Oct 01 2011

Panel With Ravitch and Rhee Part II

Click here for part I

Part I ended with Michelle Rhee’s lengthy answer about how the achievement gap was caused, in part, by poor school management, two-prong outlets, and, of course, lack of teacher accountability. Her knowledge of the causes and remedies of the achievement gap must be put into some perspective as this blog post reveals that the achievement gap remained unchanged in D.C. throughout Rhee’s tenure and beyond.

The ‘discussion’ continues with some back-and-forth among the participants commenting on the first round responses.

49:23 to 50:16 Harris: Was asked to address the accountability issue that Rhee brought up. Again points out that people believe that we’re going to solve the problem in 5 years. Shows they don’t respect the problem.

50:16 52:53 Ravitch: On NCLB and accountability “If we took all the billions that went into testing and put it into early childhood education, we would make a big change.” gets big applause.

Moderator asks: How do you assess the teachers without testing?

Ravitch points out study that says when you tie incentives to test scores, the tests become invalid. Students just learn test taking skills.

One argument that hasn’t been made in this discussion, unfortunately, is the issue of how inaccurate the ‘value-added’ models are in measuring teacher effectiveness. Ravitch has so many examples of this that she has used in other discussions, but it would have been very effective here. Even the companies and professors who have designed the models admit that they have a 35% error rate when using just one year of data, which is the amount that most models use. So the ‘subjective’ principal observations are much more accurate than the supposed ‘objective’ value-added measurements based on test scores. ‘Objective’ is not synonymous with ‘accurate.’

52:53 to 54:13 Harris: Without a new model, everything we do is just ‘tweaking.’ Says were are ‘spinning wheels but not getting traction.’ Admits he doesn’t know what this new model should look like.

As much as I like a lot of what Harris has been saying, I think he has moved out of his comfort zone here. He’s correct that the current model is not going to be sufficient for schools to overcome all the distractions of poverty. But any new model, in my opinion, that will be powerful enough to do this would be as costly as fixing poverty itself. And if the choice is to fix poverty or fix schools and it costs about the same, it’s better to fix poverty since that would help many other related problems as well.

More of my opinion on this: Contrary to the people who say that resources don’t matter since we’ve been spending more, but not getting results, it might just be that we’re still not spending enough. Imagine an extreme solution where every student has his own private tutor all day. That would work, but it would bankrupt the country. Without increasing resources dramatically, I believe there is a limit to what schools can accomplish. This is not to say that poor kids are not smart or that they don’t have unlimited potential. It just means that schools will be limited in their abilities to unleash that potential. Certainly a solution based on threatening teachers will only make things worse as people avoid the profession.

54:13 to 56:26 Colmer: “We’re entrenched in a mechanical model” has damaged more people. “Need a model that recognizes that kids come to school underdeveloped.” “You can’t try to teach and, at the same time, ignore development.” He is describing some elements of the improved model. He says that over 43 years he has helped 1000 schools and 2/3 showed improvement while 1/3 showed dramatic improvement. 300 dramatically improved schools over 43 years isn’t really that many.

56:26 to 58:50 Rhee: There is a misperception of the punitive nature of testing. What do you do if data shows that a teacher is making kids lose ground for five years? I wouldn’t want my kids to have that teacher and neither would anyone in this room.

She does not mention that the data ‘proving’ how poor this teacher is is wildly inaccurate.

If this is based on principal observations and interventions, then, yes, I’d like to see an incompetent teacher removed after five years of not showing improvement. It takes a lot of work to fire a teacher, but it is not impossible. The fact is that not that many teachers deserve to be fired. Bad teachers leave the profession since when you are bad the job is miserable. Here’s an analogy I’ve been working on: Teaching is like water skiing. If you stink at it, you get pulled face first and it is not very fun. Only if you are competent enough to get up and make it around the loop would you want to keep doing it.

58:50 to 1:00:01 Ravitch: If principals are master teachers, they would never let that teacher stay in the classroom. Rhee smiles nervously. 50% of teachers leave before 5 years. Teachers get fired all the time. Principals need to observe teachers and also look at test scores.

1:00:01 to 1:00:27 Rhee: Teachers don’t get fired all the time. Less than 1% get fired. Costs $250,000 to do it and takes 3 to 4 years.

1:00:27 to 1:03:08 Comer: Not fair if you don’t prepare teachers. All a test score does is tell you that something is wrong. The model is wrong. If we get caught up on this and miss the importance of preparation of students and preparation of teachers and it won’t be fixed for another 50 years.

Isn’t he supposed to be on Rhee’s side?

1:03:08 to 1:08:53 Harris: The mentality is that someone has to take the hit for this. Blame game is dangerous. Politicians blame teachers. Teachers blame parents. He learned that blaming parents is wrong since when he controlled for it, they only accounted for 7%. Parents get ‘credit’ for things that they aren’t even trying for. Income accounted for 25%. We need more people who know about eduction to work on a solution.

1:08:55 to 1:12:58 Ravitch: What works based on research. Pregnant women need adequate medical and nutritional care. This will prevent learning disabilities. Research based early childhood education. Not investing enough. Class size reduction works, especially for black children. NCLB has dropped arts and physical education. Need more resources.

1:12:58 to 1:15:54 Comer: Need to create better environments. “I don’t believe the school alone can do this job.” The communities are going to have to mobilize.

1:15:54 to 1:18:59 Rhee: No silver bullet, but we need a real sense of urgency. Not OK to say it will take 30 or 40 years.

Rhee, in true Sarah Palin style, whips out one of her favorite quotes she says: “There is a tendency to rationalize poor performance by implying poverty equals destiny so no one is to blame for failure. The challenge to public education today is not to reinforce the correlation between achievement and social class, but to sever it.” Then she reveals that this is a quote from none other than Diane Ravitch. This is a low-blow. Ravitch acknowledged that this was from an old Washington Post piece she wrote a while back, and says that she still believes it. Certainly when Ravitch wrote that she was not implying that teachers are solely to blame for failure. Also she was right that the ‘challenge’ to public education at that time was to sever the correlation. That is still the challenge.

Diane Ravitch admits very clearly in her most recent book that she has changed her mind about many of her old ideas, as evidence surfaced that contradicted them. Perhaps one day Michelle Rhee will do the same.

Rhee then says that we need to do anything we can to solve the problem. This sounds good, but when her solutions make the problem worse then we have to have patience and wait for better solutions.

No Rhee appearance would be complete without some reference to the claim that having a top quartile teacher three (or in this panel she says four — which one is it?) it can literally close the achievement gap. I’ve studied this research and it it not quite what it says. The most cited study done in Dallas which I’ve written about here and here, has examples where they compare the results of students who have had three ‘effective’ teachers vs. students who have had three ‘ineffective’ teachers. For what they show, it looks like a dramatic difference. When I read the report closely I learned that the assignment to the teachers has bias which corrupts all the data. Also I learned that most combinations of teachers got similar results, with the exception of the 3 ineffective teachers in a row. The conclusion was that schools should try to ensure that students get a mix of teachers to avoid having three poor ones in a row — not to fire the teachers. Also, there is the circular reasoning that ‘effective’ is defined as getting test scores up so the study proves that teachers who get test scores up get test scores up.

1:18:59 to 1:21:02 Ravitch: Refutes the 3 great teachers in a row studies. Where are these great teachers going to come from?

1:21:02 to 1:24:16 Harris: Urgency is different from impulse. “We have to be intelligent about this.” Better to retrain teachers than to fire them. Schools of Ed do not get the best students since they go to the higher paying jobs. Have to elevate the prestige of the profession. Impulse leads us to waste money just tweaking the same model. In response to Rhee saying she doesn’t want to wait 30 years, he says a solution that will take 20 years instead of 60 years which works is better than one that is proposed to fix it in 2 years and does more harm.

I like this distinction — saying it is urgent does not mean we have to panic and act impulsively. This is just what the reformers are doing.

1:24:16 to 1:26:08 Comer: Policy makers need to know how children learn. School should have a culture which will help teachers.

1:26:08 to 1:27:19 Rhee: There is no harder job than being a teacher. When people said being chancellor is hard, she said that teaching “24, 26, or 30 kids” is much harder. Is that what class sizes are in D.C.? Sounds like a good argument for smaller class size. Says we need to reward our best teachers. Need to be in an environment where they feel respected and valued. How does evaluating teachers with an error prone tool make anyone feel respected and valued. How would a great teacher feel when one of her less talented peers gets a bonus based on value-added test scores and she doesn’t?

1:27:19 to 1:30:54 Harris: Parent involvement isn’t as easy as it sounds. Black parents are more punitive. Ironically, punitive responses lead to decline in achievement. Parents need to learn how to be involved. I wonder if he is hinting that Rhee’s punitive policies will lead to decline in teaching effectiveness.

Rhee’s best moment on her toes is when she asks about punitive Asian parents. Harris tries to explain how it is different, but I didn’t follow his reasoning.

1:30:54 to 1:33:57 Ravitch: Threats and rewards do not work. Merit pay has never worked for improving achievement. Teachers are motivated by a sense of purpose, not for money.

1:33:57 to 1:35:22 Comer: Says something vague. I think the panel is getting a bit tired. Fortunately they are about to move onto a summary and then Q and A.

Click here for part III

7 Responses

  1. Cal

    “(Giving each kid a private tutor) would work, but it would bankrupt the country.”

    It would work? Really? I very much doubt it.

    • Gary Rubinstein

      I don’t think I explained it clearly. I meant that if we somehow managed a one to one student teacher ratio where a student got constant attention all day — not just an extra tutor. It’s like saying anyone can get in shape if they have a full time personal trainer and nutritionist.

      • Cal

        No, I knew what you meant. But do you genuinely think that every single kid with a private tutor could, for example, learn algebra or learn how to genuinely write analytical essays about literature? I think that overstates the role of teaching and ignores cognitive ability.

  2. Teaching is all about creating an environment in which children can set aside their cares and concerns (which are always mercurial at best), and focus on the lesson at hand. Short of that, (as in the focus of the value added models) we will get (in terms of achievement) what the innate intelligence of the child gives us. I teach because I inspire kids to think outside of their own peculiar and unique box.

  3. Richard Stanton

    The story of the two-pronged outlets could illustrate many points about the achievement gap. For one, we don’t really check to see if the proper wiring is installed before we send out the hardware. This basic failure to anticipate problems is commonplace, and it accounts for the ineffectiveness of many initiatives. My own opinion is that somewhere between the salesman, the district office buyers, the building level…someone should be responsible and check the wiring, or its equivalent in any analogy.

  4. I would not think Comer is on Rhee’s side, in general. Or at least his perspective is far, far more nuanced, and I don’t think you can really be on Rhee’s side and nuanced.

  5. “Urgency is different from impulse” is a key understanding, I think. When Tony Miller came to SFUSD, he talked a lot about the SIG program being “bold”, because the problem is urgent and we need fast, “bold” responses. We’ve had a lot of fast and bold initiatives while I have been a teacher, and they’ve all failed. All this bold speed has taken up a lot of time.

    I think it’s unfair to give any credence to the idea that “we’ve tried money”. We haven’t. In California, school funding’s been heading down for years, and even occasional upward trends aren’t getting us any closer to what schools had in the 70s (before Proposition 13).

    Bold and expensive initiatives – Reading First comes to mind – may have failed, but that doesn’t mean we’ve tried money. Reading First dollars rarely made it to schools – they went to private publishers and the creation of new administrative systems. I don’t think giving money to traditionally well-monied interest groups really counts as “we’ve tried money” – especially when all that money still means classroom teachers are cleaning their own rooms and buying pencils.

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