A commenter on part 3 asked if this was really fact checking or just analysis. Well, I guess it’s both. There really aren’t very many ‘facts’ to check, so I thought I’d also summarize the book so people don’t have to waste their money on it.
Up until page 300, the basic idea of the book is this:
American schools and schoolchildren are currently hostage of incompetent teachers who cannot be fired because of their union contracts. The union contracts only allow teachers to get fired by having many years of poor evaluations, but the process is lengthy, and most ineffective teachers get satisfactory ratings from their principals anyway. What the education ‘reformers’ realized is that teachers, unlike other professionals, are not ‘accountable’ since they are not evaluated on their ‘performance’ — which is measured by how much progress their students make on standardized tests. If we could find a way to change the laws so that teacher effectiveness ratings are tied to their student’s performances on these tests, then we can fire the incompetent teachers while making the competent ones who are just choosing to be lazy motivated to work up to their potential. By creating a Race To The Top contest for big money, and where qualifying to be in the race requires passing laws and getting the unions to agree to tie teacher performance to test results, we can improve education not just for the few states that win the race, but also for all the states that enter, but lose, the race since they will benefit by the new laws.
Now, this whole premise by the ‘reformers’ — that teacher performance needs to be tied to test scores so we can weed out and fire the bad teachers is flawed for many reasons, each one of them, in my opinion, a ‘fatal’ flaw.
1) The standardized test are easy for schools to cheat on either by changing the answers or, as might be happening in some schools in New Orleans, just giving the students the correct answers.
2) Teachers will cheat in a worse, but less detectible, way — by teaching to the test. This serves to rob the students of their right to an authentic learning experience.
3) Since the tests are flawed themselves, high scores on the test don’t really correlate to true learning. There could be a good teacher who does not teach to the test who gets low scores and a poor teacher who does teach to the test and get high scores. The idea that the best teaching will also bring up any standardized test scores is something I know for a fact is not true. (As a teacher, I have to moonlight as an SAT tutor so I know that I can get those test scores up with mindless test prep.)
4) If you have two teachers A and B. A has class 1 who started with 60% passing and B has class 2 who started with 60% passing. After a year A now has 70% passing and B now has 50% passing. Does that really mean that A is better? Are we sure that if A had class 2 and B had class 1 they would achieve the same percentages?
5) If the tests do accurately measure the teachers effectiveness then they don’t provide any more information to the principal than he/she had before. The poor teachers get low scores, the good teachers get high scores.
6) When the tests don’t accurately measure the teachers effectiveness, two things can happen: A teacher that the principal believes is effective gets low test scores — and has to fire that teacher even though he/she knows the teacher is effective — or a teacher that the principal believes is ineffective gets high test scores — and then the principal won’t even be allowed to fire that ineffective teacher.
The irony of this holy grail of ed reform is in the four combinations that can happen ineffective-low, ineffective-high, effective-low, effective-high, only one of those four categories of teachers will get fired, while before all the lows would get fired. In other words, it will result in fewer ineffective teachers being fired!
Reformers think that you link test scores to teacher firings and bonuses causes all teachers to teach authentically (since that will, in theory, raise standardized test scores as a side effect) and everyone wins.
The reality (and I’ve taught 13 of last 20 years) is that the worst teachers will teach to the test. The middle teachers will, then, also have to teach to the test since they need to get better scores than the worst teachers. Even the best teachers will teach to the test, just to play it safe — no reason for middle teachers to get all that bonus money. And the losers are the kids who learn nothing except how to pick the ‘best’ answer among four choices.
As an SAT tutor, I teach my clients tricks of how to get questions correct over 50% of the time on certain types of questions by just looking at the choices and NOT EVEN LOOKING AT THE QUESTIONS. This is what they’re paying me to do so I don’t feel guilty about this. But I would never spend precious time in my actual daytime teaching job teaching those sorts of things at the expense of real learning.
Regardless of all these arguments, the government decides it is worth five billion dollars to entice as many states as possible to change their laws to link teacher effectiveness to student performance on standardized tests, even though most of the states will not ultimately get any of that prize money.
To continue with the fact checking / analysis:
from 302 to 305 Brill attacks Diane Ravitch, the most formidable opponent to this ‘reform’ movement. He is careful to only give her three pages in the entire book so that readers are not swayed by her research and history based view of what is going on and how it is harming more students than it is helping.
Page 302: ‘The Answer Sheet’ — an excellent source for getting the other side of the story is described as “An anti-reform blog.” This really gets me. They got dibs on the word ‘reformers.’ But aren’t both sides reformers? We want reforms too, just reforms that are different from the ones they want. I’d like the two sides to get named: Corporate Reformers and Academic Reformers. But they call us anti-reformers and now ‘deniers’ while we call them ‘so-called reformers’ and ‘deformers.’
Page 302: “as in New York, the (charter) schools generally performed better — in fact much better — than public schools.” Well, when you take all the New York City scores, they haven’t changed much in 7 years so what good is that? Charters have selective admissions (through a lottery you have to know how to enter), they counsel kids out before they even enter school, then they counsel kids out during the year too. Of course they will have better scores.
Page 303: “The (charters) proved that intense, effective teaching could overcome poverty” No, they ‘proved’ that if you exclude the bottom kids, you can get better results out of the top kids — which is something every teacher already knew.
Page 303: The claim that charters are so good because they tracked the kids who entered, but did not win, the lottery and compared to kids who entered, but did win, the lottery and the group that won the lottery did better proving that the motivation factor in entering the lottery can’t, by itself, explain KIPPs success. Well, I’m not surprised at all about this supposedly amazing stat. It’s what I’d expect. All it proves, again, is that if you exclude ‘bad’ kids, the scores of the ‘good’ ones will go up. True reform would work on educating all kids, not just the lottery winners among the most motivated.
Page 303: About TFA “by now there was abundant independent research showing that, although teachers with at least three years of experience were generally more effective than all rookies, the TFA corps generally did better than non-TFA teachers in their initial two-year stints.” But most TFA teachers only last 2 or 3 years, so this just proves that TFA commitment should be longer.
Page 304: He writes “Just because tests aren’t perfect doesn’t mean you should not use them at all.” But Ravitch always says that tests are good to use as a diagnostic — not that we should not use them at all.
Page 304 to 305: Here Brill goes into a bizarre rant that since Ravitch gets paid well to make speeches, and that some of those speeches are to unions. Therefore she should identify herself when she goes on television, not as an education historian and professor at NYU, but “as someone who had accepted multiple speaking fees from the unions whose interest she was defending.”
Now, Rhee gets $50,000 per talk. Doesn’t Ravitch deserve $10,000? She’s the leading authority in the world on the history of education in this country. Is Brill familiar with the concept of how a group selects a speaker: They pick someone who says things they want to hear. And sometime, like when Ravitch spoke to KIPP and TFA, she can get paid for saying something to challenge the hosting group. And she’ll charge less or even volunteer for groups that can’t afford her fee if she has time for them.
I think she deserves every penny she gets and maybe even more. Perhaps me and all her 18,000 followers should send her a penny for every twitter tweet. I would.
To have a 480 page book like this with only 3 pages dedicated to Diane Ravitch would be like having a 480 page book about Muhammad Ali with only 3 pages dedicated to Joe Frazier. Brill is obviously afraid to give an accurate depiction of her since educated readers will probably side with her point of view.
After this book was released, Whitney Tilson (Full disclosure: Tilson bought me this book. Do I have to say that I’m a paid DFER spokesperson now?) was so happy with this depiction of Ravitch that he sent the following to his email list:
In light of this revelation, I will from now on ALWAYS refer to Ravitch as “paid union spokesperson Diane Ravitch” – and I urge you to do the same. To be clear, I’m not saying that the unions are paying her to say things that she doesn’t believe – I have no doubt that she’s genuine in her beliefs – but these large payments are a massive conflict of interest that need to be disclosed every time she appears anywhere. Imagine, for example, if I appeared on television commenting on charter schools, KIPP, TFA or DFER and not disclosing my tight affiliations with these organizations…
So he admits “I’m not saying that the unions are paying her to say things that she doesn’t believe – I have no doubt that she’s genuine in her beliefs” which nullifies his entire point.
The full e-mail got much deserved criticism from Alexander Russo and others.
Eventually Tilson takes back some of what he said:
I perhaps took a bit of dramatic license calling Ravitch a “paid union spokesperson” (though I so much liked the acronym, PUS!). To be clear, she is NOT actually a paid union spokesperson. But she has, by her own admission, taken approximately $50,000 in speaking fees from the union over the past year or so and, while not officially a union spokesperson, I cannot find a single thing she’s said or written in recent years that couldn’t have been written by Randi. That said, I do not think the speaking fees she’s received have in any way influenced her views. Rather, she is in demand and able to command speaking fees BECAUSE of her views.
Whether he did this because he had a change of heart or because he was pressured from somewhere, only he knows.
To ‘smear’ Ravitch is really classless of both Brill and Tilson. They think they are ‘winning’ this war since they’ve won a few battles, but she’s seen it all and knows how this will all end — the only question is how many kids will be harmed before the reformers move on to a new pet project? The last sentence of her recent writing says it all “Unfortunately, such research-based strategies are not part of today’s reform movement, which is why it will most assuredly end up in the dustbin of history, like so many others.”
Page 306: Now he’s describing some Race To The Top contenders: About New Orleans “as well as achieving terrific improvements at the schools put under the control of the Recovery School District.” New Orleans schools, as I’ve described in my previous installments is a free-for-all of corruption. Here’s a good article about New Orleans and what’s going on there.
Page 311: D.C. is also a RTTT contender “Yet Rhee’s plans for taking over and turning around the district’s worst schools were solid and based on what she has already done with failing schools.” D.C. schools have made no genuine progress since Rhee came and left. It’s all smoke and mirrors.
Page 316: In round one of RTT, Rhee’s D.C. plan put her dead last out of 16 contenders.
Page 317: Brill keeps using the expression “Nixon-goes-to-China” which, I have to admit, I didn’t fully understand (I had very poor social studies teachers in high school who should have all been fired — though I did do well enough on the Regents.) I looked it up and It’s when a politician does something uncharacteristic for him/herself. Maybe I’m the only person who didn’t get that, but just in case I thought I’d mention it. It seems like Brill has used this expression 10 times already, but it is probably less.
Page 326: DFER is raising money to campaign for changing laws so New York can win the $700 million RTTT money. One commercial they ran said Albany should do what’s right. There are 700 million reasons why.” How about the 1.1 million reasons for them to not take RTTT bribe?
Page 327: Perkins is a New York state senator who is anti-reform. He started to panic about DFERs blitz so called a hearing “he claimed it was because his constituents were complaining about charter schools — to ‘investigate’ what he had heard was profiteering and test score irregularities at the charters.” Why does Brill need to but the quotes around ‘investigate’?
Page 328: They are trying to lift the charter cap in New York. Successful charters, in my opinion, work at the expense of other students. Once you get too many (like New Orleans) the true nature of them gets revealed.
In a meeting with the union about this the union said “It would raise the charter cap but only with so many conditions attached that the current charters would be endangered and new ones would be impossible.” He doesn’t mention what any of those conditions were, but they included things like forcing charters to take their proper share of special needs schools. Charters currently get around that by claiming they don’t have the ability to run classes of size 12 or less to accommodate students who require that in their IEPs.
Page 329: “the unions straightjacket contract.” Nice even description.
Page 332: Rhee gets the power to fire teachers based 40% on test scores. If the theory is correct that this will motivate teachers, it should produce an instant boost. We are still waiting for that boost.
Page 335: LIFO is mentioned for the first time, and dismissed as crazy. LIFO is the policy that when there need to be teacher layoffs, the new teachers get laid off first, regardless of their ‘effectiveness.’ I think LIFO is the best alternative for a lot of reasons. If principals want to fire ineffective teachers, they need to go through the process and build their cases. Ending LIFO would give them a loophole which would make people in charge say we need layoffs when we really don’t. Also, a new teacher getting ‘laid off’ can find another job since they were laid off for their lack of seniority. But if the layoffs are on ‘performance’ that older teacher may not be able to find another job because they are stigmatized as ineffective based on inaccurate measures. Also ending LIFO puts teachers against each other. Why would a veteran want to help a rookie, knowing that they might be laid off when that rookie succeeds. I wrote two posts about this in more detail, LIFO is good and LIFO is good part II.
From 338 to 341: New York gets their wish, 40% of teacher evaluation can be based on student test data. Brill does not mention that not all 40% has to be standardized test data. Up to 20% of that could be some other test data which the teacher could approve of, perhaps. Now they can complete their application to RTTT. There is a big loophole, however, that the law can’t supersede the union contract which says that tests can’t be used for this purpose. Currently, the contract has not been renegotiated so this will not happen until it is. The contract actually expired a few years ago, but stays in effect until the new one is passed. The details of this aspect are yet to be worked out. By the time they are, I believe that they will be pretty meaningless and won’t get many teachers fired but will get everyone teaching to the test, just in case. Just a few days ago a judge ruled that some of this new system was unfair to teachers. According to the article, in the old agreement (and I was not aware of this at all from the reporting a few months ago about the original agreement) if the testing portion of the rating was ineffective, then the entire teachers rating would be ineffective. This would make testing 100% of the rating, unless I’m reading this wrong. This is the part that was ruled unfair which, to me, just got it back to the way I thought it already was.
Page 342: Back in Colorado, Michael Johnston’s bill that 50% of teacher evaluations will be tied to testing is going to get voted on. Right before the vote, one senator had a concern about the fairness of of this plan. The basic question, which is a valid one, is how do the effects of poverty work into this. Is it fair for a teacher who chooses to teach in a high-poverty school and then has to battle all the effects of poverty to get success, to suffer in his or her evaluations while someone teaching in a low poverty schools has an easier time getting gains?
But the problem was that the senator, Max Tyler, said something very controversial. Brill describes this as “One senator who supported the union declared that linking teachers to the test scores of children who were the products of poor and often dysfunctional families was ‘like blaming a baker who gets four filled with maggots.”
A cardinal rule of politics should be, I think, never to use the word ‘maggots’ when talking about the poor.
When I first heard this quote, in a speech Johnston gave at the TFA 20th anniversary, I was initially shocked at first. Was this democrat actually calling poor kids maggots? Then, when I thought about it more, I think that he meant that the rich kids were regular flour and poor kids were the flour too and the maggots were the effects of poverty. And in this reading, I think he makes an excellent point, though in a very stupid way.
I researched this in the Denver post where they describe it this way
Rep. Max Tyler, D-Lakewood, had offered an amendment that Scanlan said she could support: Teachers would not be evaluated on the performance of students who missed more than 10 days of school.
“This is bad,” Johnston said, worried that teachers would try to force kids out of school.
His aide got word to Scanlan, who then said she didn’t support the measure.
Tyler said teachers must handle all types of kids who walk in the door, regardless of their condition coming in. “If you were running a business baking bread and the flour came in to you full of maggots and worms, you would not be able to produce a good product, would you?”
“He just called disadvantaged kids maggots?” Johnston asked in shock. “This is unbelievable.”
Tyler said he was trying to point out that a school can’t be run like a business because a business can choose its own products while public schools have to accept everyone.
He said using maggot-infested flour was a poor analogy and he regretted saying it.
It was a valid point with a poor analogy. Had Tyler consulted me, I could have come up with a more effective Colorado friendly one: If we judge skiers by how often they fall down, is that fair to the skier who chooses to ski the awesome double black diamond trails when other wimps are on the green bunny trails?
And the point about how teachers shouldn’t be ‘accountable’ for students who miss an excessive amount of school — maybe 10 days isn’t the right number, but it is a great point.
The bill passed, and will be implemented in 2014. I wonder how Johnston’s hand picked teachers at the school at which he was principal and who only managed 11% passing on math will fare on the new evaluation system.
Page 345: Brill finally quotes someone with sense, NEA president Dennis Van Roekel, though only as a foil: “In states like Louisiana, Colorado, and Florida, some policymakers propose laws that disrespect educators and trample employee rights and call it education reform.”
Page 348: Bill Gates speaks to NEA: quotes famous misleading stat that USA is now 32nd internationally in math. Reality is that when you just take our schools with less than 25% poverty, they are near the top of the heap above countries with much lower poverty. He also says “There is an expanding body of evidence that says the single most decisive factor in student achievement is excellent teaching.” As I mentioned in an earlier part of this analysis, even Rhee is careful to say “in school factor.” Notice that there is not ‘proof’ just ‘an expanding body of evidence.’