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NYTimes Editor’s Shoddy Research Yields Bad Conclusion

April 14, 2013

“Helping Teachers Learn”, today’s NYTimes editorial by Brent Staples, is an example of how effective the privatization movement public relations machine works and how ineffective the Times’ research board is. Staples’ editorial opens with the conclusion that three conclusions relative to teacher evaluation can be drawn from the Atlanta cheating scandal:

The first is that overemphasizing scores is a mistake. The second is that teacher evaluation systems — now under development in most states — will be of little use unless they include mechanisms for showing teachers who receive average ratings how to become great, or at least good, at what they do. And finally, the country will not build a first-rate teacher corps solely by threatening to fire people who are less than perfect early in their careers.

After elaborating on his argument, he offers a model plan:

But some reformers are recommending the model used by Aspire Public Schools, a K-12 charter school group that serves more than 12,500 mainly low-income students in California. Aspire says that 100 percent of its high school graduates are admitted to four-year colleges. Forty percent of a teacher’s evaluation relies on test scores — 30 percent from the teacher’s own students and 10 percent from the overall school results. But 60 percent is taken from classroom observations, peer feedback and student and parent surveys.

This elicited several questions:

  1. WHO are the “reformers” who made this recommendation?
  2. “Aspire says…” is not exactly a reliable source… especially given the way charters are allowed to calculate their graduation rates. Did Staples dig at all to see if this is a valid statistic?
  3. How many of Aspire’s teachers have been on the job for an extended period of time? My guess: very few since Aspire has only been in existence for a few years.
  4. Is basing 40% on test scores a de-emphasis? Until RTTT only a handful of schools, mostly in TN, used test scores as a basis for evaluation and they were on the way to abandoning their use.
  5. Did the Times do ANY research on Aspire’s track record instead of relying on the say so of “some reformers” and Aspire’s PR department?

Had the Times searched Diane Ravitch’s blog page, a logical place to see if there is any adverse information about a particular charter “brand”,  they might have qualified their praise for Aspire’s evaluation model and expressed admiration for their PR department. Ravitch’s blog post in March of this year reported that Aspire was taking over the several Memhpis TN schools… and was getting a little help from its friends:

It comes with a big wad of money to guarantee success. The perks are munificent, since the chain has set aside $100,000 for marketing before the school opens this fall under private management.

Philanthropists–eager to prove that privatization works better than public schools–have pledged $28 million to help Aspire take over ten public schools in Memphis over a five-year period. The federal government–eager to support Secretary Duncan’s belief that private management is always superior to public control–has awarded Aspire a tidy $800,000.

You do have to wonder how long that kind of money will be available as new charters open and multiply, or is this just a very high-priced marketing gimmick to sell the idea.

Meanwhile, Aspire is wooing children and parents with games and free trips to California.

It would have been wonderful for those 10 schools being taken over by a charter chain to get 28.8 million dollars over five years. Let’s see… some back of the envelope math indicates that would mean at least $25,000 per classroom per year in 10 schools with 500 students each. Clearly, a chain with enough money to spend $100,000 on PR and to recruit parents with games and free trips is NOT comparable in any way to the public schools that struggle in poverty stricken districts. Can you imagine the outcry if the Memphis public schools spent $100,000 on PR and gave prizes to parents to recruit them?

Maybe in their next editorial they will indicate that some reformers think an additional $1,000 per student— less than the amount earmarked for Aspire—  would help public schools do a better job.

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