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 27, 2015

The Reformy Arguments Are Getting Worse

Peter Cunningham started Education Post because he wanted a "better conversation" about education. That sounds great to me -- so I wish he would follow through and stop publishing illogical, incoherent claptrap like this piece from Michael Vaughn:
But it’s getting harder and harder to see the teachers unions as fighting for the common good when they’re so often fighting against what is clearly good for kids. 
The all-out assault on and demonizing of charter schools is the clearest example. Millions of children have access to a good education—an education that their families chose for them—because of the existence of charter schools. That is a powerful common good.
Except it's not a "common" good when those charter schools clearly serve a different student population than their neighboring public district schools: fewer Limited English Proficient students, fewer students with disabilities (particularly the more profound disabilities), and fewer in the deepest level of economic disadvantage. Further, there is more and more evidence that charter school students differ from the neighboring schools' students in ways that can't be measured in the data, including parental involvement and motivation.

I continue to be amazed when some charter cheerleaders refuse to acknowledge this. The evidence is so clear and incontrovertible that the most "reasonable" reformers, who understandably don't want to look like uninformed ninnies, have acknowledged it. Vaughn, however, brushes it aside as a simple matter of outliers:
It is, however, not a perfect one. There are bad charter schools. There are exclusionary and cherry-picking charter schools. Ditto on all of the above when it comes to traditional public schools. And in both cases, they are the vast exception. Some bad practitioners don’t make it a bad idea.
Michael, there is no basis to make the claim that charters with different student populations are a "vast exception." When I looked at the aggregated statistics for the charter sector in all of New Jersey, it was clear the populations are different across the board. The evidence is clear in Florida: children with profound disabilities do not enroll in that state's charters. The same evidence applies to New Orleans; there are lots of promises that this will be fixed, but we'll see.

The truth is that we have a fair number of studies on a few "high performing" charters, and next to no research about the vast majority of charters throughout the country. Many of these are for-profit operations. Many have been engaged in unethical practices thanks to lax oversight, often brought on by political lobbying by the charter sector itself.

Is it wrong to point all this out? To insist that charters be held to higher standards of transparency and accountability? To question whether the use of public monies to fatten the wallets of Wall Street investors is good public policy?

Vaughn seems to think so:
But instead of a constructive dialogue about how to fix those problems among all schools for the common good, the unions save their most overheated of grievance airing for charter schools. And they do so to the point of distorting a rare and wonderful thing like millions of foundation dollars being poured into city schools and high-poverty communities as destroying public education.
Yes, let's celebrate insanely wealthy people giving money to destroy school districts, take over school boards, bust unions and strip middle-class teachers of their job protections! Because that's working out so well...

The truth is the private monies going to charter schools are not being distributed equitably; they're being used to prop up a political agenda by subsidizing a small subset of the charter sector. Because it's a lot cheaper for billionaires to give up a few million to a few select charters than to have to pay more in taxes to bring our school funding levels up to where they should be for all schools.

This is, of course, the argument Peter Cunningham's extremely wealthy donors don't ever want anyone to make: that our chronic income inequity is not the result of "failing schools," but of failed political, economic, and media systems that can't be fixed through education "reform." Which is why arguments against teachers unions are very useful to the plutocracy: they shift the blame for America's growing gap between the very rich and everyone else to where it doesn't belong, all while preaching hollow words about social justice:
Charter schools serve the public, are free to the public and are accountable to the public’s elected government. And in many high-poverty communities across the country, they are powerful; they are the power that comes with choice and comes with the ability to pick the school that’s best for your child. It’s the same power that union members have and often use on behalf of their own kids.
See -- it's those greedy teachers that are keeping folks poor, what with their fancy pants private schools and five-figure salaries and such! Teachers are, after all, "the affluent"! Makes complete sense...
But unions use public money (dues they collect via mandatory payroll deductions from teachers’ paychecks) to fight tooth and nail to keep that power of choice private—exclusive to the affluent. So, who are the real “privatizers?”
Funny, I thought the money I make as a teacher was my money that I get paid for doing my job. I guess those pork chops I bought yesterday at the A&P were purchased with "public money" as well, huh?

Jersey Jazzman (artist's conception)

Well, no worries: thanks to some extremely wealthy people in California, teachers unions might soon be a thing of the past. Of course, that likely won't affect student achievement at all, although it will almost certainly make the profession far less attractive to qualified workers. But Vaughn has a solution for this:
Not sure it gets more common good than that—if the good you care about is what’s good for kids, that is. But unions too often see merit-based and needs-based pay as against the common good of all teachers. And while the Denver teachers union partners with DPS on an incentive-pay program called ProComp and acknowledged that bonuses at these high-needs schools are worth considering, it still chose to file a grievance and pledged fealty to its beloved, formulaic, pay-by-numbers salary system.
Forget that teachers themselves don't want merit pay. Forget that, over and over, the Merit Pay Fairy turns out to be a myth. Forget that teacher evaluation systems do not have the ability to make distinctions at the fine levels necessary to implement a system people can trust. Forget that merit pay as envisioned by reformers is actually quite rare in the "real world."

Here, instead, are the two questions I always ask folks like Vaughn when they make their wacky arguments for merit pay:

1) Mike, we want every student to have a good teacher, right? And you want to pay good teachers more. Doesn't that inevitably mean raising the pay for all teachers?

2) Again, we have no reliable and valid way to make the fine distinctions necessary for implementing merit pay. But even if we did: how would we distribute the "best" teachers once they were identified? Would you be content to have your child in a class with a less-than-best teacher while your neighbor's kid got to learn from the "best"? How will you solve this problem, Mike? Principals across America are dying to know...

As to Vaughn's argument against LIFO: again, if you're going to take away something from teachers that they value, and you don't replace it with something else like increased pay, what do you think is going to happen to the pool of people who are willing to consider becoming teachers? LIFO and tenure protect teachers from political interference and cronyism. There's no evidence that senior teacher burnout is a big problem, but even if it were: what are you going to do to attract better teachers when you replace seniority protections with a roll of the dice?

You know, it's not like I and many others haven't made these arguments over and over and over again. But Michael Vaughn and the rest of Cunningham's merry crew just don't seem to listen -- let alone learn anything -- from those of us who are in the schools and/or study this stuff carefully. They keep trotting out the same tired talking points; we keep shooting them down.

Maybe that's the endgame: wear us out from repeatedly having to rebut this weakly argued nonsense. Some days, I think it's working; I do get tired of going over this stuff again and again. Thankfully, there are more and more of us (see the blogroll to the left) who are willing to demonstrate just how silly so much of the reformy argument truly is.

Of course, if my union goes belly-up, I'll lose the one organization that exists to protect my rights to free speech on these issues as an educator. Will Peter Cunningham and Michael Vaughn be there to stand up for my right to challenge their arguments publicly?

I'm not counting on it.

The Merit Pay Fairy says: "You ain't getting none of my money if you keep shooting' off yer big mouth, Jazzman!"


walt sautter said...

When I taught in a district using "merit pay"way back in 1966 I saw how it really worked. It seemed to me that the people that were the "best teachers" were coincidently always the best ass kissers and backslappers! Needless to say I lasted there but two years and I am kind of embarrassed to have stayed that long. http://teachersdontsuck.blogspot.com

Tom Hoffman said...

Another angle on the piece is simply that he doesn't establish that there is actually a war on charters being led by unions. His links meant to back this up are weak. What Mike Mulgrew calls a "war" is more a delaying tactic or scorched earth retreat than attack. The Denver teachers just want compensation to be bargained -- they aren't inherently against paying teachers in high needs schools more.

caroline said...

You write as though you think any of these people are sincere, though. They're saying what they're paid to say, just as an openly hired PR person says what he/she is paid to say. It's just an oddity that this isn't all totally in the open.

For example, Obama's press spokesperson is not going to criticize Obama (during or outside work hours) as long as he has that job. That's open and obvious. It would be obviously pointless to try to convince him that Obama was wrong about something.

The weird thing about people like Cunningham is that they're in some strange professional realm where it's not quite as open as it is with Obama's press spokesperson. Plus there are some (Alexander Russo is one) who make a huge point of acting outraged and affronted if you point this out. This is silly -- I have personal friends and Facebook friends who are PR pros, and this just wouldn't even be a subject for debate.