“The Death and Life of the Great American School System”

I really like a lot of what President Obama has done for the US, but I have been sorely disappointed by his approach to education.

Maybe it’s not his fault. Education “reform” is a political hot potato with a lot of emotional baggage. People Taxpayers don’t want to pay for something that they can’t understand, and so politicians who make decisions that affect education have to cast those decisions in a way that is easily understandable to the average person.

Thus education policy is formulated in terms like “accountability”; read “I’m not going to pay you if you can’t make my kid’s test scores go up, dammit.” There is little room for nuanced understanding of the complex nature of good (or bad) education.

Diane Ravitch is out with a new book that provides a research-based critique of this approach to education policy. (The above-linked article is a review of the book written by a real live Oregonian teacher.) I – and millions of other teachers – need to pick this up, read it, and use the information contained therein to bolster the argument against the behemoth that is pay-for-performance.

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Honors Students Begin Boycott of Arizona Universities

I’m horrified by the new Arizona law requiring all immigrants to carry documentation with them wherever they go. This seems like an idiotic idea for a wide range of reasons, not all of which I’ll go into here.

One clear negative side-effect is that since the law is patently monstrous, lots of reasonable people have decided to avoid Arizona, and this trend has reached the post-secondary level.

Once again, via Huffington Post.

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Teaching While Brown: Arizona outlaws English teachers with “heavy accents”

I don’t have a “WTF” category but I am considering creating one.

Via Huffington Post

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First Re-Post

I find few things as annoying as homophobia.

This article is a must-read for anyone who wants a pithy Jed Bartlet-esque response to some yay-hoo who starts spouting off about the biblical prohibition agin’ it.

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Fundamental Flaws

The fundamental flaw with American educational policy is its “schools only” approach to addressing academic problems.

It’s no secret that there’s a huge achievement gap in the US. Gaps in performance correlate most heavily with economic disparities.

The “schools only” approach, loosely defined, means that the government’s education policies direct schools to overcome gaps in academic performance solely through teachers’ “in-building” efforts.

No Child Left Behind is the legislative expression of this moronic principle.

NCLB is based on a few main principles:

1) Testing: NCLB directs states to mandate standardized testing so that they can get a better read on which schools are struggling. This by itself isn’t so bad – some standardized tests are fair and accurate measures of some kinds of knowledge and achievement. The problem arises in the way standardized tests are used – and the degree to which they are depended upon for evaluation of both teachers and students.

2) “Accountability”: NCLB demands greater accountability for teachers, schools, and districts. But accountability isn’t based on the quality of the teachers’ or principals’ performance. Rather, it’s based on students’ s standardized test scores.

Consequences for failing to meet Adequate Yearly Progress include purging schools of their entire teaching staff and hiring new ones. The underlying assumption, of course, is that if students in “failing schools” don’t progress, it’s because the teachers are incompetent. This ignores entirely that academic performance correlates more closely with parent income than with any other factor.

So, the teachers in suburban schools with relatively wealthy constituents are brilliant because their wealthy students do well on the tests. The teachers in inner-city schools are awful – and deserving of dismissal – because their students, facing all the challenges associated with impoverishment, don’t do as well.

The trick is that you could switch 100% of the teachers from a wealthy suburban school and a poor inner city school and see absolutely no change in the performance of the students in either school.

So all this “accountability” does is stigmatize positions teaching in poorer schools. This ensures that the best candidates – the most qualified teachers – will compete for positions teaching wealthier students.

The next step – Obama’s big plan – is to replace seniority-based advancement with “performance pay.” This new kind of accountability ensures that not only do teachers who take jobs in inner city schools risk firing, but they’re guaranteed to make less, as well.

Sounds like a recipe for success to me.

3) School choice: School choice gives students at failing schools opportunities to switch to more successful schools.

This is the most invidious part of the NCLB system. Most students in inner city schools are bound by circumstances to attend the school nearest their home. Poorer kids are far less likely to be able to find transportation to schools outside their neighborhood, and parents living in poverty are far less likely to have the time or skills necessary to pursue “school choice” options. If you’re working 60 hours a week to make ends meet, it’s harder to find time to get down to the district office to fill out “school choice” paperwork.

So what school choice functionally does is provide an escape hatch for children of more affluent parents in city schools, further isolating and stigmatizing students of poverty.

The “voucher” movement is the worst expression of this concept. A voucher system would take government dollars away from government schools and give them to students’ families to help pay for private education. However, since private school tuition costs thousands of dollars – some as much as $20,000 or even $30,000 per year – vouchers don’t really help poor students get out of struggling schools. They help middle- and upper-middle class students get out of public education altogether, ensuring that public schools are, more and more, home to only the poor.

The basic idiocy of this approach is its assumption that, while academic problems are rooted in the complex realities of poverty, teachers can somehow magically adjust their classroom strategies so as to eliminate the effects of poverty.

Here’s a website for a reform program that offers a broader, more realistic approach to education reform.

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What Is Tenure?

Scott McLeod over at Dangerously Irrelevant has provided an excellent analysis of arguments against tenure.

One thing to keep in mind as you’re considering this debate:

Tenure is not a bullet-proof guarantee of perpetual employment.

Tenure is a union-based protection that ensures that before an administrator can axe an employee, they have to follow a process designed to ensure that they have cause for termination. Teachers who have tenure are protected from whimsical firings because the union establishes rules by contract that force administrators to conduct actual observations and to document flaws and failings.

As Mr. McLeod points out, the average American worker lacks these kinds of protections. But I think that’s just because the average American worker doesn’t belong to a union.

So to a great extent, the fate of tenure will be wrapped up with the fate of unions. If teachers’ unions cave and bargain away tenure protections, then I doubt the unions themselves are long for this world.

If America wants its educators to be just another sub-set of the service sector, with the same job protections as the typical Wal-Mart employee, then America is going to have to be prepared for teachers with the same level of intellect and skill as the typical Wal-Mart employee.

(With apologies to my dear semi-retired mother, who is an absolutely atypical Wal-Mart employee.)

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Maryland Teachers to be Evaluated on “Student Performance”

Michael Birnbaum has an article in the Washington Post today about Maryland educators’ resistance to a proposed evaluation scheme put out by the Maryland Board of Education. The new rule would require that at least 50% of a teacher’s evaluation be based on student performance, as measured by standardized tests “and other measures.”

Apparently, the goal of the Board is, at least in part, to chase after Obama’s “Race to the Top” dollars.

Now, I adore President Obama as much as the next raving liberal, but I’m crushed that someone so apparently intelligent has bought in to the “merit pay” nonsense that is sweeping the nation.

The idea of basing teacher pay on student performance is ridiculous. Teacher pay should be based on teacher performance: are teachers observing best practices? Are they teaching well?

Student performance is determined by so many factors outside a teacher’s control that basing teacher pay on said performance is simply unfair.

Writing in Economics of Education Review in 2010, Lucia Tramonte and J. Douglas Willms of the University of New Brunswick observe:

Most studies of social mobility have found that academic achievement and occupational attainment are largely determined by people’s family origin and educational experiences. These studies have focused primarily on the roles of socioeconomic status (SES), family structure, and family resources, including economic, cultural, and social capital.

The idea that teachers are not solely – or even largely – responsible for the average academic performance of their students might seem controversial, but that’s only because our society has been brainwashed by the mythology of Jaime Escalante — the notion that a brilliant teacher, through heroic feats of self-deprivation and superhuman dedication, can transform the most troubled students into Harvard neuroscience graduate fellows with only two months’ time and a fresh pencil sharpener.

This is of course nonsense.

Let me be clear: my argument isn’t that good teachers (and bad) don’t make a difference. My argument is that, for student bodies as statistical models, individual teachers have extremely limited influence when compared with other factors, particularly family and socioeconomics. That means that holding teachers “accountable” for student performance is ridiculous. Teachers should be observed and evaluated by experts in their fields and held accountable for the quality of their classroom practices.

But basing teacher evaluations on standardized tests is both cheaper and easier, because then you don’t have to actually find experts or make them do observations.

But the biggest problem with basing teacher evaluations on student performance isn’t the unfairness – it’s the impact it will likely have on education for the most marginalized students.

It is an inescapable statistical reality that variation in standardized test scores is attributable almost entirely to differences in socioeconomic status, with poorer students having more trouble.

If teachers are going to face reduced pay or job loss as a result of poor student performance, how on earth are we to convince the best teachers to take jobs in the toughest schools?

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