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

Saturday, April 20, 2013

John Merrow Rewrites History

John Merrow, education reporter for PBS (and funded, in part, by the Gates Foundation), has done some extraordinary work lately in uncovering the burgeoning cheating scandal in Washington, D.C. Merrow's reporting now calls into question the entire legacy of former Chancellor and current Queen of Reforminess, Michelle Rhee. Ironic, as Merrow is as responsible as anyone for catapulting Rhee into the national spotlight.

I can only assume that Merrow is now suffering a small attack of conscience, wondering about his own role in creating the myth of St. Michelle:
My question is about the public phenomenon known as “Michelle Rhee.” The one that’s has become America’s most prominent education activist. She’s loved by some, hated and/or feared by others. To her admirers, she’s a shining symbol of all that’s right in school reform. Her opponents see her as the representative of the forces of greed, privatization and teacher-bashing in education.
Who created that character, that symbol? I can identify four possible parents: She created herself. We created her. “They” did. U did.
I'll have more to say about Merrow's thesis in a bit; for now, read these excellent commentaries from Diane Ravitch, Fred Klonsky, and Anthony Cody

Until then, I'd like to focus on one particular part of Merrow's post - a part that provides an excellent example of the serious failings with our media's reporting on education:
And finally U created her. “U” is my shorthand for teacher unions. This is simple physics: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” The “Michelle Rhee” phenomenon is the inevitable product of, and reaction to, intransigent teacher union policies like the ones that produced New York City’s famous “rubber room,” where teachers who couldn’t be fired spent their days reading, napping, and doing crossword puzzles–on full salary and with the full support of the United Federation of Teachers, the local union. (See Steven Brill’s Class Warfare.) She’s the inevitable reaction to union leaders who devote their energy to preserving seniority at the expense of talented young teachers, not to mention children. She’s the product of the California Teachers Association, which I recall was willing to sacrifice librarians’ jobs in order to preserve salary increases for teachers. She’s a social reaction to union leaders like Vice President Jack Steinberg of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. In an interview that is burned into my memory, Steinberg asserted that teachers can never be held accountable for student results. No teacher! Not ever! Jack was muzzled when he said that on national television in 1996, but he and his union have stayed on message. [emphasis mine]
Wow: one vice-president in one teachers union said one thing that sounds bad. Of course, this was 17 years ago - maybe, John, you could have found a more contemporary example? No, of course not: it's "burned into" Merrow's memory, like it happened yesterday!

For those of us not blessed with Merrow's photographic recall, we can instead click on the link he provides. The quote in question comes from Merrow's PBS report, The Toughest Job in America, a documentary about the tenure of former Philadelphia schools superintendent David Horbeck. Here's a clip, with my transcript of the relevant section below:

(2:30) MERROW: If I'm a teacher, and I set out to teach the kids long division, and they all learn long division, did I do a good job? 
MERROW: Wait... OK... 
STEINBERG: What if they didn't learn long division? 
MERROW: Did I do a bad job? 
STEINBERG: Let's say you teach three classes. And in one class they could do it, and one class they couldn't. Are you doing a good job or a bad job? Or are... 
MERROW: How about a good job in one class and a bad job in the other? 
STEINBERG: But you did the same job in both classes. What's wrong? 
DALE MEZZACAPPA, PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER: Somehow, teachers have to be held accountable - not just teachers, but teachers have to be included in this - for whether their students achieve. 
STEINBERG: And if you're asking: "Can you evaluate a teacher on the performance of the students?" 
MERROW: Yes. Yes or no. 
STEINBERG: No, you cannot. 
MERROW: You cannot evaluate a teacher on the performance of his or her students? 
STEINBERG: Right. Right. 
MEZZACAPPA: One thing that the PFT has succeeded in doing over the 30 years that it's had collective bargaining rights in this town is insulate teachers from any responsibility whether students learn. 
MERROW: I just want to know where you draw the line. If I set out to teach long division... 
STEINBERG: Alright. 
MERROW: ...and not a single kid learns long division - it's the right age to teach long division and learn it - not a single kid learns long division, did I do a bad job? 
STEINBERG: (pause) I don't know. I really don't know because there are too many variables.

Is Merrow's characterization fair? Does Steinberg say anything that can be plausibly interpreted as: "teachers can never be held accountable for student results. No teacher! Not ever!"? That is, of course, a matter of opinion; what is quite clear, however, is that Steinberg said far more in this exchange than what Merrow is now recalling.

Merrow's truncated description leaves out a point Steinberg made that is not under dispute - even by the most hardcore adherents of "reform." Everyone agrees that teachers cannot be evaluated on the learning of their students unless you take the characteristics of the students themselves into account.

The entire premise of VAM-based teacher evaluation is that students aren't all the same, and that must be taken into account when evaluating teachers. Even Rhee's StudentsFirst argues that raw test score data is not a good measure of a teacher's worth.

What Steinberg is saying here is pretty much the same thing. His very first example - a teacher with two classes: one learning, one not - is an illustration of that very point. Merrow's silly attempt to deflect Steinberg's argument - "How about a good job in one class and a bad job in the other?" - ignores the fundamental issue: that you must take into account student characteristics when evaluating a teacher on her performance.

It's quite telling to me that Merrow cuts away to Mezzacappa when Steinberg retorts: "But you did the same job in both classes. What's wrong?" It's obvious that Merrow has no answer to Steinberg's argument. He wants to pretend that Steinberg is being ludicrous, but Steinberg reiterates his point right at the end of the segment: "there are too many variables." Again, this is an argument that is not under any dispute.

Keep in mind that this conversation dates back to 1996, long before Value Added Modeling and Student Growth Percentiles and test-based teacher ratings were part of the education conversation. So Steinberg was not even arguing against (failed) VAM-based evaluation; he was saying teachers can't be evaluated on student "results" because there was no way to account for the students themselves.

I find it grossly unfair of Merrow to characterize Steinberg's comments in this way; at the very least, Merrow should have included a summation of the argument Steinberg was making. But that would shatter Merrow's worldview: that teachers unions are "intransigent" and push their policies "at the expense of talented young teachers, not to mention children."

Which is why this is such a great example of how our media fails our education system so regularly. Merrow is locked into a narrative; consequently, facts and opinions that run counter to this narrative must be shunned, mocked, or ignored. If Steinberg's argument is far more complex and nuanced than necessary for Merrow to tell his preferred story, it simply must be altered. Throw away the larger context, throw away the gist of the counter-argument, and instead focus on the preferred story: teachers unions are bad.

All this said, I'm glad Merrow included this link in his post. Because The Toughest Job in America makes the answer to Merrow's question quite clear:

Who created Michelle Rhee? You did, John. More in a bit.

"My greatest creation lives!"


caroline said...

Of course the part of Merrow's commentary blaming teachers' unions is absurd, but in my opinion it's also valuable, because it insulates him against the routine "you're just a teachers' union lackey" sneers (which always seem to stick). That means his actual findings about Rhee and test cheating in D.C. schools, which are significant, are a lot more likely to stick.

So I know this is an unpopular, minority opinion -- and I'm a passionate opponent of teacher-bashing -- but in this case, my view is: Blame away, John!

By the way, how does it remotely make sense that Beverly Hall (former Atlanta superintendent who presided over cheating scandal) is facing a long prison sentence, while Rhee is the "reform" diva and media darling? Another unpopular opinion, but I think being middle-aged and black made Hall an easy target. I'd sure like to see this analyzed, though.

EC said...

Wow--Merrow didn't just take a quote out of context, he didn't quote the guy at all! That was shocking; Merrow should be ashamed of himself. I had roughly the same reaction you did to MErrow's piece, but I didn't look up the quote (b/c I thought, whatever, it's 17 years ago)--thank you for doing so.

JackS said...

Great picture at the end Jersey!

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: For what we are about to see next, we must enter quietly into the realm of genius.

chemtchr said...

Caroline, I don't find this kind of distortion from Merrow
"valuable, because it insulates him against the routine "you're just a teachers' union lackey" sneers (which always seem to stick)."

He has "insulated" himself by attacking this union leader unjustly and dishonestly, with an entirely fictitious direct quote. Sneers "stick" because compliant hacks spread them.

Merrow has been accorded unearned respect and credibility, because we teachers can't even believe journalists would sell out their professional integrity so cheaply. What he needs to "insulate himself" from, at this point, is his subservience to funders like Gates, Broad, and the Walton Family Foundation.