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Duncan’s Memo Redux

October 29, 2014 Comments off

A few weeks ago I posted on an article the NYTimes wrote touting a 37 page letter from Arne Duncan urging “…state officials, superintendents and principals to monitor policies and facilities and to make sure they are equitably distributed among students of all races.” As I noted in my earlier post, the letter is full of data that readers of this blog and other progressive blogs are well aware of: black students have fewer opportunities to take AP courses, advanced math courses, to be taught be certified teachers, and to attend school facilities that are equal to those available to affluent students. This letter is no different from ones I recall receiving from secretaries of education from the Reagan administration through this one… and they have probably been coming out since Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954.

Today the Times editors wrote a piece touting this memo again… but instead of focussing on the need for equitable allocation of school funds at the State level, they focused on teacher quality. at the district level. Here’s the closing paragraph:

The new guidance rightly focuses on teacher quality and says the department’s investigations will seek to expose school districts that unjustifiably provide minority children with ineffective, poorly trained teachers. Policies don’t have to be intentionally discriminatory to be illegal; race-neutral but ill-considered strategies can also have a terrible effect on minority students.

Residential housing patterns and historic town boundaries create the inequities that exist among school districts NOT district practices. Demonstrably unfair funding formulas create resource disparities NOT district practices. Duncan and Obama and the NYTimes are all blaming school districts from inequities that are not of their own making. Given this reality, I wrote the following letter to the editors of the Times: 

Secretary Duncan and President Obama need to stop exhorting DISTRICTS to equalize resources and take action where STATES have failed to do so. Over the past several decades all but five states have been sued over inequities in school funding. At the same time federal funds have been allocated to every district in the country, even the most affluent. Mr. Duncan wanted to ensure that resources applied more equitably he could take action in states where legislatures have not responded to court decisions calling for changes to the funding systems by directing all federal funds to those districts that state courts identified as being short-changed. If State legislatures fail to provide every child with an equal opportunity, the federal government has a responsibility to do so…. and writing persuasive memos will not change anyone’s behavior in the next two years any more than it has for the past 60.

 

You cannot expect the Philadelphia school district to adhere to a guideline that resources be equitably allocated when their budget provides roughly $7,000/student less than Lower Merion School District. It is not Philadelphia’s fault that they are under-resourced and allocating scarce funds among decrepit undermanned schools is no remedy. Secretary Duncan, President Obama, and the Times should put the spotlight where it belongs: on State legislatures who have not addressed lawsuits that call for changes in the funding formulas.

Frank Bruni is SO Wrong….

October 29, 2014 Comments off

“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.

Disinvestment in Public Education

October 28, 2014 Comments off

This just in: most states are spending less on colleges and K-12 education. As a result:

  • Tuition costs for colleges are increasing (see chart below) making it increasingly difficult for students raised in poverty to afford college and increasing the debt of those who CAN afford to get in.
  • School districts who serve children raised in poverty and therefore rely heavily on State funding are receiving less per pupil making it increasingly difficult for them to succeed in schools
  • Public colleges and K-12 schools are either increasing class sizes or laying off teachers or both… and neither public colleges or public schools are compensating teachers at the levels they received before the recession.

We are in the midst of state and national campaigns… and no one running for office in my state (NH) is talking about increasing funding levels for public education at any level and from what I’ve read NO one is campaigning on a platform that advocates increased spending for education… but EVERYONE who is running claims to be in full support of “improving” education. It would be nice if those seeking improvements acknowledged that school improvement, like , say, home improvement, required more money. When it comes to college, the cost is shifted to students and when it comes to K-12 schooling, the cost is shifted to homeowners, and affluent homeowners can and will dig a little deeper to retain good schools while those in less affluent areas cannot increase their taxes to get the same yield. …. and the divide widens….

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