Tag Archives: Vergara Decision

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.

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

A Teacher’s Case For Hillary Clinton

I suppose I ought to front load this:  In the Democratic Party Primary in New York State, I voted for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.  My reasons for the doing so were various, but they focused heavily upon how well Senator Sanders articulated what I consider to be a genuine crisis in our time: the out of control growth in income inequality and the consequent damage to opportunity and justice that comes with it.  Senator Sanders’ ability to make a genuinely competitive campaign outside of the system of large donor politics was also inspiring, and it pointed to another vital issue – how our campaign finance system grants large donors more access and more voice to the point of commanding far more attention than the voters.

In contrast, former Secretary of State and Senator Hillary Clinton, while acknowledging such issues, has spent the last quarter century at or near the very highest offices of political power in the country.  While I did not doubt that she recognizes these as problems, I did question her ability to give full critique to them while running a campaign that is fully enmeshed in big donor politics, especially when given the choice of Senator Sanders’ avoidance of typical large donors.  Further, as an advocate for public education and full-throated critic of the current reform environment, Secretary Clinton’s long standing connections to education reform was, and remains, a real difficulty for me.  Secretary Clinton has been supported by Eli Broad, whose education “philanthropy” has been consistently aimed at aggressively favoring charter schools over fully public schools.  Secretary Clinton’s PAC received a massive donation from Alice Walton, and the Clinton Foundation has been a financial beneficiary of the Walton Family Foundation whose education efforts are geared towards privatization and hostility to teachers’ unions.  “Democrats” for Education Reform, an organization founded largely by Whitney Tilson in a effort to convince Democrats to support anti-union and pro-privatization policies that are  more typical of Republicans, greeted Secretary Clinton’s campaign with enthusiasm.  Secretary Clinton’s 2016 campaign chair is John Podesta who is President Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff and the founder of the Center for American Progress (CAP).  CAP, while often progressive and innovative on a range of issue, is reliably on the wrong side of education reform. If there is a bad idea being proposed for our public schools, there is a good chance that CAP has written a position paper in support of it.

Suffice it to say that this has been at least a bit of a difficult journey.  In reality, finding American politicians who truly support – and understand – public education and its purposes is not actually easy.  Senator Sanders’ education record – beyond college financing – is not actually stellar considering missed opportunities to trim back today’s test and punish environment.  California Congressman Mark Takano is a former school teacher who has explained that most of his colleagues, however well-intentioned, have limited time to learn an issue as complex as teaching and learning and are readily swayed by ideas that fit their known areas of expertise such as law and finance.

So how have I come to support Secretary Clinton’s bid for the Presidency?

One thing to remember is that, despite my initial support for her opponent, I find a huge portion of the criticism hurled at Secretary Clinton either false or overblown.  The Clintons really have been the target of a now generation long effort to both defame them and to blow up every misstep into major scandal.  Despite her currently dismal poll numbers on trustworthiness, Secretary Clinton has been admirably honest in her campaign statements – this really isn’t even close in comparison to the Republican nominee.  Secretary Clinton has been endlessly accused of corruption, and while I agree that our big donor political system is rife with the corrupting influence of money, it is hardly fair to claim that Secretary Clinton is some extraordinary example.  This is a system of campaign finance that touches most elected officials at most levels of government.  60 Minutes did a story in April about how the need to raise campaign money is so important to remaining in Congress that Congressional Republicans had personal targets of raising $18,000 a day over a six month period.  While I desperately want this system to change, it is not fair to single out Secretary Clinton as some kind of avatar of political corruption merely for having been around for as long as she has.

While her long time associations and past positions have worried me, it is also true that Secretary Clinton has proven herself persuadable on key education issues.   Last Fall, she created a near panic among education reform advocates for saying something that is objectively true: many charter schools “don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids, or, if they do, they don’t keep them.”  This is objectively true by any normal analysis, especially of the high flying “no excuses” schools who claim they “prove” that urban public schools are full of lazy teachers — even while they do everything they can to suspend students they do not want until they leave.  It is also fair to say that Secretary Clinton seems to be trying to have it at least one and a half ways on charter schools, making statements about high quality “public” charter schools and trying to thread a needle on the difference between “for profit” and “not for profit” charters.  These are attempts to dichotomize situations that are often much murkier.  For example, a charter school can be run by a “not for profit” management organization that then contracts services to companies that entirely for profit – and which have ties to the people running the not for profit.  Fraudulent use of public funds is a very real problem across the charter sector and unlikely to improve without strict public scrutiny that charter operators and their investors have mightily resisted.  Further, current school financing situations generally mean that charter schools, as a whole, operate at the expense of their host districts who find that their fully public schools have higher concentrations of the highest need students without accompanying increases in spending to help them succeed.

Secretary Clinton and the Democratic Party, however, appear to be making some progress on the issue as evidence by subtle but meaningful changes in the platform.  The original platform language on charter schools was basically more of the same – equating them with fully public schools and insisting that parents have options while offering a relatively meaningless opposition to for profit charters and a weak call for transparency.  The new language inserted:

“We believe that high quality public charter schools should provide options for parents, but should not replace or destabilize traditional public schools. Charter schools must reflect their communities, and thus must accept and retain proportionate numbers of students of color, students with disabilities and English Language Learners in relation to their neighborhood public schools.”

This should not be controversial – unless you believe that it is a great thing for schools accepting public money to operate to the detriment of existing schools and to fail to retain their students.  The platform also addressed accountability and testing, adding language that called for testing to meet reliability and validity standards, opposing testing that unfairly labels vulnerable students as failing, using test data to redirect funds, close schools, and in teacher and principal evaluation, and it directly supported parents’ right to opt out of standardized tests “without penalty for the either the student or their school.”

Shavar Jeffries, head of “Democrats” for Education Reform, was not at all pleased.  His statement said the platform had been “hijacked” at the last minute and declared that the platform would harm the nation’s most valuable children.

You have to wonder about someone who thinks calling on charter schools to stop kicking out so many poor and minority children and not financially destabilize their host district and calling for testing to be used in ways that do not actually harm schools and teachers and children is a massive affront to progress.  The good news is that Secretary Clinton and the Democratic Party as a whole may have begun a slow and ponderous turn from failed policies of test and punish and letting charter schools do whatever they want.

Another issue for teachers to consider is the composition of the Supreme Court.  This term, the court heard Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, and the court’s five conservative justices were poised to issue a death blow to public sector unions and to rule that people who enjoy the protection of a union contract did not have to contribute money to the union if they do not join.  Such agency fees are a vital way for unions to still have enough revenue to represent all members even though they cannot mandate membership.  A decision against the CTA would have overturned decades of precedent and only the unexpected death of Associate Justice Scalia prevented the anti-union ruling.  The composition of the Supreme Court should be on teachers’ minds not simply because of the Friedrichs case, but also because of Vergara v. State of California case which is working through appeals and which is inspiring copycat lawsuits financed by dark money.

Where they cannot win with elections and legislation, education “reformers” are trying to break the back of teacher unions and are trying to sue away teachers’ workplace rights in court.  The four justices appointed by President Bill Clinton and by President Obama voted against the most recent case to reach the court.  The four justices appointed by President Reagan and by both Presidents Bush voted in favor.  There is no reason to believe Secretary Clinton would appoint justices markedly different than those appointed by her Democratic predecessors.

Secretary Clinton should also get some recognition for her choice of Virginia Senator Tim Kaine as her running mate.  Many progressives that I know are not happy with the pick, citing that Senator Kaine has, at best, a mixed record on many issues of sincere importance.  On education, however, he was one of the most promising of Secretary Clinton’s potential running mates.  Simply put, among prominent Democrats, Senator Kaine is not a favorite of education “reformers”.  As Virginia’s governor, he was not a proponent of standardization, high stakes testing, and privatization – the grand trifecta of what passes for education reform today.   Further, Senator Kaine’s wife, Anne Holton, is Virginia’s current Secretary of Education and in that position, she has worked to reform standardized testing in the Commonwealth, blaming it for making the achievement gap worse, and she has opposed charter school expansion.

Consider the other possibilities.  New Jersey Senator Cory Booker was reported to be a top contender, and as a rising star in the party, he certainly would have added quite a lot to Secretary Clinton’s ticket, especially with his prodigious political talent.  But he is also a horrible choice on education policy, supporting vouchers, privatization, merit pay, and high stakes accountability testing.  Frankly, I was holding my breath wondering if I could ever be pleased voting for Secretary Clinton in the general election, and while Senator Kaine may not be a fully progressive pick, his selection gives me confidence that on education issues, Secretary Clinton is listening to a much broader and more informed set of advisers than President Obama has.

The issue of listening is actually another reason to be hopeful of a Clinton Presidency on education.  Ezra Klein wrote a fascinating portrait of Secretary Clinton, one that discussed some of her flaws as well, that got to a central strength of her leadership style – listening.  Klein stated that this seemed almost too cliche for him at first, but person after person repeated the same observation:  Secretary Clinton not only listens to others, she does so with a sincere interest in understanding their point of view, and she saves notes and records from those conversations to use when it comes time to craft policy:

It turned out that Clinton, in her travels, stuffed notes from her conversations and her reading into suitcases, and every few months she dumped the stray paper on the floor of her Senate office and picked through it with her staff. The card tables were for categorization: scraps of paper related to the environment went here, crumpled clippings related to military families there. These notes, Rubiner recalls, really did lead to legislation. Clinton took seriously the things she was told, the things she read, the things she saw. She made her team follow up.

This is substantial, and it makes me consider the very strong possibility that Secretary Clinton and the Democratic Party’s “evolution” on issues like charter schools and high stakes testing may be more than cosmetic and that they might signal the beginning of a shift away from the era of testing and punishment and privatization.  President of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten has long been a supporter of Secretary Clinton.  While some rank and file members of the AFT were critical of the union’s early endorsement and while I do know members who have questioned the union’s efforts to cooperate with education reformers in the past, two things are indisputable:  1) as evidence has come in, AFT has been more forceful on opposing policies such as value added measures in teacher evaluation; 2) President Weingarten had a substantial and sincere role in assisting a ground breaking study by the Badass Teachers Association on workplace issues for teachers.  This study gained major, unprecedented, response from AFT membership, and issues that it highlighted even made their way into the renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act passed last year.  Given Secretary Clinton’s leadership style and given President Weingarten’s role in supporting her this year, it is entirely reasonable to hope that genuine shifts are beginning.

Of course, it is possible that I am entirely wrong.  I accept that.  President Obama certainly said many of the right things about testing and accountability in 2008, only to hurl our schools into even worse policies than those imposed by the Bush administration. The reality is that we are 30 years into a policy cycle premised on accountability rather than equity and 15 years into a policy cycle using high stakes testing as a bludgeon on schools.  The reform side of education today is backed by enormously powerful and enormously wealthy interests such as Rupert Murdoch who claimed in 2010 that education was a “500 billion dollar sector” waiting to be “transformed” by technology.  That’s a pile of potential profits that none of them will simply walk away from readily.  At their best, education reformers tend to be blind to the consequences of creatively disrupting a core democratic institution the way they disrupt wireless communication.  At their worst, they are outright fraudsters enriching themselves at the expense of equity and justice.

The consequence if I am wrong about Secretary Clinton on education is that we continue to argue with the Federal DOE and that we continue to lobby state by state for needed changes from punitive accountability and towards support and growth.  These are arguments that are gaining traction community by community, so if Secretary Clinton turns out to produce no substantive change in education policy, there is at least familiar, if exhausting, work ahead.  Certainly, education reformers have no intention of going anywhere regardless of federal education policy, so we’ll be in this for the long haul.

But what is the alternative in this election?

I have seen friends insist that others make a positive case to vote for Secretary Clinton without mentioning her opponent.  That is an entirely reasonable request, and I hope that I have made a positive, if heavily qualified, case on those grounds.  However, it is also impossible to ignore her opponent in this election.  Whatever flaws Secretary Clinton may or may not have, they are within the normal parameters of American politics.  Donald Trump is far beyond the bounds of acceptability, not merely because of his utter and total lack of qualifications for the job, not merely because of his horrendous temperament, not even because of his documented lies, racism, and sexism — but because he represents a genuine threat to our system of governance. President Trump guarantees a rolling series of Constitutional crises from the moment he is sworn into office.

Some public education voters may be swayed by his promise to get rid of the Common Core State Standards.  Among all of his empty promises, that is quite a whopper as he will possess literally no leverage to change that.  While the CCSS were pushed into place with federal incentives during Race to the Top, the states were the ones that ultimately adopted them in response to those incentives.  Does Mr. Trump propose a DOE grant program to convince states to repeal the standards now?  Actually, that power is pretty much gone as the Every Student Succeeds Act passed last year places extraordinary limits on the Department of Education’s ability to mandate or coerce states into adopting standards and academic content.  Whatever fighting is going to continue over the Common Core standards, it is entirely at the state level now.

What passes for education policy from the Trump campaign was in full view when his son, Donald Trump Jr., addressed the Republican National Convention and blasted our public schools, comparing them to “Soviet-era department stores that are run for the benefit of the clerks and not the customers.”  He touted school choice and the free market, and he further decried the Democrats as more concerned with “tenured teachers” than with children’s education.

If you really like Campbell Brown’s war on teachers, you will absolutely love the Trump Administration.

Donald Trump’s broader proposals will harm the children in our classrooms.  One of his most consistent proposals is to deport every single undocumented immigrant in the country, an idea that would require massive investments in extra police, extra police powers, mass detention facilities, and emergency courts.  Beyond the stark horror of trying to round up and deport many millions of people, the plan would inflict terrible hardship upon millions of our school children.  Approximately, 1.4% of school children in America are themselves undocumented immigrants, and in 2012, roughly 4.5 million children born in America, and therefore American citizens themselves, lived with at least one parent who was an undocumented immigrant. Donald Trump would inflict unimaginable agony upon them.

American Muslims are only about 1% of our population, but they would take it harshly on the chin due to Donald Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims entering the country.  Nearly two thirds of adult Muslims in America were born in another country, which means Muslim children in our schools are very likely to have relatives who live abroad — and who would be unable to even visit during a Trump administration.  In addition, Donald Trump continuously defames Muslims in America from falsely claiming that 1000s of Muslims cheered the destruction of the World Trade Center to claiming that Muslims in America “know what is going on and they don’t tell us,” blaming the entire Muslim community for the acts of a very few extremists.  Muslim school children face increasing cases of bias and acts of hate against them — can we imagine what will happen to those students in schools if Donald Trump is President using that bully pulpit to spread his lies and hate?

Donald Trump’s acceptance speech painted a picture of America spinning into chaos, terrorism, and violence.  While the facts do not support these claims at all, he used them to repeatedly claim that he will be a “law and order” President and that “safety will be restored.”  If this does not send chills down your spine, you need to investigate history and ask yourself if children of color in our schools will see “safety” or if they will see even more aggressive and even more antagonistic policing in their communities and in their schools.  Donald Trump’s platform is a manifest threat to millions upon millions of the children in our schools.

All of this is bad enough, but Donald Trump represents a different and even worse threat.  It is unfortunate that we have used the word “fascist” as a political epithet in recent decades largely to mean “I don’t like how conservative this politician is.”  The term has actual meaning and a set of core ideas and themes that are emblematic of actual fascism that is extremely hard to map onto typical American politics with any honesty.  But not this time.  While not “pure” fascism in the traditional sense, both Donald Trump’s acceptance speech and the overall agenda of his campaign hit a distressing number of fascist themes – call it American proto-fascism, but the fact remains that Donald Trump is a genuine threat to our system of governance.

In 1995, Italian author and philosopher Umberto Eco wrote an essay about what he called “Ur-Fascism” or “Eternal Fascism”.  Having witnessed the rise of Italian Fascism and being forced to participate in Fascist competitions about the glory of the state and Mussolini, Eco was well equipped to explain central themes of fascism that managed to endure even though they did not manifest as national political forces in Europe of the early 1990s.  Consider some of Eco’s themes of Eternal Fascism and how well they line up with Donald Trump’s speech accepting his nomination:

  • Cult of Tradition: Trump’s portrait of an America falling into violence and chaos was an inherent effort to call for a return to a traditional, nearly mythic, national order.  His signature theme of “Make America Great Again” inherently calls for a period of glory lost to our current generation.  Trumpism sees no advancement except in a return to a mythologized past.
  • Rejection of Modernism: Nearly everything about the world we have made since the end of WWII seems a threat to Trump.  Modern economics.  International agreements. Inclusive immigration policies.  He does not propose reforming them. They are all rejected in favor of a retreat to isolation and protection.
  • Cult of Action for Action’s Sake: Throughout this campaign, Trump has repeatedly emphasized that we must “do something” about all of the problems he claims we have.  He does not have a real plan because that is not the point — we must act and must act now.  Trump’s own son, himself the product of elite private schools and universities, declared his disdain for the educated elite and proclaimed that he and his siblings learned from those with “PhDs in common sense,” indicting expertise in favor of blunt action.
  • Fear of Difference: Trump has thrived on seeking to make his supporters afraid:  undocumented immigrants are murderers and rapists; Muslim immigrants and visitors are potential terrorists; Black Lives Matter protesters are thugs seeking to murder the police and overthrow order.  His support is hugely based upon stoking these fears.
  • Appeal to a Frustrated Middle Class: Unlike progressive politics which identifies economic hardships and proposes policy fixes, Trump identifies those same hardships and uses them to whip up more anxiety and resentment and a belief among followers that their rightful place in the economic order has been stolen from them, leading to…
  • Obsession With A Plot: Again, Trump thrives on the resentments of his followers and directs their fear and sense of humiliation towards others who have victimized them.  Again, this should not be mistaken with progressive politics that seeks to address economic insecurity through policy.  In Trump’s speech and campaign, the fault is that others, immigrants, Muslims, minorities,  foreign governments are existential threats to his followers and must be removed or controlled or beaten.
  • Humiliation from Enemies: Consider the typical Trump tack on trade — everyone cheats the United States and gets rich at our expense. In the world according to Trump most of our supposed allies take advantage of us and laugh at us while our adversaries do not respect us and cheat us.
  • Life Is Permanent Warfare: Trump promises swift military action against certain enemies, even to the point of committing overt war crimes, but the themes of war are evident in his constant talk of winning and losing.  To Donald Trump, all of our problems are summed up by how we “do not win anymore” because there are only two possibilities – victory or defeat.  This gives Trumpism another theme of Eternal Fascism:
  • Contempt for Weakness: Whether he is mocking the disabled or proclaiming that “only he” can fix our problems, Donald Trump oozes contempt for anyone he sees as weak and viciously attacks on that front.
  • Everyone Educated to Be a Hero:  Trump promises us that we will “win” as a nation and all of us will prosper as a result. Eco links the Fascist impulse to herorism to a willingness, even a desire, to die which seems absent from Trumpism as of yet, but his appeal to our desire to heroic victory is present.
  • Machismo: Heroic death may be elusive, but macho strutting and bragging is readily available to the Ur-Fascist.  Donald Trump’s hyper-machismo is on full display with its attendant sexism and disdain for women.  This is perhaps one of his most reliable personality traits from his personal life to his business career to his current career in politics.
  • Selective Populism: Fascism requires that individuals give up their individuality for a Common Will.  This is not entirely present in Trumpism as it is still wedded to more typical American conservative ideals of individualism, but in his acceptance speech, Trump openly declared “I am your Voice” and said of our problems that “I alone can fix them.”  Trump has openly proclaimed himself the legitimate voice of his aggrieved and furious followers.
  • Opposition to Corrupt Parliamentary Governments:  Trump does not openly advocate the replacement of our Constitutional system of government (assuming, of course, that he remotely understands it), but his contempt for that government is evident.  He repeats endlessly that are leaders are “not very smart” and that his skills are essential to save us.
  • Use of Newspeak: Trump does not yet have a unique form of speech replacing common language, but Fascist regimes typically use diminished syntax and poor vocabulary that requires little reasoning.  That stands on its own as a description of Trump’s speeches to date.

None of this means that Donald Trump intends to replace the United States’ political order with a fascist regime.  To begin with, he does not possess the paramilitary force that historic fascist leaders surrounded themselves with before ascending to power.  Second, he is seeking the Presidency through our existing political structure even as he derides it constantly.  However, it does point to a truly unique danger of a potential Trump Presidency: he holds views of power, authority, and the social and political order that are antithetical to our system of shared power among equal branches of government.  Consider a President Trump ordering our INS and border guard to begin building massive detention centers and rounding up millions of undocumented immigrants. Now picture him being ordered to stop by a federal judge.  Will he stop?  Will he recognize the judiciary’s authority over the executive branch?  Or will he lash out at the judge and simply proceed?  What then?  Does the court hold him in contempt?  Would Congress impeach him under those circumstances?  What happens when he makes good on a promise of ordering the military to violate international and military law?  Do the Joint Chiefs resign en masse?  Does he go through every general and admiral until he finds someone willing to commit a war crime?

Perhaps our Constitutional system would be strong enough to remove him from office.  Perhaps not.  As a nation, our political order has not faced a threat like this since General Beauregard ordered the bombardment of Fort Sumter. Trump is a potential sledge hammer to America’s Constitutional system, a system for which he displays no knowledge and no regard, and to which his views of both his power and of his governing mandate are entirely antithetical.  Donald Trump portrays himself as the avenging voice of an aggrieved and humiliated population on whose behalf he will remove parasitic outsiders and force all of our enemies to “lose” as we “win” under his leadership.  This is a candidate who promises to smash all norms for rhetoric, policy, and respects for the roles of our institutional limits on the Presidency.  He may not seek to be an actual dictator, but he threatens to stretch our system to the very breaking point.

As teachers, we should be horrified by this.  Our system of Common Schools was established in no small part to promote democratic values and to contribute to the health of our civic sector.  Public schools are working instantiations of the ideal that a healthy civic order provides for the education of all and through that education promotes the wise and beneficial exercise of the franchise:

If the responsibleness and value of the elective franchise were duly appreciated, the day of our State and National elections would be among the most solemn and religious days in the calendar. Men would approach them, not only with preparation and solicitude, but with the sobriety and solemnity, with which discreet and religious-minded men meet the great crises of life. No man would throw away his vote, through caprice or wantonness, any more than he would throw away his estate, or sell his family into bondage. No man would cast his vote through malice or revenge, any more than a good surgeon would amputate a limb, or a good navigator sail through perilous straits, under the same criminal passions.

– Horace Mann, 1848

Over time, we have seen our schools become the very places were advancement in inclusiveness and expansion of the franchise have played out, but this has required working branches of government: executive offices, legislatures, courts responding to the needs of the day and the petitions of people seeking justice.  A Presidency that threatens to damage those institutions and their balance will inevitably damage our schools as the system that supports them is thrown into uncertainty.

Some may read this and accuse me of trying to frighten teachers into a particular vote.  I will gladly own that accusation, for the prospect of Donald Trump assuming the Presidency is truly frightening.  I do not merely believe he must lose this election; I believe he must lose by a margin that thoroughly repudiates his worldview.

I understand that after the past 15 years, it is very hard for many teachers to support a Democrat for President who has been an ally of many in modern education “reform”.  I also accept that the observations I have made in favor of Secretary Clinton may be unpersuasive for many teachers and for good reasons.  I also hope very sincerely that everyone sees what is truly at stake in this election.  If I am correct that Secretary Clinton is beginning a slow pivot on public education, then her administration offers a chance for education policy to, slowly, move towards support and growth instead of test and punish.  If I am wrong about that, then we continue our familiar advocacy on familiar ground.  It will be painful, and it will lead to more harm of schools and children.  But if Donald Trump is President, it is a certainty that millions more of our students will be caught up in his racist and xenophobic policies, and the very political institutions that sustain public education face serious peril.  On election day, I will vote for the hope of a wiser set of education policies from a candidate who has a genuine gift for listening, and I will vote to repudiate what her opponent represents.

 

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Filed under Activism, charter schools, Common Core, Corruption, Cory Booker, DFER, Drumpf, ESSA, Hillary Clinton, NCLB, politics, racism, Unions

The Truthiness of Campbell Brown

Former news anchor turned education reform advocate Campbell Brown has established herself as one of the more aggressive public personalities arguing against teacher unions and in favor of school privatization.  After leaving CNN in 2010, Ms. Brown reemerged as an antagonist of teacher unions, taking to the pages of The Wall Street Journal to accuse New York City’s United Federation of Teachers of protecting teachers accused of sexual misconduct.  It was a devastating line of attack against a favorite target of would be education reformers – a well-funded and politically connected labor union favoring its membership over ethics.

Of course, it wasn’t really true.  Curiously, Ms. Brown seemed entirely unaware of the actual requirements in the UFT contact in effect at the time of her accusations.  This information was made crystal clear when Ms. Brown tried to publicly back UFT President Michael Mulgrew into a corner on the issue – and got seriously dressed down for her misrepresentation of the union’s position and actions:

Mr. Mulgrew: “We have made sure that on an allegation, a single allegation, a teacher must be removed.  If the principal wants the teacher removed, or the administrator, they must be removed from any contact with children. They then have a 30 day investigation period. If they are found guilty of any sort of sexual impropriety, any sexual impropriety, the administrating officer has no choice but to fire him. And those are the things that we put into our contract – that they must be fired if they are found guilty of any sexual impropriety. So I know you like to say things in certain ways, but I have found many of your allegations to be misleading.  So I am very proud of the fact that we take very seriously that on a single allegation – a child can say it in a flippant moment — that that teacher will be removed from any contact with a student, and if they are found guilty of any sort of sexual impropriety – any – there is no discretion: they must be fired.  And that is my answer to you.”

Ms. Brown: “So to clarify…”

Mr. Mulgrew: “That is my answer to you.”

Ms. Brown also came under fire for failing to disclose, as is typical in ethical journalism, her family connections to education reform and, specifically, anti-union education reform.  Her husband is Dan Senor, who was a figure in the Bush administration serving as the spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, and at the time of Ms. Brown’s relaunching of herself as an education advocate, he was an adviser to the Mitt Romney campaign and a board member of Students First, New York – the Empire State branch of Michelle Rhee’s anti-union organization.  Ms. Brown decided her best reply was to be snarky about the entire question of ethical journalism.

Ms. Brown returned to bring Vergara vs. The State of California style lawsuits against teacher tenure in New York and other locales, funneling dark money donations into her new organization “Partners for Educational Justice”.  The new campaign came with a fresh round of publicity and interviews where she tried to make her case to the public.  These were, charitably, as fact challenged as her previous efforts to paint the UFT as an organization dedicated to protecting sexual predators.  According the Michigan State University education professor Alyssa Hadley Dunn, Ms. Brown was wrong on almost every relevant point of fact, misrepresenting the staffing challenges faced by urban school districts (they have trouble retaining experienced teachers rather than being plagued by incompetent ones with tenure), arguing that teachers must be bad in urban districts because standardized test scores are low (in reality, teachers are important but no research solidly ties quality of teaching to standardized test results), and citing wildly out of date information on how long it takes to remove a tenured teacher from the classroom (177 days is not 830 days no matter how often that talking point is repeated).

Shortly after launching her lawsuit, Ms. Brown also started her education “news” website called the “The74,” which oddly sounds like a nightclub but is supposed to “represent” the roughly 74 million Americans under the age of 18 in the country.  The website is expected to operate on a budget of $4 million annually, and is funded by donors such as  Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Walton Family Foundation, and Jonathan Sackler who serves on the board of the New Schools Venture Fund — all reliable sources of charter school support.  From that platform, she has been billing herself as a viable host for education issues in the current election cycle, hosting a Republican candidate discussion in August last year – and blaming the national teacher unions for the fact that no Democratic candidates agreed to appear at a similar forum later in the Fall.  Jersey Jazzman demonstrated the long list of entirely viable reasons why Democrats might not want to participate in what would obviously have been an anti-union, pro-privatization event hosted by a media figure whose relationship with facts has been sketchy.  But blaming unions is sort of a reflex for Ms. Brown by now.

Most recently, Ms. Brown took to  Slate with a video giving “advice” for the next President of the United States.  In it, she said that two thirds of American eighth graders “cannot read or do math at grade level.”  In response, Tom Loveless, an expert on student achievement and senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, demonstrated that her facts were inaccurate in an exchange on Twitter:

Former Principal and current head of the Network for Public Education, Carol Burris, explained the depth of Ms. Brown’s error in The Washington Post.  During the exchange on Twitter, Ms. Brown admitted that her “source” for the claim about American students’ grade level skills came from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) where, yes, roughly one third of American 8th graders meet the cut scores for “proficient” and “advanced” with two thirds at “basic” or  below.  As Burris notes, NAEP does not consider “proficient” to be synonymous with “grade level” skills and expectations.  In fact, if you read the description of “basic” performance in the 8th grade reading NAEP, you will see a description of competent if not outstanding reading ability:

Eighth-grade students performing at the Basic level should be able to locate information; identify statements of main idea, theme, or author’s purpose; and make simple inferences from texts. They should be able to interpret the meaning of a word as it is used in the text. Students performing at this level should also be able to state judgments and give some support about content and presentation of content.

To set up the NAEP proficiency as an appropriate grade level benchmark as Ms. Brown does is to entirely muddy the discussion and debate about how our schools are doing.  Such sleight of hand techniques seem deliberate and designed to paint a misleading portrait of our schools for reasons that have little to do with improving them for most children.  Regardless of motives, one thing is completely clear: anyone trying to portray NAEP results – or PARCC and SBAC results for that matter – as an established proxy for what grade level expectations should be in our schools is either seriously misinformed or a liar.

Carol Burris spoke very cogently about why this matters beyond the question of truthfulness as well:

If you set an unreasonable cut score on state tests and pressure teachers and kids to meet it, it can work against student learning, especially for students who struggle.  Sizeable numbers of kids will learn less than they might if the instructional pace and content were developmentally appropriate and well sequenced.  This is especially true in the younger grades. You can always differentiate instruction if you need to for the kids who excel, but if you hold struggling learners to a standard they cannot meet, frustration, not learning, happens.  Inappropriately difficult standards also promote drilling for the test, adult cheating and the narrowing of the curriculum as explained in this Politico New York report on the test-driven, Success Academy Charter Schools.

Despite the important arguments and issues of genuine substance, Ms. Brown seems determined to not learn about the education policies she has inserted herself into as both an advocate and an arbitrator. Given an opportunity to respond directly on her statements about student achievement, Ms. Brown offered perhaps the most childish and taunting string of non-sequiturs I have seen since I last taught 7th grade.  She called the reaction to her use of “grade level” “histrionic,” misused the expression “begs the question,” taunted “is that all you’ve got?”to her critics, declared that public education advocates have “lost” on charter schools, tenure, and “special protections” for abusive teachers,  and said the reaction “screams desperation.”  She declared that any “reasonable person or parent” knew what she meant by her statement.  She declared that she was subject to personal sexist attacks.  She claimed critics were “feigning outrage” over her misuse of terminology and facts because they “profit off the system’s failure.”  And for good measure, she compared New York University Professor Diane Ravitch with Donald Trump.

And your mother, I guess.

Ms. Brown’s self assurance is a bit odd here.  The charter sector may be growing, but so is awareness of the scandals growing from scant oversight of finances and practices.  Anti-union forces may have won the first round of Vergara v. California trying to sue tenure out of existence, but they lost the appeal.  Ms. Brown’s comment about “special protections you want for abusive teachers” is literally just blather since she didn’t have her facts correct when she started the argument.

More interesting, however, is the complete absence of an actual argument.  Ms. Brown grudgingly acknowledges that her specific language was incorrect, but she denies that anyone was really impacted at all by it.  Mostly, she just insinuates that her critics are losers and complains about the tone of their comments to her.  To be sure, she has received some personal, even heated, criticism in the course of these debates (although before equating Dr. Diane Ravitch’s occasional criticisms of her to what Donald Trump unleashes on his critics, she might want to consult the record).   These issues, however, are of national importance, and Ms. Brown has a repeated and enthusiastic habit of getting critical facts dead wrong on issues that impact 3 million professional teachers and their 50 million students.  From her assertion that the UFT happily protects child molesters to her statements about tenure to her claims about the percentage of American children reading and doing math at grade level, she is consistently and damagingly wrong.

Perhaps the actual facts are inconvenient for her cause, but smug snarkiness when called out for substituting “truthiness” for truth is hardly an argument.

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Filed under Media, politics, Unions

How to Appreciate Teachers

It is the national PTA Teacher Appreciation Week 2016, and there are a number of ideas hosted on the PTA’s website for how you can #thankateacher.  If you are a teacher, you can start a GoFundMe campaign for classroom supplies or, if you are a parent, to personally thank your children’s teachers. The PTA offers a toolkit so you can plan events to honor teachers in your schools as part of a celebration that has taken place in the first week of May since 1984.

(The National Alliance for “Public” Charter Schools also decided to schedule their “National Charter Schools Week” for the same week this year in what I am sure was not a deliberate effort to steal some free publicity at all.)

Teacher Appreciation Week is, of course, a lovely idea, and when it was launched in 1984, I doubt any of its founders could envision the issues facing teachers and teaching today.  Teachers across the country are getting cards, flowers, baked good, and some very well deserved nachesHistorically, teachers always have been highly motivated by the affective rewards of teaching – seeing children learn, gaining affirmation from their successes, building relationships with children and colleagues – but who can say no a nicely concentrated dose of positivity?

Gift baskets and flowers, however, don’t address the other 175 days of the school year, and those remain, as they have for some time now, unnecessarily stressful and subject to policies and incentives that diminish teachers’ autonomy and satisfaction in their work.  Teachers remain with policies that reduce their ability to plan their own classrooms, subjected to evaluations based upon invalid statistical methods using standardized test scores, and blamed for everything from being lazy to putting the future of the nation in jeopardy.  No wonder that enrollments in teacher preparation programs have fallen steeply from a high of over 700,000 in 2009 to barely above 450,000 in 2014 – high school students have ears and eyes, after all.  If we keep appreciating teachers like this, we may not have very many of them left to appreciate.

How should we really appreciate our teachers all year long?  A few suggestions:

Actually Treat Teachers as Professionals.  Education reform has an unfortunate tendency to treat teachers as if they are hopelessly outdated, the equivalent of a quill pen and parchment in the digital age.  In that view, teachers need a constant stream of prescriptive measures to make certain that they don’t bungle the job: new standards, scripted curricula, computer delivered instruction, constant outside assessment.  I know very few teachers who do not welcome the opportunity to try and use new tools that could improve their teaching, but tools are no substitute for actual professionals who use them skillfully – or who evaluate them and decide to seek better ones.  In many respects, that’s an operable definition of professional: someone who knows her or his job, what is necessary to accomplish it skillfully, and is trusted to construct practice effectively out of a variety of available resources in order to meet local needs.

For more and more teachers that sense of agency and professional practice is fading in a mass of expectations and initiatives that have given them little participation and voice.  In the workplace survey conducted by the the Badass Teachers Association with the AFT, 40% of respondents said that lack of say in decision making was a source of stress, and a whopping 71% of respondents cited new initiatives without proper training and development as sources of stress. 35% were stressed by a mandated curriculum, 32% by standardized testing, and 27% by data gathering expectations. A staggering 73% of respondents said they were often stressed on the job, and those teachers were less likely to have actual decision making capacity or trust their administrators to support them.  79% of teachers do not believe that elected officials treat them with respect, and 77% do not believe that the media treats them with respect.

The opposite of this is not showing up with flowers once a year and crowd sourcing classroom supplies. What teachers need is a near 180 degree turn in the way policy and policymakers treat them. If teachers are professionals, then they need to be welcomed into policy discussions and their recommendations, and reservations, taken seriously.  Further, teachers need to be allowed sufficient autonomy to both construct curricula that match their specific students and circumstances and to make necessary adjustments based upon what happens during the school year.  Such professional decision making is nearly impossible in an environment that insists upon scripted lessons and that places enormous power in the hands of one time snap shot assessments that become ends unto themselves. Professional evaluation of teachers can incorporate a wide range of materials that actually reflect the meaningful work teachers do with students embedded within a system predicated on growth and support rather than upon measurement and punishment.  Imagine schools where teachers work collaboratively on how to best approach the needs of students and where administrators and policy makers endeavor to get them the tools and resources they need to implement those plans.  We can get there, but only with a  genuine sea change in our priorities and how we view teachers.

Give Teachers the Time and Resources to Do Their Jobs: Attitude and involvement are steps in the right direction, but without the time and resources needed to do their jobs well and to continuously grow within their teaching, it will have little meaning.  Grappling with new ideas and different ways of understanding subjects and pedagogy takes significant time within a community of other professionals who are given meaningful chances to grow.  It would be unthinkable in other professions for outsiders with no specific expertise in the field to sweep in and tell practitioners to change and change quickly, yet nearly every major initiative in school reform since No Child Left Behind has done exactly that, and we have almost nothing positive to show for it.  It is time to spend less time measuring teaching and more time enabling it. How might we do this?

  • Reducing class sizes: Research is pretty clear on this — smaller class sizes improve academic outcomes for students and increase student engagement overall, and they improve long term outcomes for students and retention of teachers.
  • Time for teacher collaboration: We’ve known this for ages. Teachers and students benefit when teachers are able to effectively collaborate with each other, and in order to do that, they need space and time.  While teachers are often willing to give some of their existing time for this, it is also a systemic responsibility that has to be enabled by policy and administration.
  • Fully fund mandates: Lawmakers love giving teachers responsibilities.  They usually fail to love funding those responsibilities.  Consider the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act.  When it was signed into law by President Ford, Congress promised to fund 40% of the costs.  Congress has never done better than 20% in 41 years.
  • Embed needed social services for our most needy children: Children who come from highly stressed communities need far greater resources than their peers in more affluent communities, and one of the best ways to address this is to embed high quality services within their schools. Early access to nutrition, health providers, social workers, and after school support programs all have positive short and long term benefits for high needs children, and they help teachers focus on a fuller education for their students.  Certainly these services are a far better investment of resources than continuing to fund the school to prison pipeline through increasingly criminalizing school discipline.
  • Repair our schools: The federal government estimates that nearly half of our nation’s schools need repairs and modernization to  the amount of $197 billion.  This number does not capture the truly decrepit situation in some of our nation’s schools, however. Public schools in Detroit, for example, have numerous cases of buildings falling apart with mold, water damage, and even mushrooms growing from the walls. It is appalling that we can expect anyone to teach or to learn in such conditions.

The teachers that I know want to do their jobs, and they want to do their jobs well.  If we truly appreciated them we would enable that work with the time and resources necessary for them to truly do it.

Fund all of this: That might sound obvious, but it is something that has apparently escaped the federal government and our nation’s governors.  Despite the economic recovery, governors across the country from both parties still have not restored education spending to pre-2008 levels and some are still cutting.  New York remains billions of dollars annually below agreed upon funding levels from nearly a decade ago (although it did spend almost 2 million dollars arguing in court that it shouldn’t have to), and Governor Andrew Cuomo has repeatedly insisted that the money doesn’t matter.

Bollocks.  Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers explains:

We are being led down a destructive road to stupid – by arrogant , intellectually bankrupt, philosophically inconsistent, empirically invalid and often downright dumb ideas being swallowed whole and parroted by an increasingly inept media – all, in the end creating a massive ed reform haboob distracting us from the relatively straightforward needs of our public schools.

Many of the issues plaguing our current public education system require mundane, logical solutions – or at least first steps.

Money matters. Having more helps and yes, having less hurts, especially when those who need the most get the least.

Equitable and adequate funding are prerequisite conditions either for an improved status-quo public education system OR for a structurally reformed one.

It’s just that simple.

Everything we need to see costs more money – sometimes a lot more money – and it is well past time that we stop simply saying that teachers are “heroes” and step up as a society to fund what is necessary for them to do their jobs to the best of their ability.

Stop attacking teachers’ professionalism and professional unions: Another front in today’s education reform is to speak with one mouth about how important teachers are and how it is vital to make certain that every child has a “highly effective” teacher, and then to speak with another mouth attacking the very notion of teachers as lifelong professionals. Education reform seems far more interested in promoting “market disruption” in teacher preparation rather than strengthening actual professional education and providing career long, meaningful, professional development.

Across the country, there is a genuine war being waged with dark money against teachers’ workplace rights.  Hoping to build off of the initial – and now thankfully reversed – success of the Vergara lawsuit in California, former news anchor Campbell Brown has taken a pile of undisclosed money to fund similar efforts across the country for the purpose of turning all teachers into at will employees.  The fact that most of her arguments do not stand up to any kind of scrutiny does not appear to matter to her backers who continue to funnel money into her efforts. Worse, those same backers appear entirely disinterested in how incredibly complicated teachers’ workplaces are and how many competing interests intersect in their work – which Peter Greene very cogently explained is one of the most important reasons for the due process protections of tenure:

A private employee serves one master — the company.

A public school teacher serves many “bosses”. And on any given day, many of those bosses will fight for ascendency. A teacher cannot serve all of those interests — and yet that is the teacher’s mandate. Tenure is meant to shield the teacher from the political fallout of these battles:  to give the teacher the freedom to balance all these interests as she sees best.

I would add to this that a truly professional teacher must often be a thorn in the side of administration — advocating for the children in her classroom even if it means telling an administrator that he is wrong. But the attack on teachers personally and professionally really has very little to do with any realistic understanding of what it means to teach and to be a teacher.  It looks very much more like a concerted effort to turn teaching into a job that an idealistic person may do for a few years in her 20s before being replaced with a fresh, newly idealistic, candidate who will teach for a few years using a scripted curriculum and then move on as well. If we truly appreciate teachers, we need to embrace making their professional education improve through thoughtful and substantive preparation for a lifelong career, and we need to defend the hard won protections in the workplace that make truly professional teaching possible.  Rejecting efforts to turn them into lightly trained and easily replaced cogs is absolutely essential.

So it is Teacher Appreciation Week.  The teachers in your community surely thank you for the ways you made them smile the past five school days.  They will also truly thank you for appreciating them the rest of the school year if you truly recognize their work and  genuinely support what makes that work possible.

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Filed under classrooms, Common Core, Data, ESSA, Funding, Media, NCLB, politics, schools, Social Justice, standards, teacher learning, teacher professsionalism, teaching, Testing, Unions, VAMs

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.

Sincerely,

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.

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

NYCPU to Campbell Brown: Curse Your Sudden but Inevitable Betrayal!

Mona Davids and the New York City Parents Union are disappointed in Campbell Brown.  Ms. Davids, whose causes as a parent activist in New York have been various and have led her to join or oppose other education advocates and “reformers” depending on the issue at hand, followed the Vergara decision in California with plans to file her own lawsuit in New York aimed at laws she claims protect incompetent educators.  While not as far reaching as the Vergara plaintiffs’ case, Ms. Davids aims to have injunctions issued against “last in, first out” and other dismissal rules.

Ms. Davids initially expected and received assistance from Campbell Brown’s “Partnership for Eduational Justice” that initiated its own, separate suit with a more Vergara-like profile than Ms. Davids’.  According to interviews given to Eclectablog, Ms. Brown contacted Ms. David’s and NYCPU Vice-President Sam Pirozzolo wanting to discuss and coordinate efforts, but that meeting was cancelled.  Concerned that PEJ would file a lawsuit first, NYCPU rushed to file in Staten Island on July 3, 2014.  Davids and Pirozzolo claim they were subsequently contacted by Brown again who praised them and offered help which initially manifested with input from Brown’s attorney on how to amend the NYCPU suit to improve it.  Meanwhile, Brown filed her own lawsuit in Albany in an emotionally orchestrated press conference.  The NYCPU lawsuit soon got support from “Students Matter,” the California group funded by technology entrepreneur David Welch which launched the Vergara suit, and legal representation was offered by law firm Gibson Dunn.  It certainly seemed as if the anti-tenure forces in New York were coordinating their efforts.

Given the similarities between Davids’ and Brown’s suits, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman filed a motion to have the suits combined in Staten Island, and a hearing with all parties was agreed to for September 3rd.

Davids and Pirozzolo allege that what happened next is the fault of Brown and her allies threatening parties supporting the NYCPU suit.  Officially, both Gibson Dunn and Students Matter have withdrawn their support and representation in the NYCPU lawsuit, and the New York Post reports “sources” saying Gibson Dunn had existing education clients not pleased with them representing Davids.  That doesn’t explain why Students Matter withdrew, and according to their interview with Electablog, both Davids and Pirozzolo claim they were told by their Gibson Dunn attorney that Brown had directly stirred up the trouble with the firm’s existing clients.  Brown, in keeping with her established practice of not disclosing very much about how Partnership for Educational Justice operates, had no comment for the NY Post story.  What this means is that the New York City Parents Union is slated to go into the September 3rd hearing with no effective legal representation, and Brown, who has told the press that she expects both suits to be merged, will likely find her organization in effective control of the whole deal.

Davids and her organization have been firing off Tweets and speaking to anyone who will listen about how they believe Brown has sought to hijack the entire cause for herself:

It is, of course, impossible to know exactly what is going on here.  It is entirely possible that Gibson Dunn, a 124 year-old firm with office in 18 cities across 4 continents, did not bother to check if Ms. Davids’ group had any negative experiences with their existing clients or had been involved in legal action with them.  It is entirely possible that Gibson Dunn found Ms. Davids’ group too difficult to work with or had irreconcilable ideas about how to proceed.  It is possible that Students Matter simply felt that Ms. Davids’ more modestly framed lawsuit was not aggressive enough to suit its own form of advocacy.

It is also entirely possible that Ms. Brown and her organization want full control of the agenda and have decided to sweep aside Ms. Davids by behind the scenes manipulation.  It certainly would fit Ms. Brown’s profile of secrecy.  She has steadfastly refused to discuss who is funding her organization, citing the ridiculous and anti-democratic notion that her funders deserve to have huge influence over the future of public education in this country without anyone knowing who they are.  When appearing on The Colbert Report, she even said she didn’t want “the people who are outside today” to “silence” the debate, so her funders should remain anonymous.  “The people” to which she was referring?  The ones who could “silence” Brown’s millionaire and billionaire financiers?  A handful of parents and teachers with home made signs:

colbert1n-2-web

 

So we probably cannot expect a clear explanation from Brown about how Gibson Dunn AND Students Matter yanked their support out from under Mona Davids, but we know one thing for certain:  These developments put Brown in the driver’s seat.

As for Ms. Davids and Mr. Pirozzolo  — it is probably unfair to suggest that they absolutely should have seen this coming, but I think it is fair to say they were quite naive in 1) trying to get in on the national drive to break teacher unions from their position as a local organization 2) trusting that Campbell Brown’s primary motivation is what is “best for children” while she deflects any attempt to get information on what interests are behind her efforts.  I do not always agree with NYC Parents Union, and I think that their efforts would have been far better spent on what the research tells us about how to retain great teachers — increase support for principal leadership, teacher collaboration and improvements to the workplace environment.

However, from the position of a Campbell Brown or a David Welch, NYCPU is also small potatoes.  Their executive board doesn’t even have a SINGLE hedge fund manager which is a requirement these days in education “reform” circles.  If they are going to insist upon having an opinion and input instead of simply providing parents to make for good optics at press conferences where Ms. Brown can cry about how “honored” she is to be near them, then they are more trouble than they are worth.  Campbell Brown has a mission to break up the workplace protections of the last large group of unionized middle class workers in the country, and this is her career now.  She’s got secret billionaires to please.  She’s got the efforts of former high level White House staffers to coordinate.  She’s got more legal coups to coordinate with famous legal scholars like Lawrence Tribe.  This is making her famous again, and if history is any judge about the career trajectories of education reformers, she is likely to get (more) rich doing so.

Did anyone REALLY think that New York City Parents Union was going to be an equal partner in this?  Does anyone doubt whether this is about what is “best for children” instead of what is “best” for breaking the backs of unions and keeping Campbell Brown in the news?

The betrayal may have been sudden, but it was probably inevitable.

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Filed under Activism, Funding, Media, politics, Unions

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.

Confused

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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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to a News Show Tenure Lawsuit Discussion…

…intelligent and informed debate!

Melissa Harris-Perry, professor of politics and international affairs at Wake Forest University, has a Sunday morning show on MSNBC, and on August 10th, she had a panel on to discuss the recent attempts to bring California’s Vergara v. California lawsuit against teacher tenure protections to New York State.  Her panelists were Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, Dana Goldstein, author and reporter for The Marshall Project and Derrell Bradford of the NY Campaign for Achievement Now and formerly of Governor Christie’s Educator Effectiveness Task Force.

From the opening minute of the first segment, it is obvious that Ms. Harris-Perry was not going to let Mr. Bradford get away with Campbell Brown like talking points unchallenged, and the rest of the panel was certainly not inclined to back off either.  Ms. Harris-Perry quotes directly from the language of the challenged New York statutes in response to the standard claim that teachers with tenure have permanent lifetime employment.  Mr. Bradford tried to sneak in another favored talking point of the anti-tenure campaign by claiming a time frame of nearly 3 years to remove a teacher under the law, but Ms. Weingarten immediately pushed back with the changes that have already been made to the law and the current, more accurate figure nearly 1/6th the time of Mr. Bradford’s assertion.

For once, a media discussion on these lawsuits was not a monologue, and the moderator of the discussion, while not claiming the “neutral” ground so cherished by many figures, did something, in my opinion, more important.  She did not set up conditions of “false equivalency” where someone like Mr. Bradford, whose own history in education reform and willingness to try to frame his advocacy of privatization of schools in civil rights terminology is neither upfront nor honest, is treated as having equivalent facts on his side even if he is prevaricating on most of them.  While this is not “balanced” it is absolutely fair, and it is the result of the host having actually studied the issues before moderating her panel and clearly noting that Mr. Bradford’s side of the debate is routinely distorting the truth.  Would that we could have that more frequently.

The entire segment runs close to 30 minutes, but is worth it:

Melissa Harris-Perry August 10th, 2014 Part 1

Melissa Harris-Perry August 10th, 2014 Part 2

Melissa Harris-Perry August 10th, 2014 Part 3

Melissa Harris-Perry August 10th, 2014 Part 4
One notable exchange happens at 5 minutes, 44 seconds in the second segment, where Randi Weingarten says:

RW: How do we attract and retain well-prepared great teachers for our most needy kids? Because what’s happening is just a few miles down the road in Westchester we’re not talking about this issue but in Rochester we are and we are in the places where there’s intense, real social-economic issues.  So why are we not having that conversation? That is the conversation we need to have. (Turns to Derrell Bradford) And what I would argue is that you need to give people better working conditions. We need to make sure that they don’t feel that they are going to be fired if they try something new or if they stand up for their special needs kids.  That’s what we’d like to do.

Pay special attention to Mr. Bradford’s body and facial language during this.  Twice, near the end, he purses his lips and looks down very briefly.  I am possibly reading too much in this, but to my eyes he is distinctly uncomfortable at not being able to simply say what he wants without challenge.  Understandable, as Ms. Weingarten just cornered him repeating a talking point based on out of date data.

It happens again in segment 4, when Mr. Bradford lengthily admits that there is no “one thing” that is driving the achievement gaps and states that inequality is “hardwired” into the system.  He does not explain how eliminating tenure assists that in any way, and he even makes an ironic statement to my ears that we attract the least experienced teachers to the most needy kids — when his stance on tenure would do absolutely nothing to improve that situation and could actually make it worse.  Ms. Goldstein then notes that we have reduced the achievement gap in the past when we “aggressively” integrated schools, and Ms. Weingarten again pushes on the need for resources and support instead of attack.  I’d invite any reader to look at the body language of Mr. Bradford here as well.  When Ms. Weingarten talks about the outcomes of the NYC Chancellor’s District and the proven value of attracting and retaining great teachers and giving them and their students resources.  Mr. Bradford looked, to me, like he was trying to figure out a way to sidestep that or dismiss it when time ran out.

When the echo chamber is filled with more voices and when the host has studied the issue, the corporate reform advocates have a much harder time of it.

I want more.

 

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Going After Tenure — Missing the Real Needs of Students

There is a character in the 1984 movie “Teachers” starring Nick Nolte and JoBeth Williams, who is unaffectionately named “Ditto,” played by Royal Dano.  Ditto is old, orderly, mind-numbingly boring and tenured.  His “teaching” consists of running off enough mimeographs each day for all of his students, sitting in the back of his classroom where he can see all of his students in rows, having his ditto sheets distributed, reading his newspaper and having students turn in the dittos when the bell rings.  So rigid is his routine that the students can do the entire process without him, a premise tested when he suffers a fatal coronary in class and none of his students notice.

The movie’s satirical take on jaded teachers strikes a humorous note by playing off of a lot of stereotypes and some common experiences.  Many people, sadly, have experienced classrooms with teachers either out of their depth or beyond their professionally useful life.  In a system of 60 million students and over 3 million practitioners, quality cannot possibly be uniformly excellent.  The situation in the movie also speaks to a number of popular if misinformed stereotypes, the most persistent of which is that once granted tenure, a teacher has no need to remain vigorous or skilled or even all that present in the classroom.

This movie must keep Michelle Rhee, Campbell Brown and Whoopi Goldberg up at night.

The argument against teacher tenure goes approximately like this:  1) children need a quality education in order to have opportunity to succeed 2) a quality education requires quality teachers 3) teachers of low quality are concentrated in schools that serve poor and minority students 4) poor and minority students do not do well on examinations because of those low quality teachers 5) doing poorly on standardized examinations is the main blocker of opportunity for poor and minority students  6) some low quality teachers have tenure 7) firing low quality teachers with tenure takes too much work 8) we need to do away with tenure so we can fire low quality teachers and replace them 9) replacing low quality teachers will raise test scores and improve opportunity 10)  if you don’t want to do that you care more about low quality teachers than you care about children.

The problem, however, is that a lot of that is hooey.

Assume, for example, that tenure is a problem, as reformers do, because it keeps low quality teachers in teaching for too long. This, however, is as much a function of administrators not doing their evaluative job as it is the due process guaranteed by tenure.  Further, if it was tenure that was the actual problem, we would expect to see negative impacts on the performance of those districts that have the largest portion of their faculty with tenure – suburban districts with the most experienced faculties compared with urban districts that have extremely high turn over rates.  This, however, is not the case.  When the PISA examination scores that give our political class such concerns are broken out by the poverty characteristics of communities, we see startling effects:

U.S. Reading Literacy Scores By Poverty Characteristics

David Berliner writes:

On each of these three international tests, U.S. public school students did terrific in the schools where poverty rates of families were under 10%, or even when poverty rates were between 10% and 25%. But we did not do well in schools where poverty rates were above 50%, and we did even worse on those tests in schools where poverty rates for families were in the 75-100% bracket.

So students who do the worst on international examinations are those who live in high poverty districts which, because of income segregation, tend to be urban and rural.  Despite the movie “Teachers”, those students do not attend schools that are full of dusty, burnt out teachers who are waiting to die at their desks.  Quite the contrary.  They are far more likely to attend schools with extremely high concentrations of novices.

Helen F. Ladd, professor of economics and public policy at Duke University, notes that today, over a quarter of the teacher workforce has less than five years of experience teaching.  This is a problem because experience actually matters in teacher effectiveness, and research supports the need for teachers who have made it through the steep learning curve of their early years in the classroom.  Teachers improve in effectiveness measures dramatically in this period, and while their gains level off, a workforce that is perpetually inexperienced is a workforce that is not optimally effective.  According to research from the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey Institute, districts that are urban, high poverty, high minority and rural are far more likely to have high numbers of first year teachers than suburban counterparts. Ten percent of the districts in their sample had a “critical value” of more than 17% novices teaching classes, which was double the overall sample average and is correlated with other effects such as teachers leaving the profession altogether.

It is crucial to pause for a moment and consider the contradiction here.  Our lowest performing schools are not plagued with teachers who are sit behind the mythic protections of tenure and do not do their jobs so much as they are burdened with a continually changing faculty who begin a steep learning period but who cannot be guaranteed to stay past five years.  Further, such schools are burdened with the attendant costs that come with high turnover rates such as recruitment and training, giving fewer resources for other forms of support.  So the attack on tenure has it backwards because the real problem for staff at our most struggling schools centers on too little retention of teachers.

Nicole S. Simon and Susan Moore Johnson of Harvard’s Project on the Next Generation of Teachers note many of the new teachers who leave working in urban and high poverty districts do so because of working conditions in such schools rather than any student demographic.  In fact, negative school climate and organizational factors are such powerful predictors of why teachers leave schools, that no student based factors remain statistically significant.  “Positive, trusting, working relationships” and “a strong sense of collective responsibility” prove to be strong predictors of schools that manage to retain teachers over schools with nearly identical student demographics.  Considering all of this, if reform advocates TRULY wanted to assist children who suffer because of bad teachers, they ought to advocate for the following:

1) Ways to support administrators doing their evaluative role seriously. As has been pointed out from numerous sources, tenure grants teachers due process in any effort to remove them from the classroom.  Administrators need to do this function, and they need to do it carefully and well, but that role is frequently an add on to an already extremely time consuming job.  Principals can be supported in this function by robust peer observation and mentoring systems, but this would require that teachers also have additional time needed to mentor and evaluate each other.

2) Improve teachers’ working conditions. High poverty schools are notoriously difficult places to work, but not for the stereotypical reasons people presume.  Teachers who seek out such careers are often highly motivated by a desire to do good, but face overcrowded classrooms, decaying facilities and inadequate resources.  Further, lack of planning and collaboration time isolates teachers and makes it more difficult to access the expertise and insights of their peers.  The saying that a teacher’s working conditions are a student’s learning conditions needs to be seriously considered.

3) Remove the Sword of Damocles. We know that high poverty correlates to low test scores, and we know that the reasons are far more complicated than reformers’ preferred explanation of blaming teachers for everything.  But the past 15 years of education reform have constantly increased the pressure on schools and teachers to raise test scores without our nation taking the least collective responsibility for alleviating our appalling child poverty rate.  We should still test, but for diagnostic and triage purposes rather than to increasingly motivate skilled teachers to flee districts where they are professionally threatened without adequate support.

4) Discuss poverty and its effects of children.  Education reformers have been consistently silent on this front except to accuse people who want to talk about it of “making excuses” for bad teachers.  That is dishonest of them.  Over 20% of our children come to school from homes that are in poverty with the negative impact on resources and development that comes from that.  Many of our urban schools have student populations that top 75% in poverty.  As David Berliner notes, we are obsessed with “one-way accountability” for schools and teachers to change this without requiring anything more of ourselves as a society.

5) Recognize that tenure protects teachers who rock the boat on behalf of their students.  The due process rights with tenure may make removing a bad teacher more complicated than simply saying “you’re fired”, but it comes with important freedoms that teachers need.  Many teachers have pointed out that tenure protects teachers from being threatened with capricious or political removal when they advocate for their students’ needs or call out bad behavior that harms students.  John Goodlad called this “good stewardship” and it is a vital characteristic that we want to encourage among teachers.

Those attacking tenure seek to take that away from all teachers.  That’s why I oppose them.

 

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

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

Campbell-Brown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CB: The law firm…

SC: The law firm is funding it?

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

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

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

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

CB:Yeah, we are raising money.

SC: And who did you raise it from?

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

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

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

SC: Exercising First Amendment rights…

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

 

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

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

Wow.

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

 

colbert1n-1-web

colbert1n-2-web

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

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

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

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

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