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Frank Bruni is SO Wrong….

October 29, 2014

“Toward Better Teachers”, Frank Bruni’s column in today’s NYTimes is so full of bad thinking I couldn’t decide where to start… so I started in the middle with this comment that captures the essence of some of the particularly bad ideas espoused by former NYC Commissioner Joel Klein and his fellow “reformers”:

Bruni writes that NYC “…wasn’t (and still isn’t) managing to lure enough of the best and brightest college graduates into classrooms.” The basis for this assertion, according to Joel Klein, is simple: SAT scores! “In the 1990s, college graduates who became elementary-school teachers in America averaged below 1,000 points, out of a total of 1,600, on the math and verbal Scholastic Aptitude Tests… the citywide average for all NYC teachers was about 970.” This raises some questions: Is there ANY study that demonstrates a correlation between good teaching at the elementary level and SAT scores? Is Klein suggesting that NYC use SAT scores to screen teachers? Is Klein suggesting the current “irrational” seniority pay scales be replaced with ones that reward teachers who obtained high SAT scores as a factor?

The notion that SAT scores can be used to identify “the best and brightest” teachers, like so many of the “reform” ideas, uses test results as a means of judging complicated work like teaching. By reducing teacher evaluation to a statistical artifact it becomes possible to rank “performance” with precision… but it is a precision that has nothing to do with the actual art of teaching. Data driven quants like Klein don’t understand the human factors that make teachers successful and motivated. Complicated analytics and differentiated pay might motivate hedge fund investors but they won’t motivate teachers because the best teachers only care about kid.

I’ll use the balance of this post to dissemble each example of bad thinking:

  • …poor parents, like rich ones, deserve options for their kids“. NO… poor parents deserve neighborhood schools that are as well funded and rich in support services and curricular offerings as those offered in affluent suburbs
  •  “Because of union contracts and tenure protections in place when (Klein) began the job, he claimed it was “virtually impossible to remove a teacher charged with incompetence,”. NO… as written in several previous posts , there is no tenure in public schools… and unless it was bargained away it teachers in NYS are required to serve probation before receiving a continuing contract that protects them from being fired for arbitrary and capricious reasons. Oh… and if it WAS bargained away it could be bargained back in again if the Mayor or Klein put it on tble… but neither Klein nor Mayor Bloomberg seemed inclined to seek solutions through collective bargaining.
  • The bogus reasoning that the SAT can serve as a proxy for hiring the “best and brightest” (see above)
  • “…teachers must acquire mastery of the actual subject matter they’re dealing with. Too frequently they don’t.” This “reform meme” was repeated without being challenged by Bruni (or any other NYTimes writer for that matter.) Here’s the fundamental question that needs to be asked of folks like Klein: “What constitutes “mastery of the subject matter” for an elementary teacher? For a music teacher? for a special ed teacher? If certification = mastery then I would be surprised to learn that teachers in NYC “frequently don’t “acquire mastery”. If certification DOESN’T equal mastery, it’s NOT the teachers’ problem, it’s the college and university’s problem and the NYSED’s problem. Oh.. and those Teach For America folks, do THEY have mastery?
  • Pay reform I: Klein advocates having “…teachers paid more for working in schools with “high-needs” students and for tackling subjects that require additional expertise.” The example Klein uses to make his point is paying science teachers more than PE teachers… which overlooks the reality that the teachers who would benefit most from getting a premium of working with “high needs kids” who require additional expertise would be special ed teachers.
  • Pay Reform II: “…“some kind of pay for performance, rewarding success.” Readers of this blog know that a performance pay is an  agreeable fantasy. Enough said.
  • Teachers “…owe us a discussion about education that fully acknowledges the existence of too many underperformers in their ranks.” I await evidence that there are “too many underperformed” in the teaching ranks… but I am also awaiting evidence that standardized tests yield helpful and meaningful information.
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