Wednesday, August 20, 2014

All's Fair in Love and Teacher-Bashing

I'm a teacher, so I write about education. But if I were a NY Times columnist, I could write about hedge funds. I probably wouldn't write very well about them because I'm not really clear on what they are. But, like NY Times columnists, hedge fund guys are education experts no matter what, and turnabout is fair play, so there you go.

Frank Bruni used to be a food writer. I'm sure if you want to know where you can get a souffle, he's your guy. Now he's writing about tenure. Here's how he begins:

Mike Johnston’s mother was a public-school teacher. So were her mother and father. And his godfather taught in both public and private schools.

What Mr. Bruni has here is an appeal to authority, a logical fallacy designed to make us accept an argument whether or not it has merit. And there's more of that here.

Arne Duncan, the education secretary, praised the decision. Tenure even drew scrutiny from Whoopi Goldberg on the TV talk show “The View.” She repeatedly questioned the way it sometimes shielded bad teachers.

Well, if they think so, then it must be true, right? After all, they're famous, so they must know. Is that a good argument, or another appeal to authority? Or is it the bandwagon fallacy--Everyone's doing it, so it must be right. Let's take a look at the background of Colorado State Senator Johnston, on whose say-so Bruni appears to have determined tenure is no good:

Johnston spent two years with Teach for America in Mississippi in the late 1990s. Then, after getting a master’s in education from Harvard, he worked for six years as a principal in public schools in the Denver area, including one whose success drew so much attention that President Obama gave a major education speech there during his 2008 presidential campaign.

There's an expert for you. After all, he spent two whole years as a teacher. (That's almost as long as Reformy John King, who spent two in a charter and one in a public school.) Now me, I'd suggest that's not nearly enough time to be a qualified principal, let alone an expert on teachers or tenure. The fact is most teachers love the classroom, and want to be there. I know I do. I question the dedication and ability of anyone who needs to get out after two years.

Take a look at how vague that paragraph is. Six years as a principal, including one that was, supposedly, very successful. First, he was not principal of any single school for six years. Second, who knows how long he was principal of this successful school, who knows whether he was principal when Obama showed up, and who really thinks Obama, who hired DFER stooge Duncan as Education Secretary, knows or cares what a good public school is? Doesn't Obama send his own kids to Sidwell Friends, where they aren't subject to the reformy nonsense he and Arne impose on the rest of us?

And isn't this entire paragraph yet another appeal to authority--authority that is plainly questionable? Isn't TFA a political organization that sends five-week teachers to public schools, an organization that happily sends its young dilettantes to take the positions of Chicago teachers who've been dismissed by Rahm, an organization that got Arne Duncan to declare its five-week wonders were "highly qualified?" I'm left questioning not only Bruni's appeal to authority, but the authority with which we're presented. Let's take a look at what passes for actual argument in Bruni's piece:

“Do you have people who all share the same vision and are willing to walk through the fire together?” he said. Principals with control over that coax better outcomes from students, he said, citing not only his own experience but also the test scores of kids in Harlem who attend the Success Academy Charter Schools.

We've already explored Johnston's experience. Now let's take a look at the Moskowitz academies he so reveres. They have fewer kids with special needs than public schools do, and when kids don't meet expectations, they simply get rid of them. If you let public schools pick and choose, their test scores will go up too. What neither Bruni nor his expert understand is that we serve all kids, we take them as they come, and we don't dump them simply because they struggle, or misbehave, or whatever.

“You saw that when you could hire for talent and release for talent, you could actually demonstrate amazing results in places where that was never thought possible,” he said. “Ah, so it’s not the kids who are the problem! It’s the system.”

And yet, even disregarding Johnson's limited experience and poor grasp of Moskowitz schools, as well as his and Bruni's total lack of documented evidence, this entire concept is an anecdote. We don't even know what he bases it on. But it's the same reformy boilerplate--no excuses. We'll ignore poverty and just focus on the test scores. Was Johnston's school consistently successful? If so, how? If so, why? Who knows?

We need to pay good teachers much more.

Note that it's not "teachers," but rather "good teachers." There are several assumptions implicit here. One, of course, is that of the zombie plague of bad teachers that threatens both mom and apple pie. The other, of course, is that we need merit pay. This indicates that Bruni has not bothered to research merit pay, which has been rearing its ugly head for a hundred years and has never worked anywhere.

Here is Johnston's brainchild, the model to which Bruni sees us aspiring:

I sat down with Johnston, a Democrat who represents a racially diverse chunk of this city in the State Senate, because he was the leading proponent of a 2010 law that essentially abolished tenure in Colorado. To earn what is now called “non-probationary status,” a new teacher must demonstrate student progress three years in a row, and any teacher whose students show no progress for two consecutive years loses his or her job protection.

This is entirely based on value-added, judging from what Bruni says. This method is dubious at best, and junk science at worst. Regular readers of this blog know I see it as the latter. Bruni also bemoans job protections many Americans would envy. I don't blame them. I'm reminded of the story where one farmer says of another, "He has a cow, and I don't. I want his cow to die." For goodness sake, wouldn't it be better if both farmers had cows? My favorite argument in the column, though, comes from newly self-proclaimed education expert Whoopi Goldberg:

“Parents are not going to stand for it anymore,” she said. “And you teachers, in your union, you need to say, ‘These bad teachers are making us look bad.’ ”

This reminds me of nothing so much as the favored argument of bigots. "The bad ones spoil it for the good ones." Why not apply the same logic to criminal justice? Some of those criminals are just bad, so no due process for them. Just toss them in jail without any costly and inconvenient jury trial, because Whoopi Goldberg and Frank Bruni think it's OK.

Another argument bigots favor is, "I'm not a bigot. I know some of those people."

And waddya know, Johnston has teachers in his family. So he must be totally objective. And Bruni writes for the NY Times. So he must also be objective, with no ax to grind whatsoever. Doubtless it's mere coincidence that he was a guest at the wedding of Mr. and Mrs. Campbell Brown, and that he failed to disclose it.

After all, Campbell Brown herself forgot to mention that her husband was a bigshot at Students First, so stuff like that raises no question whatsoever in what passes for journalism these days.

Update: From Leonie Haimson--you left out the most pathetically outrageous thing Johnston said: 

"[Tenure] has a decimating impact on morale among staff, because some people can work hard, some can do nothing, and it doesn’t matter.” 

You see, tenure is what hurting teacher morale, see, not widespread teacher bashing by policymakers and the media, and their insistence that bad teaching is to blame for low student achievement, and/or the concomitant move to diminish their autonomy, disrespect their expertise, and take away their job security, pension, etc.
blog comments powered by Disqus