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, November 11, 2011

Why Do They Say What They Say?

Matt DiCarlo has another important post up today about Value-Added Modeling (VAM), the error-ridden statistics tool promoted by the corporate reformers as the solution to the "problem" of teacher evaluation (a "problem" I still contend no one has shown to be an actual problem).

Matt does what he does best: debunk think-tanky reforminess with actual research. In this case, he raises some important cautions about VAM's inability to account for student effects outside of a teacher's control (it can't), and about its volatility across years compromising its ability to make high-stakes decisions (it does).

To this, I'd add two things: one Matt will probably agree with, and one I'm sure he won't.

First: VAM is predicated on the idea that the standardized tests administered to students are themselves valid and reliable. There is every reason in the world to doubt this. But maybe my fears could be assuaged if every administration of every standardized test was followed by a public vetting of the tests themselves. In other words: if my job as a teacher is on the line here, shouldn't I get to look at the test and my student's answers?

I don't know why any teacher should buy into VAM if the testing process itself remains secretive and unaccountable. There no point in getting into the weeds of the technical problems with VAM if we can't even agree to that.

Next - and I'm sorry Matt, but I have to do this: Why do these people continue to push this stuff when it is clear all of the evidence is against them?

Bruce Baker today points out that the situation has become so bad that career educators now have to have b.s. detectors wired into their heads as a prerequisite for the job:
Over the past year, I’ve actually become more supportive of the notion that our future school and district leaders really do need to know the research, understand statistics and other methods of inquiry and be able to determine how it all intersects with their daily practice, even when it seems like it couldn’t possibly do so.
Unfortunately, a major reason that it has become so important for school leaders to know their shit is because state agencies, including departments of education, which to some extent are supposed to be playing a “technical support role,” have drifted far more substantially toward political messaging than technical support, and have in many cases drifted toward driving their policy agendas with shoddy fact sheets, manifesto’s and other shallow, intellectually vacuous but “easy to digest” Think Tank fodder.
In many cases, this intellectually vacuous, technically bankrupt think tank fodder is actually being trotted out by state education agencies as technical guidance to local school administrators.
In other words: the people who actually run the schools are far more likely to know what the hell they are doing than the politicos and thinktanky types and media pundits, who push policies based on... what? On what are they basing their decisions? Research? No, the research is clearly pointing in another direction. So why do they say what they say? Why do they want what they want?

Are they too lazy to challenge themselves intellectually? Are they indifferent to the truth? That may be part of it. Do they accept incoherence as part of modern American political rhetoric? Watching the Republican primary debates, it's hard to argue that rigorously thought out policies are not only irrelevant to a political career - they may be a hinderance.

Certainly, we know there are hucksters out there looking to make a buck during the Haliburtonization of our schools. But even I acknowledge that this is only a part - and probably a small part - of the overall agenda for these folks.

No, I keep going back to the same place: this is all a distraction.

American conservatism is a 32-year-old experiment that has completely and utterly failed. The commercialization of our culture, the crony capitalism, the militaristic foreign policy, the disintegration of our infrastructure, the disintegration of civil rights, the indifference to human suffering, the rise of unchecked corporations, the selling of our government to the highest bidders... it has led us to disaster.

The only thing that will save us at this point is a return to real democracy, real capitalism, and a real sense of patriotism. This will require overturning the massive inequality that was the inevitable outcome of the policies we've had foisted on us these past decades. The problem, of course, is that it will also require the 1% (really, 0.1%) to give up their stranglehold on power. And many of them are not interested in that.

So they look for a new villian. Ah ha - education! Of course, if everyone went to college, we'd being doing swell (forget that college is massively expensive and out of reach for many Americans even if they are qualified)! It's our lousy schools that are keeping us back! Yeah, that's the ticket...

Let me be clear: do I think that corporate reformers like to see kids in poverty? No, of course not. Do I think corporate reformers want awful public schools? No, they don't. Do I think they make a legitimate point in saying we could and should be doing a better job teaching kids? Absolutely.

But I also know that their own interests in keeping the status quo line up very, very neatly with the corporate reform agenda. And I find it more than a little curious that the think tanks pushing this agenda - again, an agenda that has no evidence to back it up - are being funded by the very, very wealthiest among us.

And this is where Matt and I part ways. He believes the better argument will win; I'm far more skeptical. The corporate reform movement has both implicitly and explicitly questioned the motivations of both teachers and their unions in making their case for "reform." I believe that playing field needs to be leveled; I believe no one will listen to the better argument until we push back on the motivations of the arguer.

I admit, this isn't pretty. But it's the world we live in. We need to be honest about this.

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