to hear from your critics - particularly those of us who are on the job -  and you need to start responding. I'm happy to engage you or Derrell any time, but understand - I am a teacher with no wealthy backers, no fundraisers, no network, no clout, and little extra time. This isn't my full-time gig. So you may have to wait a bit.

But when I do respond, don't expect me to pull punches. This is my life's work; mine and over 3 million others. We're the ones who made the commitment to actually do the job.

Keep that in mind next time you blog.

ADDING: Here's a terrific piece by Linda Darling-Hammond with more on why using test scores won't work to evaluate teachers, and what will work.

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