Monthly Archives: August 2014

Whoopi Goldberg Gets Taken to School on Tenure

This came across my Twitter feed this morning.

Keith Reeves is a teacher, and he decided to help Whoopi Goldberg better understand tenure.  Ms. Goldberg needed the lesson because in the wake of Campbell Brown’s publicity tour for her lawsuit against New York State’s tenure laws, The View did a brief segment on the suit, and, charitably, the segment could have been written by Michelle Rhee’s publicity agent.  One host repeated the boilerplate claim that teachers have a union but nobody is watching out for the kids (as if teachers, on the whole, did not do that).  Another host said, with emphasis, that a HARVARD ECONOMIST had estimated that a good teacher makes a difference of a quarter million dollars per child in the classroom — despite the fact that said economist, Raj Chetty, is hardly beyond professional criticism of his research techniques.

Then it was Ms. Goldberg’s turn who professed herself a “thinker” and then more or less demanded that all teachers go after the “bad teachers” and even suggested that “maybe some of those folks should go” from the Democratic party.  Presumably, she meant people who think that going after teacher tenure is not a good policy and who oppose changing it via lawsuits funded by — well, we don’t know by who.  Nobody is telling us.

The segment was brief and extremely low information.  Nobody disputes that there are bad teachers in classrooms, but nothing has been presented that demonstrates that tenure rules specifically are the main reason that they are there.  Nor has anything been presented that demonstrates that removal of tenure for ALL teachers is an effective policy for addressing that portion of the teacher corps that should be removed from teaching.  No amount of sincere shouting for the cameras is going to make that evidence appear.

Teachers and supporters took to Twitter to explain some of Ms. Goldberg and her compatriots’ misconceptions:

That’s obviously a small sample.  Well, Ms. Goldberg heard the words, but not the message and offered what can only be described as a trite and trivial self defense:

In steps Mr. Reeves with an eloquent and high information response for Ms. Goldberg:

His complete reply can be found at his blog, here.

As Dr. Alyssa Hadley Dunn of Michigan State University made clear in the Washington Post, the standard arguments against teacher tenure lack evidence and they are often thin on logic as well.  If teachers having tenure protections were highly correlated to ineffective teachers being in the classroom, then our wealthy suburbs that have the most experienced teachers with the lowest rates of teacher attrition (and thus the highest proportion of teachers with tenure) would have ineffective classroom after ineffective classroom.  Stripping all the teachers of a state of the due process rights they are afforded by tenure because it “makes sense” to people who have either not examined the research or who are falling for blatant distortions of the truth is not the best way to serve students.

I would like to think that with enough exposure to this argument, that it will begin to make sense to Ms. Goldberg, and that it will be taken into account the next time this topic is discussed in front of millions of viewers.


Filed under politics, teaching, Unions

Campbell Brown’s Brings the Anti-Tenure “Argument” to Stephen Colbert

As a former broadcast personality, Campbell Brown has some advantages when appearing on the media to discuss her campaign to end teachers’ workplace protections.  She has experience in interview techniques.  She understands what works well on camera and what does not.  She knows how to pitch her voice and use facial and body language to convey deep sincerity and earnestness regardless of what she really believes.  These served her well on Mr. Colbert’s program last week.


Mr. Colbert is similarly skilled, but he plays a satirical representation of a right wing ideologue in order to lampoon a segment of the media and to keep his guests off balance.  I would argue that he did not level the full weight of his satirical talents upon Ms. Brown, but rather he waited until the end of the interview to present her with some serious challenges that she could not respond to adequately.  More on that later.

Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post provides a pretty thorough assessment of Ms. Brown’s many prevarications and reliance on talking points over evidence courtesy of Dr. Alyssa Hadley Dunn of Michigan State University.  Dr. Dunn makes it very clear that there simply isn’t a research base to support any of Ms. Brown’s assertions, and since she had made those assertions in the media prior to her appearance on The Colbert Report, I wish that Mr. Colbert had been more ready to take on some of the more stubborn and egregious talking points.  For example, Ms. Brown repeated her claim that New York State’s teachers cannot possible be as effective as job evaluations say they are because student test scores are too low:

SC: Okay, how’s the crisis in New York? What’s the problem here?

CB: So, if you look at, if you look at the, um, outcomes, student outcomes in New York, okay? So, 91 percent of teachers are around the state of New York are rated either “effective” or “highly effective,” and yet [SC: Sounds good.] 31 percent, [SC: Yep.] 31 percent of our kids are reading, writing, and doing math at grade level. How does that compute? I mean, how can you argue the status quo is okay with numbers like that??

SC: Well, I went to public school in South Carolina and 31 percent sounds like a majority to me.  (transcript is courtesy of Mercedes Schneider, teacher and author)

Mr. Colbert chose to lightly mock his own education, but there is a major, I would argue deliberate, flaw in Ms. Brown’s favored talking point.  First, the 31% figure does not measure students’ grade level performance; it measures the percentage of students who scored “proficient” or above on the new Common Core aligned testing piloted by the Pearson corporation in New York.  Second, the 31% proficiency rate was gamed by the process to determine the cut scores and openly predicted by New York State Education Commissioner John King before the tests were ever deployed.  From the Times-Union in 2013:

State Education Commissioner John King said he expected some push-back. At a Times Unioneditorial board meeting on Tuesday, he said the number of students considered proficient will likely drop by 30 points. He said, while that number is intimidating, it provides a more honest assessment of what New York’s students know. He acknowledged that makes for nervous educators, but said the state can’t afford to roll back the tougher new standards students will be expected to meet because just 35 percent of New York’s high school freshmen leave ready for college or a career four years later.

How could the commissioner so accurately predict the drop in test scores for the new examinations?  According to award-winning Principal Carol Burris, it is because his office deliberately sought to peg the cut scores between proficiency levels to markers that would leave just a third of New York students making the cut.  The condensed version of Burris’ analysis:  NY DOE sought information from the College Board on what SAT scores (widely considered only a loose predictor of college success) correlated to a successful first year in college, and set measures of that “success” that are clearly aimed at that 30% target.  Once in possession of the desired SAT scores in reading, writing and mathematics for a combined 1630 points, the state’s committee went about setting cut scores for each level of performance on the new CCSS aligned tests.  From Principal Burris again:

When the cut scores were set, the overall proficiency rate was 31 percent–close to the commissioner’s prediction.  The proportion of test takers who score 1630 on the SAT is 32 percent.  Coincidence?  Bet your sleeveless pineapple it’s not. Heck, the way I see it, the kids did not even need to show up for the test.

So is it honest for Ms. Brown to keep repeating that only 31% of NY students are at “grade level”? Absolutely not — first, because this is not a “grade level” measure and second, because the result was gamed from the beginning.

This also brings up another question.  If the goal of the “proficient” rating on the exams is “college and career ready” is a 31% proficiency rating actually wrong?  In 2013, 33.6% of the U.S. population aged 25-29 had a bachelors degree, which is up over 11 points from 22.5% in 1980 when the education “crisis” rhetoric began in earnest.  More of our young population is in possession of college degree today than ever before in our history, and the economic data does not suggest we are in a crisis of too few people with such degrees in the economy.  48% of recent college graduates are underemployed, and in 2010, over 5 million college graduates were employed in jobs requiring only a high school diploma.  Moreover, according to Pew Social Trends, today’s wage benefit for obtaining a college degree comes less from rising wages for college graduates than from cratering wages for those without college.

One could argue that more students need to be on path to be “college and career ready” by their third grade exams because college is increasingly necessary to keep from falling behind economically moreso than it is necessary to get ahead.  Something tells me that today’s reform advocates don’t want to emphasize that point.  We would do better to question if the distribution of students who qualify for and are successful at college are concentrated in specific communities and neighborhoods, but discussed honestly, that would require examining America’s rising Residential Income Segregation Index, another topic education reform advocates don’t like to discuss.

Mr. Colbert made a feint at this late in his interview with Ms. Brown:

SC: You can mention. I’ll edit it out, but you can mention it. [CB: Okay.] [Audience laughter.] All right, now, but, here’s, the thing is aren’t you opening a can of worms there, because [4:00] if you say the kids are entitled to e, equal education, if that’s your argument, doesn’t that mean eventually, you’re going to say, “Every child in the state of New York should have the same amount of money spent on their education”—rich community, poor community—pool it all in, split it all up among Bobby and Susie and Billy—everywhere. [Audience applause.] Because the argument is, everyone gets the same opportunity. [Audience applause.]

CB: But, but you, you’re suggesting that mon, that it’s all about the money, and I think it’s not about the money.

SC: Well, you’re suggesting it’s about equality, and money is one of the equations in equality, or have I just schooled you? [Audience laughter.]

Mr. Colbert did not let Ms. Brown duck the question of money and school funding entirely, but she quickly professed how she wants to “pay teachers more” AND treat them like “professionals” through evaluations.  Then she sidestepped to her “safe” territory by claiming it is almost impossible to fire a teacher with tenure.  As previously noted, Dr. Dunn of Michigan State makes it clear that these claims are completely problematic because first, new evaluations using student test scores focus on formulations of teachers’ impact that only accounts for 1-14% of variability between student performance and second, Ms. Brown’s information on the length of time needed to remove a tenured teacher is badly out of date and her assessment of that time is possibly off by more than a factor of four.  This all tied to her previous claims the “least effective” teachers are concentrated in schools with high levels of disadvantaged students, but her argument against tenure is not remotely related to that because measuring effectiveness via test scores automatically makes urban teachers less effective regardless of their experience and skill. Additionally, these school have far fewer tenured teachers because the turnover rate in many urban districts tops 50% in three years, resulting in a dearth of teachers with the skills that come from experience.

If tenure were truly the problem with teacher quality, then wealthy suburban districts with more stable and experienced teacher corps would not be the districts with high test scores and large percentages of college bound graduates.  In this sense, Ms. Brown’s fight against tenure resembles Republican led drives for voter ID laws that threaten to block 100s of 1000s of currently eligible voters in order to stop a “problem,’ voter impersonation, that occurs so rarely it does not statistically exist.

Mr. Colbert then pivoted to what appears to have been his most important question of the interview — what is the money involved in Ms. Brown’s lawsuit?

SC: Just trying to win, Campbell. Just trying to win, all right? Um, your organization, where does it’s money come from? That’s one of the things they asked me to ask you.

CB: I, I saw that on my Twitter feed today. The, the, who’s funding this effort?

SC: Yeah, who’s funding your, your effort, [CB: Kirkland Ellis.] your organization.

CB: The law firm…

SC: The law firm is funding it?

CB: Well, the law firm is doing this for free, so we haven’t gone out…

Ms. Brown’s point here appears to be that despite her fronting the organization that is facilitating the lawsuit, the efforts on behalf of that suit are, in essence, charitable.  This may be true as far as legal fees are concerned, but it is absurd on the face to even hint that there is no monetary value to the assistance Ms. Brown is giving the plaintiffs her organization recruited.  First, her connections and celebrity almost certainly played a role in obtaining the legal services.  Second, Ms. Brown is a media ready spokesperson who has been giving interviews and penning opinion articles on behalf of this cause, and such services would cost dearly if they came from a private consulting firm.  Further, Ms. Brown has managed to sign up the services of Incite Agency, led by former Obama administration alumni Robert Gibbs and Ben LaBolt to do publicity for the cause on a national level.  The plaintiffs in this case are enjoying pro bono legal services, Ms. Brown’s celebrity and public relations services from former White House personnel.  I think it is sufficient to say that those are no small levels of support.

Mr. Colbert pressed on about financial support and finally got Ms. Brown to admit to something which I find astonishing:

SC: So, the Partnership for Educational Justice [7:00] has not raised any money so far?

CB:Yeah, we are raising money.

SC: And who did you raise it from?

CB: I’m not gonna reveal who the donors are because the people (pointing toward window) are out…

SC: I’m going to respect that because I had a super PAC. [Audience applause.]

CB: I hear you. But, part of the reason is the people who are outside today, trying to protest, trying to silence our parents who want to have a voice in this debate…

SC: Exercising First Amendment rights…

CB: Absolutely, but they’re also going to go after people who are funding this, and I think this is a good cause and an important cause, and if someone wants to contribute to this cause without having to put their name on it so they can become a target of the people who were out there earlier today, then I respect that.


Ms. Brown is married to Dan Senor, who was the former spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq following the fall of the Hussein Regime.  He sits on the board of of Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirstNY, and he joined hedge fund Elliot Management before becoming a top adviser to Presidential candidate Mitt Romney.  Ms. Brown is on the Board of Directors of Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy chain of charter schools, an organization that boasts massive financial support from Wall Street.  Her ties to people who have been pouring money into education “reform” in the interest of charter schools is not difficult to establish, as blogger Mother Crusader has demonstrated.  Suffice to say that these are incredibly wealthy and politically connected people who are the most likely donors to her organization.

And Ms. Brown wants us to believe that they need to be “protected”.  That if people want to know who is funding lawsuits to challenge laws that were passed by democratically elected governments and job protections that were subject to open and adversarial negotiations between unions and administrators, they cannot know because the donors seeking to overturn such laws could not abide potential criticism of themselves in the public sphere.


Let’s be clear.  Who are “the people who are outside today” who Ms. Brown assumes will bully and intimidate her donors?  According to The Daily News:




I am sure that Eva Moskowitz’s donors are just quaking in their boots…right after they drop another $400,000 into Governor Cuomo’s pockets.

Mr. Colbert did not sneak a camera crew down to the street to make Ms. Brown look as ridiculous as she richly deserved at that moment, but the fact that he led her to make such a ludicrous statement is telling in an of itself.  Today, it is very hard to trust that major media outlets will take the time and effort to research and interview people trying to lead public debate via deception, and on issues that require a genuine understanding of complex social phenomena, that is even less likely.  I have written before how abysmally the New York Times’ editorial staff have failed in that regard, preferring to take the statements of advocates with wealth and connections at face value.

Mr. Colbert is not a journalist, yet he and his fellow comedians Jon Stewart and John Oliver have become almost guardians of truth in recent years.  It is often more likely that Mr. Colbert or Mr. Stewart or Mr. Oliver will highlight the absurd inanities, half truths and contradictions routinely offered by politicians, pundits and advocates.  In the case of Ms. Brown, Mr. Colbert got her to openly confess to a truth that is gaining greater and greater public awareness: American governance is increasingly oligarchical in nature whereby elected officials craft policy more to serve the interests of their very wealthy donors rather than the interests of the actual voters who put them in office.  Ms. Brown’s undisclosed donor list is a perfect example of this, and her refusal to disclose under the fiction that her donors could possibly be intimidated by moms and teachers with home made posters should be mocked loudly and frequently.

I am grateful to Mr. Colbert for organizing his interview to that point, but I am saddened that we rely almost exclusively on satirists to get to the heart of public affairs these days.


Filed under Activism, Funding, Media, politics, schools, Social Justice, Testing, Unions, VAMs

Asking Markets to Do What They Do Poorly — School Reform

Early in my graduate school experience, I took a class with Phil Cusick, author of “The Egalitarian Ideal and the American High School” and “The School System: Its Nature and Logic”  .  The class was a seminar on how school systems functions both philosophically and organizationally.  While the course had a number of profound insights, one of Dr. Cusick’s observations has remained at the forefront of my thinking ever since.  “In America,” he said, “we don’t redistribute that much income, so we give everyone a free school instead.”  What he meant was that, politics of taxation and the welfare state aside, America does comparatively little that sets a strict bottom on the deprivations that poverty can afflict upon individuals and communities.  This much is true as any examination of poverty and social expenditures in first world countries can attest:

social safety gap

The purpose of school, therefore, is to provide a forum where any person, regardless of personal circumstance, can fairly demonstrate both potential and accomplishment.  Schools, philosophically, are meant to drive opportunity that we do not provide via leveling the distribution of resources.

That is a weighty mission, and it resonates with certain themes that are popular among American society such as the absence of a titular aristocracy and the belief that merit is properly recognized and rewarded.  Getting Americans to agree on how to deliver the circumstances most likely to deliver meritocracy is another matter entirely.

When it comes to school reform, the movement with greatest momentum currently is dedicated to school choice and the uses of market based forces to improve the opportunities for students enrolled in public education.  School systems across the country, where possible, have changed the ways in which students enroll in schools to deemphasize reliance upon zoned schools within geographic boundaries and to have public schools seek out students across those zoned districts.  Various instantiations of voucher programs encourage parents to seek out even nonpublic schools that will be subsidized with public money.  Straying far from their original conception as temporary laboratories for experimentation on behalf of the most difficult to teach students, charter schools operate in direct competition with district zoned schools and many have become brands unto themselves, aggressively expanding operations.

These ideas originated some decades previously with free market economists like Milton Friedman who in 1955 openly advocated for public education to more closely resemble markets for goods and services that have driven consumer innovation in the past two centuries.  Intellectually, they gained support from the work of John E. Chubb of the Brookings Institution and Terry Moe of Stanford University in their 1990 book entitled “Politics, Markets and America’s Schools” where they concluded that the most important predictor of a school’s success was the locus of control between traditional school boards and privately controlled schools.  Their prescription included the creation of school choice districts where schools would have to compete with each other to attract and retain students.

Despite the omissions from Chubb and Moe’s work, such ideas found powerful patrons among conservative politicians who enthusiastically advocated for school choice and voucher programs as the solution to the school failure narrative that took root with the release of “A Nation At Risk” during the Reagan Administration.  While originating with conservatives, school choice became a growing theme among Democrats in both the Clinton and Obama administrations and for Democratic governors across the country.  Although less likely to support vouchers that take public school budgets and transfer them to entirely private entities, the growth of charter schools and support among Democratic politicians represents a strong toehold for choice as an engine of reform on both sides of the political aisle.  Choice, in various forms, is recognized as the powerful driver of improvement and innovation across the mainstream political spectrum.

But is that a good thing?

The question is far less clear than advocates would have us believe.  Markets are, undeniably, a powerful tool for innovation, but whether or not that does or can apply to public education is quite a different matter.  It is important to consider the ways in which markets work.  As a matter of record,  I am not an economist, but what follows is not controversial ground.  Most markets for goods and services function by supplying the market with a range of innovative products, yes, but also a range of similar products that are available at different levels of quality and expense.  Many people, wealthy, middle class and working class, can afford to purchase personal transportation because the market that provides vehicles such as the Rolls Royce Phantom also provides the Ford Focus and used Honda Civics.  The individual in need of an automobile can usually, within a relatively short distance from him or herself, find an option that takes into account both the need for the good AND the ability of the buyer to go above the most basic fulfillment of the need.  Markets are exceptionally efficient at doing this, so while every person participating in the market may not be able to afford the best it has to offer, most people can find something.

But what about where everyone needs the same thing?

In education that may seem counterintuitive because it is taken as a given that all children can learn, but that not all children learn the same way.  However, taken another way, it is true that all children need the same thing:  they need the resources and the opportunities to accomplish the curriculum to the best of their current abilities in the ways by which they most effectively learn.  In other words, students do not need equal opportunities so much as they need equitable opportunities.  Consider the following illustration:

Can everyone enjoy this?

The Difference Between Equality and Equity

In the picture on the left, all three people have an absolutely equal playing field, but only two of them can achieve the goal of watching the baseball game.  With some minor tinkering, however, the third member of the group can achieve that goal because his specific needs have been accommodated without taking away anyone else’s opportunity to enjoy the game.  In an educational context, this is the why equal is not always the appropriate circumstance when a student is fully capable of accomplishing a task but needs individualized attention.

This sounds like an argument then for the market based and competitive goals of educational choice and policies that break down district zoning in assigning a student to a school, and I can understand that.  After all, if individualized attention is a key to promoting equity, it would make intuitive sense for more choices to provide more setting where that is possible.  However, I am drawn again the observation that market innovation is powerful when it is providing different levels of quality for the consumer.  Innovation and competition has made many kinds of good available to all consumers, but nobody can honestly argue that all such good are of similar quality and durability.  The same observation applies to services provided as well where consumers able to pay more enjoy levels of amenities not provided to those who do not.

But we demand very different from our compulsory education.  There is no “used Honda Civic” or “economy class seating” when it comes to teaching a child how to read, and providing equitable opportunities means that education “consumers” sometimes need to utilize MORE resources regardless of their ability to pay.  In order for a market system of schooling to really provide for equitable opportunities, several conditions seem extremely important.  First, the number of choices available would have to be sufficient to the task of every family having a genuine ability to enroll in a school or schools that meet their needs.  Even in major metropolitan areas, this is unlikely as a selection of schools cannot simply be packed onto a display wall like a selection of shoes, and after a certain point, families would incur unacceptable costs simply to transport their children to the array of schools they need.  Second, families would have to be equally engaged and knowledgeable about what children need and how to evaluate the claims of different schools about their accomplishments.  That also seems doubtful because when one makes a mistaken choice in typical markets for goods and services, there are options for returning or foregoing use of the item which does not exist when it comes to schools.  Certainly, the high turnover rates among many of the more prominent charter school operators suggests that even in a limited market, families seek out schools that are either “poor fits” for their children or that are unwilling to adjust themselves to meet the needs of the children they have.  Without zoned schools, such children would be at risk of having to “return” their educational opportunity every year.  Third, school choices cannot become more stratified than they already are due to income segregation in our communities.  In a marketplace, it is fully acceptable to provide consumers in different income strata different quality goods, but this cannot be permitted in education without the system perversely betraying promised opportunities.  Finally, a market of educational choices has to demonstrate that it truly provides better outcomes for the vast majority of students, both quantitatively and qualitatively, than a system of zoned schools.  To date, such metrics have been extremely elusive in research on both vouchers and charter schools to the point that one can reasonably question just how much more expansion of such ventures is really warranted.

Jan Resseger, a former education advocate for the United Church of Christ, recently noted that one of the primary advocates of the “portfolio” strategy of school choice, a mix of zoned schools and choice options promoted by the Center on Reinventing Pubic Education at the University of Washington, had recently admitted that troubling outcomes in many districts that have tried the strategy.  While Ms. Lake did not suggest the cycle of disruption was actually failing to improve education for the most vulnerable, the CRPE report levels heavy criticism at the way such reforms have been implemented without strict oversight to ensure all students have excellent school choices.  What is missing is an admission that market based forces are not necessarily the way to improve our national commons which includes compulsory education.

It would be disingenuous to suggest that local control of zoned schools has resulted in excellent schools for all children.  But it is much more disingenuous to subsequently ignore the impacts of our deep levels of income segregation and modest state and federal spending to alleviate the conditions of poverty in communities.  Faced with depleted local revenues and populations struggling to maintain subsistence levels of income, many of our school districts operate under conditions that make their work vastly more difficult even as we lay upon them the nearly sole responsibility for lifting those same communities out of poverty.  As David Berliner notes:

It does take a whole village to raise a child, and we actually know a little bit about how to do that. What we seem not to know how to do in modern America is to raise the village, to promote communal values that insure that all our children will prosper. We need to face the fact that our whole society needs to be held as accountable for providing healthy children ready to learn, as our schools are for delivering quality instruction. One-way accountability, where we are always blaming the schools for the faults that we find, is neither just, nor likely to solve the problems we want to address.

So what does this mean?  My own suggestions center around reemphasizing public education as a common good for society, and bringing our emphasis back to improving zoned schools.  This would require renewed interest in fully funding schools regardless of their needs and improving curricula and teaching locally, a major campaign to improve the infrastructure of zoned schools that still enroll a vast majority of our children, and efforts to invigorate school and community ties by deeper connections to civic organizations and the placement of community services within schools themselves to broaden the number of people who see the school as essential to their neighborhoods.  However, as Berliner notes, the accountability for alleviating poverty has to be two directional, and we as a society need to admit that we cannot place the entire burden of children climbing out of inter-generational poverty within communities whose economic prospects are dismal at best entirely upon the backs of teachers and schools.  As long as we continue to pass that buck and believe that the same economic forces that allow us a wide and varied choice of breakfast cereals are equipped to provide excellent schools for everyone we will continue to be disappointed.

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Filed under Funding, politics, schools, Social Justice