That’s some fire-and-brimstone rhetoric you’re using, Gary. You’re absolutely right that pro-reform people like me are not doing a good job if we want to hide our tracks for when the reform-apocalypse is nigh. I’m not too worried though.
I don’t like being deemed ‘moderate’ – because I think ‘moderates’ too often just vapidly demand that we ‘do what’s right for kids’ – but I do think it’s completely appropriate and necessary for reformers to dissent, argue, and hold each other ‘accountable.’ (The irony there is intended.)
As to the politics, I’m not as pessimistic as you are optimistic – that is, I’m not worried that the tide will shift so quickly against reformers. Put it in perspective: almost every Republican politician is ‘pro-reform’ and a huge number of Democrats are too. It would take a massive shift of the political landscape to wind up where you predict.
I do sense some shift though. I think reformers are correctly realizing – as I’ve written about before – that alienating teachers is not an effective method for enacting reform. Admittedly, it’s not entirely clear what this kinder, gentler reform looks like.
On that front, let me posit one example and a suggestion. You recently took Kevin Huffman to task for a proposal that would bring experienced, highly rated teachers into low-performing schools. I personally think it’s a terrific idea; as I’m sure you know, high-poverty schools are often staffed by the most inexperienced teachers. Huffman’s proposal would attempt to ameliorate that problem.
The Memphis teachers’ union president, Keith Williams replied to this eminently sane idea with an utter non sequitur: “These teachers will not be able to make a substantial difference in these communities, which have economic deprivation, massive poverty and are disconnected from the fiber of society. Those students don’t do well until you put other programs in place for their families.” Regardless of whether this is true, it does not respond to the substance of Huffman’s proposal. Is Williams suggesting that because schools can’t change everything, we shouldn’t try to change schools?
I happen to agree with you that it doesn’t make sense to withhold the full $7,000 bonus from teachers who participate in the program but do not achieve a certain rating. (This is particularly true in consideration of the statistical noise in value-added measures.) This sort of feedback, I think, is an excellent example of where there is room for teachers and reformers to work together. But instead of trying to improve Huffman’s proposal, the union chose to bash it.
On the topic of school choice, I think your analogy to clubs is illustrative: Why don’t we just have the government-run clubs? Why not let the government take over restaurants too? The answer is that many people believe that competition and the market lead to a host of good things: innovation, price reduction, diversification, better service.
Do you think we should nationalize our clubs and restaurants? And if we had such a system, would those who wanted to change it be waging a ‘war on restaurant workers?’ If government-run schools are such a great idea, why not have government-run restaurants?
A sensible answer is that restaurants are different than schools. Diane Ravitch often makes a similar point. I do think that choice supporters like myself have to acknowledge some degree of truth to that. I have been disappointed by some of the research (pdf) on charters and vouchers; though I also think there’s reason to be believe that we’ve not seen the true potential of a choice system since there are often caps on and unequal funding for charters. (Though I do recognize the charter funding disparity is a complex issue, I haven’t been able to find an apples-to-apples comparison.) There’s also a lot of research suggesting some promising (but not necessarily conclusive) results and innovations created by school choice.
Reformers have now by and large gotten on board with the notion of charter accountability, which I support. If a charter school is not showing good results within a few years, it should be closed. The evidence in favor of this is strong, and the leading reformers are embracing this idea.
I’d also add, anecdotally, that when my school hired a new principal she visited a neighboring charter and returned bearing many new ideas. Some of those ideas panned out; other didn’t. This is an example of the fact that school choice can benefit traditional public schools, and indeed there’s some strong evidence to support this view.
I’m also curious how your time teaching at a magnet school affects your view on this. I don’t mean this as a gotcha question, but aren’t magnets exactly – indeed even more so – like the Studio 54 club you analogized charters to?
Finally, I want to return to school budgets for a moment. In general, Gary, if you think that schools can only make a limited difference in students’ lives, than maybe we shouldn’t cut funding, but we certainly shouldn’t increase funding. (I’m not clear on your position though: is it that schools can’t generally make significant measurable differences in students’ lives or that they can’t make significant differences both measurable and immeasurable?) It seems like you think that the difference between an average teacher and an undertrained, inexperienced teacher is large, but the difference between a great teacher and an average one is small. Is that right? And if so, is there any evidence (beyond your ‘sixth sense’) for this view?
You are right that what is currently labeled education ‘reform’ does have bipartisan support. You know what else had bipartisan report? The Iraq war. And if a president were to, again, lie and claim we need to go to war based on intelligence of hidden weapons of mass destruction, I seriously doubt that the bipartisan support for going to a war based on lies would be supported. I could be wrong about my two year time frame. I guess we will see.
This discussion that we are having, in some ways, is a microcosm, of the big ed reform debate going on around the country. And just like the entire ‘reform’ side, you are already running out of gas.
I have no problem with trying to recruit the best teachers to teach in the toughest schools. If nothing else, it will be an interesting experiment to test what would happen if everything else was held constant at a school and some of the teachers were replaced with ‘highly effective’ teachers. $2,000 is definitely not enough money to lure someone there. $7,000 might be enough, though probably not. A few years ago the New York City DOE was offering $30,000 for ‘highly effective’ teachers to transfer to ‘failing’ schools and teach three classes and spend the rest of the time mentoring other teachers. I applied for this, but got turned down.
If I had gotten that offer and taken it, I still don’t think that this would be a great ‘investment’ for the city. As I suggested in that post about Huffman, there are other things besides money that teachers at ‘failing’ schools would like — such as smaller classes and smaller class loads. So rather than giving me a big signing bonus, what if every teacher at that school had class sizes maxed at 20 students and four periods at most a day. That might lure me there even without the merit pay signing bonus. This would cost a lot more but I believe that this would make that big ‘difference’ even more.
I won’t address your government run nightclubs question. I’ll let the readers who are willing to leave comments feast on that one.
Finally, a recurring theme in these letters is ‘how much of a difference’ can schools and teachers make. In all my letters, particularly the fourth one, I’ve tried to make it clear that schools and teachers do make a difference. And in answer to your question, sometimes it is tough to measure that difference. Certainly test score ‘gains’ capture a small part of it. If those gains are gotten through heavy test prep for poorly made tests then the gains don’t capture the difference at all accurately. And, yes, I do think that there is a big difference between an untrained new teacher and an average teacher, but not as big between an average teacher and a ‘highly effective’ one. This is just another way of saying that teaching, like juggling, has a steep learning curve. A beginning juggler can’t keep three balls in the air, even for a few seconds. Nobody would want to watch that for very long. A competent juggler might be able to keep three balls going for a few minutes at a time. As most people can’t even do that, it is still pretty impressive. And the ‘highly effective’ juggler has five balls going at a time. Even though few people can do that, it isn’t that much more impressive than the juggler with the three balls.
OK Matt, that’s it for me for today. I do hope that you’ll come back with something a little more compelling that this recent offering. Though it does give me some stuff to ‘riff’ off of, and that is useful if just for that, I just don’t know if me and the readers of this blog are getting enough out of this. In terms that you can relate to, you’ve got to increase your ‘value added’ if you want to continue share the spotlight with me.
For the final part in this discussion, click here.