An Unsettling New Argument

The past week saw new heights in anti-public ed reformers attempting to contort reality to fit their agendas. But the most incredible (and dangerous) example of reality bending comes from Vicki Phillips, writing on the Gates Foundation’s “ImpatientOptimists” blog. Ms. Philips begins her recent post describing Miss Marjorie, “the hardcore head teacher of McQuady Elementary,” who taught Phillips “hard work, how to treat my peers, how to respect my elders and how to hold myself accountable.”  Phillips also claims “The bond I had with Miss Marjorie was the strongest I ever had with a teacher. I would have done anything for her, and she would have done anything for me.”

But alas, Phillips has come to bury Miss Marjorie, not to praise her. The point of Vicki Phillip’s hatchet job is that, despite her good intentions, Miss Marjorie was a failure. “I realized later that what Miss Marjorie had been teaching me wasn’t going to get me ready. She taught me how to diagram a sentence, but I didn’t know how to write that sentence in an essay. I learned how to follow directions, but I couldn’t find my way when I got lost.”

Peter Greene, blogging at Curmudgucation, calls BS on this, pointing out that the notion that Phillips “wasn’t ready” is not exactly supported by the evidence: “Vicki Phillips has two college degrees, spent time in a classroom, was a superintendent, and rose through various edu-supervisory positions to now act as the edu-mouthpiece for one of the richest men in the world. Damn that Miss Marjorie and the life of abject failure she condemned Vicki Phillips to.

Of course, Phillips doesn’t blame Miss Marjorie herself for being a failure – the issue is that teachers just don’t have the support they need to get the job done. But as Greene notes,

By using our context clues and doing some close reading, we can quickly conclude that as used by Phillips, “supported” means “fixed.”

This is one of the premises of the Gates Approach To Education– teachers do not know what they’re doing, and they’ll never figure it out until someone ‘splains it to them. And let’s combine this with another Gates premise– the definition of a Good Teacher is “one whose students get better scores on the Big Standardized Test.

Greene is spot on with this, but there is something potentially more troubling: Phillips is taking a new tack here. Teachers have long made the point that one of the biggest problems with standardized tests is that they don’t measure the many other things we teach our students, such as persistence, creativity, critical thinking, self-discipline, empathy, leadership, etc. Up to this point, the response from the reform crowd has been to ignore this argument. But now, Phillips is claiming that these elements have no value. One can infer that time spent on this non-academic goals is not only unnecessary, but potentially harmful, as they take time that could be better spent raising expectations or achieving higher standards (or insert other buzzwords) which, in reality, translate to nothing more than “get higher scores on standardized tests.”

Let’s hope this argument doesn’t take off. What we do matters. We teach children, not test takers. And if Vicki Phillips wants to spit in Miss Marjorie’s face for trying to make her a better human being, that’s a shame. We appreciate you, Miss Marjorie. At least you made the effort.

Newsday’s Survey and What it Means

A Newsday editorial piece today reporting on the results of their survey about opt-outs contained a very interesting finding:

Of those whose kids skipped the tests, three-quarters said the biggest reason was not wanting the tests tied to teacher evaluations.

Some observations:

First, we need to be careful not to read too much into this. We know that polls are unreliable, and we can’t pick and choose results that confirm what we want to hear. The article itself acknowledges that the survey is unscientific, there were only 300 respondents (and they were skewed toward opt-outers), and (as one of the commenters complains) the closed-ended choices for listing reasons were limited and did not allow for parents to provide their own reasons for opting out.

That said, even with all those caveats, it is heartening to read that there are parents out there who recognize that basing teacher evaluations on student test scores is not just bad policy, but policy bad enough to warrant standing up to. We hear this from local parents, but it’s good to know it’s a feeling that’s shared across the Island (again, even if this survey can’t tell us the true number).  There is a constant refrain that teachers unions are looking out for teachers at the expense of the children, but of course, as this issue shows, what’s right for us and what’s right for our students are not in opposition, but in synchronicity. It benefits no one – not the students, not the communities, and obviously not teachers, to have good educators fired (or living in fear) due to the zip code in which they teach or due to statistical anomalies beyond their control.

If you look at the page of reader’s letters on opting-out, quite a few contain disclosures like “the writer is an educator” or “the writer’s wife is a teacher.” A cynical reader could extend this further and wonder if perhaps most of the respondents who named teacher evaluations as their main reason for opting-out were, in fact, teachers.  To which I would respond, that’s probably not true, but so what if it is?

The folks in the anti-teacher crowd frequently lose sight of the fact that teachers are parents, taxpayers, and are the people who are most knowledgeable about the field of education. The refrain is constant – we are supposed to stay on the sidelines in this argument because we are too biased. And how do we respond to that? All too often by giving in and staying on the sidelines. That has to end.

Despite the doubtful validity of this data, we can, and should take this as an important sign. We can – and should – leave the opt-out part of this debate with the parents, but we ALL must be part of the larger picture battle. We have to be united against the forces that are trying to destroy public education and that means making public statements. Yes, we need to continue to send emails, and faxes, etc, but we need to be out there in public –  supporting the parents, supporting our students, and supporting each other.

There will, no doubt, be more rallies this year. Please, make a commitment to attend at least one .

Andrew Cuomo’s Psychological Warfare

Governor Cuomo doesn’t want to fire teachers en masse. What he’s actually up to is far more cunning and nefarious. 

Looking over the new education laws Governor Cuomo rammed through the legislature, one particular thing stands out as just not making sense. Yes, from the point of view of a rational, educated person, none of it makes sense. But even viewed through the lens of what we all know the Governor is trying to do, one particularly odd thing stands out.

Following up on a story he planted read in Newsday, Cuomo started ranting about how the teacher rating system was skewed toward teachers, resulting in a system in which too many teachers were rated effective or highly effective. Specifically the issue was the scoring bands, and he vowed to fix this and to increase the weight of tests to 50%. 

As the budget deal neared, different scenarios for revising the evaluation system were leaked out, coming so quickly that there was little time to truly examine any of them. The one that made it to the final bill was a matrix that sort of, but not exactly, gave test scores 50% weight. 

An interesting feature of this matrix is that a teacher who is rated effective or highly effective based on observations is guaranteed to be developing or higher overall. In other words, under this new system, a teacher cannot lose his/her job over test scores alone. 

This can be viewed as good news, but it doesn’t seem to add up. We know that Cuomo is not averse to firing teachers. He’s said so publicly, and his pronouncement that he wants to break the only remaining public monopoly certainly suggest he’s okay with firing lots of them. And yet, simultaneous with changes to the 3020-A process which will make it easier to fire “ineffective” teachers, he essentially built in a throttle system that will limit (or at least not greatly increase) the number of teachers who are given this rating. 

Contrast this with how this could have been done. Nobody was calling for a matrix model, so the existing points system could have easily been kept in place and it wouldn’t have been questioned (other than by all the experts who keep pointing out that teacher evaluations shouldn’t be tied to test scores, of course). The logical thing to do would be to simply adjust the scoring bands, which is what he seemed to be pointing to all along. Not only would this have been simpler, but even if he kept testing at 40%, it would have had the effect of dragging more teachers into the ineffective range and setting them up to be fired.

Cuomo is many things (most of which are not printable here), but he is not a complete idiot, which means he knows that his new system will not result in mass firings. How can this be? Is it even a little possible that the Governor is actually trying to do the right thing for students and is not out to destroy public education and get revenge on teachers for not endorsing him?

My apologies to everyone who just spit their coffee on their phones and computers. Just having a little fun with you. Obviously Cuomo couldn’t care less about kids or teachers. But he realizes that a system that would label substantial numbers of teachers ineffective AND force their firing all at once would be chaos. The backlash would be enormous and even he would be unable to avoid having the blame focused squarely on him. So what is his game? 

Clearly it’s psychological warfare.

Let’s take a look at another aspect of the matrix. As positive as it is that a teacher rated effective or highly effective on observations cannot be rated ineffective overall, it’s also true that a teacher labeled ineffective on test scores cannot be rated higher than developing. 

Why is this so important? Why would Cuomo be so set on affixing a label that does not have any real teeth to it?

If it doesn’t involve firing tenured teachers, how does having more teachers rated developing help advance Cuomo’s agenda?

It Breaks Morale
It doesn’t matter how much we know that these ratings are BS labels based on BS data, it is completely demoralizing for an experienced veteran to be told they are “developing.” As Eva Moskowitz knows, it’s easier to control people when you break their spirit, and it’s easier to bust unions when you can turn people against each other, which is just what labels like this will do.

It Slowly Turns Parents Against Us
Studies show that parents tend to look unfavorably on public schools in general, but believe that their own teachers and schools are doing well. But “evidence” that many of the teachers in their children’s schools are not effective, but are just “developing,” may begin to erode that trust – or at least that may be what the Governor is hoping for.

It Erodes Tenure From The Outside
Building on the previous point, as parents and community members see large percentages of teachers rated developing, will there be a push to end seniority rules and tenure protections to get the dead wood out?

It Erodes Tenure From The Inside
As noted in another post, this matrix, combined with new rules for earning tenure, will make it much more difficult for new teachers to earn tenure, potentially changing the face of the next generation of prospective candidates. Might another side effect be a shift in attitude where potential teachers view tenure not as a benefit but as a hindrance that they are willing to forgo?

Is this really the plan? Obviously it is pure speculation, as it’s impossible to know what’s inside Governor Cuomo’s head.  Did the fourth grade teacher he had a crush on go and get married mid-year? Is he still pining for his lost sled?  Is his heart simply two sizes too small? We may never know.

What we do know is that there are far-reaching consequences to all of this and, above all else, we need to stick together and keep the pressure on the legislature to fix this mess.