Tag Archives: tenure

Can Teaching Survive as a Profession?

Education reform has finally gotten around to taking direct aim at teacher preparation.  On October 4th, former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan published an “open letter” at Brookings to America’s university presidents and deans of education.  In it, he used “evidence” from a report from self appointed “teacher quality” watchdog, NCTQ, which claimed that America’s future teachers get a disproportionate degrees with honors to claim that our teacher preparation programs are too easy.  The NCTQ “study,” which follows their standard method of examining available materials gleaned from websites without ever visiting a campus, claimed that few programs offer enough rigor and grade subjectively.  On October 12th, Mr. Duncan’s successor, Secretary of Education John King, released long expected federal regulations for teacher preparation, the heart of which focus on reporting of program “success” in preparing successful teachers.  The transparency rules will require states to report program by program on:

  • Placement and retention rates of graduates in their first three years of teaching, including placement and retention in high-need schools;
  • Feedback from graduates and their employers on the effectiveness of program preparation;
  • Student learning outcomes measured by novice teachers’ student growth, teacher evaluation results, and/or another state-determined measure that is relevant to students’ outcomes, including academic performance, and meaningfully differentiates amongst teachers; and
  • Other program characteristics, including assurances that the program has specialized accreditation or graduates candidates with content and pedagogical knowledge, and quality clinical preparation, who have met rigorous exit requirements.

The bolded section obviously refers to student growth measures based upon standardized examinations, essentially requiring states to utilize value added measures or student growth percentiles and then pegging that to the “value added” of various teacher preparation programs.  “Meaningful” differentiation “amongst teachers” is obviously yet another “highly effective” to “ineffective” stack ranking system beloved by the Federal DOE.

Finally, on October 14th, the editorial board of The New York Times, weighed in with an editorial that hit on all of the familiar themes of recent education reform efforts:  Other nations “eclipse” our educational outcomes, our schools of education have no real standards, and they don’t prepare the “right” teachers to fit our need.  The board accepted without question the conclusions of NCTQ about teacher preparation and embraced the reporting of “multiple measures” of teacher preparation, especially the tying of value added on standardized test scores back to the supposed quality of teacher preparation.  While the regulations leave the choice of “growth measures” up to the states, it is obvious that such language inherently means value added based on standardized test scores as those systems are the only ones actually in place.  This is not unlike how Arne Duncan did not “force” state competing for Race to to the Top grants to adopt the Core Curriculum Content Standards, but he actually did by requiring them to adopt “College and Career Readiness Standards” which, to the surprise of nobody, only existed in any form in CCSS.

Let me offer a concession at this point:  Teacher preparation in America could certainly do a better job.  It is common among teachers to express that their teacher preparation was inadequate and disconnected from their actual work teaching, and this complaint is hardly new.  Tying what is learned in university classrooms to elementary and secondary classrooms is both difficult and often tenuous.  Even programs that constantly include extensive work in classrooms throughout preparation struggle with the reality that few experiences can adequately simulate the full responsibilities of teaching day in and day out, and adapting to that reality while keeping a clear focus on what students are learning is one of the most difficult things anyone ever teaches.

And the field of teacher preparation is certainly aware of this.  I have written before that efforts to improve the quality of teacher education in the country are hardly new, and numerous reports and agencies have both proposed and implemented change over the past 30 years.  Since the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983, we have had influential reports from the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy and The Holmes Group.  Thinkers like John Goodlad have seriously challenged how we see the relationship between university based teacher preparation and practitioners in the field, and the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future issued its own report highlighting innovations to more strongly connect theory and practice as well as universities and P-12 classrooms.  These ideas have been worked into influential standards and accreditation bodies such as the National Council on the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) and its successor, The Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) – which guide the preparation of teachers in more than 700 institutions across the country.

But can teacher preparation – and by extension, the teaching profession – survive this next round of attention from federal regulators and reform advocates?

There can be no doubt that teaching and teachers are suffering today.  A recent article in The Atlantic reviewed the various forms of stress that have had demonstrable impact upon teachers, and it tied that stress to growing concern over high attrition rates caused by on the job dissatisfaction.  Further, the pipeline of willing teachers has contracted dramatically in recent years, as much as 35% with enrollments in teacher preparation programs falling from 691,000 to 451,000 in only 5 years.  Reasons for this tightening supply at a time of high demand vary, but it cannot be disputed that it is increasingly difficult to replace qualified teachers with qualified new teachers.

The transparency portion of the federal regulations seems perfectly poised to make this worse.  Regulators and reformers insist that they want the best and the brightest to enter teaching through programs with high entry standards and a track record of graduating successful teachers.  But they wish to measure this by tracking the value added on standardized tests of program graduates, a process fraught with conceptual difficulties such as the incredible instability of such ratings, where teachers in the very top of value-added in one year can find themselves moving from one level to the next over subsequent years.  This is yet another incentive to reduce the breadth of the curriculum to tested subjects, to produce teachers who can enact scripted lessons aimed at high test performance, and to discourage graduates from serving any urban population other than those in no-excuses charter schools, schools that do not emphasize teaching as a life long commitment.

Of course, nobody openly cops to wanting to wreck teaching as a profession (with the possible exception of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie who cannot seem to pick apart his ire at New Jersey’s teacher union from New Jersey’s teachers).  However, actions, regardless of intentions, have reshaped teachers’ work for the worse, and if the profession is to survive as a profession serious changes are necessary.  Some of the most obvious threats:

  1. Attrition: Experienced teachers are better at their work than rank novices.  While advocates like Teacher for America’s Wendy Kopp claim that the “best” schools can develop new teachers into very effective teachers in only a year or two, that is based heavily on a charter model of scripted lessons aimed at test performance.  Although teachers develop rapidly in their very first years in the classroom, that improvement continues far past that point not only in test-based measures, but also in areas like lower student absenteeism and improved classroom discipline.  Findings that we are losing teachers at a rate of 8% a year – and only a third of that due to retirement – should worry anyone concerned about the viability of the profession.  Teachers with little preparation leave at rates of two to three times higher than those with strong preparation, and teachers in our high poverty schools tend to leave more frequently. Loss of teachers with experience also harms novice teachers, who try to learn their work within schools that lack a depth of knowledge represented by experienced colleagues.
  2. Obsession with test based measures: It is disheartening to see that the Federal DOE remains gripped with its obsession on using standardized tests to root out ineffective teachers and, now, teacher preparation.  The reality is that these measures are poorly suited for the job.  Student Growth Percentiles are so tightly correlated to the poverty characteristics of schools that it is difficult to determine whether or not they measure teacher input at all.  Value-Added Models, although more statistically sophisticated, produce enormous error rates and simply cannot account for all of the factors that contribute to standardized test scores, leading to a recent New York State court case which called the evaluation system using VAMs “arbitrary and capricious.” Although the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act directly forbids the federal government from requiring growth measures in state evaluation rules, it is imminently clear that Secretary King intends to jump on whatever lever he can find to maintain them.  So long as this continues, teachers face continued pressure to narrow their curricula and schools face continued pressure to box teachers deeply in test preparation mode which is simply not the same thing as teaching and learning mode.
  3. Vanishing teacher autonomy: If teachers were treated as professionals, it would be self evident that they would have latitude in determining the needs of their students, designing instruction to meet those needs, implementing and adjusting that instruction, and assessing their success by a variety of means.  Such professional autonomy is at threat in the current policy environment where teachers strongly believe that testing policies have diminished their ability to make decisions.  Sadly, as Richard Ingersoll of University of Pennsylvania notes, micromanaging teaching and curriculum decisions may assist weaker teachers, but for good teachers it contributes to job dissatisfaction which contributes to turn over.  Scripted lessons and little decision making probably satisfies the teacher as young and crusading short term job model many reformers favor, but it plays havoc on our ability to retain a dedicated body of professional teachers.
  4. Attacks on teachers’ representatives: It drives education reformers nuts that teachers are represented by organizations modeled on trade unions.  The old line of attack on unions was that if teachers were professionals, they should have gradated careers like other highly educated professional workers, making unions less “necessary.”  Today, the attacks are more directly aimed at union representation itself and workplace protections, with lawsuits attacking the practice of tenure under the guise of violating students’ rights to excellent teachers.  Get rid of the due process procedures given to tenured teachers, the thinking goes, and bad teachers will be easily removed leading to better outcomes.  The flaws in this are manifest.  First, the most common arguments against tenure do not actually match what current research knows.  Second, if the existence of tenure itself were a problem for student achievement, we would expect wealthy suburban districts where teachers remain on the job longer than average to be suffering with the weight of tenured faculty failing to work hard.  Obviously, that is not the case because teacher attrition is much more detrimental to student achievement than tenure.  Finally, teachers are in an odd profession where their duties and ethical obligations require them to actually speak up against administrators who are harming students.  Peter Greene argues cogently that teachers need special protections in order to do their jobs properly: “It (lack of tenure protections) forces teachers to work under a chilling cloud where their best professional judgment, their desire to advocate for and help students, their ability to speak out and stand up are all smothered by people with the power to say, “Do as I tell you, or else.”  This is absolutely correct, and it is something the moguls and philanthropists funding much of the assault on teacher unions, who are used to work force operating in tight chains of command, simply do not grasp.
  5. Workplace struggles: Loss of autonomy and attacks on workplace protections contribute to what many in the profession see as a deteriorating situation in the workplace.  The American Federation of Teachers collaborated with the grassroots activist group Badass Teachers Association (BATs) for a first of its kind workplace survey with 30,000 teachers participating.  Although the results are not representative of a scientific sample of teachers, what was reported should give education policy makers serious pause for concern, especially from the perspective of treating teachers as professionals.  45% of respondents disagreed with the idea that they can count upon support from their supervisor, and 52% disagreed that teaching allows they to make decisions on their own.  43% of the teachers said that they rarely or never have opportunities to make decisions that impact their work, and 45% said that their job interferes with family life. Structured support for new teachers is not the norm with 62% noting that their schools have no mentoring program for novices.  Worse, nearly a third of respondents reported experiencing bullying or intimidation in the workplace, and nearly half said they had been treated for anxiety or depression at some point in their careers.  We know very well that teachers leave their jobs, especially in high poverty schools, when working conditions fail to foster collegiality among teachers and effective, supportive leadership among administrators.  Poor working conditions coupled with attacks on teachers’ existing protections can only contribute to our attrition problem
  6. A strangled supply line: While Arne Duncan is lamenting that teacher preparation programs are too easy, policy makers in various states are continuing to increase requirements for entry into such programs.  In New Jersey, for example, policy makers mandated that nobody can enter a teacher preparation program unless he or she is among the top third of standardized test takers entering college.  Once enrolled, he or she must maintain a GPA of 3.0 and complete both an education major and a major in a liberal arts subject.  In order to successfully complete teacher preparation and gain a professional license, he or she must pass both the ETS PRAXIS II exam and submit a detailed study of his or her impact as a teacher in the form of Pearson’s EdTPA performance assessment.  Whether or not these requirements are appropriate is a wider conversation, but one thing is certain: the number of students available to even contemplate teaching as a career is smaller today than it was previously.  Higher selectivity might make sense in an environment with high retention of experienced teachers and where teaching is seen as a desirable profession.  As of right now, teacher preparation programs in New Jersey at least have to try to convince honors students to consider teaching in an environment where they see their own teachers suffering and scapegoated.  This is not a situation conducive to a sustainable number of teachers entering the profession.
  7. De-professionalization: The contradictions from Washington and from education reformers are legion.  We are told that teacher preparation must become more rigorous, but then we are told that we measure teacher effectiveness using test based measures which fail to actually capture what teachers do.  We are told that teachers must be thoroughly prepared to teach students to thrive in a complex modern economy and information environment, but more and more teachers work in environments where the testing has spawned narrowly scripted curricula that have to be implemented without professional judgement.  We see a broad coalition of partners from education reform and more traditional teaching advocates joining to “nenew” the profession with better and more in depth preparation, but within that coalition, Teach for America sees “no reason” to revisit their 5 week “training” model for corps members.  It is not hard to see that the current reform environment favors de-professionalization over  truly professional teachers.  The new DOE regulations insist upon student growth being tied back to the quality of teacher preparation, an inherent call for heavy reliance of standardized test data.  This opens the door for “highly effective” ratings to be lavished upon Relay “Graduate School of Education” which is largely in the business of training teachers in the methods of no excuses urban charter schools – high levels of behavioral control, heavily scripted curricula delivered as written, a heavy emphasis on preparing for the annual accountability tests, and relatively short “careers” in teaching.  Such methods may result in high value added for Relay’s graduates, but it is not likely to result in lifelong career teachers who retain professional autonomy and a robust vision of how teachers shape curriculum.

These challenges to teaching are robust, and, by now, they possess a frightening degree of inertia.  Together, they genuinely pose a threat to teaching as a profession that individuals pursue and commit to for a lifetime.  Our future teachers are watching what goes on in school today and are either developing a commitment to become teachers – or a desire to stay far away, dispositions towards the profession that will not be easy to turn.  Further, the increasing reliance on short time teachers granted credentials that emphasize high scores on standardized tests threatens to reinvent teaching into something that enthusiastic young people do for a short time before moving on to their “adult” lives.

A profession of many millions working with many tens of millions, however, does not turn quite so easily, as reformers have discovered over the past decade.  In order to redirect our efforts so that teaching can genuinely thrive, we need better ideas competing for time and attention.  Some ideas that demand our attention:

  1. Slay the Testing Beast: This does not mean doing away with any concept of standardized testing at all (although I know many advocates who wish for that).  It does mean, however, admitting once and for all what they cannot do.  Education reform has been adamant for 15 years that test data will first identify failing schools and provide them with incentives to improve and then that test data will objectively identify ineffective teachers and let us remove them so they harm no more children.  We know now that it has done no such thing, and that test-based accountability has created more problems than it has solved.  NCLB mandated testing has not told us about failing schools that we did not already know were struggling, and Race to the Top mandated growth measures have consistently failed to create evaluation systems that fairly identify teachers who should not be in the profession.  What they have done is wreak havoc on the curriculum, especially in communities of color, and restrict teachers’ professional autonomy.  Further, the tests have been used as rationales to privatize control of public education into hands that are inherently unaccountable to the communities they operate in and which increase costs and burdens for the remaining public schools. Instead of being a single, limited, tool of accountability, the tests have become the objects in and of themselves and rationales for “creative disruption” of a core democratic institution.
  2. If we are going to measure, be clear what we are measuring and why. Of course, teachers and schools should be accountable, but large standardized tests can only measure very narrow skill bands.  That’s a snapshot of a year’s worth of teaching, and often a poorly designed one that teachers do not get to see anyway.  At its best, such data can give higher level administrators an bird’s eye view of work across a school or a district, but it will not tell them what they find if they look closer.  There are schools with low test scores that are places of warmth and support but which need specific resources they are not getting.  There are schools with high test scores that are Dickensian nightmares of behavioral control and test preparation with little else.  There are also many different ways to define school success and until we acknowledge how limited test based measures are we are not going to give those concepts the attention they deserve.  Do schools with high poverty student populations work to develop their teachers?  Do they collaborate on problem solving for their students?  Are they well connected within the surrounding community?  Do they partner with local businesses, agencies, and organizations?  Do they actively reach out to parents and guardians?  Are they seeking grants and other opportunities for their academic programming?  Are the students happy and safe in the building?  There are many other ways to assess the work of schools and teachers if we can let go of the idea that only some measures are valid.
  3. Focus on retention and growth of teachers: Federal regulators and education reformers have been obsessed with creating a system that identifies the lowest ranked teachers via growth measures and then removes them from teaching.  Their tools are inadequate to the task and thoroughly miss that retention of experienced teachers is a far greater issue in the profession.  Experienced teachers are more effective than inexperienced teachers, and they provide a core of institutional and practice knowledge that both assists novices and cannot be easily replaced.  While meaningful supervision and assessment is important for novice teachers, it is at least as important to maintain our veterans.  If policy makers aimed their efforts at retention veteran teachers and establishing environments where teachers collaborate and support each other across experience levels, we would have a more stable core of teachers and teacher development in the early years would improve.
  4. Instead of attacking unions, develop administrators: It is almost religious dogma among education reformers that unions make it impossible to remove ineffective teachers.  This is false.  Unions do make it necessary for administrators to do their jobs well before removing a teacher with tenure, and the process may involve steps.  The benefit of this, however, is that experienced teachers are able to do their jobs without fear that they may face retaliation if they end up crossing an administrator.  What schools need are administrators who are adept instructional leaders and willing to engage in the process of removing a teacher when necessary.  What they absolutely do not need are teachers who have no confidence that they can speak up on the job in defense of their students.
  5. Healthy, collaborative schools work better for all: Even before the BATs/AFT workplace survey, we knew that the environment in a school is crucial.  Schools where teachers collaborate to help their children and which are led by administrators interested in substantive work centered on real learning are positive environments for student learning and for teacher growth.  Schools typified by isolated teachers subjected to micromanagement from rigid administrators are not.  Schools under pressure to meet unmanageable expectations generally do not foster the former.  While accountability proponents may be right to expect schools to work towards improvement, it is crucial that we seek to enable the conditions that make that improvement possible.
  6. Remember the teacher pipeline: It is all well and good that many advocates want to make it harder to become a teacher, but when narrowing that pipeline they need to remember two important considerations:  First, we need about 3 million teachers in the country at any given time, so while there is merit to improving teacher’s pay as requirements go up, there is a ceiling to that due to basic labor economics.  Second, if we are not going to be able to raise teacher pay to attract college students who have other career options, we have to foster those aspects of the profession that attract people beyond fame and money.  Historically, people have been attracted to the “psychic rewards” of teaching, those aspects of the work that develop a sense of efficacy and evidence of having done good in the world.  Such rewards are evident to potential teachers in schools where their own teachers are treated well, have professional autonomy, collaborate with each other, and are valued beyond what test scores they can generate.  Unless we pay careful attention to the vision of teaching as a profession that we project, we will have a terrible time convincing a new generation to pursue it.
  7. Pay up: It hurts the ears of politicians who do not want to consider tax increases, but education is not cheap, and it remains underfunded in many ways.  For example, when Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in the 1970s, it promised states that the federal government would pick up 40% of the cost of serving the children entitled to services under the act.  It has never done better than 20% of the costs, and the latest effort to fully fund education for the disabled sits in committee in the waning days of the 114th Congress.  New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has openly mocked increased education funding, but his state remains $3.9 billion behind promised state funding annuallyShockingly poor school conditions can be found in urban districts like Detroit, but more than half of our nation’s aging schools need repairs and capital improvements.
  8. Refocus on equity: For 33 years, education policy has focused on increasing standards and accountability with an intense focus on test based accountability since 2001.  But during this time period, we have largely forgotten one of the most historically powerful enablers of teachers’ teaching and students’ learning: equity. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, federal policy aimed opening school to more students and enabling states and municipalities to serve these student populations, but since 1980, we have demanded more results from teachers and schools while failing to accept any responsibility for the well being of the children we send to those schools.  David Berliner noted this powerfully a decade ago:  “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.”  If we want schools and teachers to be fully capable partners in raising children up, we need to accept that we cannot kick the ladders out from under those same children and blame teachers when they do not catch them all.

It is past time to change our focus.


Filed under Data, ESSA, Funding, John King, Media, Pearson, politics, Shared Posts, Social Justice, teacher learning, teacher professsionalism, teaching, Testing, Unions, VAMs

Dear Hillary – 2015 Version

Dear Secretary Clinton:

You have been a declared candidate for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States since April of this year. While your campaign for the nomination is quite new, many in the press treat your eventual victory as fait accompli, and have turned their attention to the growing Smorgasbord of candidates on the Republican side of the contest. Given the nature of Presidential politics today, this is probably good news for you as potential rivals for the Oval Office will now spend months of news cycles savaging each other and weakening the eventual Republican nominee.

It also gives you time to hone positions and messages while the national press endlessly opines on which Republican can win over the Tea Party and major donors simultaneously. I have a few modest proposals on education.

You enter this contest with some disadvantages on national education policy.  Having been a national figure for nearly a quarter century, you have spoken often, and often quite well, on the promise of public education and how we should support it.  However, your public career is also closely associated with neoliberal influences within the Democratic Party, and in education policy, that influence is typified by the John Podesta founded Center for American Progress which is a proponent of standards, standardized testing, evaluating teachers via standardized tests, expanding charter schools that take public money but are privately managed, and eliminating or significantly changing teacher workplace protections. Lately, a number of people have been circulating the 18 page missive you were sent in 1992 by Marc S. Tucker of the National Center on Education and the Economy which details a comprehensive and far more centrally controlled vision of education with now familiar emphasis on standards creating a “seamless system of unending skill development.”  Dubbed the “Dear Hillary” letter, Mr. Tucker’s vision is seen by many as a precursor of the current system of education “reform” which uses standards and testing to reduce variance among states, constantly talks about “college and career readiness” and making students meet nationally derived standards, holds teachers “accountable” to all students meeting standards, and reduces traditional governance and union influence to create “choice”.

Whether or not Mr. Tucker’s letter actually began the process to the 2015 school reform landscape or not isn’t germane to the fact that many connect his letter to you and ascribe its agenda to your candidacy.  This may be quite unfair, but it is also a reality in the national school reform debate into which you have entered as a candidate.  You must understand the degree to which we face a crisis in confidence among teachers and parents that has been growing for the past 14 years and which shows no signs of dying down by the general election campaign next year.  After years of struggling with the provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, teachers had hoped that President Obama’s campaign rhetoric would result in recognition that unrealistic expectations and heavy emphasis on test-based accountability had damaged schools and teaching.  Instead, the new administration used the promise of funding and of waivers from NCLB’s most punishing provisions to rush the Common Core standards into adoption across the country and, far from reducing the influence of standardized, to use tests to evaluate teachers.  At the same time, a coordinated effort is underway across the country to challenge teachers’ workplace protections and to use campaign donations to influence politicians to join the fight against teachers’ unions and against traditional public schools.

Madame Secretary, you enter the campaign for the Presidency at a time when teacher morale has dropped precipitously, with those saying they are “highly satisfied” at work falling by 30 percentage points in the last six years.  The federal role in education will play a part in the upcoming election, and an unusual mix of our body politic opposes various aspects of that role for various reasons.  It would be a grievous mistake on your part to misread the criticism as solely the work of right wing activists or, as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has done, the province of suburbanite mothers offended by the notion that their children are not brilliant. Among those opposed to or concerned with the past decade and a half of education reform are scholars warning that key elements of the reform agenda have little basis in research, parental and advocacy groups concerned about the detrimental influence of reform on curriculum, schools, and children, and a slowly increasing presence in civil rights and community justice groups recognizing that reform is tearing the heart out of communities and threatening equity without involving stakeholders in the process at all.

Your path to the nomination and to the Presidency probably does not require you to listen to these constituencies because deeply connected and extremely influential donors are tied to the reform movement, but your ability, if elected, to hit a “reset” button on our national education debate and to set a course forward that honors all stakeholders in our national education commons does require it. With respect, I would like to offer my own set of priorities for you to consider as you seek office, and I promise that it is briefer than Mr. Tucker’s.

Let states stay or go from the Common Core State Standards as they see fit.  Recently, you spoke with some dismay about how a “bipartisan” agreement to raise educational standards has now become political.  That take on the CCSS situation assumes that there was nothing political about the standards to begin with, and there I must disagree.  It is true that the National Governors Association agreed to take on the proposal to write a set of common standards and did so without falling along typical party lines.  But there are several aspects about the CCSS that were political from the very beginning and which are not made apolitical simply because they were not partisan.  First, the assumption that American education is in deep crisis and that we are “falling behind” other nations is a deeply political assumption that rests on a significant cherry picking of the available data and by concentrating on the worst possible reading of that data.  The “failure narrative” has been a central player in our education debate since the Reagan Administration released A Nation at Risk in 1983, but its underlying assumptions have been problematic from the beginning.  David Berliner and Gene Glass make it clear that the failure narrative is a deliberate lie that proposes that our entire school system is in crisis when when we have very specific problems with some of our schools and those problems are tightly coupled with concentrated poverty in communities.  The premise that we MUST have common standards if we are to not “fall behind” other nations is a premise steeped in a political agenda to require a massive change in how we administer one of the core institutions of our democracy.

Further, while the organizations that initiated the CCSS may have cut across political lines, politics at the federal level was essential to having 43 states and the District of Columbia adopt them.  When the Obama administration came into office, the CCSS project, already enjoying massive support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, received boosts from the Race to the Top program and offers of waivers from certain NCLB provisions.  How far would the Common Core State Standards have gone without these federal enticements? We will never know, but it is safe to assume that their adoption was given considerable velocity by these incentives which is staggering when you realize that the standards were proposed, allegedly researched, written, signed off on by various committees, and adopted in over 40 states in less than 4 years.  Advertising and political campaigns move that quickly — careful, deliberate, research-based overhauls to K-12 standards in English and mathematics do not, especially if they follow widely accepted processes for including a wide array of stakeholders and maximizing transparency.

How free are states to leave the the “state led” Common Core effort?  That’s an open question. Virginia, for example, never adopted the CCSS, and they have an NCLB waiver from Secretary Duncan’s DOE.  Washington state, however, lost its waiver for not being quick enough to implement another element of education reform — adding student growth on standardized tests to its teacher evaluation system.  How would the current USDOE respond to a state trying to back out of the Common Core?  I do not know, but I do know that if the standards have actual educative value, and many people sincerely believe that they do, then the federal leverage that has been used to put them in place, needs to be removed so that proponents and opponents can have the open and honest debate about common standards that never took place.  States should develop plans for careful implementation and development if they want to stay on board, and time must be given for the development of quality material aligned with the standards.  And states should be feel free to drop the CCSS and take a “wait and see” approach to study how other states’ implementation efforts are going.

But if you, as a candidate, like what you see in the Common Core, then your best way to get them unpoliticized is to recognize the politics that went into their development and adoption, and to give states absolute assurance that they can take their time in making them work or abandon them without consequence.

Reject teacher evaluations based upon student growth models.  The appeal of student growth models is obvious.  Using student testing data, growth models promise to free teacher evaluation from excessive subjectivity and local politics by using sophisticated statistical tools to isolate teachers’ input into the variation among student scores and properly rank teachers by their effectiveness.  Such a tool promises to leverage the power of data into making certain adults are accountable for the most crucial work of school — helping students reach their full potential.

Unfortunately, they don’t work.

Value added models (VAMs) and other related growth models are simply not up to the task of taking a snapshot of student performance in one year of school, completely isolating the teacher impact upon test scores, and producing a stable and reliable measure of teacher effectiveness.  The research body on this is growing and crystal clear: we should not be doing this, and by doing this we are only making it impossible for a teacher with an eye for survival to not teach to the test.

Despite this, Secretary Duncan has not only continued to support growth measures in teacher evaluation, he has proposed measuring the “effectiveness” of teacher preparation programs by the value added measures of their graduates.  In New York State, Governor Andrew Cuomo pushed for and got a revised teacher evaluation system where half of teacher effectiveness ratings are tied to standardized test scores.

If you want to restore balance and sanity to the education reform debate, you will pledge to appoint a Department of Education that backs off of growth measures and actually listens to the evidence that we do not have either the tests or the statistical tools to make this work, and that the consequences in the form of narrowed curricula and increasing the pressure associated with testing are unacceptable.

Praise innovation in education — but only from people telling the truth. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel praised the Noble Charter School network for having found the “secret sauce” for improving academic performance — based on the schools’ test scores.  It turns out that an ingredient in that sauce is a system of cash fines for even small infractions to its strict disciplinary code, a practice that landed one unemployed single mother with a bill for $3000.

When the idea of a charter schools was first proposed to provide a system of small and innovative schools who would work with the most difficult children and feed their ideas to the system as a whole, it is doubtful that anyone expected schools that would turn its disciplinary code into a revenue stream, but the charter sector is sadly rife with schools claiming superior results while engaging in deceptive practices.  The “no excuses” brand of charters, to which Noble belongs, is especially guilty of this as they continuously compare their test scores to fully public schools in their districts, but then take their population of students, already skimmed via complex application processes for their lotteries, and further trim them with practices aimed at driving away students whose needs they refuse to accommodate.  Matthew Sprowal of New York City found this out when he won a lottery seat at Eva Mokowitz’s Success Academy but was quickly subjected to disciplinary practices that had the Kindergartener regularly throwing up and asking his mother if he would be “fired” from school.  His is not an isolated case in the network that is known for extremely strict discipline and an emphasis on test preparation that can overwhelm the rest of the curriculum.  They are hardly alone in this.  Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers University took a humorous look at the Uncommon Network school in Newark, New Jersey, North Star Academy, and he found that their claims of getting superior results from the same population of children as the district is completely deceptive.  It turns out that North Star has many fewer students who qualify for free lunch, they have half the population of students with disabilities and those they have are almost all low cost – with zero students with autism, emotional disturbance, or cognitive disabilities.  Even more shocking are the indications that those numbers may not simply represent a population that entered the lottery for admission, but it may be the result of selective attrition.  Historically, 50% of North Star student cohorts leave the school between 5th and 12th grade, and that goes up to 60% for African American boys in the school.

You must remember that these are students whose families sought out the school in the first place.

While a few advocates of the no excuses brand of schools admit that this kind of attrition is a feature rather than a bug, the general response from the sector is denial and silence.  This is not innovation.  It is a) the conflation of test scores with actual achievement and learning; b) the use of unethical disciplinary practices to induce an already self selected population to further self select; c) a distorted curriculum emphasizing test scores and specific training for standardized test.  It is likely that many of the surviving students do get a good education overall, but their school leaders should not try to favorably compare themselves to district schools, especially when their model of schooling requires them to have full public schools where students they drive away end up.  For an added insight, consider how KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg struggled to find an adequate reason why he doesn’t send his own children to the school network that he established.

With over 6000 charter schools across the country, I am sure your campaign can find ones that genuinely innovate on behalf of children who have not been well served by their district schools and which take seriously the idea that charter schools are there to demonstrate innovative practices. (Dr. Julian Vasquez-Heilig has noted Making Waves and University of Texas Elementary as examples). Those schools do not have massive public relations campaigns, but if you are looking to praise schools outside the mainstream system, you should find them, and avoid the “no excuses” brands that routinely lie about their practices and the meaning of their results.

Money matters.  Governor Andrew Cuomo likes to opine that money is not an issue in New York State because of the size of the education budget.  That’s easy for him to say as his term in office has been an ongoing assault on state aid to education and a steadfast refusal to fund the Campaign for Fiscal Settlement settlement from 2007.  Governor Cuomo, who has never proposed an education budget that comes close to finding the still missing education aid, put in a cap on property taxes that limits municipalities from increasing local revenue, and continues to use the Gap Elimination Adjustment to remove promised aid to localities to the tune of nearly $3.1 million per district per year.  The resulting financial shenanigans leave many districts shorted thousands of dollars per pupil per year below the state’s already inadequate and unequal funding promises.

While the federal government funds only a small percent of local educational expenditures, there are promises you can make that will help districts cope with the fact that we fund education in this country by local property values and this takes a significant toll upon school districts with higher concentrations of poverty and devalued property. For example, when the federal government passed P.L. 94-142 in 1975, Congress promised that it would provide money that would cover 40% of the costs to districts for giving full services to children with disabilities.  Districts, schools, and teachers rose to that challenge and the percentage of children receiving special education services rose from 4.3% of students in the 1960s to 11.4% in 1989.  Congress did not, and it has never funded the federal disability law above 20% of costs to districts.

Our schools are estimated to need over $197 billion in infrastructure repairs and investments according to a study by the Institute of Education Sciences, and that figure is estimated at over $254 billion by the American Federation of Teachers.  The federal government provides grants for schools that offer wraparound services, a continuum of community based services frequently lacking in communities with deep poverty.  Such grants could be expanded and more funding added to Title I in order to support such schools and the efforts they undertake for our least served students.  Schools need additional funding to work on class size reductions which have strong support as means to improve academic achievement especially among disadvantaged students.  In fact, most changes that would significantly improve education for the disadvantaged students in our schools require funding increases, but most state are still funding education below 2008 levels.

President Obama used promises of federal funding to wedge in highly distorting education policies.  You should promise education funding to build capacity and growth.

Your money matters too.  In an age when unprecedented money is flowing into politics at every level, it is hard for any candidate to expressly shut off any source of cash, but if you want to be a candidate for public education and the children served by it, you must.  Consider the case of “Democrats for Education Reform (DFER)” and its companion organization “Education Reform Now (ERN).”  While these organizations influence and donate to Democratic candidates for office, both their funding and their intent are not rooted in the Democratic Party.  One of DFER’s principal founders is hedge fund manager Whitney Tilson, who described the rationale for his group’s name this way:

The real problem, politically, was not the Republican party, it was the Democratic party. So it dawned on us, over the course of six months or a year, that it had to be an inside job. The main obstacle to education reform was moving the Democratic party, and it had to be Democrats who did it, it had to be an inside job. So that was the thesis behind the organization. And the name – and the name was critical – we get a lot of flack for the name. You know, “Why are you Democrats for education reform? That’s very exclusionary. I mean, certainly there are Republicans in favor of education reform.” And we said, “We agree.” In fact, our natural allies, in many cases, are Republicans on this crusade, but the problem is not Republicans. We don’t need to convert the Republican party to our point of view…

DFER and ERN receive massive financial support from a cast of characters who are not traditional backers of Democrats: The Walton Family Foundation, Rupert Murdoch, Rex Sinquefield.  The causes they support include Koch funded campaigns against unions, vouchers, and privatization of education via the growth of privately managed charter school chains. If you want to see the influence of this kind of funding, look no further than Andrew Cuomo, who has gotten over $65,000 from ERN since 2010 and whose devotion to the cycle of using test scores as the only measure that matters, labeling schools as failing, closing schools, and turning them over to privately managed charters is without equal. This is hardly isolated to DFER,as a range of organizations funded by billionaires seek heavy influence over educational policy in New York. This fundamentally anti-democratic campaign by the hedge fund sector is not based on philanthropy as advertised as they have been figuring out ways to monetize support for charter schools for some time now, and this phenomenon is rampant in the charter sector nationwide.  Other aspects of today’s reforms generate massive revenue streams for publishing and testing giants like Pearson, and Rupert Murdoch himself called K-12 education a “$500 billion sector…that is waiting desperately to be transformed…” by technology.

These potential donors to your campaign are not in education reform because they primarily want to do good.  They are in it because they want to do well, and if you take their cash, you will be as bought and as compromised as Andrew Cuomo, Rahm Emanual, and President Obama.  You are perhaps better situated than any candidate in memory to forgo any single source of funding in favor of taking a stand.

Stand with our teachers. While the emphasis on testing and evaluating teachers with testing threatens our national teaching corps, a parallel campaign exists to remove teachers of the job protections and make it vastly easy to fire them at will. This campaign relies upon misunderstanding of what tenure is and expressly misrepresents the facts to the national media.  Worse, it thoroughly misses a far greater problem in our schools that serve high concentrations of disadvantaged students.  Far from being staffed with stereotypically jaded veterans uninterested in doing their jobs, our schools with high concentrations of children in poverty, are far more likely to have high numbers of first year teachers when compared to the suburban counterparts. Research shows that young teachers who leave such schools most frequently cite aspects of their working conditions – lack of support from administration, insufficient resources, no time to collaborate with co-workers – as the reasons why they leave.

Removing tenure from those teachers does absolutely nothing to stabilize the faculty in our most difficult schools, and it largely guarantees that such schools will continue to have a temporary workforce whose members never reach their full effectiveness on the job.  Further, removal of tenure protection disallows teachers who need to confront their administration on behalf of their students from doing so; it destroys teachers’ abilities to act as good stewards of their students.

Somehow, these facts do not stop the likes of Campbell Brown from framing the anti-tenure campaign as being for the “rights of students,” but the only logical conclusion from the misplaced effort is that they want teaching to become a far more temporary “career” than it currently is.  Teachers, having their effectiveness rated by invalid statistical measures, will be much more easily fired without the protections of tenure.  A perpetually young and more easily replaced teaching workforce will be both cheaper and easier to manage — a model embraced by the no excuses charter schools favored by many in today’s reform effort.  That breaking teachers’ union protections would also mean breaking the last large middle class unions in the country cannot be a coincidence either.

This is no way to build a profession based upon expertise and a sense of efficacy on behalf of our children.  Do not mince words on this.  Stand with our teachers.

It’s still the economy. Today’s education reform rhetoric calls upon us to adopt massively disruptive changes to how we deliver instruction, how we manage and administer public education for the entire country, and how we conceive of teaching as a profession.  The rationale given for this is very attractive, but it is entirely deceptive.  While reformers are correct that millions of American children, mostly minority, attend schools with low achievement records as measured by standardized tests, and that a great many of those children will not have realistic opportunities to pursue higher education and escape inter-generational poverty, reformers place nearly the entire requirement to lift those children upon their public schools and teachers. The reality is that while an education is likely to play a part in any personal narrative of financial success in America, there have to be genuine economic opportunities on the other side of that education for that narrative to come to fruition.

In 2015, this does not look likely without fundamental realignments in our economic and taxation policies that today’s reformers, backed and financed by billionaires, are loathe to discuss.  For most of the past 30 years, our nation’s workers have increased their productivity and created vast amounts of wealth without seeing any significant increases in their own wages.  The skewing of gains in wealth is so severe that the top 10% of earners currently make more than half of all the wages earned in the country. Will more college graduates make more opportunity?  That seems doubtful when you take into account that the wage benefit for going to college has increased only because wages for those with no college degree have collapsed since the early 1980s.  Even in the much touted STEM fields, entry level wages for qualified college graduates have remained flat for more than a decade.  If there is a significant skills shortage in the American workforce, basic labor economics cannot detect it.  I’ve argued this for several years, and this observation was recently affirmed by Paul Krugman at The New York Times:

Furthermore, there’s no evidence that a skills gap is holding back employment. After all, if businesses were desperate for workers with certain skills, they would presumably be offering premium wages to attract such workers. So where are these fortunate professions? You can find some examples here and there. Interestingly, some of the biggest recent wage gains are for skilled manual labor — sewing machine operators, boilermakers — as some manufacturing production moves back to America. But the notion that highly skilled workers are generally in demand is just false.

Finally, while the education/inequality story may once have seemed plausible, it hasn’t tracked reality for a long time. “The wages of the highest-skilled and highest-paid individuals have continued to increase steadily,” the Hamilton Project says. Actually, the inflation-adjusted earnings of highly educated Americans have gone nowhere since the late 1990s.

Our workforce today has more education than at any point in American history, but if that is still not enough, the labor market has apparently abandoned fundamental supply and demand.

Now one thing is absolutely clear on the education side of the equation.  Opportunity to gain a strong basic education and to pursue higher education is not equitably distributed, mostly to the detriment of minority children and the rural poor.  Further, education will play a likely role in those children’s success, but we cannot refuse to change anything about our economic assumptions and call upon schools to do all of the lifting out of poverty for children and families, especially at a time when the middle class is shrinking rapidly even as the population’s total education has increased. Your campaign can call for improvement to primary and secondary education, it can address soaring costs for higher education, and it can demand more from our nation’s teachers.  However, if it makes these demands absent any serious examination of our structural inequalities that prevent significant economic opportunities from reaching the vast majority of our children, then it will simply be more of what we have seen since 1983: dire rhetoric, false premises, testing, punishment, turning our public schools over to private operators and to a hidden investor class making money off of the system.

The next time the Whitney Tilsons of our education debate approach you for support of their programs in return for campaign cash, demand to know what they will promise to do to actually be “job creators” whose workers do not require public assistance simply to survive.  Demand to know what investments in our decaying infrastructure they will support via higher taxes on themselves.  Demand to know how they will compensate their workers for the increasing profitability of their ventures that depends upon labor.  Demand to know how they will support an economy that provides actual mobility for the rest of society rather than simply supporting their Gilded Age lifestyles. Demand to know how they will support the right of labor to organize and collectively bargain for wages and benefits, the decline of which accounts for up to a third of our increasing inequality.

I know many teachers, faculty, and school administrators who are willing to do their part for a better and more equitable future for our nation’s youth.  It is time for a national candidate to demand that education reform’s financial backers, who are reaping gains by privatizing our schools, do the same.


Filed under Activism, charter schools, Corruption, DFER, Funding, Gates Foundation, NCLB, schools, Social Justice

Merryl Tisch Suggests Firing A Lot of Black and Hispanic Teachers

New York Regents Chancellor Dr. Merryl Tisch has been downplaying the potential negative consequences of sweeping changes to teacher tenure and evaluation in the new state budget.  On April 1st, she commented that the new system does not specifically say that test scores make up 50% of teacher evaluations and suggested that concerns over the weight given to tests was overblown.  Dr. Tisch is technically correct which, as we all know, is the best kind of correct.  The new evaluation law does not say scores are 50% and it leaves various weighting decisions to the Regents and the NYSED.  However, the scoring matrix, which is in the law, has two axes, one of which is for test scores.  I can count really well up to two, and it is fairly obvious the tests, as one axis out of two, are 50% of the evaluation (not to mention that both axes determine the outcome in the matrix roughly equally).

Dr. Tisch was back in the press this morning, suggesting that she thinks the new evaluation system should potentially be lifted from districts that have had strong records of student achievement.  The upshot is that if a district has high graduation and college acceptance rates and strong “college readiness” (aka test scores), they could be freed from state regulations and allowed to craft their own evaluation and accountability systems within certain parameters.  Dr. Tisch suggested that such changes could come from the Commissioner’s regulatory power, but she would also consider asking legislators to make amendments to the newly passed system allowing these changes.  In her view, such changes in favor of high performing districts would “…give them the respect that they deserve for the job that they do, and let us turn our attention, our scarce resources and our capacity to the districts that really need us in terms of access and opportunity for students.”

It would also mean many fewer African American and Latino teachers would ever get tenure and many more of them would be fired.

Now I am not suggesting that Chancellor Tisch actually hopes to do this, but there are consequences to not thinking things through in policy.  Exempting districts with records of high achievement from the new evaluation requirements would place a significantly heavier burden on teachers of color and result in their removal at disproportionate percentages.  The reason for this is fairly simple: just as our communities and schools are segregated by race and income, so are our teachers.  In New York State, 9.8% of teachers are Hispanic and 8.6% are African American.  These numbers are not, however, even distributed across the state.  In New York City, for example, African American teachers make up 19.6% of all teachers and Hispanic teachers are 14.4% of all teachers.  The numbers shoot up when you are talking about schools with a high percentage of students in poverty:

Teachers by race and poverty

Now we are talking about schools where 25.2% of the teachers are African American and 23.7% are Hispanic, while in schools that are low poverty, those numbers are only 12% and 8.2% respectively.  That means of the roughly 21,000 African American teachers and the roughly 24,000 Hispanic teachers in the state of New York, 5,275 of the African American teachers and 4,961 of the Hispanic teachers work in high poverty schools in the city of New York alone.

Given the long known impact of poverty on school performance, it doesn’t take a degree in rocket science (or even a doctorate in education from Teachers College) to understand that schools with higher concentrations of poverty are going to be schools where more students struggle to demonstrate annual progress on standardized tests and that the teachers who teach them will have similar trouble demonstrating their “value added” to those test scores as required in the new evaluation.  What percentage of new African American and Hispanic teachers in New York will struggle to and ultimately fail to reach “effective” for three out of four years in the new tenure process?  What percentage of their more experienced colleagues will fluctuate between “ineffective” and “developing” because the lack of statistical validity given to one axis of the new evaluation matrix?  How many schools with high concentrations of poor children and faculty who are disproportionately African American and Hispanic will be forced to sacrifice social studies, science, art, music, and health education in favor of mimicking the teaching practices of charter schools who emphasize test preparation for months of the school year?

Looking for a way to allow high income districts with good test scores to avoid the new evaluations might be a politically savvy move to allay growing discontent among outspoken parents.  But it will also end up kicking teachers of color and their students right in the teeth as they, already hard pressed by test based accountability, will be the only ones to bear the full brunt of the new system.

The sad part is that Dr. Tisch is not entirely wrong, but her statement demonstrates only a minor understanding of how to use data to leverage system wide change.  She suggests that relieving high performing districts would allow the NYSED to focus its efforts and resources on struggling districts, but she has not offered any insight into how that would work as a system that focuses on support and growth rather than on test and punish.  It is possible to use system wide data to identify schools and school systems that can have greater autonomy, but the policy should be wedded to increasing resources and support within schools that struggle with the understanding that the vast majority of teachers want to do well by their students and that a great many are doing precisely that even if it is not captured on one test.  Instituting a continuous improvement policy takes time and patience and resources — things for which Dr. Tisch has not recently demonstrated patience.

So I have to ask the Chancellor: If you uncouple wealthy districts from the new accountability system will you simultaneously implement a vastly different perspective for our struggling school districts with high levels of poverty? Will you embrace a support and growth model of system wide change and work to find ways to de-emphasize test and punish?  Because if you do not, the end result of your suggestions will simply be to subject schools with a majority of poor students and high percentages of African American and Hispanic teachers to the kind of churn and burn faculty turnover that we tend to see in many urban charter schools while leaving teachers and students in the majority white suburbs largely untouched.

That cannot possibly be what you want — right, Dr. Tisch?


Filed under New York Board of Regents, teacher learning, Testing

Who Will be NYSED’s “Outside Evaluators”?

As more details emerge from the budget agreement hammered out between Assembly and Senate leadership and Governor Andrew Cuomo, more questions seem to need urgent answers.  The Governor got many of the education items that he wanted, especially regarding tenure and teacher evaluations.  His original proposal called for 50% of teacher evaluations to come from standardized testing, 35% from an “outside evaluator,” and only 15% from school principals.  All three of these elements are in the budget framework and potentially the budget bills being debated as the deadline looms, but the final weight of the different items will depend upon work done by the New York State Education Department between now and June 30th.  Regardless of the final weight given to these items, no teacher in the state will be found to be more than “developing” if the test score component is “ineffective,” and all teachers will be evaluated with an outside observer’s input.  Any district that does not submit and receive approval of an evaluation plan using these guidelines will get no increase in state aid for the coming year.

The outside observer component was of special interest to Governor Cuomo who called the current evaluations (that he fought to implement originally) “baloney” and who apparently does not trust that school principals are capable of evaluating their teachers.  Taken out of context, the idea of an additional set of eyes observing teachers using some kind of common metric is intriguing.  Kind of like giving every newborn child in the country a pony.  You like the idea until you start thinking about how it could possibly work.  In the end you realize that the most predictable result is that a lot of people are going to end up with pony poop in their kitchens.

Capital New York reports this morning that a few more details are emerging on the teacher evaluation system:

There will be two required observations, from a teacher’s principal or administrator and an “independent” evaluator, who could be a principal, administrator or “highly effective” teacher from another school or district. As Cuomo originally proposed, a college professor or retired educator could also serve as the independent evaluator. A peer observation will be optional.

The logistics of this will likely prove very daunting.  Who, exactly, will be the “outside evaluators” for all of the schools in New York State?  According to the governor and law makers, they will be a hodge podge of administrators, “highly effective” teachers, college professors, or retirees.  This, at least, is a more qualified proposed group than Pearson Corporation’s essay scorers who were recruited in part by advertising on Craig’s List, but what is the scale of this endeavor?

Classroom observations are currently done by school principals and other related district administrators who are already employed by districts to do a full range of duties, not just teacher evaluations.  There are 4,530 public schools across all of the school districts in New York State (not including charters), and 203,457 classroom teachers who work in those schools (not including paraprofessionals, etc.).  That means that in any given year, roughly 4500 principals are doing some or all of the observations for all of the teachers in their buildings.  This includes scheduling a classroom visit, doing the observation with appropriate notes, optimally having a pre and post observation discussion with the observed teacher, and writing up the evaluation report using the current scoring band system.  Now that work will have to be duplicated over 200,000 times by the outside evaluators who will be approved to observe and to evaluate teachers in the state.

So who will we get to do this?

Will school principals do this for teachers outside their districts? I have my doubts.  Principals are very busy people with a heavy load of time intensive and often politically sensitive work to accomplish.  If a principal is already observing and evaluating all teachers in his or her building, how much time will that person have to travel to other districts and replicate that work for a school system that does not employ him or her full time?

Will “highly effective” teachers do this for teachers outside their own districts?  First, the proposed system is not designed to find very many teachers “highly effective” to begin with, so this will be a limited pool that may change from year to year.  Second, it is highly doubtful that many teachers, regardless of skill level, will line up to undertake this role outside of their own schools.  There is some precedent for experienced and highly regarded teachers taking a role to assist and review peers within their own schools and districts, but such programs are costly and usually require release time from classroom teaching.  Will many of New York’s “highly effective” classroom teachers take on travel and cost their districts substitute teacher costs so they can travel outside of district to evaluate other teachers?  I would not hold my breath waiting for that.

Will college professors do this in addition to their scholarly and teaching pursuits?  For that matter, how many professors are actually qualified to do such work in the state?  The NYSED website says that over 100 university based undergraduate and graduate programs in the state lead to teacher certification, so there may, in fact, be qualified faculty in the state to take on some of the load.  However, recall that roughly 4500 school principals or assistant administrators are responsible for ALL of the teacher evaluations for over 203,000 classroom teachers.  Very few university faculty will likely consider taking on even a partial load of teacher evaluations if it inhibits their ability to teach on campus and to conduct research in their fields.  If the state were considering fostering many more deep university and school district partnerships it might be plausible to use faculty for some of this work, but it is highly unlikely if the call is simply for faculty to take on additional responsibilities that do not serve their professional goals.

Will retired teachers agree to do this work?  I do not know.  Maybe, but I kind of doubt it under current circumstances.  A retired teacher would likely not be qualified to evaluate too many teachers in a single school if it meant observing outside of his or her certification area.  As a teacher education program director, I know many retired teachers who have been willing to give of their time and wisdom to supervise our student teachers.  They do it because they love teaching and want to help mentor new young people into the profession.  Will Governor Cuomo and the NYSED be able to find large numbers of retired teachers who want to do work aimed at REMOVING many more teachers?  I have my doubts.

This will also be an expensive proposition.  Doing all of teacher evaluation twice every year will require a workforce large enough to do that portion of administrators’ work each and every year.  We will need a workforce of at least 1100 evaluators doing at least one evaluation a day during the school year to observe and evaluate every classroom teacher in the state (and, of course, every school day is not a day available for observations), and that assumes a nice, evenly distributed available pool of evaluators matched to teachers.  Unless there is a line item in the budget to pay for all of them, then it will likely be up to the districts to hire evaluators and pay them for their time and travel.  So which art or music teacher will your district have to cut this year to pay for the outside evaluators?

Come to think of it, the pony idea might be more feasible.  And cleaner.


Filed under Funding, New York Board of Regents, politics, schools, teaching, Testing

Dear Randi

Dear Randi Weingarten,

You do not know me, but we have crossed paths on Twitter and education blogging circles.  In fact, I think you have kindly retweeted some of my writings to your followers on a few occasions.  I am writing because I have been following your political actions for some time in this election cycle, and while I think I understand what is motivating a great deal, I am concerned that as the leader of the American Federation of Teachers’ 1.6 million members you have been too willing to accept a “seat at the table” with politicians and foundations, a seat that has come at the expense of the rank and file.  I do not believe this has been your intention, but I also think that it is necessary to question whether or not politics as usual has broken down, whether or not having a seat at the table is worth the comprises necessary to get there. I respectfully suggest that this is one of those times.

Many of the bloggers and education activists I read have been very harsh towards you in their assessments.  Those assessments are based upon what they see as a long series of actions demonstrating a willingness to play ball with so-called reformers and to negotiate for changes in matters like teacher assessment and compensation and the Common Core State Standards.  Mercedes Schneider pulls few punches in this piece detailing cooperation with Eli Broad, the Gates Foundation, and other forces in education reform who have sought to weaken unions, pushed for unregulated charter schools, advocated evaluating teachers using standardized test scores based on the CCSS, and advocated to institute performance pay using those same measures. Blogger Jersey Jazzman wrote you an open letter in 2012 about the Newark contract, making predictions that have pretty much come true.  I know other bloggers and activists who’ve openly pondered nefarious reasons for your willingness to cooperate with people and institutions that have been demonstrably disruptive forces in ways that have rarely been beneficial for schools.

I’d like to make it clear that I do not share that negative assessment.

There are two polar opposed views of how unions ought to deal with efforts like the current reform movements.  The first, which is certainly familiar to many, is best described as following the maxim that if “you let the camel’s nose under the tent, the rest of the body will follow.”  In this view, any concession given to reformers means that a constant wave of detrimental ideas will follow, so union leaders should fight tooth and nail to keep them from happening.  It probably will not work 100%, and the public relations will be difficult to manage, but if reformers keep getting bloody noses, fewer of their ideas will come to fruition.  The other perspective, perhaps more popular in the post-World War II period, believes that having a “seat at the table” is important and more valuable in the long term than constant brawling.  In this view, trade offs have to be made so that policy can be guided into less harmful directions because policy makers only listen to insiders and policy will be made with or without your input.  The stance is less viscerally satisfying, but if the seat at the table is genuine, there is potential to have actual impact without subjecting rank and file and their students to constant turmoil.

I will admit that I see the wisdom of the less confrontational stance.  Policy will be made, and we live in an era when union power has been greatly diminished by loss of membership and political figures willing to attack unions.  If the union leadership is fully shut out of the inside of the political process, then the people who will be left will be lobbyists representing corporate interests and a growing cadre of the super wealthy who have discovered that they enjoy bending politicians to their will far more than they enjoy endowing hospitals and art museums.  In the absence of union leadership with any insider capacity, politicians and plutocrats will bend everything to their will without a voice representing the rank and file even within earshot.  This is not a position of purity, but it promises to keep balance.

There’s just one problem with this perspective.  It only is operable when the place offered at the table is genuine.  If the owners of the table only plan to shoot you underneath it, then preserving your seat can no longer be a viable priority. I respectfully suggest that today is such a time, and that the only move that truly serves your members is to walk away from the table that is populated by people acting in bad faith.

The first evidence of this is the absurd and personal campaign against you by Richard Berman.  As you know, Berman is a political consultant whose preferred tactics are so bottom feeding and vicious that an oil industry executive listening to him talk felt the need to expose him for type of operative that he is.  Berman has spent most of the past year coordinating a direct assault on teacher unions generally and you specifically, relying on hyperbolic tone, misleading information, and a staggeringly personal content.  I must note that you have been dignified, forceful, and inspiring in the responses I have seen to Berman’s attacks, but I also must note that there is a lesson in the mere existence of his campaign.

Berman works for corporate interests, and although he will not disclose his donors, it is not hard to guess the kinds of people behind him.  After your cooperation with Eli Broad on some issues and after your personal efforts to support the standards side of the Common Core, it would be atrocious for his funding to be coming from Broad or Gates, but there is no lack of other corporate interests from the Walton Family Foundation to the Koch Brothers to the Rupert Murdoch to Michelle Rhee’s Students First who would be more than happy to take up the cause.  And why would any of these people and foundations be eager to engage in such a puerile attack on you?  Well, you’ve stepped out of line.  You’ve warned reformers that their obsession with testing and evaluating teachers by tests have put the Common Core State Standards in trouble with teachers and parents.  To me, this was overdue because Race to the Top had super glued testing the standards from the get go, but for your supposed friends in reform, this kind of talk about the obvious is a betrayal.  Worse from their perspective?  You have defended teachers and their union won workplace protections from the lawsuits seeking to strip them from all of our nation’s teachers, and you have been willing to criticize supporters of the suits in public.

I’ve heard and read your defenses of tenure.  They have been eloquent.  They have been factual.  They have been passionate.  And they must be unforgivable to the types of people who hire the likes of Berman. It is fairly obvious that he was hired to “soften you up” prior to the Vergara lawsuit ramping up, and he has been charged with keeping up his attacks as you’ve defended teachers since then.  What’s the lesson here?  You are only favored by corporate reformers and their political allies as long as you stay entirely within the ranks.  Take a step out of line, and well, you are on billboards as the enemy of America’s children and subject to junior high pranking on social media.

More egregious, however, has been the steady stream of betrayals of teachers and schools by politicians who have been wooed by steady infusions of corporate cash and have participated in starving public schools of funds, forcing the CCSS, testing and test based evaluations into schools, and who have promoted charter school policies that concentrate high levels of disadvantaged students into the same district schools they have starved of funds.  Worse, these betrayals have come from Democratic politicians who have traditionally enjoyed strong labor support, and who, in public, claim to be allies of school and labor.  Republican Governors like Chris Christie of New Jersey and Scott Walker of Wisconsin have been incredibly hostile towards teachers and their unions, but they have also been forthright about their oppositional stance.  Meanwhile governors like New York’s Andrew Cuomo and Connecticut’s Dannel Malloy and mayors like Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel, Newark’s Cory Booker (now U.S. Senator from New Jersey), and Kevin Johnson of Sacramento have pursued public school policies harmful to teachers and students — even if some of them go through the motions of courting traditionally Democratic Party constituencies.

Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York has perhaps been the worst.  Governor Cuomo has continued to use the Gap Elimination Adjustment to balance his budget on the back of our schools.  Districts cannot make up the difference in lost school aid with local funds due to his property tax cap.  Governor Cuomo plays favorites with charter school operations that further disadvantage local schools and then attacks those local schools and teachers for poor test performance. Governor Cuomo’s education commissioner went out of his way to set the cut scores on state exams so that only 30% of students would be rated as proficient.  His record has been so damaging that the UFT took the extraordinary step of not making an endorsement in the 2014 gubernatorial election, and while many rank and file members would have preferred a stronger stance to endorse an opponent, it was an important step to publicly acknowledge that teachers in New York have no friend in the Governor’s Mansion.

It is because of these reasons that myself, and many others, were sorely disappointed by your tepid public response to Governor Cuomo’s latest outrage that he sees our system of free common schooling as a “public monopoly” that he wants to “break” and that he believes our state’s hard working teachers do not want to be evaluated.  He signaled not only his plans to double down on the destructive path of privatizing and testing, but also his utter disregard for teachers and the public purposes of education itself.  In response, you told reporters that his statements were most likely “campaign rhetoric” and that you had sent him a private letter explaining his errors.  To call the governor’s statements “campaign rhetoric” is to suggest that he is not entirely sincere in those statements and has tailored them for a political purpose, but I have to ask what in this man’s record suggests that he does not fully believe everything he has said?

Your statement reminded me of segment on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer show on October 31st.  On it, Working Families Party co-chair Karen Scharff and actress and activist Cynthia Nixon made the case for people to vote on the W.F.P. line even as the Governor had appeared in the hour before them, implicitly insulting the Working Families Party in favor of his newly created Women’s Equality Party line on the ballot:

“We’ve formed every kind of fringe party for every kind of reason,” the governor said. “We have Democrat, Republican, Green, red, white, blue, working people, working short people, working tall people. We’ve never had a women’s party.”

Many observers believe that the Governor created the W.E.P. line for no other reason than to siphon off votes from the progressive W.F.P. and possibly lead them to lose their ballot line in the future, and they believe he did this because the party made him fight for his spot on their line.  Karen Scharff and Cynthia Nixon made the case that if people voted on the W.F.P. line, they would remain a force in state politics and keep pressure on Governor Cuomo to be the “better Cuomo that we know is lurking inside…”

The thing is that I do not “know” that there is a “better Cuomo,” and I do not believe that anyone can make such a Cuomo show up.  When he has stood for traditional Democratic Party issues they have been issues that carry almost no political risk in this state: gun control, abortion rights, and marriage equality.  While those are significant, it is very clear that when it comes to fiscal policy and our public education system, he is taking his cues entirely from the corporate financiers of his campaigns. When a sitting governor takes 100s of 1000s of dollars from the backers of a single charter school chain, then manipulates circumstances to humiliate a mayor seeking funding and support for universal pre-K, and then enshrines forcing New York City to pay the rent for those schools right into the state budget — then we know full well that he has no intention of playing fair with our schools, our teachers, and our children.

I have seen you on Twitter stating that elections are “about choices,” and perhaps you believe that the Republican opponents to these Democratic Party privatizers are even worse.  You might be right — in the short term.  In the long term, however, it will be even worse if the Democratic Party continues its head first slide down the path of mass standardized testing, invalid teacher evaluations, mass teacher firing and school closings, selling off our educational commons to charter school corporations, and the breaking of one of the last unionized middle class professions in the country.  A Republican candidate may be hostile to teacher unions as well, and may deny teachers and their representatives a seat at the reform table, but I have to ask how is that any worse than being invited to that table only to be betrayed again and again?

Elections are, indeed, about choices, and perhaps 2014 and forward is the time to choose better candidates and to actively oppose those who are eager to sell off our educational commons no matter their party and no matter how they will respond if they make into office over our opposition.  The vote is one of the remaining democratic mechanisms that can still work in an age of dark money elections and politics.  Influential billionaires may own politicians’ ears in between elections, but those same politicians have to get past the voters, and we need strong voices to roundly condemn those who have betrayed public education to forces that seek to profit from it instead of nurturing it for the benefit of all.

When the seat at the table is a farce, we still have the ballot box and the picket line.  I urge you to consider what roles they have in the years ahead.


Daniel S. Katz, Ph.D.

Public School Graduate

Lifetime Educator

Father of Two Public School Children

Addendum: After I published this piece, Randi Weingarten, after a day of travel, posted this piece on the AFT web page about the “difficult choices” facing New York voters.  The statement insinuates that Ms. Weingarten will not be voting for sitting Governor Andrew Cuomo, and while she describes the problems with the Republican challenger Rob Astorino, she is very firm with the Democrat:

It’s heartbreaking to see what’s happening in New York, especially after campaigning across the country for gubernatorial candidates who unequivocally support public education, respect teachers and will fight for the investment our schools need.

But in New York, the decision is painful. I am deeply disappointed and appalled by Gov. Cuomo’s recent statement that public education is a “monopoly” that needs to be busted up. (Frankly, it’s only hedge fund millionaires, right-wing privatizers and tea partiers who would use that terminology.) Public education is a public good and an anchor of democracy that is enshrined in our state constitution. Public education needs to be nurtured and reclaimed.

Ms. Weingarten concludes her statement by saying, “It’s well past time to fund our schools, care for our children, support our teachers, and stand up for workers and working families everywhere in our state.”

I wholeheartedly agree, and I sincerely hope that this signals a willingness to challenge Mr. Cuomo much more vigorously.


Filed under Activism, charter schools, Cory Booker, Gates Foundation, politics, schools, Unions

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

How to Spot a Fake Grassroots Education Reform Group

One problem with today’s education reform environment is that a number of groups exist that call themselves “grassroots” organizations, but which have expanded rapidly because of large infusions of cash from corporations and foundations invested in pushing charter schools, mass high stakes testing, data mining students and the Common Core standards.  These groups do not exist to represent the organically derived priorities and shared interests of students, teachers and parents; they exist to put a more credible face on the priorities and shared interests of a very narrow but astonishingly influential set of repeating characters.  Take Educators 4 Excellence as an example.  On their website, they tout that they began as “two teachers” and wanted to give teachers a voice in a system that imposed changes from the top down, and now they are growing into 10 of 1000s of teachers in multiple states. What don’t they mention?  That they are funded by The Gates Foundation, which is not really a surprise because a) Gates has been funding a lot of similar efforts and b) their “pledge” includes evaluating teachers by value-added testing models (something Gates really, really likes) and supporting “choice” which is reform jargon for charter schools (something hedge fund managers really, REALLY like).  The group was central in the not-entirely-successful #supportthecore  social media campaign, and former Connecticut legislator Jonathan Pelto writes here about more of their rather miraculous funding.

When I was in high school, soap actor Peter Bergman did television ads for Vicks cough syrup with the tag line “I’m not a doctor but I play one on TV.”  At least he was upfront about it.

A few days back, The Washington Post ran a story about the founding of “Education Post” which is claiming to be a new source of information about topics in education that will avoid the supposed rancor in current public conversations.  To her credit, reporter Lyndsey Layton did report that it is funded by the Broad Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Walton Family Foundation and is headed by the former communications director for Arne Duncan, so we have some heads up as to how that “reporting” on “what works” will tilt.

Genuine grassroots organizations cannot just pop up out of nowhere, grow by 1000s of members practically overnight, afford slick web designs, afford Manhattan rent and big staffs.  But without knowing what to look for it can be difficult for the casual observer, or even a working teacher, to spot the signs of a group that is more AstroTurf than grassroots.  I would like to offer the following guide as assistance, and I have chosen, not entirely randomly, Students for Education Reform.  Sounds like a great thing, doesn’t it?  Students?  Education reform?  Who wouldn’t want to support that?

From the Students for Education Reform webpage:


What started as two students working for educational justice in their own communities eventually grew from one college campus to twenty, and from twenty to over 140 undergraduate chapters at two- and four-year colleges in over 30 states. Our founders launched Students for Education Reform as college freshmen, each bringing a different perspective to the fight for educational equity: Alexis Morin is a lifelong public school student and was a local school board member in her Massachusetts district, and Catharine Bellinger is an aspiring teacher from Washington, DC. Together, Alexis and Catharine created a platform for college students to share their stories on one campus; by working with peers across the country, they grew SFER nationally during their sophomore and junior years. SFER’s members now represent the diversity of the American K-12 education system: the vast majority of us attended local district schools, while many others attended schools of choice – charter schools, parochial schools, and private schools. Together, we know what’s true, and what’s possible.

Ms. Morin and Ms. Bellinger started SFER in 2009 while freshmen at Princeton, and it has grown to 136 chapters in 33 states.  According to this blurb in Forbes, both of them had to put off their studies for a year to assist with the astonishingly paced growth of the group.  Which brings me to my first clue for spotting fake grassroots groups:

Growth at a pace that only a corporation’s monetary resources could manage.  Perhaps SFER’s founders had sincere interests in growing a real movement that included a genuine array of student voices (although the prominent mention of KIPP charter schools and North Star charter in this interview makes me doubt they had any vision except current corporate backed reforms in mind), but their growth could not have happened this rapidly without a serious infusion of assistance from outside.  That assistance, of course, came in the form of cash and the expectation that such cash would influence the values of the activism.

And Students for Education Reform definitely have been given cash.  This is evident in their web design which is a slick and well-executed page oddly reminiscent of the “Educators 4 Excellence” site.  SFER also has a national office in New York City, specifically on West 38th Street in the Garment District and near the Empire State Building and Pennsylvania Station.  While not the priciest office district in Manhattan, rents for office space on this site range from $27 per square foot to over $100.  That’s per month.  I’ll go out on a limb and assume someone is putting up the money for that which brings me to the second clue:

Who is funding the group and for how much?  This is readily known for SFER, thankfully.  According to this article from The Nation, SFER has gotten a hefty infusion of at least some of $1.6 million from Education Reform Now, the non-PAC wing of Democrats for Education Reform, in 2010.  ERN’s 2010 990 IRS form is available for your pleasure here, and the relevant page is 21.  Keep in mind, SFER was barely a year old in 2010, and it was already being infused with cash from Education Reform Now.  Not bad work for a pair of sophomores even if they are in Princeton.

It will help readers to know more about Education Reform Now and the affiliated political action committee, Democrats for Education Reform.  ERN operates as a 501c3 organization, and DFER helps spread campaign cash.  While ERN claims to be non-partisan and DFER claims to be an organization of Democrats, both groups are essentially joined together around the familiar causes of charter school expansion, mass high stakes testing and evaluating teachers based upon controversial and statistically invalid value-added measures of effectiveness.  DFER was founded in part by hedge fund manager Whitney Tilson, and the main purpose of the PAC is to influence Democratic politicians to support charter schools and high stakes testing.  Education Reform Now receives annual donations from the Walton Family Foundation, getting $1.1 million in 2011 and more than $2.8 million in 2013.  DFER takes in a diverse range of donors, all from the privatization end of the reform spectrum.  According to this graphic assembled by the Alliance for Quality Education, DFER’s money and political alliances include the Koch brothers, conservative financier Rex Sinquefield, Rupert Murdoch, The Walton Family Foundation, and the American Federation for Children, which is a charter supporting organization. 

Suffice to say that when you see Students for Education Reform, you are seeing a group whose existence is at least partially owed to Education Reform Now channeling Walton money into their ledgers.  With ERN’s ties to DFER, you also know that the policies supported by SFER will align very well with the privatization advocates who want to break teacher unions and replace fully public schools with privately managed charters.  SFER has to, or the money will dry up.

With such funds come influential advisers, and for SFER, that is a board of directors that is a made up of some heavy hitting finance and reform personalities.  Which comes to the third clue:

Who is REALLY running the operation?  SFER is upfront about their boards of directors, which boasts some very familiar names and organizations.  Amy Chou is the chief growth officer of the KIPP charter school network.  KIPP, it should be noted, is one of the “miracle” charter chains that claims they have “proven” that high poverty populations can close achievement gaps by doing things their way.  What they don’t mention is how self-selection and high attrition without backfilling vacated seats influences their success rates.  In fact, Bruce Baker of Rutgers University provides a simple chart showing how various “miracle” and some non-miracle charter networks compare in populations relative to fully public schools in NYC:

I don’t mind various ways of doing business, but I really mind being told miracles are happening when the data suggests something much more mundane, and largely unethical.  As an added bonus, one of KIPP’s founders, Mike Feinberg, was asked if his children were going to attend a KIPP school.  His fumbling answer would have been amusing under other circumstances.

Also on the board?  Christy Chin of the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, which is the philanthropy arm of the venture capital firm, Draper Richards.  Adam Cioth, the founder of Rolling Hills Capital and former investment banker at Goldman Sachs.  Justin Cohen, the president of Mass Insight Education which is the education wing of Mass Insight Global Partnerships, a financial industry alliance and lobbying group supporting “market-driven solutions”.  Shavar Jeffries, former mayoral candidate in Newark whose campaign received a huge influx of Wall Street cash in the final weeks. Jon Sackler, who is listed as the President of the Bouncer Foundation, but who is also a player in finance and investment and is a trustee with a major charter school management firm. Chris Stewart is listed as the executive director of the African American Leadership Forum, but he will also be blogging for the recently announced Education Post, funded by the Waltons, Broads and Bloomberg.  The board is rounded out by the Deputy General Council of Unilever and a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School, Rebecca Ledley, who is married to ERN and DFER board member Charles Ledley, and who is herself on the board of a charter school management company.

But, you know, what she’s studying in graduate school is MUCH more interesting.

This kind of slight of hand brings up my final clue about a fake grassroots organization and that is:

Do its supposed grassroots members have even a clue what the organization is about?  I have done grassroots politics.  As part of the steering committee that formed the Graduate Employees Union at Michigan State University, I know first hand that real grassroots work is painstaking and slow, requiring a lot of time to meet, debate and educate a population.  Yes, we got help and networking connections from the Michigan Federation of Teachers, but the actual door to door conversations with the 1000s of teaching assistants at the university?  We did that ourselves and aimed to help every potential member of our collective bargaining unit to understand the issues we believed could be solved by forming the union.

While the central office of Students For Education Reform is deeply entrenched in an exact kind of reform that emphasizes charter schools, testing and union busting, it is not clear that all chapter members, the ones called upon to be the public face of SFER at rallies and meetings, know this.  In 2012, SFER mobilized students to take part in a rally demanding that the UFT and city reach an agreement to implement a teacher evaluation system that included controversial value-added measures of teachers using testing data because there was a $300 million dollar implementation grant at stake.  They carried signs emphasizing the money that was at stake, and got people to talk about how important that money would be for city schools.  But one would think that if SFER was really worried about school funding, they’d be far more concerned about what Bruce Baker demonstrates here:  that the NYC school budget is shorted $3.4 BILLION ANNUALLY by Albany.  SFER showed up to protest the UFT’s reticence to accept a deal that included teacher evaluations that do not stand up to ANY scientific scrutiny, but to date, they do not seem to have mobilized any placards to protest what Dr. Baker points out.

Do these “students for education reform” even have the slightest clue what they are protesting?  I doubt it matters to their board of directors who are happy to have a ready to deploy force of good optics for the press, and who are not as honest as a 1986 cough syrup ad:

The good news? We learned something from the #supportthecore day on Twitter.  Genuine grassroots work may not have a Manhattan office.  It may not have a steady flow of cash from the Waltons.  It may not have a slick website and be able to boast 100s of chapter offices in only 4 years.  But it does have an energy that derives from authenticity.  And that has staying power.  The hedge fund managers are treating all of what they want to accomplish as simply an advertising matter, but it is a democracy matter and people will have a say, one way or another.




Filed under Activism, charter schools, DFER, Funding, Gates Foundation, politics, Unions, VAMs

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.


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Frank Bruni and the Failure of the New York Times

For more than a year now, I have despaired of the New York Times’ editorial page whenever the topic of education reform has come up.  It is not because those pages have disagreed with me, although it would be pleasant to occasionally see representation of lively and vital debate make it on to those pages.  It is because the editorialists who have opined on the reform efforts now engulfing America’s public education have appeared so ill-informed that there even is a debate to be had, writing pieces that have graced the pages of America’s “Gray Lady” of journalism with what could have been submitted to them as brochures from Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee.  On topics from the Common Core State Standards to the issues and concerns with teacher preparation, columnists such as David Brooks, Joe Nocera, Frank Bruni and Bill Keller have provided staggeringly limited perspectives and have even taken effectively discredited organizations and reports at face value.  Again, it is not that these columnists do not see things my way that is the problem, but by entirely failing to engage the arguments even in passing, they have acted as if those arguments do not exist.

Today, Frank Bruni entered the fray again with a remarkably one-sided piece about teacher tenure.  I will not dissect all of its problematic assumptions here, but I will point out that Bruni’s source on the “problems” with tenure is ONE individual, a former TFA teacher and current state senator in Colorado who was central to efforts that tied teachers’ contract renewals to multiple years of student gains in, you guessed it, standardized testing.  For his take on an issue that effects the working conditions and workplace protections of the millions of public school teachers in America to be limited to one source is staggering. Mr. Bruni also directly quotes the judge in the California Vergara lawsuit as if there were not reams of critiques of the judge’s legal reasoning and use of controversial research.

And thanks to some Internet sleuthing on Twitter, it also demonstrates an apparent flaw in how the OpEd page of the New York Times operates today.  Mr. Bruni may not come to the issue of teacher tenure entirely out of natural interest:

According to this People Magazine article located by teachers and posted to Twitter, Mr. Bruni is a personal friend of Campbell Brown, the former NBC and CNN news personality who has dedicated herself to suing teacher tenure out of existence first in New York and then elsewhere.

Mr. Bruni is, of course, entitled to the friends he wishes, but the operation of the flagship newspaper of the world’s oldest continuous democracy ought to be better than this.  Given the thoroughly one-sided and completely unresearched positions staked out by David Brooks, Joe Nocera, Bill Keller and Frank Bruni, it is easy to postulate how Mr. Bruni’s wading into the Tenure Wars took place.  A personal phone call from a personal friend is made.  It is suggested that he ought to turn his talents upon this very important issue that is “for the kids”.  He is even given the name of an impressive person to contact and an offer of an introduction.  Voila.  “Partnership For Educational Justice” gets free replication of their talking points against teacher tenure on the OpEd page of the New York Times.

The position of opinion writer on the New York Times is a highly privileged one.  I suspect that those who hold that position are frequently contacted by the influential in society with suggestions towards what they should aim their pens.  It should come, therefore, with great sense of responsibility for recognizing when there are areas in our society with dynamic and complex debates, and, when taking a position, demonstrating an understanding of those complexities.

Mr. Bruni and his esteemed colleagues at the Times have repeatedly demonstrated no such understanding.  It is well past time for the editorial board to either seek out additional voices on these issues or to provide their opinion writers with remedial instruction on how to acknowledge and engage arguments without simply bypassing them in favor of one-sided talking points.

Alternately, Mr. Bruni and his colleagues could meet more people.  I know quite a few who would be happy to provide more information.

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Filed under Media, politics, teaching, Unions

Messages From the Tenure War – “Teachers Aren’t Special”

When Campbell Brown goes on air to discuss the lawsuits against teacher tenure protections, she knows how to comport herself.  First, it is very important to profess her respect for teachers and the teaching profession and to make it clear she just wants teaching to be a well-compensated and treated profession.  Then she has to express a completely sincere desire that the profession improve for the sake itself and the children. At this point, she has to point out that the laws she is suing to overturn stand in the way of that improvement and that it is simply ridiculous to oppose that effort.  When on The Colbert Report, she conveyed this message by leaning forward and pitching her voice for maximum earnestness as she stated that everybody agrees that the due process and “last in first out” provisions are “just anachronistic.”  A media representative has to make the pitch appealing to the broadest possible demographic.

Her general audience supporters are under no such restraints.

I’ve been reading #WithoutTenure on Twitter and made the very poor choice to read comments on some news articles about the lawsuit.  Obviously, some people support Ms. Brown’s efforts, and that  is expected in a democratic society.  What I did not expect was the periodic denigration of teachers as a whole and fairly serious hostility to the concept that teachers have job protections  granted through tenure that the respondents do not believe other professions have.  A refrain that sums up the attitude is “Teachers aren’t special.”

Teachers aren’t special.

Hostility towards teachers’ due process protections is necessarily a complex phenomenon.  President Ronald Reagan made contempt for unionized workers fashionable in his first administration, and since the late 1970s, public approval for organized labor has ticked down from 59% to 52% with some fluctuations along the way.  Public disapproval, however, has steadily gained from 31% to 42%, meaning that there is decreasing middle ground in public opinion on unions at a time when less than 11% of the total workforce is unionized.  Some of the contemptuous remarks certainly stem from the growth in hostility to unions.

Some who expressed that opinion based it on their belief that teachers are given undue job protections via tenure that other professional workers in the economy do not have.  Part of this is stems from the popular misconception, encouraged by Ms. Brown, that a teacher with tenure has “permanent lifetime employment” and is shielded from removal even in the face of serious incompetence or misconduct.  Another part stems from a belief that the critics do not possess any particular protections in their employment, even in highly skilled fields, and a demand to know what about teachers makes them deserve what the others do not have.  This is a particularly odd and perhaps uniquely American aspect of class relationships.  Instead of asking why their employer or profession does not do more to protect and compensate them fairly, many Americans demand to know why others are better protected and/or compensated.  We tend to fight our class wars against each other in the United States.

I cannot solve that tangled mess in this essay, but I do want to examine one of its consequences: Teachers aren’t special.  It sits me back on my chair a bit, to be honest.  Wrapping my head around it is nearly impossible as I have spent every working day of my life since 1993 around teachers, either as a high school English teacher or as a graduate researcher or as a college professor.  I have met, worked with and taught some incredibly special teachers over the years, and I am continuously impressed by the caliber of young person who shows up at our teacher education program each Fall looking to start her or his professional career.  These are people who could have sought more lucrative careers , and having worked with them I do not doubt that most could have been successful in those careers.  However, something draws them to teaching: a passion for learning, for a subject matter and for the transformational power that it holds, for children and their growth.

Gary Fenstermacher, Richard Osguthorpe and Matthew Sanger, writing in the Summer, 2009 issue of Teacher Education Quarterly, discussed how teaching not only involves  content related to morality but also demands moral characteristics of teachers:

Just how teachers attended to moral matters became more apparent as we examined the connections between moral manner and moral content more closely.  We sought to “see” the ways they imparted moral ideas and ideals to their students.  We encountered six methods used by most or all of the teachers as they went about the work of teaching their students.  They are: 1) the construction of the classroom community, 2) showcasing specific students, 3) design and execution of academic task structures, 4) calling out for conduct of a particular kind, 5) private conversations, and 6) didactic instruction (Fenstermacher, 2001).  These six methods suggest how moral traits and dispositions of teachers might be reflected in their practice.  They also suggest an important interplay between moral content and moral manner. (p. 12)

The authors go on to ask their central question, “how do we seek ensure that those who teach possess a moral manner that is proper and appropriate for the tasks of teaching, and that they learn to employ this manner properly and appropriately in the course of instruction?” (p. 16)  This is something much deeper than professional ethics, although those matter for teachers as well, because we entrust that teachers will be involved in the implicit of explicit instruction of moral conduct for their students through both the curriculum and the environment in which it is taught.

It is very clear to me what it is that makes teachers “special,” and it is the sense that they are as much in a vocation that is of service to others as they are in a profession in service of themselves.  When people dismiss the due process rights in tenure by saying “teachers are not special” they are simply dead wrong.  It is true, however, that teachers are not unique in this central premise of vocationalism.  Many, in a wide range of professions, are driven by the call to serve purposes greater than themselves.  There are doctors who seek to aid those in lands afflicted by disease and warfare, and there are medical practitioners who eschew more lucrative practices in the effort to provide needed general and family practice.  There are lawyers who dedicate themselves to low cost or pro bono services for the indigent , and there are attorneys who seek to use their talents to right great wrongs.  Fields like nursing and social work are full of people who are on the front line of patient and client care and who are primarily motivated by their desire to help those in great need and with little voice.

Teachers are special.  They are not unique in how special they are.

Which still leaves an open question:  If teachers are special in a way that is shared across other professions what is it about tenure and its due process protections that matter for teachers?  There is no single answer to this.  However,  not only do teachers need strong due process, but also good teachers need it even more.  Reflecting back upon what Fenstermacher, Osguthorpe and Sanger wrote, it is clear that good teachers must be motivated to rock the boat on behalf of their students.  Having a “moral manner” is not simply about appropriate behavior, it is about appropriate advocacy that will sometimes run afoul of administration and community expectations.

A good teacher will question curriculum priorities and instructional materials on behalf of students and their needs.  A good teacher will question spending priorities within a school a district if classroom needs are neglected.  A good teacher will advocate that students receive special education, ESL and enrichment materials that will enhance their experience and provide them with opportunities to learn.  A good teacher will help unpopular viewpoints gain a voice within the class regardless of the teacher’s or the community’s views.  A good teacher insists on the integrity of instruction and assessment even if it means a popular student athlete is made ineligible to compete or if it means the child of a local politician does not pass a class.  A good teacher collaborates with peers and experiments with new teaching strategies and constantly questions whether or not what is happening in the classroom, the school and the community is what is best for students.  A good teacher will make people uncomfortable at least some of the time.

A good teacher must do all of these things even as he or she is an employee of a system controlled and administered via local politics.  Teachers, of all of the moral vocations, are the most public and the most in need of the ability to openly question and confront on behalf of students and learning.  Taking away the due process rights of tenure diminishes the ability of teachers to buck the system and to make necessary waves for the good of their students.


Fenstermacher, G.D., Osguthorpe, R.D., Sanger, M. (2009). “Teaching Morally and Teaching Morality.” Teacher Education Quarterly, 36 (3), 7-19.

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Filed under Activism, politics, Social Justice, teaching, Unions