Saturday, November 7, 2009

CW's latest steaming pile, Part Two

Using a mix of obsolete data, self-refuting pull quotes, and unsupported assertions, Commonwealth is continuing to pound away with their latest assault on public education and decent writing. I've already taken apart the first half of this army of words in search of coherence, today I finish.

I'll be honest enough to say that the easy pickings were in the beginning. In the second half of his article, Michael Jonas takes the tack of building up a small organization whose conclusion match those of Commonwealth magazine in an attempt to pretend that some people with experience inside modern public education agree with their agenda. Of course, the description of this group is an artful mix of opinion, fact, and unanswered questions that creates an impression that doesn't stand up to reflection.

This group, Teach Plus, has an admirable goal -- trying to figure out what makes good teachers good and bad teachers bad, and apply those differences, called "best practices" in a wider forum. However, the details of the story is where it all goes awry...

Rather than examine scholarship or research for an effort, Mr. Jonas chooses to focus on a group named Teach Plus. Teach Plus is a small group of teachers hand-picked by its founder. This group, whose selection criteria is unknown beyond, is closed to any teachers with more than ten years' experience, duplicated an approach used pretty much nowhere else. The group met once a month for a year and a half, during which unnamed leaders and experts met with them, and then Teach Plus announced its recommendations.

I'm sure you won't be shocked of the decisions of this group closely match Commonwealth's priorities. Why else would so much ink be spent on building them up, while avoiding the fact that it sounds like nothing more than a self-declared reformer meeting with people she likes. Anyway, their plan is:

Identify effective teachers using rigorous evaluation criteria, which could include student achievement data among other factors. These teachers would be designated as members of an Excellence Corps. Based on a belief in the “tipping point” concept that a critical mass of effective teachers is needed to drive a change in the culture of a struggling school, the proposal calls for Excellence Corps teachers to make up no less than one-third of the teaching staff at a school.

Wow...there must be a lot excellence if you can gather than much in so many places. If one third of the future staffs of urban schools are "excellent", then we're either screwing over non-urban schools, or there is some serious grade inflation is going on (apparently bad from teachers, good for teachers. Mind you, several paragraphs ago we were instructed to be aghast at how positive teacher evaluations can be.)

This idea demonstrates the ignorance of calcified conservatism as embodied by CW. At this point, anybody who has put real time into education has seen repeated goals, drives, and initiatives stymied by administration. Not that I really blame them -- they are locked into required test scores, required scheduling parameters that lock students into test-taking classes, and budget restrictions that pare away any money that doesn't translate into MCAS scores. The regime is set up to take most good choices from administration, even if one-third of the staff supports such choices.

Changing the name given to the people whose ideas will be shot down by administration because of the current education regime isn't going to change that. So why recommend such a solution?


To recognize their demonstrated success with urban students, such teachers would receive a base salary increase of 10 percent — with other staff at the school eligible for bonuses if they meet individual improvement goals and the building meets schoolwide achievement goals that would be established.

Utterly predictable.

A "rigorous" but nebulous method of evaluation, linked to test scores, will grant some teachers higher salary. Probably the most hilarious part of this is the contention that all needs to be done is to cut pay for some teachers to find money to raise salaries for others.

Something conservatives never really get is that teachers don't much factor in money to choose where they teach. After a couple years, the costs to moving districts -- learning new policies, often a new curriculum, a new culture, new administration -- dwarf whatever monetary benefits there are. Teachers also teach for the satisfaction of watching students learn, and that exists independent of salary. A community that does not value education and sets up myriad barriers to good teaching can raise salaries 10, 20, 25%, and will still have trouble filling vacancies. A positive community and school culture is worth thousands of dollars to teachers, particularly the "right teachers" that conservatives think are out there for the taking. Furthermore, opportunities in the district for supplemental income such as summer/afterschool work is often based on specialize training that is only available by virtue of...working in those fields. Thus, there is a government (not union) directed emphasis on seniority that makes up for the monetary benefits of that 10% pay raise.

What this proposal does offer is a way to destroy educators' solidarity by creating two classes of teachers. Furthermore, setting them in frequent competition with one another is a great way to destroy a positive building culture -- if only one teacher in my department is going to get a 10% raise next year, I have every economic incentive to keep my best ideas to myself. Again, most teachers in my experience don't act as greedily as CW's writers have convinced themselves, but it's still a poisonous idea set to introduce.

I wonder if CW's authors are paid by the number of hits their articles generate.

I will give credit to CW for briefly offering a solution (though one bound for failure for reasons I just mentioned, one self-conflicted pull-quote from a single teacher notwithstanding) before going back to its usual whining. CW approvingly mentions the RI Secretary of Education who had declared his policy decisions to be "above the law" (I guess when he does it, it's not illegal).

We wrap up with praise for Arne Duncan's effort to override the Constitution through the spending power, and a careful editing out of George W Bush's role in driving No Child Left Behind. And that's it.

I'll be back later this week with more simple solutions to education concerns, but I thought it worthwhile to examine what happens when agenda-driven amateurs try to sound serious about education. And whatever it is that Mr. Jonas sought by writing such an evidently poor article, I hope he received it.

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