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, February 8, 2013

Rhee on Stewart: A Breakdown, Part III

I've been breaking down Michelle Rhee's extended interview with Jon Stewart: here's Part I and Part II. This segment is worth a close look as I believe it's one of the few times Rhee has been pressed to explain her agenda to a relatively well-informed skeptic.

Stewart makes the case several times that the fixation with schools as the primary cause of and primary solution to poverty misses a critical point: too many kids arrive at "failing" schools not ready to learn, which is why the schools "fail." Rhee, of course, will have none of this: in her view, "failing" schools are the cause of poverty, and improving schools - and by extension, improving teaching - is the best way to solve America's chronic economic inequality.

What's fascinating to me about this interview is how casually Rhee brushes aside the notion that children cannot be expected to learn - and, therefore, teachers cannot be expected to teach - if the problems of poverty are not ameliorated. To reinforce this argument, she regularly extolls the importance of teachers, making them far more central to the variation in a child's learning than a child's environment. 

It's a neat rhetorical trick: she gets to praise teachers as saviors while simultaneously blaming them for all the world's ills. Poverty is not destiny, you see, and great teachers setting high expectations are the best hope we have for saving children. Teachers are just so amazing and incredible and important and Michelle just loves them so...

To reinforce this idea, Rhee pretends to be conversant in education research and pulls out one of her best reformy cliches:

(7:20) RHEE: I think that the reason why people are paying so much attention to teachers and teacher quality is because the research is very clear. That of all of the in-school factors that exist it's the quality of the teacher in front of the student every day that has the most impact on students' lives. 

And, does poverty matter? Absolutely. I mean, that makes it much more challenging for kids to come into school every day, for teachers to teach them effectively. But the reality is that if we want to live up to the ideals of this country, the values of America, and we want those kids one day to be able to escape poverty, we know that the best tool to do that is through education. And that's why we've got to make sure that every kid has a great teacher in front of them every day.

If there were a "Greatest Hits" album from the reformyists, this would be the first track: "The most important in-school factor is the teacher." They love this golden oldie: it encapsulates their entire world view.

It's also so utterly deceptive that I believe it qualifies as a lie. Here's why:

- Socio-econimic status matters much more than teacher quality. The research that Rhee cites is, in fact, clear: teachers are not the most important factor in student learning. Count on Matt DiCarlo to have written the definitive post on this topic:
Now, anyone outside of the education research/policy arena who reads the sentence above might very well walk away thinking that teachers are the silver bullet, more important than everything else, perhaps everything else combined. I cannot prove it, but I suspect that many Americans actually believe that. It is false. 
As is so often the case with this argument, the sentence is carefully worded with the qualifier “at every level of our education system” so as to be essentially in line with the research. This is critical because it signals (very poorly in this case) that teachers are the most influential schooling factor in student achievement (which the blueprint calls “success”). And, indeed, this is the current empirical consensus. It means teachers have a larger effect (far larger, actually) than principals, facilities, textbooks, class size, technology, and all other school-related factors than can be measured. 
But in the big picture, roughly 60 percent of achievement outcomes is explained by student and family background characteristics (most are unobserved, but likely pertain to income/poverty). Observable and unobservable schooling factors explain roughly 20 percent, most of this (10-15 percent) being teacher effects. The rest of the variation (about 20 percent) is unexplained (error). In other words, though precise estimates vary, the preponderance of evidence shows that achievement differences between students are overwhelmingly attributable to factors outside of schools and classrooms (see Hanushek et al. 1998Rockoff 2003Goldhaber et al. 1999Rowan et al. 2002Nye et al. 2004). [emphasis mine]
- But even the claim that 10-15 percent of student outcomes can be attributed to teachers should be regarded with caution. Because students are not assigned randomly to teachers, we can't be sure how much of the "teacher effect" is actually due to peer effect. In other words: if a principal regularly assigns a teacher his school's most difficult students (perhaps because the principal believes that teacher is particularly good with those students), the teacher will be "penalized" when judging her outcome. The critical factor in her "failure" is not her teaching, but the composition of her class.

It is very difficult to disentangle various school effects from each other. Which is not to say that teacher quality doesn't matter, or that teachers aren't important. What it does mean is that the relationships between all the factors in a student's education interact with each other in dynamic ways. Which brings us to...

- Poverty is an "in-school" factor, because students bring poverty's effects with them into their schools. A kid doesn't just leave his home life outside when he walks through the doors of his school; what happens at home dogs him through his entire day. It mendacious to use a rhetorical trick to separate a child's home and school life, because the two are so closely interconnected.

So why do Rhee and her ilk insist on making this case every time poverty is brought up? I think the reason is quite clear, even though the squeamish among you usually get very uncomfortable when I say it. But it's time for some hard, blunt truth:

The focus in teacher quality is a distraction. It is designed to divert attention away from the real causes of our nation's massive inequality and disgusting childhood poverty rates. The true goal of this argument is to move blame away from the wealthy interests that control this country and place it on teachers.

I'll come back to this when I take a final look at Rhee's appearance on The Daily Show.

I don't much care for your tone, Jazzman...


Mrs. King's music students said...

According to Marzano, the factors that contribute most to student achievement, in order, are 1. use of instruction time with minimal disruptions 2. high expectations that are specific and monitored 3. effective communication bet school and family 4. safe and orderly environment 5. strong leadership/shared vision.

While he also said a superior teacher can overcome the absence of any of the above in his or her own classroom - Ms. Rhee is proposing that ALL teachers should overcome the absence of these in EVERY school. Afterward, she'll let you know if you're getting the merit pay.

The dirty secret is that providing the setting in which teachers CAN teach and students CAN learn, are actually the obligations of administrators like Michelle Rhee. Thats why they get paid the big bucks.

In my opinion, the next pivotal point in education (the likes of John Dewey) will hinge on putting teachers who interract directly with students at the top of the pay scale, and paying administrators - as the title suggests- to support the staff. THAT could change the face of public school education as we know it!

Bill Michaelson said...

The most important in-school factor is the student, eh?

Mrs. King's music students said...

Exactly. I am SO over 'ed. law' replacing 'ed. leadership' in our schools.