Tag Archives: Vergara Decision

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

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

That may be changing.

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

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

The balance of voices is changing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Mike Thompson of the Detroit Free Press

From Mike Thompson of the Detroit Free Press


Filed under Activism, politics, Social Justice, Unions

Campbell Brown — the next hero of corporate reform

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Campbell Brown

Campbell Brown

Michelle Rhee

Michelle Rhee

Eli Broad

Eli Broad

This gives me nightmares to be honest...

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

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Filed under Activism, Funding, politics, Unions

What Really Worries Me About the Vergara Decision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

brace yourself

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

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

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

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

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


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