Tag Archives: Michelle Rhee

More than Half of America’s School Children Qualify for Free or Reduced Lunch

I want to say to you as I move to my conclusion, as we talk about “Where do we go from here?” that we must honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. (Yes) There are forty million poor people here, and one day we must ask the question, “Why are there forty million poor people in America?” And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. (Yes) And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. (Yes) But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. (All right) It means that questions must be raised. And you see, my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, “Who owns the oil?” (Yes) You begin to ask the question, “Who owns the iron ore?” (Yes) You begin to ask the question, “Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that’s two-thirds water?” (All right) These are words that must be said. (All right)

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. August 16, 1967 “Where Do We Go From Here?”

On January 16th, The Washington Post ran a story by Lyndsey Layton about a new report finding that slightly more than half of all American public school students now come from officially low income families. The headline stating those children come from “poor” families was slightly misleading as qualifying for reduced lunch does not require that a family be at the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) which is $23,850 for a family of four. Families qualify for free meals at school at 130% of the FPL ($31,005 for a family of 4), and they qualify for reduced lunch at 185% of the FPL ($44,123 for a family of 4).  However, the reality is that almost half of our public school students live in poverty, near poverty, and low income conditions.  This has dramatic implications for them and for the schools in which they study.

Poverty acts as a third rail in American policy discussions, and it often feels that recognizing the reality for people who live in poverty or near poverty is immediately treated as an attack on American ideals of a meritocratic society.  Reality, however, remains reality, and the deep impacts of poverty upon young people are known.  The 1997 Princeton Study is nearly 20 years old and clearly demonstrated the health, cognitive, educational, and behavioral differences that can be attributed to growing up in poverty.  More recently, the  30 year long Baltimore study reported how intensely stubborn poverty is and how unlikely it is for a child born into poverty to move into the middle class or higher.  Recent research also notes that in addition to long known advantages of higher income families such as educational resources, a poor child who does “everything right” is still barely MORE likely to be economically successful that a rich child who drops out of school – and both are equally likely to be in the lowest quintile of income earners:


As equally troubling as these findings is the difficulty in any prospect of fixing them by current opportunities.  While going to college remains a viable way to maintain economic position for most attendees, it is not because wages for such graduates have been rising to meet inflation or a job market demand for such workers.  Wages for current college graduates is not much higher than it was in the mid-1980s, but the wage premium for a college degree has grown because of the collapse of wages for workers without a college education:


In addition, the lower middle class, historically an important rung on the economic ladder, is not merely struggling; iis largely stay afloat only because of federal transfer programs that take the edge off of their stagnant and falling wages — even as they tend to pay the largest marginal tax rates of all income groups.  The conclusion here is one that has only recently pushed into margins of the mainstream:  it is extremely difficult for individuals and families to move up the economic ladder when several rungs have been sawn off…and individuals and families who slip from the lower middle rung to the bottom have few opportunities to regain security.

All of which makes our current educational “reforms” staggeringly galling, immoral even.  Reformers have been touting for years now changes to our educational commons that involve turning as many neighborhood public schools in charter schools as possible, measuring all success and failures in school by standardized test scores, and attacking the workplace protections of teachers as the only way to “guarantee” that every child has an excellent teacher.  In doing so they literally ignore all the ways in which poverty’s deprivations impact school, and they place upon public school all of the responsibility to boost students’ economic fortunes.  Unexamined?  Tax and trade policies that make it possible for just 4 hedge fund managers to earn more income in a single year than every single Kindergarten teacher in America combined.  Corporations whose business models do not include paying full time employees enough money to avoid going on public assistance.  Wages for most workers that have barely moved in real purchasing power since the mid-1960s. That concentration of income means that 10% of income earners now make more than half of all income in America.  Education “reformers” demand that “fixing” that should rest entirely upon America’s education system — even as their allies in state capitols around the country have played budget games to keep from raising taxes on the wealthy.  In New York State, that amounts to billions of dollars of year that Albany pledged but never delivered to local public schools.

Only in America would education “reform” be millionaires (Campbell Brown, Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein) working for billionaires (Whitney Tilson, Rupert Murdoch, Eli Broad, the Walton family, Bill Gates) to convince poor and lower middle class communities that the problems in education and economic opportunity for their children rest entirely upon the barely middle class teachers in their local schools.

Professor Yohuru Williams of Fairfield University notes that those same “reformers” have taken up the mantle of civil rights in their demands that school be responsible for providing all the opportunity for children in poverty — usually as cover for schemes that privatize more and more of our educational commons.  Dr. Williams takes issue with their adoption of Dr. King for their cause:

For King, the Beloved Community was a global vision of human cooperation and understanding where all peoples could share in the abundant resources of the planet. He believed that universal standards of human decency could be used to challenge the existence of poverty, famine, and economic displacement in all of its forms. A celebration of achievement and an appreciation of fraternity would blot out racism, discrimination, and distinctions of any kind that sought to divide rather than elevate people—no matter what race, religion, or test score. The Beloved Community promoted international cooperation over competition. The goal of education should be not to measure our progress against the world but to harness our combined intelligence to triumph over the great social, scientific, humanistic, and environmental issues of our time.

While it seeks to claim the mantle of the movement and Dr. King’s legacy, corporate education reform is rooted in fear, fired by competition and driven by division. It seeks to undermine community rather than build it and, for this reason, it is the ultimate betrayal of the goals and values of the movement.

This observation is especially important today on the date set aside for reflection on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and on the work that is left unfinished from his movement.  One of the most glaring unfinished task today is the poverty and near poverty that afflicts over half of our students in public education.  Accompanying that is the coordinated campaign of deflection and misdirection by our current generation of education “reformers” who want to pitch community members against each and against public education while the policy makers and the oligarchs who influence them most heavily continue to ignore the wishes of bi-partisan majorities in the electorate.

It is well past time that we revoked their appropriation of Dr. King’s mantle.  It belongs with those who want our nation to finally confront poverty, not with those who blame public school for the decisions of the powerful.

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Filed under Activism, Corruption, politics, Social Justice

Bride of VAMenstein: No Bad Idea Gets Left Behind

When I was much younger, my grandfather, a carpenter and engineer, had an expression he was fond of saying whenever we drove through a particularly poorly designed intersection or highway interchange.  He’d grunt in disgust and comment, “Whoever built this should do the world a favor.  Design ONE more and then drop dead.”

There are times when I’d like the economists who keep insisting they can design value added models of teacher effectiveness to consider following the same advice.

On November 25th, the U.S. Department of Education released newly proposed regulations for teacher preparation in the over 1200 programs that exist across the country.  The press release stated:

“It has long been clear that as a nation, we could do a far better job of preparing teachers for the classroom. It’s not just something that studies show – I hear it in my conversations with teachers, principals and parents,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said. “New teachers want to do a great job for their kids, but often, they struggle at the beginning of their careers and have to figure out too much for themselves. Teachers deserve better, and our students do too. This proposal, along with our other key initiatives in supporting flexibility, equity and leadership, will help get us closer to President Obama’s goal of putting a great teacher in every classroom, and especially in our high-need schools.”

This is not a new subject for research and policy speculation.  In 1984, Judith Lanier of Michigan State University contributed a comprehensive chapter on teacher education for the 3rd Handbook of Research on Teaching.  Dr. Lanier concluded that while many spoke of the importance of teacher preparation, there were no entities willing to take robust authority for making sure its many parts worked, and that its quality remained highly spotty and often quite poor.  Since then, there have been numerous proposals to change and improve teacher preparation from the Holmes Group Reports, to the Carnegie report on teacher preparation, to John Goodlad’s proposals for preparing teachers, to the original report of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future.  In the 30 years since Dr. Lanier wrote her chapter, there have been numerous proposals, programs, and practices that have worked upon teacher preparation in the United States.

Now it is the turn of the Data Junkies.

The DOE announcement says states will be required to report on the performance of teacher preparation programs based upon the following:

  • Employment outcomes: New teacher placement and three-year retention rates in high-need schools and in all schools.
  • New teacher and employer feedback: Surveys on the effectiveness of preparation.
  • Student learning outcomes: Impact of new teachers as measured by student growth, teacher evaluation, or both.
  • Assurance of specialized accreditation or evidence that a program produces high-quality candidates.

Some of this is benign, some of it is deceptive, and some of it is rank foolishness.  The fact that Secretary Duncan’s statement specifically cited Relay “Graduate School of Education” as an example of an innovation in teacher preparation to be held up does not lead me to a great deal of confidence.  Relay, for those who do not know, is a teacher training “graduate school” that has no actual professors of education and is not attached to an institution of higher learning.  Rather, it is an alternative program housed in North Star Academy Charter School in Newark, NJ using its own teachers to train new hires in the methods of teaching used in North Star and allowing them both to be credentialed and to “earn” graduate degrees.  Relay and its supporters defend this because the charter school has externally impressive scores on standardized tests, but those scores come, as Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers University demonstrates, at the expense of more than half of the students who enroll at North Star – because they never make it to graduation.  North Star enrolls over 14% fewer students on free lunch than Newark Public Schools in general, less than half as many students with disabilities, and the students with disabilities at North Star are vastly more likely to be mild or low cost to the school, including no students with autism, no emotionally disturbed students, no intellectually disabled students, and no students with multiple disabilities.  Between 5th grade and 12th grade, half of students attending North Star leave the school, and 60% of African American boys leave.

Just to be clear: The Secretary of Education for the United States of America announced new teacher preparation regulations by praising the “innovation” of a “Graduate School of Education” that does no serious graduate study, has no qualified educational researchers, and that prepares its graduates to teach the methods espoused by a charter school where an African American male student only has a 40% chance of reaching his senior year of high school.

Components of these regulations are puzzling.  The DOE wants states to keep track of teacher retention rates, presumably because of the long known problem of early career teachers leaving both assignments or the profession in high numbers.  Such a requirement raises staggering logistical challenges, as states do not readily have ways to track the careers of teachers certified in their states who teach in other states, teachers who switch teaching in a public school for a position in a private or parochial school, and teachers who take up full time graduate studies — all of which are very different than leaving because of feeling overwhelmed and under-prepared.

More troubling, such data would be largely indicative of the professional cultures and environments of the schools in which teacher preparation graduates teach.  While teacher education has worked in the past three decades to provide prospective teachers with quality experiences to reduce the long recognized “reality shock” experienced by novice teachers, such work is frequently difficult, time and resource intensive, and requires significant rethinking of the relationship between universities and schools where prospective teachers are prepared.  However, significant research also exists that demonstrates that teacher turnover is deeply tied to school factors in initial job placements that are entirely outside university control.  In no place in these regulations on preparing teachers do I see anything related to how states and communities support the local schools to promote collaborative environments that support early career educators. What I do see is a potentially perverse incentive for teacher preparation programs to steer their graduates as far away from struggling schools as possible.

Worse than this provision by far, however, is the proposal to take the already invalid concept of Value Added Measures (VAM) of teacher performance and to use the VAMs of teachers to evaluate their teacher preparation programs.  A VAM is a statistical model based on student standardized test performance that takes a student’s previous year’s test scores, claims to predict how that student will perform given a year of effective teaching, and then generates the teacher’s “value added” based on how well students do based on those predictions.  The American Statistical Association issued a clearly worded statement this year detailing the problems with VAMs, citing both the lack of tests that are valid for the purpose and the very limited impact that teachers have on student variability on standardized test performance.  Research generally agrees that teachers are a very important if not the most important in school factor for students, but research also agrees whatever teachers’ impact is, standardized tests are an exceedingly poor measure of it, accounting for only 1-14% of student variability on the tests.

Despite these inherent flaws, VAMs remain highly popular with the federal DOE which has been influenced by the Gates Foundation funded “Measures of Effective Teaching” study which claims that VAMs can be used as a component of teacher evaluation.  Jesse Rothstein of University of California at Berkeley, however, notes that the data used to justify that claim is strikingly weak, and that teachers who are effective by some measures show up as ineffective by others and vice versa.  Dr. Baker of Rutgers illustrates here that teachers whose students score high in one year (called “Irreplaceables” by Michelle Rhee’s New Teacher Project “thought leaders”) are not all “irreplaceable” in subsequent years (and in fact most drift all over the map), making it absolutely necessary to consider that factors outside of the classroom play significant roles in student test performance. VAMs also potentially damage teachers whose students, far from being low performers, work at an accelerated curriculum that is several years past the material directly tested on the exams used to generate VAMs.  The New York Times reported in 2011 of the tribulations of Ms. Stacy Isaacson, who was universally regarded as an outstanding mathematics teacher whose students got excellent scores on state examinations and over two dozen of whom went on to New York City’s highly selective high schools, got ranked in the 7th percentile of teachers in the city by the VAM formula used that year:


Ms. Isaacson’s low percentile could not be explained to her by anyone in her administration, and the fault lay at the opaque statistical formula used to rank her based on students’ tests.  Given the inherent flaws with VAMs, my explanation is as follows.  In the New York City Value Added Model, what is circled in this picture is a real number:


Everything circled here is the result of misapplying statistical tools used to model entire national economies to a single teacher’s classrooms:


Anyone who knows children and their development should be troubled by VAMs because in order to believe that they work with such small samples as a single teacher’s classroom, we have to believe that the VAM can adequately account for every factor outside of a teacher’s instruction that can impact how students do on a test.  Did Johnny get an Individualized Education Plan this year that finally provides support for his dyslexia?  Are Johnny’s parents reconciling after a period of separation and his home life is stabilizing?  Has Johnny’s cognitive development reached a point where he is ready for more complex learning and will outpace previous years of instruction because children do not actually develop in straight lines?  All of these are factors that can boost a teacher’s value added score without the teacher actually having done anything especially different for Johnny.  There are as many factors not directly related to a single teacher that can negatively impact a value added score.

So let’s review: Research supporting VAMs ignores its own contradictory research.  No current standardized test is sufficiently well designed for the purpose of generating VAMs. VAMs measure teacher input on student variability in standardized test scores which is as low as 1% and only as high as 14%.  Teachers whose students score in very high percentiles in one year can have students who score far differently in subsequent years. Teachers who are effective by every other measure possible can be placed in the very bottom tier of teachers using VAMs.  This is not the kind of stuff that inspires much confidence, but the federal DOE is going to push ahead anyway.

Have really terrible measures of teacher effectiveness on your hands?  Never mind!  If you are Secretary Duncan, you have Bill Gates backed research and advocacy, and seriously flawed “research” from Michelle Rhee’s pet group to tell you otherwise.  Full speed ahead.

Of course, if you are going to blatantly ignore what a growing body of genuine research tells you about your favored reforms, it stands to reason that you will double down on them and try to push them even further into the system by measuring teacher preparation programs by the VAMs their graduates generate.  There is a lesson here that Secretary Duncan, Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, and an entire platoon of corporate reformers seem incapable of learning, and it has to do with learning humility when beloved projects turn out to be far more complicated and fraught with failure than anticipated.

In the 1935 sequel “Bride of Frankenstein,” the badly wounded but recovering Henry Frankenstein initially renounces his creation but is forced by his former mentor, Dr. Septimus Pretorius, to assist a project creating a “bride” for the monster.  The monster is excited by the chance to have a companion like himself, but is quickly devastated by her immediate, terrified, rejection of him and destroys himself, Henry’s laboratory, Dr. Pretorius, and the bride, proving again that the power of life and death is not a toy to be trifled with.

I could save Secretary Duncan quite a lot of trouble if he’d just ask.

Well, that didn't go as planned, did it?

Well, that didn’t go as planned, did it?


Filed under Gates Foundation, schools, teacher learning, Testing, VAMs

Teachers: They’re Not Piñatas

Another week, another plateful of teacher bashing in the popular press.

First, Time Magazine introduced its November 3rd cover story on the campaign to eliminate teacher tenure via litigation with a provocative cover picturing a judge’s gavel poised to smash an apple and a sub-headline repeating the inaccurate mantra that it is “nearly impossible to fire a bad teacher.”  Teachers across the country were outraged, and strongly written responses to the cover came from Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers and from Lily Eskelsen Garcia, President of the National Education Association.  The AFT is gathering signatures for a petition demanding that Time magazine apologize for the cover, but no sooner than responses to the Time cover began than New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that his education agenda in a second term in Albany would be to break the “public monopoly” of schooling in the Empire State by even more test based assessments of teacher performance and even greater charter school favoritism from his office.  As the dust settles from that shot across the bow of New York’s 600,000 unionized teachers, Frank Bruni of the New York Times (and personal friend of anti-tenure activist Campbell Brown) dove back into the issue of teacher quality, a topic he has opined on previously with an extraordinarily one-sided perspective. Today, he gave entirely uncritical space to former New York City Chancellor Joel Klein who is hawking his own book claiming that “a great teacher can rescue a child from a life of struggle” and saying that the teacher workforce will improve if we recruit teachers with higher test scores, limit or remove workplace protections, and offer pay for performance, which in Klein’s world is always measured in standardized test scores.  Absent in the “discussion”?  Any mention of the persistence of poverty in our most struggling school systems, and any plan for society taking full responsibility for helping to alleviate it — instead, it all rests on teachers and schools.

Today’s education reformers seem to think that our nation’s teachers are like piñatas.  If you just keep hitting them long enough and hard enough, something wonderful and sweet and that will delight children will come pouring out.

Mr. Bruni thinks teachers are being closed-minded towards the likes of Mr. Klein and Ms. Brown. He dismissively portrays their reaction to the Time Magazine cover as evidence of teachers reacting in a knee-jerk fashion to any criticism, and he actually claims that people like Klein want to partner with teachers — even while advocating taking away their workplace protections.  That teachers are finally speaking up loudly should not be taken by Mr. Bruni as some sudden intransigence on the part of a profession that wants to keep cushy perks, but rather it should be seen as the final straw exasperation of a profession that has been under constant attack since the early 1980s, probably longer.

Teaching has always had the potential to be contentious which is one of the reasons why tenure protections matter.  Teachers are responsible for, as author, scholar, and activist Lisa Delpit puts it, “other people’s children,” a task that comes with enormous professional and moral obligations.  Practicing that responsibility potentially puts teachers at odds with parental, administrative, and community priorities, and it can require that teachers take unpopular stances on behalf of their students.  However, the current wave of reforms had their genesis with the 1983 Reagan administration report, “A Nation at Risk” which declared our current school system so unsuited for the task of educating our children that it would be considered an “act of war” for a foreign power to have imposed it upon us.  The constant refrain of school failure has hardly relented ever since, and it has gone into overdrive in its current iteration of test based accountability since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act and its lunatic cousin Race to the Top.  Since 2001, the standards and testing environment have merged to become test-based accountability for teachers, and since the Obama administration announced Race to the Top, states have been heavily incentivized to adopted teacher evaluations based upon standardized testing.

While pressure on teachers has increased, funding and resources have decreased.  State contributions to K-12 education account for roughly 44% of all spending, but most states still fund schools below the levels that they did before the Great Recession.  Because of the housing crisis which prompted the recession, local revenue in the form of property taxes have also declined, putting a further pinch on school budgets.  In New York State, for example, Governor Cuomo and the Assembly have used accounting tricks like the Gap Elimination Adjustment to trim school aid by BILLIONS of dollars while enacting property tax caps that prevent localities from making up any shortfalls.  Meanwhile, teacher pay has lost substantial ground with comparable workers with the wage gap growing by 13.4% between 1979 and 2006 and most of that loss happening between 1996 and 2006 as the age of test-based accountability started cranking up.

And now, after decades of declaring our schools to be failure factories, after a decade and half of warped accountability measures, and after six years of being told to do far more with far less even though their real world wages have declined, along come some technology billionaires who think the thing that is really wrong with school is the fact that tenured teachers have due process rights before they can be fired?  They recruit telegenic personalities to lead litigation against teachers’ workplace protections (likely because their previous media hero is tainted by scandals and failure) and to do the interview rounds making claims that do not stand up to fact checking and research.

Meanwhile, serial misleaders like Joel Klein, whose claims about his record as NYC Schools Chancellor fail to stand up to real scrutiny, are out there claiming that all we need are great teachers and children’s lives can be turned around.  We don’t have to worry that we’ve cut nutrition programs for the neediest even though nutrition in the first three years of life can have profound effects for a person’s entire life.  We don’t have to worry that our economy is losing large portions of its lower middle class to wage insecurity, effectively sawing rungs off of the ladder of opportunity.  We don’t have to worry about the long known impacts of poverty on children or on how it is deeply concentrated in specific communities whose schools serve high poverty populations.

We don’t have to do any of that, say the Kleins, the Rhees, the Browns, and the Brunis of the world.  We just have to keep whacking away at teachers until the great teaching comes spilling out and children can jump up the ladder towards economic security without a single billionaire being asked to pay a cent more in taxes.

Frank Bruni pays about 27 words with of lip service towards supporting teachers and paying them more, but then immediately follows it with saying teachers should see the likes of Joel Klein as someone who wants to “team up” with them.  After so many years of being continuously blamed for failings our society refuses to discuss and absolutely refuses to address, the only thing astonishing about recently voiced teacher frustration is that it has taken so long to hear it.

Teachers are not piñatas.


Filed under Funding, Media, politics, schools

Anti-Tenure – Union Busting FIRST, Students Second

One consequence of becoming active in social media and blogging is crossing paths with people that you would not normally encounter face to face.  For example, among my normal Twitter feed comprised of classroom teachers, public school advocates, researchers and news sources, a certain gentleman was noticeably involved in several arguments.  Shortly thereafter, he began following me on Twitter.  His name is Dmitri Mehlhorn, and he is a former C.O.O. for Michelle Rhee’s Students First organization, and, suffice to say, he is a true believer in current education “reforms”.  When Rhee announced that she was stepping down as the head of Students First, Mr. Mehlhorn penned this astonishing piece of apologia for The Daily Beast on her behalf, which despite saying she was “right about everything” cannot really name a measurable outcome of Ms. Rhee’s activism that has improved education.  Mostly, he spends the article lamenting the attacks upon Ms. Rhee, even going so far as to paint her famous on camera firing of a school principal as her sending a “message” to teachers that she was on their side:

As I said, Mr. Mehlhorn is a true believer, and the arguments he was involved in on Twitter centered on former television anchor Campbell Brown’s efforts to sue teacher tenure out of existence in New York.  As a devotee of Michelle Rhee, Mehlhorn is obviously in favor the current lawsuits, and as a former close associate of Rhee’s organization, he ought to be well-versed in the arguments against teacher tenure and be able to explain why it is better for the profession and for students to end due process protections for teachers and make them at will employees.

In fact, that is not a simple argument to make, especially since all research demonstrates that the urban schools Mr. Mehlhorn and Ms. Brown insist will be made better by eliminating tenure suffer far more from high teacher TURNOVER with some districts losing up to 50% of teachers within 5 years.  However, Mr. Mehlhorn did not seem overly interested in making the argument, preferring to respond with broad accusations that “my side” did not “care” about doing anything while “children suffer”.  That prompted my request for an actual argument about how ending tenure will make schools better able to retain good teachers instead of vague accusations and assertions of his bona fides in education reform.  This is what he came up with:

I will confess that I had to read this several times before understanding that the gist of it was really Mr. Mehlhorn’s argument.  I also tried looking at it out of order and contemplated standing on my head before accepting that the argument was basically this: Good teachers work more hours than bad teachers (conceded).  So good teachers get paid less per hour than their bad teacher peers because for the same salary, they work more hours (conceded but in a nobody-calculates-teacher-pay-that-way-not-even-teachers kind of way).  Ergo, the presence of bad teachers demotivates good teachers who either leave the profession or don’t go into it at all knowing their work is not valued at as high an hourly wage as their bad teacher peers.


Now keep in mind that Mr. Mehlhorn is not RANDOMLY opining on this subject.  At Students First, teacher unions are not regarded highly.  Consider this post where a “balanced” perspective on teacher unions as “change agents” or “opposition” is considered.  The union as “change agent” comprised a handful of paragraphs from a DC public school teacher Eric Bethel (who has since been appointed as a principal in the district) about the union getting on board with “reform” – reforms that just happen to be those approved of by Michelle Rhee.  The second piece goes on at some length and is written by Hoover Institute Fellow Terry Moe who co-wrote the Bible of school choice “Politics, Markets and America’s Schools” and his basic point is that strong teacher unions will always prevent schools from changing.  His solution?  Make unions far less powerful.  This is a Students First presentation of “balance” on a key issue.

So Mr. Mehlhorn, prepped with Michelle Rhee’s culture of anti-unionism, ought to have a sophisticated argument as to why eliminating tenure will make schools better, not by merely removing the percentage of teachers who ought not be teaching at more rapid pace, but by addressing one of the most complicated problems actually facing schools: retaining teachers at our schools with the highest levels of poverty and disadvantage.

His best stab at it? A cost-benefit calculation on salary that I have never heard one teacher make in my entire 21 year long career in secondary and higher education.

The problem for Mr. Mehlhorn and for the argument he tried to represent is that this is a matter that ought to be quantifiable.  There ought to be a way for him to say that there are “X” “bad teachers” in the classroom who are protected by tenure laws.  Then he ought to be able to certify what percentage of X are effectively irremovable and tie that to their tenured status and no other reason such as ineffective school and district leadership.  Then he should be able to demonstrate that the harm inflicted upon 3,000,000 – X teachers and their classrooms and students will not be GREATER than the harm reduced by making it easier to remove X teachers.

Of course, he cannot do that or, at the very least, has not been given arguments to make those points.  While Mr. Mehlhorn proved very adept at dropping the names of researchers used by the plaintiffs in the Vergara lawsuit to claim that there is a specific monetary cost for students who have a “grossly ineffective teacher”, he was completely unable to or unwilling to address that the research is highly controversial, rests on exceptionally shaky assumptions, and is not widely accepted in its current form.  Additionally, the premise for going after tenure protections of ALL teachers summarily dismisses any other fix for the the assumed problem.  Michelle Rhee, Campbell Brown and Dmitri Mehlhorn do not advocate enhancing the process by which teachers are moved from probationary status.  They do not advocate for making principals more effective at their jobs (except for making it easier for them to fire teachers), and, in fact, advocate for making principals MORE adversarial to their faculty and undermining their ability to be instructional leaders.  They do not advocate for reforms to the procedures by which a school district can demonstrate cause for removing a teacher who is no longer probationary (something that already happened in New York State).  They advocate that every teacher become an at will employee.  Teachers have taken to Twitter with the hashtag #WithoutTenure to explain what the consequences of that would be for their ability to robustly advocate for their students’ needs, and this piece by Peter Greene makes it clear what could happen in schools where teachers lose their current job protections.

Further, from what we know about why teachers leave positions, resentment of other teachers making more money per hour does not enter the equation.  Richard Ingersoll of the University of Pennsylvania notes that teacher turnover is a significant phenomenon which drives a large proportion of the annual demand for new teachers.  While Dr. Ingersoll’s research notes that teachers at small, private schools actually turn over at rates that far exceed those elsewhere, he compared high poverty, urban teachers’ reasons for leaving with those of small, private schools and found that school management factors contributed highly to both populations’ reasons for leaving.  Small, private school teachers cited low salary overwhelmingly as a factor along with dissatisfaction with school administration, a concern shared with teachers in urban, high poverty schools who also listed lack of administrative support, low student motivation, discipline problems and lack of decision making support as roughly equal reasons for leaving.

Susan Moore Johnson of Harvard’s Project on the Next Generation of Teachers, affirms that the teaching environment has a large impact on teacher satisfaction, fully independent of the demographic contexts of the school and more closely related to the social conditions of working in the school.  Their research further states that a positive school climate can impact student learning, again independent of the school’s demographics.  Dr. Moore Johnson’s work also notes that once school environment factors are taken into account no student demographic factors remain as significant indicators of why teachers leave.  Factors that contribute to teacher dissatisfaction with working conditions include principal leadership that is effective, fair, provides instructional leadership and practices inclusive decision making.  Teachers also gauge the quality of their collegial relationships and issues regarding how student discipline is supported in these decisions.

Dr. Moore Johnson notes that the good news in this is that “unlike demographic characteristics of students, working conditions can be changed.”  To be fair to Mr. Mehlhorn and his ilk, one COULD make an argument that eliminating tenure will help “change” working conditions by making it simpler to weed out bad teachers — but you would have to push really hard to make that your first priority or even on the top ten list.  Improving principal leadership and building more structures for effective and productive collaboration among teachers should be near the top of such a list because 1) effective principals seek ways to meaningfully evaluate and support teachers and 2) a collaborative environment would more easily identify those teachers who do not want to improve and make a reasonable case of removal for cause under existing rules.  It would also have the benefit of aiming to support and improve everyone at a school not merely to exact punitive costs upon individual teachers and administrators, and it would preserve the ability of teachers to advocate on behalf of their students in cases that require a more adversarial stance.

But the anti-tenure campaign does not push meaningfully for any reforms to school climates.  In fact, they advocate making the climate worse by suggesting that all teachers must lose the “for cause” protections of tenure in order to weed out the minority of teachers deemed ineffective.  There is nothing in the current lawsuits that will improve what it is like to work in schools that suffer high rates of teacher attrition, and, thus, nothing in those suits that will help retain effective teachers for students in urban poverty.  Campbell Brown makes only token and meaningless statements about “raising up” the teaching profession, and she certainly is not suing any state legislatures for not instituting reforms that strengthen principal leadership or teachers’ collegiality.

At the end of the discussion, therefore, the effort to sue away tenure is not about making schools better directly through “removing ineffective teachers.”  It is about greatly weakening teacher unions, as argued by Terry Moe in the Students First blog post linked above.  People like Moe, Rhee, Brown and Mehlhorn clearly believe that those unions need to be broken first, and they ASSUME that schools will improve for students when teachers are more free to be treated like employees at Walmart.  That belief may be sincerely held, but they should stop obfuscating on it and admit that their primary goal is to bust one of the last large, middle class  unionized workforces left in America.

Mr. Mehlhorn, by the way, stopped following me on Twitter.


Filed under politics, teaching, Unions

Donna Brazile, Ted Strickland and Jennifer Granholm To Defend Public Education

Opponents of current reform trends in education (and even just those with some skepticism) have had few ways to get their messages out in the past decade.  While charter school chains have found wealthy investors and enthusiastic politicians, public school teachers have traditionally relied upon their unions to publicly advocate on their behalf.  However, until very recently both the AFT and the NEA have openly supported reforms such as the Common Core State Standards despite rank and file concerns, and both unions offered endorsements to Democratic candidates who have openly courted the same money that has backed charter school expansion, CCSS and evaluating teachers by high stakes tests, many teacher concerns have had limited means to reach the public.  Add to that a media that has seemed completely incapable of asking a single teacher about the combination of reform forces that have potential to greatly damage public education, it has been lonely work to try to raise alarms.

That may be changing.

First, there are some in the media actually asking hard questions about how such a narrow slate of characters have managed to push nearly all 50 states in the same curriculum direction without having a robust public debate.  The luster of charter schools as the proposed cure all for urban education is coming under question with more and more reporting of the opportunists who have rushed into the poorly regulated sector of education.  As Common Core has begun to reach classrooms with plans to begin mass testing of students and to implement value added measures for teacher evaluations, union leaders have backed away from initial support of the standards themselves.  They are joined by a small but growing movement of parents at the grassroots who are choosing to “opt out” their children from the increasing testing regimen that has characterized education reform of the past decade and a half.

These are all developments that promise to change the direction of our education reform discourse.  But it is likely not enough.  Proponents of Common Core, mass testing, test-based teacher evaluations and the rapid expansion of charter schools have the ears of major media figures, federal and state governments and are able to call upon deep pocketed allies to pummel those who try to slow down their goals.  Eva Moskowitz’s allies unleashed more than 3 million dollars in a 3 week advertising blitz against New York Mayor Bill de Blasio when he dared give her only 80 percent of what she wanted.  They also seem to recruit new front people easily — former NBC and CNN personality Campbell Brown has joined Michelle Rhee’s campaign against teacher job protections by taking the Vergara lawsuit on its first cross country tour to New York.

The balance of voices is changing.

The AFT announced the formation of a new lobbying group, Democrats for Public Education that will be chaired by former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm and DNC vice-chair Donna Brazile.  Ms. Brazile addressed the AFT convention:

Why does this change the balance?  For starters, it says that the leadership of America’s teacher unions is pivoting from hoping that reforms will be both disruptive AND productive to realizing that many reforms threaten the very nature of public education.  More importantly?  It provides media allies for defending public schools and their students and teachers.  Although the research on many reform efforts’ problematic outcomes is solid and growing, voice and access has been much slower.  What does Donna Brazile bring that academic research and the concerns of parents and classroom teachers does not?  Access.  Ms. Brazile’s phone calls get returned.  Mr. Strickland and Ms. Granholm are known in all 50 state capitols and Washington.  While Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein and pro-reform politicians have had the media’s ears all to themselves and have, to date, successfully portrayed their opponents as not caring about kids, now there is an organization headlined by well-connected and well-known allies to provide the alternative perspective.  In an age of media driven by sound bites 24/7, that matters.

How did Democrats for Education Reform, the hedge-fund financed group that has donated to numerous Democrats in exchange for support of charter school expansion, respond to the announcement?  “Welcome to the jungle, baby” was it.

Think about that for a second.  They could have written about welcoming a public debate.  They could have written about their “disappointment” that such prominent people could not see the value of their ideas, but that they look forward to engaging the public.  They could have written a spirited defense of charter school innovation for students.

Instead, they offer what could be Gordon Gekko’s back-up tag phrase.  Someone is either arrogant or worried — and someone is not thinking about the kids first and foremost.

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Filed under Activism, charter schools, Common Core, DFER, Media, politics, Unions

“The best anti-poverty program around is….” a strong union.

In his 2010 State of the Union address, President Obama reviewed the legislation his administration had passed as favoring “reform” and “innovation” in our schools, and observed that “In the 21st century, the best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education.”  Since that address, we have seen the “reform” and “innovation” that the President was talking about: CCSS, high stakes testing, teacher evaluations tied to those evaluations, charter school expansion.  And now former members of the President’s administration are joining corporate reformer Campbell Brown in an effort to sue away teachers’ workplace protections.

But is the underlying assumption of the President’s statement that is driving all of these efforts to replace public education as we have known it with an amalgam of public and public-in-name-only schools with teachers who lack strong union protection and who are assessed primarily via student test scores even accurate?  Does a “world class education” function as the “best” anti-poverty program or was the President engaging in dangerously simplistic rhetoric that places a burden on primary, secondary and higher education without asking what conditions need to exist in the market for labor?

There isn’t a simple answer for this, and there are plenty of competing voices.  For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that only 27% of the workforce need college degrees for our jobs, and they project only 23% of the labor force will need college or post graduate degrees in 2022.  This is disputed by Anthony Carnevale and colleagues at the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce, who note that the “college wage premium” has grown 37% since 1976, indicating that employers are currently willing to pay a premium for graduates with post secondary education.

Recent data and analysis suggest that college is worth the effort and even the debt in gained economic output over the course of one’s career.  The Federal Reserve notes that those with a bachelors degree are likely to earn up to a million dollars more over their lifetime than peers with only a high school education, and even those with associates degrees earn 100s of thousands more.  Once  cost of money out of pocket for the degree and inflation are considered, that still amounts to an additional 500 thousand.  However, these numbers should be read with additional research on the lifetime cost of debt accrued in obtaining the degree which can amount to over 200 thousand dollars in net assets by retirement and which disproportionately effects minority college graduate who take out higher debt loads on average.

So is that case closed?  Everyone should aspire to college education and secure themselves in the middle class? Not so fast.

While a premium exists in wages for college graduates over their peers, that premium has gone up for reasons other than demand for college educated workers.  Pew Social Trends demonstrates that one contributing factor in the increased gap is the sharp drop in wages for non college educated citizens even while wages for those with a college degree have remained stagnant when adjusted for inflation.  In 2012 dollars, a Millennial with a college degree earns $6600 more than a “Silent Generation” graduate in 1965, but only $730 more than a “Late Boomer” did in 1986.  Meanwhile, those Millennials without a college degree earns almost $3400 less today than in 1965.  College education, then, is indeed becoming a minimum requirement, but just to keep up at current, stagnant, levels of opportunity and to not fall off the cliff into chronic economic insecurity.

And this is where the decline in union representation in the workforce needs to be discussed.  It does not appear to be enough to grow a healthy and vibrant middle class simply to say that all middle class aspirants need to attend college, especially when the gap between college and non college income can be at least partially attributed to falling wages.  According to a paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research by Emin M. Dinlersoz of the Census Bureau and Jeremy Greenwood of University of Pennsylvania, the decline of organized labor can be attributed to technological innovation that either replaced or outsourced non-skilled jobs that traditionally enjoyed union representation.  While there is no doubt that globalization and technology have been highly disruptive forces to organized work forces, it is also insufficient an explanation.  To begin with, trade agreements and tax policies that lead to jobs being sent offshore are partially the result of choices made by elected officials as well as the result of innovation.  Second, the drop off in labor unionization is distinctly steep in the United States compared with other industrialized economies. If labor’s decline in the United States was solely the result of especially “creative destruction” in the economy and not at least partially the result of choices made by those who influence the economy, our labor decline would be far less steep.

Labor’s decline and the overall dismal growth of inequality in our economy have marched hand in hand since the late 1970s.  In this video, Colin Gordon of the University of Iowa maps the decline of union participation in the United States with the steady growth of the Gini coefficient:

Correlation may not be causality, but certain trend lines call our attention to possible causes, and Gordon reports research that notes up to a third of the rise in inequality in the 1980s and 1990s can be attributed to the decline of labor.  If we want to address what has been happening to America’s widely stagnating middle class and especially to the cratering lower middle class, we must look at the decline of unions.  While labor unions cannot revitalize by organizing jobs that no longer exist, there are credible arguments that even large swaths of the IT sector could benefit from unionization.

Which is why the full frontal assault on teachers’ unions since the Great Recession is both disheartening and an existential threat to the remains of the middle class.  The NEA and AFT represent more than 4 million unionized teachers, but more than that, their representation provides those teachers with an ability to negotiate openly and fairly for their wages, working conditions and job security.  Those negotiations help our children’s teachers maintain a middle class status they might not be able to achieve individually, and the due process rights they obtain from negotiations protect them in a job environment that has inherent political elements and can risk confrontation with the community.  Given the mass of new job pressures layered on to the teaching profession since No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, it is unthinkable that teachers’ collective bargaining rights and job protections should be subject to legislative and legal challenges across the country.

But that is exactly what is happening, and it isn’t merely a challenge to teachers’ due process rights — it is aimed directly at one of the largest bodies of unionized middle class professionals left in the country.  Where will our Gini coefficient be in ten more years if teaching is no longer a unionized work force?

The contradictions of what we demand of teachers and with whom we entrust them and the goals of anti-union “reform” efforts to reduce teachers’ job securities and ability to negotiate fair wages and benefits are manifest.  President Obama tasks a “world class education” with reducing poverty in the face of the multitude of social and economic factors that have entrenched poverty in our society.  Every parent who sends a child to public school entrusts the teachers of that school with the well being of that child.  That breaking the strength of teachers’ collective bargaining rights has appeared as an urgent need to make education better belies are far more malicious intent behind the well financed campaigns of Michelle Rhee and Campbell Brown. Teachers should not be the only ones who take notice — the entire middle class should as well.

From Mike Thompson of the Detroit Free Press

From Mike Thompson of the Detroit Free Press


Filed under Activism, politics, Social Justice, Unions

Campbell Brown — the next hero of corporate reform

Following the Vergara decision in California where a judge declared that teacher labor protections violated students’ rights to a quality education, former NBC news and CNN personality Campbell Brown announced she would help bring a similar suit to New York State.  This is not Ms. Brown’s first foray into anti-union activism aimed at teachers.  In 2012, she unleashed a series of tweets that attacked New York City’s United Federation of Teachers for allegedly placing protection of accused sexual predators over children, and she penned an editorial for the Wall Street Journal demanding that the New York City Chancellor of schools be given absolute authority to fire teachers so accused without the use of an independent panel. Brown provided no evidence for accusations that this was a significant and mounting problem as she portrayed it, preferring a classic line of argumentation that any outcome a large number of people can agree is potentially wrong must mean the entire system needs to be turned upside down.  In this case,  the UFT defended maintaining due process rights for teachers accused of misconduct, which prompted Brown to insist they wanted genuine sexual predators returned to the classroom — without Brown bothering to examine details such as what percentage of accused teachers were actually cleared of wrong doing or what percentage were fired and prosecuted.

Brown portrayed herself at the time as simply a mother of two who was concerned about the effects of union job protections on children, but other sources have demonstrated she has a deeply personal conflict of interest that may be influencing what causes she is championing.  Ms. Brown is married to Dan Senor who was the chief spokesman for the provisional authority following the invasion of Iraq, and in 2012, he was a senior adviser to Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney.  Further, Mr. Senor sits on the board of StudentsFirstNY which is a part of Michelle Rhee’s network that expressly fights against teacher unions.  In response to union supporters and other journalists noting her apparent personal stake in making teacher unions a source of public outrage (a Romney administration certainly would have helped Mr. Senor’s career), Brown took the pages of Slate.com to sarcastically express her surprise at the push back and to take a little dig at her critics.

It is two years later, and Campbell Brown is delighted at the Vergara decision, and she is now partnering with high profile former Obama administration officials to craft similar lawsuits elsewhere beginning in New York.  The outcome is uncertain even though the Vergara case was based on exceptionally poor reasoning: many of the plaintiffs could not demonstrate that they have had “grossly ineffective” teachers, the judge misused the expert testimony and relied upon highly controversial research findings to determine the scope of damage that can be tied to a student having a poor teacher.  Brown, now allied with Obama spokesmen Robert Gibbs and Ben LaBolt, given pro bono legal services from former Bush administration adviser Jay Lefkowitz and presumably bankrolled by Michelle Rhee and her corporate allies, will likely bring a sharper and slicker case to New York.

This case is the apotheosis of corporate reform of our schools.  Teacher unions, while not perfect, stand as a safeguard that the people closest to the children in the classroom can negotiate for fair compensation and work with knowledge that they have due process in employment despite the highly public and sometimes contentious nature of their work.  Moreover, the teachers who make up their unions are the people, after parents, most connected to the individuality of the children entrusted to their care.  But corporate reform insists that looking at individual factors and looking at community factors is “making excuses” and that what you need are common standards, high stakes testing associated with those standards, teacher evaluation based upon test scores and then firing the “right” teachers based on those measures.  Corporate reform is decidedly uninterested in discussions about poverty and rising income segregation and insists that every problem in school can be laid at the feet of “bad teachers”.

The only major, organized, groups in the way of that are unions.

Rhee’s “Students First” organization should really be renamed “Teachers Last” because the main purpose of its legislative and litigation strategy is to put parents against teachers and to capitalize on America’s 30 year labor decline to break the AFT and NEA.  Michelle Rhee is a formidable organizer and fund raiser, but she is also under scrutiny for lacking real substance behind her thinking and for the practical outcomes of her approach to school system management.  After her politically strained tenure as Chancellor of D.C. public schools that contributed to the defeat of the mayor who recruited her, Rhee is not a public face for corporate reform who can go to the cameras without getting scrutiny.

In steps Ms. Brown as a fresh face for corporate reformers.  By now, many of the players are well known.  If you are talking about attacking teacher unions, you are talking about Michelle Rhee.  If you are talking about Common Core State Standards, you are talking about Bill Gates.  If you are talking about standardized testing, you are talking about the Pearson Corporation.  If you are talking about mass data mining and technology, you are talking about Rupert Murdoch.  We know this by now, and even some mainstream media sources are making the connections.

Campbell Brown presents herself as a media savvy personality who is in this fight as a “concerned mother” while Rhee and other anti-union forces provide the strategy and financing.

But when you see Campbell Brown, you see Michelle Rhee.  And when you see Michelle Rhee, you see Eli Broad.  And that just isn’t a pretty sight for teachers.


Campbell Brown

Campbell Brown

Michelle Rhee

Michelle Rhee

Eli Broad

Eli Broad

This gives me nightmares to be honest...

Brown-Rhee-Broad — This face keeps me up at night….

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Filed under Activism, Funding, politics, Unions

What Really Worries Me About the Vergara Decision

On June 10th, California Judge Rolf M. Treu declared that teacher tenure laws in California deprive students of their right to an education and declared them unconstitutional.  The provisions that were specifically targeted were the time frame for awarding tenure to California teachers, seniority rules on firing of teachers colloquially known as “last in, first out” and rules for due process before removing a teacher after the initial probationary period.  Judge Treu grandly compared his decision to Brown v. Board of Education and sent shock waves through the mainstream teacher community.

I do not think the ruling is likely to survive a challenge.

First, the evidence that Judge Treu said “shocks the conscience” and was presented by the plaintiffs is not precisely rock solid.  Relying heavily upon the work of Professor Raj Chetty of Harvard University, the plaintiffs claimed that even one “grossly ineffective” teacher had long term lasting harm on student’s achievement and future economic success, and they claimed California’s tenure laws subjected students to such “grossly ineffective” teachers.  The problem here is not that there are not a discernible portion of teachers who ought to be removed, but that the Chetty research, indeed most of the research used by the plaintiffs is, to put it mildly, disputed.

Dr. Audrey Amrein-Beardsley of Arizona State University writes the blog Vamboozled to discuss research and policy around the use of value added measures of teacher performance (VAMs), and she has taken on the flaws of Dr, Chetty’s work on numerous occasions, notably here and here. Dr. Amrein-Beardsley links to critiques from other scholars as well, and the obvious message that Judge Treu missed is that this scholarship “shocks the conscience” most powerfully when one thoroughly ignores that does not represent a professional consensus among education researchers.  Indeed, it is easy to portray the handful of researchers who insist that single teacher impacts can be measured this way as outliers.  So with appeals in the works, it is hard to believe that Judge Treu’s wholesale ignoring of contrary evidence will be replicated by every judge who reviews the evidence.

Second, as Dr. Diane Ravitch of New York University explains here, the plaintiffs in the Vergara case are of questionable standing.  If the argument is that “grossly ineffective” teachers have damaging lifelong impacts on students, it would stand to reason that the plaintiffs could clearly demonstrate that they had been subjected to such teachers.  Not so much.  In fact, some of them apparently claimed that a given teacher was bad at teaching when those same teachers were widely recognized as excellent:

One of the plaintiffs (Monterroza) said that her teacher, Christine McLaughlin was a very bad teacher, but McLaughlin was Pasadena teacher of the year and has received many awards for excellent teaching (google her).

Dr. Ravitch refers to briefs by the defense that go on to note how none of the plaintiffs could tie any of the supposedly poor teachers to the specific statutes that were challenged in the lawsuit.  Appeals attorneys were certainly make use of this, and given judges more inclined to consider all the evidence, they may have successes.

I am, therefore, tentatively hopeful that this case will die or be substantively altered on appeal.  But I am still worried, and the reason is that the case provides a much desired legal win for a coordinated set of interests that have teacher unions firmly in their sights.  The plaintiffs were sponsored by the group “Students Matter” which is funded by Silicon Valley technology entrepreneur David Welch and is financially allied with charter school funders and Michelle Rhee’s “Students First” organization that similarly attacks teachers’ union protections.  Given the partisan position of the lawsuit’s backers, it was extremely troubling, if not surprising, to see Secretary of Education Arne Duncan welcome a decision that greatly undermines teachers’ workplace protections:

With strong financial backers like Welch, Rhee and organizations like the Walton Family Foundation and tacit approval from the administration, we can expect similar lawsuits in pretty much every state over the next few years.  It fits one of the favorite narratives of the education “reform” camp:  that everything hinges on teachers and if we only fire the right teachers, schools, everywhere, will improve dramatically

brace yourself

This is pernicious for a number of reasons.  First, it relies of the very shaky and often laughable claim that all it takes to close the achievement gap is enough “great teachers” in a row.  Michelle Rhee loves to repeat this claim, but the claim does not stand up to very strong scrutiny, most notably that the research basis for the claim merely extrapolated from one year gains in classrooms with an identified effective teacher instead of studying students over time.

Further, we should question the value of the metrics used to rate teacher effectiveness in the first place.  As I have written previously, the American Statistical Association’s statement on the use of VAMs warns that only 1% to 14% of student variation on test scores can be attributed to variation in teacher quality. The does not mean, by the way, that teachers have no effect, but that statistically tying the achievement gap among students as measured by standardized testing to variability in teacher quality is looking at a very narrow slice of that gap’s origins.  What else can account for persistent gaps in student test scores?  Los Angles has a Residential Income Segregation Index of 51. 54% of children in the central city live in povertyThe impacts of poverty on children are by now well documented and cannot be excluded when considering school performance. Classrooms in Los Angeles are overcrowded, sometimes to a shocking extreme. California’s woeful education expenditures place it in the company of Arkansas and below West Virginia.  But according to the proponents of the Vergara case, the only thing that matters is teacher effectiveness as rated by the test score gains made by their students, regardless of all of the other factors that may effect those scores.

And this is painful ground for teacher and student advocates.  It sounds like I am saying that teachers have little impact, but what I mean to say is that teachers matter, but not in ways that are effectively measured by the value added models based on standardized testing.  Professor Jesse Rothstein’s review of the Measures of Effective Teaching study funded by the Gates Foundation demonstrated that teachers who did very well in their value added measures did far less well in measures of students gaining higher order thinking skills, so it is highly possible that the measures favored by Vergara’s so-called expert witnesses improperly favor the wrong teachers.  Anecdotally, such measures of effectiveness miss the realities of how teachers work with students.  The worst teacher of my entire life was my seventh grade mathematics teacher who was a bully and the most demotivating individual I have ever known in my life.  However, in a community where 95% of high school graduates went on to four year colleges and universities, the depths of his ineffectiveness would have been masked by the external advantages of his students.  Influence and impact upon students can frequently be hard to see in any numbers, but they are real regardless.  I have had former students contact me via social media to express appreciation for the role I played in their development towards adulthood, and not all of those students were long term academic successes (they are, however, remarkable people…testing misses that).

That is because an effective teacher is not merely a person who extracts a pre-determined gain in a standardized test over the course of one year.  Effective teachers inspire students to take risks that may result in messy but instructive failures.  Effective teachers help student manage social and emotional challenges to become more skilled at collaboration and leadership.  Effective teachers challenge students to, as Maxine Greene phrased it, “stir” themselves and see the world in different and transformative ways.  Effective teachers may simply convince a struggling student to stay in school for the stability it provides in his or her life.

As we prepare to challenge the Vergara decision and to brace ourselves for the flood of similar suits that the likes of Michelle Rhee are undoubtedly planning, it is vital that we not only confront the highly flawed assumptions of test based teacher competence, but also that we uplift a better vision of the importance of skilled and experienced teachers.


Filed under Media, politics, schools, Social Justice, Testing, VAMs

Can We Talk About Poverty And Violence NOW?

I became aware of this via a graduate school colleague.  Research from the CDC and Harvard University identifies that as much as 30% of young people in our urban areas suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as the result of living in communities afflicted by violence, a rate higher than soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.  This citation recently went viral because of report on a San Francisco CBS affiliate that mentioned the research — while deciding to coin the phrase “hood disease” to describe the phenomenon.  Response to that polarizing and sensationalist turn of phrase was swift, and it was well earned.  Hopefully, it will not obscure a chance to focus on a conversation that is desperately missing from today’s education conversation — the impact of poverty and violence on children and what it means to provide meaningful education for those children.

I am not optimistic, unfortunately.  Discussing the impacts of poverty and community violence on children would mean taking a good hard look at American society as a whole, how segregated we remain as a society (and how it is getting worse since 1980), how poorly we do as a country at helping families in poverty and how we largely ignore problems that are clustered in communities that are predominantly of color. I find it hard to believe that we are ready for a conversation today.  It would require more willingness for painful introspection and confrontation of racism that many prefer to believe does not exist.

Optimism is further undercut by the fact that the impacts of poverty on all sorts of outcomes for young people is not precisely news, although the PTSD estimates for community violence should cause more people to take notice.  “Effects of Poverty on Children” was published in 1997 and found vast differences in physical, cognitive, school achievement, and emotional and behavioral outcomes for children living in poverty, and it described the ways in which poverty influences these outcomes.  They recommended community health, parental education, in home interventions, and renewed efforts to eliminate deep, sustained poverty.  Not one of these recommendations found their way into the Bush era No Child Left Behind education reform bill nor into its Obama administration successor, Race to the Top.  Arizona State University Regents’ Professor Emeritus David Berliner delivered the Presidential Invited Speech at the 2005 meeting of the American Educational Research Association, and he titled in “Our Impoverished View of Education Reform.”  Among his conclusions:

All I am saying in this essay is that I am tired of acting like the schools, all alone, can do what is needed to help more people achieve higher levels of academic performance in our society. As Jean Anyon (1997, p. 168) put it “Attempting to fix inner city schools without fixing the city in which they are embedded is like trying to clean the air on one side of a screen door.”

To clean the air on both sides of the screen door we need to begin thinking about building a two-way system of accountability for contemporary America. The obligation that we educators have accepted to be accountable to our communities must become reciprocal. Our communities must also be accountable to those of us who work in the schools, and they can do this by creating social conditions for our nation that allow us to do our jobs well. Accountability is a two way process, it requires a principal and an agent. For too long schools have thought of themselves only as agents who must meet the demands of the principal, often the local community, state, or federal government. It is time for principals (and other school leaders) to become principals. That is, school people need to see communities as agents as well as principals and hold communities to standards that insure all our children are accorded the opportunities necessary for growing well.

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.

But since that address in 2005, “one-way accountability” has not only dominated policy, it has actually spawned an entire industrial scaled investment in testing and data, entrenching it even deeper.  Even though it has very little to do with the issues that plague impoverished communities in our country and the schools that try to serve them.

Most of what you’ve read about our “failing” national schools is based on flawed data.  Even using the preferred tool of accountability advocates, standardized tests, the crisis in our public schools is one of community poverty.  This graphic comes courtesy of Christine McCarthy, a New York City public school teacher and recipient of a Distinguished Fullbright Award in Teaching:


Stephen Krashen, professor emeritus at USC provides the data for this chart which should make it crystal clear that the constant doubling down on standards and testing will have no serious impact on the international testing gaps that produce such gnashing on the teeth in the media and in Washington.  A test does not alleviate the well documented impacts of poverty.  Firing a teacher whose students are performing poorly on a test does not alleviate the well documented impacts of poverty.

It is at this junction, that a Michelle Rhee or Joel Klein comes along, sometimes on a talk show, to say that there should be “no excuses” for even a school with a 75% or higher poverty rate.  Their preferred “no excuses” methods involve firing as many people as they can, closing down schools and turning more and more children over to charter school operators.  Certainly, many of those operators like to claim that they’ve found the “secret sauce” to educating within communities afflicted by high rates of poverty.  Eva Moskowitz’s “Success Academy” empire claims that it is educating the exact same students as the neighborhood schools in Harlem, but that claim is simply false, and a parent at Upper West Side Success documented on tape how administrators have tried to counsel out her son who has an IEP, something no neighborhood school could do.  Northstar Academy in Newark loves to claim at 100% graduation rate for seniors, but it fails to report its 50% attrition rate prior to senior year.

The lesson here is that there is no “special sauce” and “Superman” is a comic book hero.  We, as a society, have never figured out a way to provide large scale, genuine, educational opportunity to children growing up in communities with deep and persistent poverty.  We, as a society, are woefully uncommitted to alleviating poverty and have even come to accept the terrifying 20% rate of childhood poverty as normal and perhaps inevitable.  But absent those two commitments, no amount of firing teachers or testing students until they cry is going to “fix” American education.

And this is where I worry for the future again:  I think it is very likely that a combination of suburban parental outrage and teacher activism is going to push back hard on current reforms.  If Common Core survives, it will be substantially modified with fewer tests and less emphasis on value added models of teacher evaluation.  The fact is that pushing the punishment narrative that has been the burden of urban schools for so long to communities that generally like their schools is going to create a backlash.  But once those parents have pushed back and changed these systems, we will still be left with communities rife with damaging poverty and violence, and we will most likely go back to ignoring those facts.

And the next cycle of “reform” will ignore it too.

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