Teaching in California and Farming in Connecticut

A lawsuit to break the system of tenure for teachers in California is receiving sympathetic media coverage. That coverage is notable because of mistaken assumptions and sloppy thinking strewn through it and the suit like boulders in New England farmland. Traditional New England values included the notion that there are some things we must do even if they are difficult, usually by combining hard work and canniness: hence the reputation of Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee and General Grant’s Connecticut farmer[1]. It is safe to say that the plaintiffs and their reporters are not Connecticut farmers, or they would be examining some of the alternatives.

It is hard to know which is the biggest obstacle in the field, but let’s start with the chief piece of “research” cited by the plaintiffs in the suit, and taken at face value in the coverage. Last June I wrote a posting sharply questioning that very research. My readers are invited to examine the questions and comments, but I will focus here on just one problem, which the researchers themselves admit: there is little connection between their judgment of “effectiveness” and what they call “teacher observables.” Put in clear terms, it means that their classification system is almost entirely disconnected from the ability or even the need to see the good things “effective” teachers do or the bad things “ineffective” teachers do. Thus, while some “ineffective” teachers may indeed hand out stupid worksheets to their classes so they can drink coffee & catch up on their Facebook, other “ineffective” teachers may do everything right but be victimized by an unreliable[2] statistical “method.”

In Philip Dick’s story “The Minority Report,” people are identified and imprisoned for “Pre-crime,” i.e., crime that clairvoyants have said they will commit at some time in the future. Our researchers’ methods and their advocates in lawsuits and school administration do Dick’s precogs one better by detecting “Un-crime,” that is, the statistical stigmatization of “bad” teachers without reference to any time, any observed bad behavior, or indeed any behavior at all. Ironically, on the same day as the latest report on the lawsuit, the Times ran an article on bringing up moral children that distinguished between guilt, the result of particular acts that can be avoided or atoned for, and shame, a generalized and ineffaceable state of odium not due to any act in particular. Evidently what leads to good morals in children can be dispensed with in adults, for the label “ineffective,” like the state of “shame” or the judgment “pre-criminal,” inheres without regard to actions.

At least the Connecticut farmer knows that his fields have a chance if only he takes the time & makes the effort to remove the rocks and till the soil. By contrast, the parents and students of California have no guarantee that witch-hunting by statistics and “No man, no problem[3]” management will do their schools any good. What intelligent potentially good teacher will enter a system that reserves the right to stigmatize and fire him for no identifiable misbehavior? This system could remove rocks that are not in the field while leaving behind the rocks that are.

As for tillage: what if the people replacing terminated teachers are themselves no great shakes? A study released nearly a year ago plausibly claimed that only 7% of teacher education programs “provide strong support” to candidate teachers. In the posting I wrote on this study I also suggested that school administrators might adopt some of the practices the study recommends for schools of education. Why, they might even invite teachers to help each other improve their work by peer evaluation! But it would take a lot of work and dedication. Ways of doing so are out there, including  one I have written about.

The catch with the alternatives sought by the plaintiffs in the California lawsuit is that though they appear to promise less work and more automatic science than farming in Connecticut, they also promise less success than the farmer will get by sizing up the scope of his problems realistically, rolling up his sleeves, and proceeding with probity, good sense  and hard work to solve them.


[1] If you have not read the opening pages of General Grant’s Personal Memoirs, praised by such diverse admirers as Mark Twain himself, Gertrude Stein, Edmund Wilson and Gore Vidal, you have missed a treat. These pages include a famous story about boyhood horse-trading gone wrong, and the reference to the Connecticut farmer. The later pages are very good too, but their focus is largely on his military career.

[2] To see just how unreliable, read this.

[3] “Death solves all problems. No man, no problem,” said Marshal Stalin. Of course the sort of education administrator who “makes tough decisions” cannot be compared to Stalin because his methods replace death with termination.

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