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

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Reformy Arguments Are Getting Worser

Michael Vaughn posted a piece at Education Post that makes this increasingly tiresome claim:
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.
I picked apart Vaughn's argument and pointed out he had made assertions that were not backed up by the evidence. He responded, and I agreed to post his response here. However, as this is my blog, I claim the privilege of having the last word.

Let's start off by disabusing Vaughn of several of the claims he makes in his response to me:
And the latest CREDO study shows that urban charters, in some cases, serve more students from low-income families and higher percentages of English-language learners and students with disabilities.
No, it does not. The CREDO study shows in some cases -- emphasis on some -- that the student populations that they studied had those characteristics. This is one of the major methodological criticisms of the CREDO study: its home-grown method for matching students excludes too many charter students who can't be matched to public students.

The table on page 6 of the CREDO study shows the characteristics of the tested students of the charters in the cities studied -- not of all of the students in those charters. The fact that nearly 20% of the students in the charters studied could not be matched is a good indication that the populations of the charters differ significantly from their hosting public school districts. And the study didn't include all cities with charter students.

In addition: the CREDO study aggregates students of varying levels of economic disadvantage and special need into one group. That's not very helpful when comparing charter populations to district public school populations.
And let’s stop the “privatization” nonsense and the efforts to deny parents access to those options.
For about the millionth time: charter schools are not public schools in any meaningful sense. Yes, they access public funds, but so do many non-profit and for-profit organizations that are not state actors. Charters belong in this latter category.

The Ninth Circuit Count of Appeals says so. The Washington State Supreme Court says so (admittedly, it's a matter of local state law in that case). The National Labor Relations Board says so. The Census Bureau says so. Legal scholars writing in academic journals and for the American Bar Association say so.

Further, we know that investors are looking to make money from privatized charter schools. How do we know? They've admitted it, time and time and time and time and time again. And what they are doing in taking over the governance of schools is far different from what textbook providers or other suppliers of school services do in procuring contracts; anyone who suggests otherwise is making a false equivalency.

The idea that charter schools are moving us toward the "privatization" of public education is in no way nonsense: it is a fact.
I have enough money to afford a choice if my attendance-area school isn’t right for my child, and I want to deny other less-affluent parents that same power. That pretty clearly is not advocating for the common good. 
No. What you actually have is the ability to put your child into a "good" school without giving up the transparency and democratic control that exists under a school system that is a state actor. That "choice" continues to be denied to urban parents in economically disadvantaged communities who must "choose" between under-funded public schools that in many cases are dangerously unhealthy, and better-resourced (in some cases) charter schools that force parents to substitute their privileges under state actor systems for some vague idea of market choice.

I'd further note that, for many, the definition of a "good" school appears to be much more tied to its student population's characteristics than its actual effectiveness.
If that money is truly, first and foremost, the teacher’s, then maybe we should ask them if they want to spend it on union dues, instead of having it automatically and involuntarily deducted from their paychecks, whether they like it or not?
As I have discussed previously, the entire premise behind the Abood case, which is currently being challenged in the Supreme Court, is that freeloaders should not be able to benefit from contract negotiations paid by others. Even Justice Antonin Scalia seems to understand this is a problem.

Abood, however, allows teachers to opt out of that part of their dues that does not cover contract negotiations. So if teachers don't want to pay for their unions engaging in lobbying they don't like, they don't have to. Why, then, is Vaughn creating a problem here when none actually exists?
I’m all for increasing teacher salaries… and for changing an “evaluation” system that tells me that 99% of them are fine and don’t need to improve.
The link is to The Widget Effect, a piece of ideology dressed up like an education policy analysis. This report has led otherwise highly intelligent people like Bill Gates to say truly foolish things about teacher evaluation.

Nobody in the classroom worth a damn thinks they can't possibly improve. No decent evaluation system that finds many teachers are effective does not still suggest areas for reflection and suggestions to improve practice. I have been found to be "effective" in my teaching job for years, but my supervisors have always engaged me in professional discussions about how I can get even better.

But again, as I have written previously, if anyone wants to show me that the distribution of effectiveness for teachers is somehow different from any other profession, please be my guest. I'm dying to see you try.
I think parents deserve a system that supports teachers; identifies and rewards excellence; takes action to help underperformers improve; and replaces teachers who continue to be ineffective after being given a fair chance to improve.
No one disagrees with any of that. No one disagrees with any of that! The only disagreement comes when we get to the details. Such as...
And to be perfectly clear, I’m 100% fine with a system that identifies the best teachers and gets them to schools in high-poverty communities (at the expense of my kids’ schools) and pays them more for it.
But what guarantees are there that teachers who are effective in one community are effective in another? We have good evidence that race alignment can be beneficial to students in schools with economically disadvantaged populations. Why, then, are we implementing reformy policies that replace experienced teachers of color with relatively inexperienced white teachers?
But granted, decisions about where to deploy the best teachers are undeniably hard decisions. As problems go, it’s certainly far better than the problem we’re trying to solve—not really knowing who the best teachers are. I don’t see how a system of treating teachers as interchangeable parts, with their compensation determined strictly by a spreadsheet, is better for the profession or better for kids.
Who said "not really knowing who the best teachers are" is a problem anyway? Where's your evidence?! Is there any proof that identifying the "best" teachers leads to better student achievement?

Just this week, yet another study came out showing the Merit Pay Fairy does not exist. Why, Michael, are you so convinced that it's a "problem" that we haven't identified the "best" teachers when there's no evidence that identifying them helps students?

This is the sort of stuff that makes me bang my head on my desk. Vaughn identifies a "problem" without any evidence as to how it hurts students, schools, or families. Link to The Widget Effect as much as you like, Mike -- it still has no empirical evidence to back up its contention that student performance improves when you identify the "best" teachers.

In conclusion: I'm not going to rehash what I already wrote about Vaughn's original piece. But let me just point to one particular paragraph that sums up the problem with his train of thought:
Having worked in school districts that had mostly healthy and productive relationships with their unions, I saw the behind-the-scenes advocacy at work. And as the media spokesperson for said districts, I also dealt with plenty of Costanza-esque grievance airing. 
So for every headline-grabbing stunt, I figure there’s usually a quieter counter-narrative.
Or at least I used to. 
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. [emphasis mine]
In the world of Michael Vaughn, charter schools are "clearly good for kids." Getting rid of teacher work protections like tenure and seniority is "clearly good for kids." Merit pay is "clearly good for kids."

Except it's not; it's not clear at all any of these policies will help students. They may, in fact, be harmful.

In his original piece, Vaughn assumed that the unions must not be "fighting for the common good" when they dared to question his presumptions. But when someone like me challenges him -- armed only with a blog, a smart mouth, and a pretty damn good command of the facts -- he suddenly backs off:
I understand that other voices and ideas and influence horning in on what has been strictly union territory can cause fear and anxiety. But it’s time for more ideas and more voices. And no “insanely wealthy” person is forcing any parent to send their kid to a charter school nor forcing any voter to vote for a particular school board candidate (and unions do their fair share of spending on school board races). Again, more ideas and more voices. May the best idea win. That’s democracy.
So now we've gone from questioning the unions' motives to merely wanting "more voices" in the debate. Huh.

Mike, I am perfectly happy to have "more voices" join this debate -- so long as what they contribute is based on facts and makes sense. Your original post, so far as I'm concerned, did not hold up to even mild scrutiny; it was a weak exercise in union bashing pretending to be a policy argument.

There are some reformy folks out there who are willing and able to engage in a serious debate on education policy (I will get to one of them next). I happen to think they are largely wrong, but I respect the fact that they are willing to debate on the facts and acknowledge when their predilections don't line up with those facts.

What I can't abide is when ideologues engage in their attacks on teachers and their unions while pretending that they are partaking in serious policy discussions. If you want to arrive at a contrary point of view from a position of knowledge and solidly constructed argument, great. I don't even have a problem with theories about the other side's motivations, if they make sense (the idea that teachers unions want to protect bad teachers makes no sense to me whatsoever).

But don't come in here with a bunch of misinformed platitudes and expect to be taken seriously; I or others will pick your arguments apart if you do. Raise your game or don't play.

The Merit Pay Fairy says: "Don't listen to dat Jazzman guy, Mikey! Just clap louder!"


Unknown said...

Just as I expected....great response.

lisa said...

Right on!

Peter Greene said...

Well done. Thanks for standing up for sense.

CrunchyMama said...

Oh, those self Union teachers in Washington, asking for sufficient funding and guaranteed recess.

Stop the madness!


Anonymous said...

Something of interest to consider:

I think the reformy folks know full well that given good principals who have proper support and resources with which to do the job of instructional leader within schools, we can readily find the "effective" versus "ineffective" teachers within local contexts. If we had invested this past decade and half in data tools for formative assessment and in developing local capacities, we'd have a overall teacher evaluation situation much improved over previous decades.

But that does not serve the reformy purpose which wants to be able to sit in state capitols and in think tanks and make the case that huge swaths of the profession are layabouts - and that they just happen to be concentrated heavily in urban schools that charter operators want to take over.

So this is what we end up with.