Friday, February 26, 2010

The DOE Wins Again

I want to build a little bit off of my last post about how public perception is clearly not on the side of the UFT or city teachers. To do so, let's take a look at a story that ran in the Times last Tuesday. The lead of the story reads:
"The Bloomberg administration has made getting rid of inadequate teachers a linchpin of its efforts to improve city schools. But in the two years since the Education Department began an intensive effort to root out such teachers from the more than 55,000 who have tenure, officials have managed to fire only three for incompetence."
Notice anything?

What immediately jumps out to me is that the story is premised on the idea that our system is chock full of inadequate teachers, but that the city has "managed to fire only three", presumably because the union protects those bad teachers and keeps our school system so mediocre. Quite a premise.

An alternative premise might be that in a system of 55,000 teachers, only three were officially deemed to be incompetent. Everyone gets an A on their progress report!

My sense is that the truth lies somewhere much closer to the middle. Speaking from my own experiences in the classroom, there were some really great teachers, a lot of decent ones, and a few duds. I imagine that bell curve breakdown wasn't unique to my school.

Ultimately, the reality of the situation is a little beside the point that I'm trying to make. The point I'm trying to make is that the DOE has so completely overwhelmed the UFT's arguments on these issues that the New York Times - the "paper of record" - has totally bought into the DOE's side of the debate. You can imagine how this story played out in the Post. The mind boggles at the possibilities.

One other point worthy of note. By my count, the article says that 431 teachers who the DOE thought were incompetent are now not teaching. The vast majority of them apparently left the system after they learned that they could face charges. Assuming that our goal is to remove bad teachers (and I tend to think that's not such a bad idea), the 431 number is a much higher one to broadcast. But then, if that's your lead, how can you use it to show how obstructionist the UFT is?

The bottom line is that the argument seems to have been won. The DOE staked out the terms of the debate and then stomped the UFT. The sad part is that the teachers have barely fought back.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

This the City Believes

Gotham Schools has a list of the city's contract demands in their now-stalled negotiations with the UFT. Scroll down to the comments section and you'll see that the demands are not exactly being well received by the teachers in the crowd (there's a abnormally high proportion of Nazi comparisons in the ranks). I'm not about to pop off with Herr Bloomberg comments, but the demands did strike me as asking for a whole lot without much inclination to give anything back in return. Normally, that's not the kind of position that leads to happy smiles all around and I can see why both sides are saying that they're at an impasse. So what is the city thinking?

Well, if I had to guess, they're thinking that they hold all of the cards. And they may even be right.

Here's how things look to someone not directly involved or with a personal stake in the negotiations:
  • The city's budget is extremely tight and cuts need to be made.
  • Layoffs and budget tightenings are happening in households all across the city and country.
  • Teacher salaries have gone through the roof in recent years and they're still asking for more.
  • There are a whole lot of teachers (ATR pool) who are getting paid for not teaching.
  • There are another group of teachers (the rubber room) who shouldn't be teaching but are still getting paid to not teach.
  • Mayor Bloomberg has done a good job with the schools.
Now, you can argue many of these points, but the fact is that the city has already won most of those fights in the public sphere. The PR battle is over and the union has lost. They're now negotiating for raises when many are looking at layoffs. They're negotiating to protect the salaries of teachers who aren't teaching at a time when the city is looking to impose fiscal discipline. They have been painted for years as a special interest group that will now be opposing the well-regarded school leadership of the Mayor.

No wonder they're going for it all.

The fact is, the city is risking very little by holding firm to their demands because they are confident that the public will back them up. So they win more PR points against the union by sticking to their guns and "standing up for what's right for our city." Then, when through arbitration they don't get everything they want, they win even more PR points by being able to turn the union's victories into examples of them screwing the city at the expense of themselves.

I'm not saying they're right. I am saying, they're sitting in a pretty good spot right now.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Ask the Experts

For some reason, people don't seem to find it necessary to ask teachers what might help improve education. My guess is that it's because everyone went to school at some point in their lives that everyone thinks they know what actually works for educating kids. So the experts (teachers) get ignored as essentially a special interest group (they do have a union, you know) while the decisions gets made elsewhere using input from other people.

This isn't just my sense. According to a report based on the Met Life Survey of the American Teacher, fully 69% of teachers do not believe their voices have been adequately heard in the current debate on education. That's pretty incredible. You know that if 69% of doctors said their voices weren't being heard on the health care debate there would be an explosion of outrage. But when it's education that's in question, that's just kind of accepted.

Am I the only one who thinks that's nuts? When my seak is leaking, I call the plumber. When my computer goes haywire, I call tech support. When the education system needs reform, I think we should ask the teachers what they think. How am I in the minority on this?

Friday, February 19, 2010

Almost a Great Idea

Out in St. Paul, Minnesota, they've come up with a pretty good plan. Kind of. The plan is to send out a team of experienced teachers - they're calling them coaches in this program - to work with high-needs kids in schools across the city to improve their test scores. I'm 99% on board with this program.

I love the outside the box thinking of taking a team of senior teachers and sending them in to do intensive work with small groups of kids who most need it. This is the kind of targeted intervention that I think we should be doing all the time. I just wish that it was for some end other than a one-time boost in test scores.

If this were a regular program designed to operate continuously forever, I would be singing its praises from rooftops. But the sole focus on testing is an issue. Specifically it's on the goal of boosting test scores by 10 percentage points this year. I have issue with that.

Learning is about more than acing high stakes standardized tests. They have a powerful tool here to really make that clear to students and really make a difference. But they're only using the tool halfway. What a waste.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Either/Or Reforms

I've frequently lamented the fact that education reform so often seems to boil down to either/or propositions. Either you're for smaller class sizes or you're for curriculum changes. Either you're for market-based reforms or you're a status-quo-loving-teacher-union-defending-failure-to-kids. That's the way it's always played out in the media at least, but I never quite bought it. But now I may be changing my mind a little.

What's gotten me to readjust my thinking a little bit is that Florida is going to be spending $200 million to revamp their math curriculum, even as budget cuts hammer education across the state. And that got me thinking. These reforms actually cost money. Want to revamp your curriculum? Pay the curriculum companies. Smaller class sizes? Pay for more schools and more teachers. Better teachers? Pay for more recruitment and professional development. The list goes on and on.

Philosophically, I think that we can't afford to focus on just one effort. Instead we need to focus on an array of reforms that will improve entire schools and communities. Pragmatically, I see that we might not be able to afford more than one thing at a time. Until we can address that, either/or may be here to say.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

DOE Closes More Schools

I have to say that I think there's something vaguely familiar about the DOE's decision to preemptively declare this a snow day before a single flake had fallen. After all, it was based on data (the weather report says that we're going to get walloped) and it led to a bunch of schools getting closed.

Does this just scream DOE or what?

It may turn out to have been the right decision. As I'm looking out my window right now, there is a fair amount of snow falling and it is supposed to get worse as the day goes on. But there just seems to be something kind of odd about calling a snow day before there's any actual snow. Logically it seemed like the right decision, but do we know we're looking at the right data?

I won't draw out the metaphor too far. However, I do see this as telling of the larger trends in the DOE.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Unspeak in the New Yorker

I know that it's about a month old at this point, but I'm finally caught up on my New Yorker reading so I've finally had a chance to read the profile of Arne Duncan. On the whole, I thought it was pretty interesting and encapsulated a lot of my ambivalence about the guy and his agenda. Some things I'm totally on board with. Others, less so.

What I'm totally opposed to, though, is the kind of ridiculous journalism that slips in lines like, "In the fight over education in America today, there, roughly speaking, two major camps: free-market reformers, who believe that competition, choice, and incentives must have a greater part in education; and liberal traditionalists who rally around teachers’ unions and education schools." (For the record, that's the author of the article, not Duncan speaking.)

In other words, there are people who want to help kids learn through a competition-based reform model and there are people who are union-loving, education-school-promoting, failing-school-allowing defenders of the status quo. At least with the "roughly speaking" phrase there's the chance that some other camps might exist.

I've written about this before, but it doesn't make me any less angry to see. School reform doesn't necessarily mean charter schools and teacher incentive pay. It just doesn't. It can also mean reducing class sizes, reworking curriculum, promoting the community school model, and a host of other efforts taking place across the country. For whatever reason, our journalists just can't seem to wrap their minds around the fact that there could be a whole lot of different reform ideas out there and that people who don't think charter schools are the answer might not be in favor of keeping everything exactly the same.

Unspeak lives, even in the pages of the New Yorker.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Dealer's Choice

It's interesting how stories sometimes get shaded in the press. Take this article about AP test passage rates from USA Today. The headline reads: Failure Rate for AP Tests Climbing. If you just read the headline you might think that everything was terrible with education in this country. However, if you read to the eighth paragraph (in a 13 paragraph story) you might also see that the absolute number of kids passing the tests has increased as well. See, there's a lot more kids taking the tests now than used to and that means that two indicators are increasing. On the one hand, we're seeing kids take the test who in the past probably wouldn't have taken the test even though they were ready and would have passed. They're taking and passing the tests now, which is why the number of kids passing has increased. On the other hand, you've got kids being put into the classes and sitting for the tests who aren't ready for that kind of work. That's why the passage rate is declining.

The headline obviously emphasizes the negative, but do the facts support a negative story? Yes and no. The facts can support either a positive or negative spin. The headline could just as easily have read "More Kids Than Ever Passing AP Tests." That would have been equally accurate. But remember, this is in the papers and it is about education. So was there ever really a choice on the angle?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Change We Can Believe In

Not content with just reforming education through the Race to the Top fund, President Obama has come out swinging again on education. This time, he's talking about rewriting the No Child Left Behind law. At the risk of repeating what's already been on about 1,000 edublogs, way to go.

At this point, it's pretty clear that No Child Left Behind, though well intentioned, has some serious flaws. It's over-reliance on standardized tests is a huge example of that. So what does Obama do? He sets out to deemphasize standardized tests in determining which schools are succeeding and which are failing. If this really happens, it could lead to a huge shift away from the skill, drill, and kill methodology that's become pretty much a necessity in the NCLB era. Let's move away from the high stakes tests and toward a more complete measure of student and school performance.

Arne Duncan said, "We want accountability reforms that factor in student growth, progress in closing achievement gaps, proficiency towards college and career-ready standards, high school graduation and college enrollment rates."

Yes we do.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Can't Afford to Wait

It seems like I was just writing about the value of early childhood education and interventions when another bit of research came across my desk that really bolsters the point. A study comparing the relative effects of neighborhood poverty at early childhood and early adolescence found that the neighborhood kids live in when they're in first grade strongly predicts their reading levels in seventh grade regardless of where they live in seventh grade. In other words, a first grader in the South Bronx is likely to have a lower reading level when he hits seventh grade, even if he moves to the Upper East Side.

On the one hand, this seems pretty shocking. I mean, we'd like to think that schooling matters and that if circumstances improve children's learning will likewise improve. If we don't believe that, then a lot of other efforts seem kind of pointless.

On the other hand, it does make a certain amount of sense that the conditions under which kids first learn (or are supposed to learn) to read impact their entire reading career. A child who doesn't start learning the necessary skills early on will be playing catch up from then on. That's kind of bleak to consider.

The bottom line here, though, is that what happens to kids early matters. If we want to improve our schools and our education system, we need to start at the beginning and work our way up. That's going to have the strongest impact and it's going to make the most difference. If we wait, it may be too late.