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Diane Ravitch, Mario Cuomo, Standard and Poors, and the Mathbabe

February 5, 2015

Diane Ravitch wrote a post yesterday on NYC Chancellor Farina’s testimony that included a lengthier quote from Governor Mario Cuomo in rebuttal to Dr. Farina’s remarks (with my emphasis added):

“The test is really the only easy answer because it is objective numerical data and it was the same test with the same demographic,” Cuomo told a group of reporters and editors from The Buffalo News on Tuesday.”

The quote acknowledges what was already evident to most educators: he, like most politicians, is NOT looking for the BEST answer, he is looking for the EASY answer… and he’s also looking for a CHEAP and FAST answer. If anyone begins with the assumption that “bad teachers” are the reason students are failing state assessments and is, therefore, looking for a cheap, fast, and easy way to assess teacher performance, then VAM is the answer. If anyone wants to help students who are struggling in school, they know the answer is complicated, expensive, and time consuming.

Secondly, based on my reading of yesterday’s post by blogger Cathy O’Neill (aka the Mathbabe) Standard and Poors used that very phrase to defend themselves in a lawsuit they lost. In her post she quotes from Bloomberg:

S&P said in its request to dismiss the case that the government can’t base its fraud claims on S&P’s assertions that its ratings were independent, objective and free of conflicts of interest because U.S. courts have found that such vague and generalized statements are the kind of “puffery” that a reasonable investor wouldn’t rely on.

She then goes on to analogize VAM to Standard and Poors:

…(P)retty much all of the models make claims of being objective. It’s part of the marketing for those models, a requirement to lure people into using complex, mathematical black boxes instead of their own brains, and crucially, in place of their own sense of fairness and accountability.

Example: Value-added models for teachers are showered with claims of objectivity (see page 4 of this marketing brochure for example), even though those claims are questionable at best.

I believe Mario Cuomo is capable of understanding the flaws with VAM but he is also capable of understanding the power of puffery. He’s a shrewd politician who knows that voters, like those who purchased the worthless derivatives sold on Wall Street, can be lured into “using complex, mathematical black boxes instead of their brains and in place of their own sense of fairness and accountability.” The teachers defamed by the flawed statistics and the students whose needs will continue to be ignored will be collateral damage as Cuomo wages his campaign to persuade voters that he can improve schools by getting rid of bad teachers and privatization.  

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