Don’t Pee on My Leg and Tell Me It’s Raining: Jason Song and Jason Felch Leave’s Questions Unanswered about LA Times Project

Title Source: Judge Judy’s Autobiography Title

This picture sums up my feelings during the Felch/Song chat from Thursday.

Have you ever watched paint dry? Have you ever watched a spider spin its web? Have you ever watched a documentary made in the 1970’s? I would imagine that for at least the former two most would say “no.” I would also imagine that it would be seem as something utterly boring and a complete waste of time. Well, today we can add the “chat” with the authors of “Who’s Teaching LA’s Kids,” Jason Song and Jason Felch.

Initially, I was excited to be able to have a very candid, but informative discussion about the purpose, rationale, and plans in regards to their article from Sunday. However, that is not what I got. That is clearly not what Sabrina from the “Failing Schools Blog” got either. (If you have sensitive eyes you should skip the next sentence). That hour was the longest disingenuous attempt at a masturbatory “conversation” I have witnessed in a long time. It was more upsetting, because it was supposed to be coming from journalists, whose job is to be transparent – they failed miserably.

Cherry Picking Questions

It was clear that Sabrina attempted to ask some questions that many may have had on their mind, but as you can see from her tweets, Song/Felch cherry-picked the questions that they wanted to answer and had no interest in a substantive debate or conversation.

“I’ve sent 4 comments so far, all asking about the possibility of misleading the public by offering no context. 1 fragment made it through.”

“I think I’m up to 8 comments submitted, and one “pending” on the site itself. #headdesk”

“9 comments. Instead we get softballs like “will you do more profiles in the future?”

As journalists, I would have expected that the Jasons would have been more transparent in their intentions, furthermore more clear and concise to the answers to the chat member’s questions. However, the entire hour felt like a political stump speech. The few cherry-picked questions that were answered did very little to address the concerns that exists across the blogosphere.

Issues with Valued-Added Assessments

One of the many concerns that came up across the blogosphere is the limitations of value-added assessments. It became clear throughout the “chat” that Felch/Song was intent on circumventing the actual issue by either justifying it with “expert analysis” or using ambiguous words to describe why they are still effective in assessing teacher performance.

[Comment From Clay Landon]
Diane Ravitch wrote on your paper’s editorial page that a standardized test is an awful way to measure a child’s educational achievement. Why do you feel such a test should be used as a measurement of teacher effectiveness?

Jason Song:
One thing all experts said is that value-added analysis shouldn’t be the sole factor in determining a teacher’s effectiveness. Most districts that use it count on value-added for 50% or less. But the test are aligned to state educational standards, so many feel they could be a valuable evaluation tool.

How does this answer Mr. Landon’s question? The mere fact that the tests are “aligned to state educational standards” is not an all-inclusive answer to demonstrate the benefits of the use of tests as a means for evaluating teacher effectiveness. Additionally, the answer was not all-inclusive of the potential problems that may arise from using test scores as a measure of teacher effectiveness. The answer Mr. Song gave to this question clearly indicates that he is possibly aware of the problems, which is why he wanted to make clear that “most districts…count valued-added for 50% or less” on evaluations. If he was not acknowledging the problems, he clearly didn’t make it clear he wasn’t.

One of my favourite comedians in the world is George Carlin. Since his early days of being a comedian used the phrase (a phrase I use in my classroom) that “language will always give you away.” I love that phrase because it is concise in saying that the words you choose reveal the way you are actually thinking about things. It was clear that Mr. Song and Mr. Felch knew that there were many reservations (including from education statistics experts) of the value-added approach. Despite the knowledge of the reservations they insist on using it and justified it by detailing their “methodology.”

[Comment From Kev]
How can factors such as severely emotional chaos at a student’s home and local gang activity, for example, factor in to a teacher value? My wife teaches in Highland Park where very few parents seem to really care that their children are learning, and certainly don’t care if they advance past their own education which is frequently illiterate.

Jason Felch:
The value added approach has limitations, but its strength is that, for the most part, it does score judge teachers by who their students are — something they have little control over. How can it do this? By measuring student progress against their own past work, not that of other children. Statistically speaking, this controls for many of the factors beyond a teacher’s control: student poverty, limited English, chaos at home, etc. The assumption underlying the approach is that many of these factors are consistent in a student’s life…if a student was poor in 2nd grade, they’re likely to be poor in 3rd.

If my student wrote a paper using the words “for the most part,” “controls for many” and “assumption” I would question their argument as something that they aren’t clear or convinced of themselves. I believe that these answers speak to my blog piece “Editorizing Fear.” There is a convoluted dismissal of the research that shows that it is difficult to control for many factors that a teacher may have to deal with on a daily basis, and they justify it by following it up with their “research findings.” Clearly, Mr. Song and Mr. Felch are advancing an agenda one, that prays on the desperation of a chronically failing urban school district and using the teacher as scapegoats. (P.S. You should read @TeacherSabrina’s piece “Scandalize their Name” for more on the scapegoating).

Effects with Releasing the Scores

One of the most ubiquitous concerns across the blogosphere concerning the article and the LA Times project is the releasing of teacher’s value-added scores. Many of the concerns centred around the fact that releasing the sores could cause undue hostility from parents, some who are ill-informed to properly analyze the data. Once again, Song/Felch does little to address these concerns.

Given that parents generally want the “best” teachers, do you worry that this will generate more parental pressure on teachers and cause more teachers to “teach to the test” rather than focusing on providing a more wholistic learning experience?

Jason Song: It could generate parental pressure, but, as I said before, value-added analysis is only part of the picture. It only measures performance on math and English standardized test scores right, so if a parent wants to make sure their child gets exposure to art or other subjects or a teacher’s classroom manner, they’ll have to find other sources of information or visit a school.

[Comment From Effective Teacher]
Jason and Jason — The two of you are doing profound damage to select LAUSD teachers. Your cautionary notes that this data only provides one facet of the true picture will be lost on parents who see their children’s teachers labeled as ineffective.

Jason Felch: And what about all of those incredible teachers who, like one we featured in the story, are eating lunch in their classrooms, unrecognized and unstudied? In the end, we came down on the side of publication. We’re trying hard to put the data in context, and giving all teachers an opportunity to provide additional context or comments before the scores go live.

Mr. Song was completely nonchalant when addressing the issue of teachers possibly teaching to the test. I guess to Mr. Song that fact that releasing the value-added scores “could generate parental pressure” is not much of a problem. Apparently, Mr. Felch doesn’t seem to care either. Mr. Song’s weak justification for this is “valued-added analysis is only part of the picture.” However, he has done little to show that valued- added assessments are only part of the picture. He essentially editorialized VAA as the best measure to assess teacher performance. Parents, who are not equipped to analyze the data, are then left to interpret something that is flawed and in his words not complete. However I guess it’s okay for a teacher to get fired while a parent “make[s] sure their child gets exposure to art…[and] a teacher’s classroom manner…[through] other sources of information.” Mr. Felch’s weak justification is that “we came down on the side of the publication.” How is this journalism? Isn’t journalist supposed to supply the whole picture? At least he was honest, coming down on the side of the publication means choosing what will sell. With the current demonizing of teachers in the media, it is clear that any “parental pressure” or that the “true picture will be lost on parents” is just a negative externality.

Journalist Education Credentials

[Comment From LA Times Subscriber]
What credentials do you hold to judge the teaching profession? Do you guys have degrees in education?

Jason Song:
I don’t think many people would label either me or the other Jason as an educational “expert.” But we observed many teachers multiple times and have researched value added analysis for almost a year and checked our findings with leading experts, so I feel we’re on solid ground as journalists.

[Comment From Guest]
They should actually teach for a year, too. 😉
Jason Felch:
I thought you’d never ask! Before going into journalism, I taught middle school and high school students. I also founded and ran an after school program for “inner city” kids in San Francisco, and am very familiar with their challenges. My colleague Jason Song has covered the city’s schools for years.

It was clear that Mr. Song and Mr. Felch tried to maintain their image as an authority on the matter. Mr. Felch even went as far as saying that he taught middle school and high school students before he became a journalist. I am not negating that it is true. However, it is clear that Mr. Song and Mr. Felch are not aware of the daily realities of a teacher, especially a teacher in a urban school. Why? Because of the answer to this question.

[Comment From Mr.G]
What are your plans for “Grading the Administrators”?

Jason Felch:
Good question. Research shows that teachers are the most important influence on a student’s learning. But principals are also important. Many also used to be teachers. We’re exploring ways to reliably get at this with the data. Stay tuned!

I guess that Bill Gates and Jason Felch are looking at the same “research” when making the dubious claim that “teachers are the most important influence on a student’s learning.” Any teacher knows that they are very influential on their student’s learning, but that there is a lot more that influences children. What happened to the old adage, “It takes a village to raise a child?” However, when talking to teachers in affluent suburban school districts, magnet urban schools, and some private schools they all sight many factors including parent involvement, home status, and personal issues. It is and will always remain a RIDCULOUS notion that teachers are the most important influence on a student’s learning. Especially when teachers have to combat with many different influences including some of the horrifying ones detailed in the “Failing Schools” blog. If there is going to be an examination of teachers, then there should be concurrent examination of administrators. Not only do they hire the teachers, they set the tone for the school. Read “Stepping Up to the Plate” by my good friend Erin for more information on that.

I think my tweet and Sabrina’s tweet sums up the sentiment of the entire “chat” from Felch and Song.

@mppolicy: The #LATimes chat was one of the most unproductive hours of my entire life. #smh #ineedsomeair

@TeacherSabrina: Wow, that was a total sham. I wish I’d saved the comments I submitted in vain.

Shake my head Felch/Song.

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Random Fire: Students are Real Perceptive!

One of my friends teaches second grade in Chicago. She is one of the toughest primary school teachers I’ve met. I told her even I would be on my toes if I was in her class. Although she is tough, she is caring and her students have not only made gains in test scores, but some of the “nervous” students have become well adjusted to doing rigorous work. Today, she sent me one of the funniest pictures in the world. The sentiment speaks volumes.

The sentiment says it all! Ms. Woodson is tough but she is good. 🙂

A Note to Teachers

My Fellow Educators,

After reading the LA Times article “Who’s teaching L.A.’s Kids?” I was very upset and frustrated even to the point of deciding to leave teaching all together. A good friend of mine (who I met in teacher’s scholar program) also expressed grave concerns about the direction of teaching in light of this article. She also considered leaving the teaching profession. We have worked through our frustrations and have decided to stay. My hope is that you the same do not leave this wonderful profession.

I agree with many of the teachers I have talked to personally or electronically. The attack on teachers has intensified at levels not seen in many of our life times. We all know there are bad teachers and that some of those bad teachers should consider other careers. However, we know that evaluating a teacher largely on one giant assessment is just plain wrong and is not good teaching. We surely don’t evaluate our students just on one written tests and/or quiz and fail them completely if their scores are low.

I am urging you to stick with it. Not for yourself, but for your students. Many of the “reforms” from the Obama Administration do not end up affecting the students in affluent urban/suburban districts. These reforms are affecting YOU, the teacher who decided to work in that tough school in the hopes of facilitating a positive connection/change in someone’s life. That is why most of us are teachers in the first place.

So I ask you to cling!

-Cling to the days when you played “school” with your stuffed animals, because it was fun.

-Cling to the days when you ran across that particularly special or inspiring teacher that you emulate in your current pedagogy, because you were inspired.

-Cling to the day you declared your major in early childhood, primary, secondary, or special education, because you were driven.

-Cling to the frustrating days of student teaching, because you were tenacious.

-Cling to the day you walked into your first classroom and smiled, because you were ready.

-Cling to the hope that you work will not be in vain, that you are making a difference, and that you are willing to grow and develop, because you are TEACHER!

Good luck this year TEACHERS!

-Martin Palamore

TEACH for them!

Teacher Evaluations

Should teacher evaluations be re-tooled?

Recently, I was a reading an article in the NYT discussing the American Federation of Teacher’s decision to overhaul the teaching evaluation process. I couldn’t be more happier that they are taking this move.

Many critics have scoffed at the idea of having unions in the first place because supposedly “unions protect bad teachers, gum up the disciplinary process, and resist change.” (NYT Article) While its true that there have been many abuses by union members and teachers, unions are invaluable in keeping the leadership and adminstation of schools accountable for supporting teachers. The safety net of support should cover human resource issues, school managment, and instruction.

I believe that the AFT is making a step in the right direction in working in a climate that has become so conservative and so anti-union. For more information read the following article.

Print? The Final Frontier?

I’ve had ample discussions with many of my friends that are around my age about the need for handwriting in school. When I was in school is was absolutely mandatory that we not only practice our handwriting, but be proficient at writing the letters. This goes for both print and cursive. 1st-3rd grade we practiced print writing and 4th-6th grade we practiced cursive handwriting. Grades 7-8 we were finally given the autonomy to write in whatever style we liked. Many of my friends who were in grammar school in the late 80’s and through the 90’s had a curriculum similar to this one.

Recently, I have read the second article of the year in regards to whether or not school districts should require their teachers to teach cursive handwriting. The most recent article “School Adjust How Writing is Taught in the Text Age” discusses this paradigm shift. Many education administrators site three reasons why cursive handwriting needs to be reevaluated.

1. In the days of high-stakes testing many districts have had to really streamline “ancillary” subjects like handwriting so they can spend more time with reading and mathematics.

2. As we conclude the first decade of the 21st century, many students aren’t communicating through pen and paper writing — let alone cursive handwriting.

3. Even when students are writing using pen and paper they typically skew to print writing instead of cursive.

Cursive writing should be here to stay.

Personally, I think these are all valid reasons why a district should re-evaluate the handwriting curriculum. However, to eliminate cursive handwriting would be a big mistake. I have two reasons why I think it would be a mistake:

1. If you are not a fan of high-stakes testing to evaluate student learning, then eliminating handwriting from the curriculum wouldn’t be consistent with that logic. If you analyze many of the “reforms” going through our system today, you begin to send a trend where little by little we are asking to dismiss many things that were core to our own learning. For example, reducing the amount of time student take elective courses (art, music, etc.), doubling the amount of time students are doing reading/mathematics, etc. Eliminating cursive handwriting from the curriculum would just add to schools just focusing on “core subjects” and straying away from creating the “whole student.”

2. Ironically as I am writing this blog I realise that once again I am not physically writing something down on a piece of paper. I am using type for a medium of communication. This shows my privilege in my access to technology for communication. However, I am one of the few people in our society that has this privilege. The article that I using as a basis for this blog discusses how many students use technology as means of communication. I will grant them that.

Texting is NOT the only form of communication.

However, as long as ALL students don’t have consistent access to communication through technology then eliminating cursive handwriting would be problematic. I feel it needs to be understood that handwriting is just one form of communication. This one form of communication is the easiest to teach (usually through repetition and application), the cheapest to teach, and is universal among all literate people in our society. Using WordPress for blogging, creating a Meebo account for streamlined communication, and developing a Linked-In page for social networking is not easy to teach, cheap to furnish, or particularly universal among everyone. Web 2.0 has done an excellent job at providing communication services free of charge, but training principals, teachers, and students in these Web 2.0 applications is not free. Therefore, until ALL districts provide ALL stakeholders with the tools and the knowledge to use texting, IM, and Web 2.0 tools, districts must not be quick to eliminate handwriting (including cursive) from their curriculum. Rather, they should find a way to strike a nice balance.