Tuesday, November 3, 2009

CW's latest steaming pile, Part One

Someone at Commonwealth magazine is very unhappy, I think. Michael Jonas, or one of his assistants, apparently decided to sabotage their assignment by turning in a column whose main idea is entirely contradicted by its contents. In case the intent was unclear, it was so shoddily supported that the editors would be able to tell that this assignment was not wanted.

Well, the editors never caught on, and we're left with this steaming pile of words that purports to be about something...education-related...or education-like. Of course, Commonwealth has published a long string of ant-labor, anti-teacher, anti-public ed columns, articles, and editorials (the line within is as blurry there as at FoxNews) and has recently slipped so far from professionalism or basic courtesy that it's gained notice how desperate their attacks have become.

Let's take the first couple lines of the "featured" article...

[S]tudy after study has shown the strong connection between forces outside schools — parenting, family stability, socioeconomic background — and achievement levels. Students in wealthier communities almost invariably score higher on standardized tests than those from lower-income communities.

Anybody accustomed to reading quality non-fiction would recognize this opening to an article on the impact a child's entire world has on his/her learning. But then, you wouldn't know Commonwealth, where any opening, anecdotal, study-quoting, the weather report, is a segue for explaining why everything about public school sucks. Indeed, this quote that education is only thinly related to teacher intervention is a setup for an article about how vital teacher intervention is to education...and that current teacher intervention sucks. It's akin to opening an article on British cowardice in World War II with Churchill's stand to fight on the beaches, the landing grounds, in the fields, in the streets, etc...

Hoping that you didn't notice, Jonas quickly slides into pseudo-academic declarations "a growing body of research" this or "study after study" that...by which he means the two antiquated studies he'll mention later on.

Having thoroughly undercut himself, Jonas trots out Paul Reville, who paused in his effort to kneecap efforts to improve student scores on standardized tests in order to tell us that

Teachers are the linchpin of student success..."That seems to be stipulated common knowledge now. People accept that,” says Paul Reville, the Massachusetts secretary of education. The issue, he says, becomes, “What do you do about it?”

So something the article just told us is wrong is now right.. Sorry, it's not right, but rather is true...er, seems to be true...wait, seems to be stipulated common knowledge (can he tapdance any faster?). With this strong declaration that Paul Reville believes in wiggle room, Jonas re-directs our attention to Reville's "very loaded question". Wanna guess how the dice get loaded?

The answer is that most teachers suck and everyone knows that but only Jonas has the guts to tell you.

To get a sense of how bad things are, Jonas again performs a bit of sabotage by diving right into the research, and triumphantly presenting an actual academic study. One performed in 1966. That's right, Commonwealth is seeking inspiration from work completed before Woodstock. You see, if we're going to talk about teaching in urban areas, it only makes sense to begin with a study of 1960s Gary, Indiana, an urban area with exactly zero relevance to modern Massachusetts. You see, before the first Super Bowl, teacher colleges had as little academic foundation as this article, which means that modern public education sucks. (If you don't believe me, read the article yourself...seriously.)

The column then moves on to value-added studies, teasing out interesting data over several paragraphs, data that comes from studies which Jonas himself declares are of a type that have "plenty of grounds for caution", are subject to "the haphazard use of value-added assessments" where "the potential pitfalls are everywhere". I do appreciate the author's honesty that his methodology is transparent and inadequate...though I'm not sure why he insists on using it.

We are then told that too many teachers receive positive evaluations. There is no proof given that this is incorrect or inauthentic, but of course Commonwealth assures us that it is. Finally, to wind up the section, Commonwealth holds forth that student assessment may or may not be reflective of teacher quality and may or may not be a useful way to measure teacher performance.

You see, teachers should be evaluated the same way as doctors, who are judged by the number of patients who take the medication he prescribes. (Wait, they aren't? Don't tell Mr. Jonas!)

And then....


Well, it is getting late. Halfway through. Yeah, only halfway.

You're right.

It turns out I won't be able to go through this article in one night. Heck, it took these people a couple months to write this dreck, so I may as well take a couple days to untangle it.


GGW said...

Sab, sometimes the totality of your comments leave me confused.

Do you think there is such a thing as a good teacher and a bad teacher?

If yes,

Do you think we should try to attract/retain more good ones and repel/axe more bad ones?

If yes,


And if we did this,

Do you think if low-income kids in particular had a more good teachers and fewer bad teachers, they'd be significantly better off? Or would it just really make a slight difference in the end...?

Quriltai said...

GGW, the main thing I think is that pro-privatization pieces and dishonest "studies" are driving out honest conversations about education. The Commonwealth piece, and the Globe hit-jobs are prime examples.

Of course there are good and bad teachers, but much more to the point is that there are good and bad systems, and good and bad preparation for learning. The overwhelming desire of the "education reform" racket is to ignore the latter 2/3 of the issue. Either because it is too difficult, or not sufficiently lucrative.

I think teachers can have a notable, but not total impact, on a child' life. Teachers working within a smartly designed framework at home and school produced by people who know about education have a much better chance to do that *why home visits are a good idea*. That greater impact can be had on all students, GGW -- low-income students, and gifted/talented students. Both groups are underserved, almost un-served by the current system. And firing teachers and breaking up unions (Commonwealth's only recommendations of note over the past couple years) isn't going to change that.