The Counterfeit Condemnation

Those darned teachers’ unions! They work as always, according to The New York Times, to come between the people and good education. If only they and Congress would continue to support standardized testing, ‘value’-‘added’ ‘metrics’, and the Common Core as Duncan has taught us to do, things would be fine in US education.

I have never been close enough to a teachers’ union to know personally whether it was ‘an old-stone savage…[that] moves in darkness’, though that seems improbable given what I do know[1]. Nonetheless, for the sake of argument I will assume that is true and that they are the primary enemy of good education, just to see what comes of the argument. Let us also assume that they have somehow rightly and justly vanished or exist nominally with no power.

We may further suppose that VAMs of students’ ‘achievement’ as determined by standardized tests in English and math are connected to personnel actions for teachers—say, terminations, raises and promotion—and administrative decisions such as school closures. What does that get us?

1.     Norman Polikoff of USC has shown that the correlation of VAMs to students’ learning is very low. The state of Tennessee used English test scores as the VAMs of their music and PE teachers, which suggests the possibility of negative correlation, except in PE classes where students drill grammar instead of sports. These findings are supplemented by those of New York City’s Independent Budget Office that the VAM formulas are deeply flawed.

2.     Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford has shown that in places that have adopted VAMs only 20% of teachers who score as ‘proficient’ do so the following year. This is not because they are in the habit of falling into persistent vegetative states but because the ratings are as volatile as a game of chance.

3.     Maria Ruiz-Primo of the University of Colorado (Denver) has shown that the ability of tests to capture learning decreases the more distant they are from learning itself, and that state and national standardized tests are the least likely of the test types she has examined to capture what students learn.

4.     Raj Chetty of Harvard has found that ‘value added is difficult to predict based on teacher observables.’ This means that it is difficult to know what a teacher’s VAM rating will be by observing how he conducts a class. How evidence-based!

These writers’ findings on education, taken together, suggest that VAMs are a useless and capricious measurement and that any system which uses them to evaluate teachers will be acting arbitrarily. The effect of such a system will be wayward, counterproductive and demoralizing. What intelligent person would choose a career working under such conditions? What right-minded policymaker would insist that such a system continue?

Other results would ensue. Salary scales would tend to flatten for senior teachers (assuming there are any) since no one would be fighting to keep them. Charter schools, looking for ways to make a profit at someone’s expense, would certainly flatten their salary scales. Many ‘CEOs’ of charter schools already publicly say that they don’t want teachers who have been around a while. Instead, they want short-timers, backpackers, and interns young and compliant enough to be used and then discarded after a few years (hence charter schools’ 24% annual faculty turnover). Alternatively, raises would be given on the basis of VAM ratings. Few teachers would survive the Volatile Arbitrary Measurement crapshoot with the two successive years of highly effective ratings needed to receive ‘merit’ raises. More disincentive, if such were needed, to clever and promising young people to become teachers.

Please note that in all this reform nothing has been done to improve the quality of teacher education or the standard of teachers’-college graduates. How bad are the teachers’ colleges? We could quibble, but if a study can find that only 7% of them offer ‘strong support [to student teachers] from program staff and cooperating teachers,’ most of them must not be very good.

Finally there is the fact that before students can be made college-ready or career-ready, they must be work-ready. Work-readiness does not come miraculously to most young people: it must be nurtured and developed by sound child-rearing, which does not mean permissive-indulgent ‘parenting’ and schools that give away the store. In the article the Times linked to its editorial, a boy called Imari Nicholson, after failing chemistry, pulls up his socks and aces it because he wants the college-readiness an A in chemistry will bring him. He implicitly rejects crapthink solutions provided by indulgent educationists or parents—or he doesn’t have such teachers or parents.

The Times would do well to look at all the things that can come between a child and a good education:  poor or dysfunctional upbringing, fecklessness, poor teacher education, poor school administration, lightweight curricula, counterproductive demands by government, administration by idiotic statistical systems instead of finesse and good judgment—and, yes, self-serving teachers’ unions. To concentrate on just one of them will all but guarantee that nothing changes and that some things worsen.

[1] For example: If it were true, how could the highly unionized system of education in Massachusetts produce what are widely recognized as the US’s best school results? Or, for that matter, Finland’s highly unionized system?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.