Really Michelle Rhee!?

Michelle Rhee wearing her signature black suit showing that she is "sweeping" away the bad teachers. (Photo: flackrabbit.com)

One can’t help but have a warm-fuzzy feeling when you hear Michelle Rhee talk about education. It is those warm and fuzzy feelings that have garnered Rhee the celebrity that she has gotten since she left her post as the Chancellor of DC Public Schools after 3 ½ years. (NOTE: Waiting for Superman made a pun against a former DCPS school leader who left after a short time. – But I digress) As sympathetic as I am in the need to reform schools, I am quite stunned at the apathy that Michelle Rhee has towards anyone that doesn’t support or embrace her agenda. Her apathetic tone has been a trend since she left her post at DC Public Schools. Before anyone embraces her or her drive to “reform” America’s education system, one must ask what really are Michelle Rhee’s motives?

 

“Yesterday’s election results were devastating, devastating. Not for me, because I’ll be fine, and not even for Fenty, because he’ll be fine, but devastating for the schoolchildren of Washington, D.C.”

This was a quote taken by the Washington Post on the day she found out that soon to be former Mayor Fenty lost his primary bid for re-election. In an interview with NPR she said, “I wish that the reporter would have actually expressed the entire sentiment and not just those words…[b]ecause what I said was, it was devastating because I have received calls from people inside the city and across the nation who are saying this is the worst thing that could’ve happened to school reform.” Even Rhee’s half-baked attempt to backtrack on her words still had an air of arrogance that shouldn’t surround a reformer, especially for the “civil rights issue of our time.” Reformers for civil rights issues like Martin Luther King never purported that the issue was hinged on one person, however Rhee has certainly set up that precedent.

In all fairness to Rhee, who wouldn’t feel arrogant? She was propped up as a hero in the movie Waiting for Superman. She has been made education advisor for the governor’s elect transition team in Florida. Oprah enthusiastically embraced Rhee on her show by saying, “I don’t have the know how to fix it…I have been saying from this platform that somebody needs to fix it. [A]nd the fact that you stepped up and said ‘I am the one to do it,’ God bless you.” Is arrogance what he need in the school reform movement?

Despite the fact that I disagree with many of Rhee’s policies, her apathy towards anyone who doesn’t agree with her agenda is the biggest sticking point with me. I am sure there are many educators across the country that would be willing to sit down and discuss the issues facing education with Rhee and come to a consensus. Unfortunately, Rhee’s goal is not to develop or create a consensus rather, it’s to develop a national competition on who is right, and who is wrong. She is creating national competition on who can be labelled education reformers and who are the members of the status quo. The most alarming thing about this competition is that she is participating in a competition that she feels she can invariably win. Why? Because she has the backing and support of big names with large sums of money like Bill Gates, Barack Obama, and Oprah who believes that Rhee has the “solution” to the problem in education. To add to the alarming factor, she believes that competition is acceptable in the education – even among children. She was quoted saying, “We have become a little too obsessed about making kids feel good about themselves…[w]e have lost the competitive spirit.” Is the competition what we need to change the American school system for the better?

“After the shock of Fenty’s loss, it became clear to me that the best way to keep the reform going in the D.C. schools was for me to leave my job as chancellor….But I felt that Mayor-elect Vincent Gray should have the same ability that Fenty had to appoint his own chancellor. And I knew I had become a lightning rod and excuse for the anti-reformers to oppose the changes that had to be made.” (Newsweek Editorial)

Really Michelle Rhee!? “Anti-reformers oppose the changes that had to be made.” It is that inflammatory and self-serving rhetoric that spurred the opposition against Michelle Rhee. Education is a consequence of and rooted in democracy. In other words, the stakeholders must be represented in the decisions that are being made throughout the school district. The mere fact that the stakeholders are demanding that they are to be heard is not a function of being an anti-reformer but of being an anti-“RHEE”former. Rhee should not be allowed to say, “I know people say I wasn’t good enough at building consensus, but I don’t think consensus can be the goal” on one hand and then appear on Oprah or purport on her new “Student’s First” website that the mission is to build a national movement to defend the interests of children. Are the parents integral to the success of children, therefore they the first defence in looking out for the interests of them? Aren’t the teachers that work with them day in and day out looking out for the interests of children? It is unfair for Michelle Rhee to vilify and stifle the voices of the stakeholders in the name of her version of reform.

Is this picture very inviting to you? (Photo: atlantic.com)

Really Michelle Rhee!? I think the most ironic thing about her fame especially on the hills of her Student’s First website launch is that she is going to “transform education” by creating a special interest or lobbying group? (I hope that everyone reading took a few moments to let that settle in.) Isn’t this same person who tarnishes teacher’s unions for being a special interest group? Isn’t this the same person who in her Newsweek editorial, argued that even textbook manufacturers shape the agenda in education reform? However, it is not ironic to believe that her Student’s First organization is no better than the teacher’s union or the textbook manufacturer simply because she puts the word STUDENT in the title. She even asserted that school board meetings rarely discuss children, however her agenda includes mayoral control, merit-based pay for teachers, and increased accountability based on test scores. Where is the mention of children? Aren’t these just bureaucratic policies towards education? This is the same bureaucracy that Rhee is against.

Really Michelle Rhee!? This “reformer” clearly has a difficult time staying consistent. In her Newsweek editorial she said, “I did a particularly bad job letting the many good teachers know that I considered them to be the most important part of the equation. I should have said to the effective teachers, ‘You don’t have anything to worry about. My job is to make your life better, offer you more support, and pay you more.’ In other words, hindsight ‘I should have been nicer to teachers.’” However, in her speech in Sacramento she once again antagonized ALL teachers by asserting that teacher training schools are filled with the “lowest performing students” – better students choose other careers. Once again, Rhee failed to discuss the nuances of some of the better Schools of Education around the country including the one of her alma maters, Harvard University. In that one statement she debased a whole segment of current teachers and future teachers who went to teacher training schools –many of you reading this blog post. (Full Disclosure: I went to a teacher training school too.) However, teachers around the country are supposed to rally behind her in her brand of school reform.

After reading and listening to Michelle Rhee it has become very difficult for me to have any warm-fuzzy feelings about her or her agenda. Contrary to her belief, I do want the best for my students and I am sure the educators reading this blog post do too. It is in that vein, that I can never support someone so condescending and self-serving as Rhee has become. Oprah may be a successful media mogul – successfully endorsing books – but I am not quick to jump on the Oprah bandwagon here. In the end, I have found that Rhee’s “Student’s First” organization is nothing but a platform for Michelle Rhee to pontificate on a national scale. Her organization will do no more to serve the needs of children than the teacher’s union, the textbook manufacturer, and bureaucrats that she lambastes in the media. The organization is not about students; it’s about Michelle. That’s fine! However, don’t insult the intelligence of many educators in the meantime. Really Michelle Rhee!? We don’t need a queen; we need a leader!

Late Add
Let’s just say for the sake of conversation that her “reforms” are “well-intentioned” and in the spirit of students. Here is some data she cannot dispute:

  • She will still be the wife of a prominent politician.
  • She will still make a lot of money with her “Students First” organization.
  • She still made $275,000/year as chancellor of DCPS.
  • She makes good money from her television appearances, movie appearances, and her work in Florida as Hess’ transition team in Florida.
  • Because of her wealth she has the option to send her children to private school.
  • AND if her “reforms” crash and burn because of her untested “reforms,” alienation of educators, and apathy towards anyone who disagrees with her including her stake holders, she will STILL have all the above, and the parents, community members, and students will still lose. Really Michelle Rhee!?
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Dear Mr. Obama, Please Stop!

I have become desperate. Desperate enough to write a letter to the president. I decided to post the letter that I will be sending him and CCing to Mr. Duncan. The recent news day about the one error that New Jersey made on such a high-stakes RTTP application, which will resulted in a $400 million lost to students, has shown that something is wrong. I hope that Mr. Obama listens to some of my concerns.

President Obama

Dear Mr. Obama,

This is my plea to you. I am quickly losing hope in your education agenda, and so are many of my colleagues. My state applied for Race to the Top funds and lost. That’s fine, but you have fundamentally changed education to become what author Alfie Kohn says is a “quantification mania.”

I have one question for you Mr. Obama.

What happened to learning for the sake of learning?

Albert Einstein in On Education argued, “[the] crippling of individuals I consider [is] the worst evil of capitalism. Our whole educational system suffers from this evil. An exaggerated competitive attitude is inculcated into the student, who is trained to worship acquisitive success as a preparation for his future career.” Who knew that Albert Einstein had such a viewpoint on modern education even during his time? Mr. Obama, in your “truce to teachers” you said that your loosening up on some of the “quantification” rhetoric has nothing to do with politics; rather “it’s a back-to-school message that fits squarely into [your] plan for economic recovery, stressing the role of educators in shaping a competitive American work force.” Why wasn’t your message about learning, developing as an individual, or enhancing upon a democratic society? Mr. Obama with all due respect, whether or not you toned down the more inflammatory rhetoric of your agenda, the underlying tone is still prevalent – using market based tactics in education.

“The advent of the standards and accountability movement in the 1980s, with its reliance on test scores to measure student performance, gave economists the tools to gauge the effectiveness of schools in a more nuanced way.” (Harvard Education Letter, Sept. 2009) There are two important elements in regards to the advent of the standards and accountability movement. First, the 1980s saw the surge of ECONOMISTS in education. Mr. President, this is a far cry from the early days of curriculum and learning development that centred on the advice of psychologists and educators. Secondly, the use of the same tools that economists use to understand the markets and labour has created a nuanced way of looking at educational issues.

I understand for better or for worse economists are part of the group of people offering their perspective on education especially in a 21st century global economy. However, it is important that policymakers (like yourself and Mr. Duncan) exercise pause when developing the techniques that will be used for economic reform. The “nuanced way” that economists use to look at education reform has muted or silenced the various different issues that exist in school districts and more importantly AROUND school districts. The more disturbing element is that the reforms developed by economists are being implemented where the help is needed the most. This is why it is important that you remember your constituents (educators, parents, teachers, and the union) and stand up against unyielding adoption of market tactics in education reform.

Mr. Obama, I agree with you 100%. We absolutely must fight against the status quo. However, who or what is your definition of the status quo? One of the most ubiquitous terms used to describe people who fight against market tactics in education is the STATUS QUO. A study of history of the status quo will yield that depending on the particular decade/era, this group of people has changed. The status quo has been the government, districts (in the 80’s), parents & students (in the 90’s), schools (in the 00’s) and now the new decade has ushered in teachers as members and perpetuators of the status quo. In each of these decades there has been propagation that reforming whomever the status quo entails will be the “step in the right direction” towards improving education. “With knowledgeable scholars (like yourself) uncritically embracing broad generalizations about the relationship between [the status quo] and academic achievement, it is not surprising that we also find widespread acceptance of this perspective among educational practitioners and the general public.” (Noguera, 2003)

It is the “knowledgeable scholars” who side with the “nuanced view economists” that have allowed the skewing of the discussion of education reform for the last thirty years. There are many people who are more knowledgeable than I am on the specific reforms, however I am aware that the US has been working on education reform for more than thirty years (i.e after deindustrialization). I would venture to say that working on anything for thirty years should yield positive results. However, we still deal with chronically failing schools (especially in urban/rural school districts). How are we going to change this paradigm if we continue to place the blame on a new group of people? How are we going to change this paradigm if we continue to take a nuanced view of issues about AND surrounding education? How are we going to change this paradigm if our “knowledgeable scholars” do nothing to fight against the cycle of blame and the tunnel vision view that has become ubiquitous in education reform?

No Child Left Behind and your program Race to the Top are the most contemporary “nuance view” reforms that have come out of the White House. Both have contributed to the cycle of blame and both have gone in with unproven tactics that so far have yielded little results. NCLB and RTTT have adopted market tactics like performance pay, longitudinal data systems, and choice/competition among schools. Even on face value, do you think that this will improve LEARNING for students? I agree with Alife Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes who said, “I have yet to meet an economist who understands the nuances of how children learn, [and all] the messiness of learning is reduced to data points observed from a mountaintop.” I think the key word in that quote is “messiness.” There is no way to control the messiness of learning, especially the messiness of learning of so many populations of students with different abilities, languages, customs, and experiences. Albert Einstein astutely said it best, “the education of the individual, in addition to promoting his own innate abilities, would attempt to develop in him a sense of responsibility for his fellow-men in place of the glorification of power and success in our present society.”

Mr. Obama, please reconsider your role in education reform. You are not only alienating teachers, parents, and the infamous union leaders, but you are also hurting students. Learning is messy! Data, incentives, and competition cannot solve that messiness. However, working with qualified teachers to develop strategies for learning is the best way. That, Mr Obama, has been proven.

Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,

Martin Palamore

Concerned Educator from the Great State of Illlinois

Truce Mr. Obama? Hardly!:Race to the Top = Slap in the Face

Message from State Superintendent Christopher A. Koch

We have just been informed by the U.S. Department of Education that Illinois has not been selected to receive a Race to the Top grant. While this is disappointing news, I am proud of the effort that our state has made to put together such an ambitious plan, which I believe should serve as our blueprint for where we need to take education through the next decade.

I thank you for your support of Illinois students and look forward to working with you as we implement many of the elements that comprised our application. As you know, the Illinois education community worked collaboratively to form our Race to Top application, so many of the proposed changes are in statute and will occur anyway.
We still intend to develop new rigorous teacher and principal evaluation systems, as required by state law, as well as continuing our work to improve teacher and principal preparation programs.

We are still committed to developing a comprehensive longitudinal data system to assist us in better preparing students for college and careers and we are already on our way to implementing the new Illinois Learning Standards, incorporating the Common Core.
Nothing more is needed with regard to the Race to the Top at this time, however, we will be working with you as we move forward with the goals we’ve outlined for driving educational progress in Illinois.

I appreciate your passion for students and your commitment to excellence.

Chris

The second phase of “Bribery to the Top” winners were announced today, and to the dismay to many, Illinois just didn’t make it to the top. I am curious to view Illinois’ application and will be doing so soon. Chris Koch, the Illinois Superintendent, released the “warm and fuzzy” letter above after the announcement from the U.S. Department of Education.

Mr. Koch is insistent on “developing a comprehensive longitudinal data system to assist [Illinois] in better preparing students for college and careers and…implementing the new Illinois Learning Standards, incorporating the Common Core. So is Mr. Koch’s insistence based on his own personal beliefs, the advice of teachers, and the support of community members, or is it based on the potential prospect of the money from Race to the Top (RTTP). In other words, was it the chicken or the egg?

The losers of RTTP were more than just the states. Photo Courtesy: tripadvisor.com

This is an important question and has many implications for all the states that lost [and won] the Race to the Top Funds. It is the impetus for me calling Race to the Top, Bribery to the Top. Many states rushed to develop the “reforms” necessary to win Race to the Top funds only to come up short at the end. While they rushed to develop these reforms many members of the education landscapes’ voices were silenced including teachers, parents, and the infamous union leaders. How are people like Chris Koch going to mitigate the concerns from all of these people now that the prospect for the money is gone? Who is going to champion these reforms now that prospect for the money is gone? Will there be political will in place to implement the reforms now that prospect for the money is gone? For the states that won, will the money continue to be there next year and/or after Mr. Obama leaves office, or will the program be added to one of those failed “good/popular” ideas like Supplemental Education from the NCLB days? Mr. Obama and Mr. Duncan have essentially threw many educational leaders “under the bus” to fend off the obviously unpopular reforms that were adopted to “win” RTTP funds. It is leaving states to fend for themselves to MAINTAIN these systems, while playing on the desperation from the recession and the historical disinvestment in public education.

Where is the Money Going to come from?

Illinois is one of many states across the country that has cut education jobs to balance their budget for the next year. This is a clear sign that there is a cash-flow problem. However, Mr. Koch is still “committed” to the heralded longitudinal data system and the creation and implementation of new standards (which include training). Where is this money supposed to come from? I assume you could probably take it from the Edujobs money.

RTTT is largely reminiscent of No Child Behind. The implementation of the requirements of NCLB came as a great cost to the states. As Diane Ravitch discusses in her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, “some states complained that the federal government did not even give them enough money to do what the law required. Federal funding for elementary and secondary programs were increased by 60 percent in the early years of NCLB, but Democrats complained that it was way below what was needed and what Congress had authorized.” (Page 98)

Now that only eleven states and the District of Columbia is privy to the $4.35 billion from the RTTT funds, what are the other 39 states going to do to implement the RTTP reforms? Are they going to have to have their arm twisted in applying for the “School Improvement Fund” or the “Charter Schools Program?” Having cash strapped states create unfunded or under funded “reforms” is wrong and definitely from the Bush/Spellings playbook.

When Mr. Duncan and Mr. Obama are gone, the states are still going to be left to try to figure out how to add these “reforms” to their budget year after year. The amount of money that the USDOE had to work with was unprecedented for any Secretary of the Department of Education. It doesn’t hurt to mention also that the money is borrowed. Is Obama and his predecessors going to make education a principal priority with two wars, a stagnant economy, and a soon to be deficit-hawk Congress? If no, is the blame for the states inability to maintain the reforms going to be placed on states; therefore continuing the cycle of blame from the teachers to the states/districts? I believe that these questions (among others) need to be answered before I stand up and applaud for Obama/Duncan’s leadership on improving education in our country.

This is was not about Education Reform, this was about Politics

I was having a conversation with a friend of mine the other day about Race to the Top. He asked me to explain what the programme is and its purpose. After explaining to him what the ins and outs of the program were he asked me, why did the Obama Administration have to have a separate Edujobs bill to save teacher jobs? Why couldn’t he just use some of the money from Race to the Top to help save teacher jobs? My answer to him was the Edujobs bill is not about education it’s about politics. In other words, getting back in good graces with teachers and union leaders (one of Democrats’ core constituencies) leading up to the election and subsequently declaring a “truce.”

Why would I make that claim? What does the Edujobs bill tell you about RTTT? It became clear around January of this year that many of the teacher-related and education support personnel positions that were saved by Obama’s first round of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds would dry up and states would be strapped. However, the Edujobs bill was passed in August. Why did it take so long? The Department of Education and Obama had no interest in saving or helping anyone part of the “status quo” without stipulations. This was evident in his threat to veto the bill if it included taking money from RTTT. Barack Obama’s attempt to be “everyone’s president” has influenced his decisions the last eighteen months as president. Think about it. He can placate parents, civil rights leaders, and desperate states by creating “reforms,” while placating the economists and conservative (and some liberal) think tanks in the advancement of market tactics in education. With Duncan’s announcement today of the RTTT winners he emphasized his commitment to asking Congress for more money for RTTT, while many states are hoarding their EduJobs money under fear that it won’t cover through the next school year. Why is he not committed to saving teacher jobs? It has become the politically popular viewpoint to place teachers (especially the unions) in the group of bureaucrats that are hostile to any reform. There is no way that the current pseudo deficit-hawkish Congress is going to give any money to educators without stipulations especially when they are sold to be members of the “status quo.”

The second indication that it is political is the lack of stipulations placed on the EduJobs bill. While Mr. Obama has praised the bill for saving teacher jobs, many states are not doing the immediate re-hiring and the reduction in classroom sizes that was supposed to occur under the fear of being back in dire-straights again next year. Mr. President, how can you give one sum of money with an inordinate number of stipulations, but not make a fairly clean-cut stipulation like re-hire teachers part of an EduJOBS bill? It was not about education it was about politics. Selling the message of “saving teacher jobs” seems to be the politically prudent thing to do leading up to a tough election with Republicans in the midterm elections. In my opinion, there aren’t enough press conferences or supposed “truces” that would make me feel otherwise. Almost everything that President Obama has made a priority (health care, AARA, financial reform, CARD Act, etc.) has passed fairly quickly (with the exception of the health care bill.) Edujobs were not Mr. Obama’s priority; the Obama/Duncan agenda is the priority.

In any race there are going to be winners and losers. While, I don’t support many of the reforms that were required by the Obama Administration, I do believe that what has happened in this program is going to set a precedent. It is setting a precedent for twisting the arms of desperate states to adopt “reform” measures that negate all of the stakeholders in an effort to circumvent bureaucracies. It sets a precedent that similarily in the free market that there are going to be winners and losers, and that the losers just need to “try harder and do more.” It sets a precedent that education leaders not only need to be savvy in pedagogy and management, but in politics. It sets a precedent of a dangerous road for public education that is unsustainable and has many unintended but very REAL consequences.

Truce Mr. Obama? Hardly.

Stories Sell: The Jasons and Doug Covered their Eyes and Put their Fingers in their Ears, while Telling a Story

The Jasons and Doug strike again in their new edition to proving the validity of Value Added Assessment in  “LA’s Leaders in Learning” published on August 21st. As I read through the piece, I was reminded of a lesson from one of my former bosses when I was in college. I was asked to create an advertising campaign showing the benefits of financial literacy for college students. My boss told me to keep one thing in mind, “Stories sell.”

It seems that the Jasons and Doug continue to cover their ears and close their eyes to the AMPLE evidence that their project is flawed. They used their most recent article to give you more anecdotes to get the reader to ignore the facts. Photo Courtesy: kidsatthought.com

I am not sure if my boss met the Jasons and Doug, but they surely got their information from the same school of thought. The striking thing about there most recent article is that it seemed like they were trying to convince themselves of what they were saying, but I digress.

Let me tell you several stories.

There is ample evidence that the use of any “high-stakes” assessment model to retain students, sanction schools, and punish teachers has lead to the increase of cheating incidents – most recently in Atlanta. This evidence has been well documented going back to the days before value-added became a prominent area of contention among educators:

Teacher’s Caught Cheating – CBS News 2003

Analysis Shows TAKS Cheating Rampant – Dallas News 2007

Under Pressure, Teachers Tamper with Test – New York Times 2010

There is ample evidence that the use of valued-added assessments in regards to assessing teachers is still largely flawed and needs further development:

Study by Kane & Staiger, 2002 for the U.S. Department of Education

Valued-Added Assessments have estimation errors from two sources.
1. Random differences across classrooms in measured factors related to test scores including student abilities, background factors, and other student-level influences.

2. Idiosyncratic unmeasured factor that affects all students affects all students in specific classrooms (e.g. dog barking or a disruptive student), which reflects year-to-year volatility

David Cohen uses satire to drive in the errors of the Valued-Added Assessment

There has been ample evidence that shows that the use of “high-stakes” assessments and analysis models (whether its API or VAA) lead to limiting of the curriculum to the “testable” subjects/skills along with other effects to students:

Analysis of Urban Schools by Diane Chung-University of Michigan

Problems with the goals of NCLB

While these stories only cover a small portion of the mounting evidence used to evaluate high-stake tests and assessments (which what VAA would be used for), the Jasons and Doug are intent on using their stories to prove their point.

The Jasons and Doug in many ways are contradicting themselves through their own rhetoric albeit implicitly. In their most recent article, they dedicated a significant portion to scrutinizing the limitations of API or the Academic Performance Index used by California to “rank” schools in accordance to No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

“The API obscures the fact that students at Wilbur had the potential for further growth that went unrealized. Instead, they tended to slip every year while those at other esteemed schools in well-off neighborhoods made great strides. It also obscures the gains in schools in impoverished areas.”

“In elementary and middle school, the 1,000-point index is based entirely on how high students score on the state’s annual tests, given in Grades 2 through 12. According to state data, 81% of the differences among schools reflect socioeconomic factors such as poverty and parents’ education.”

Scores like API were developed and implemented partly due to NCLB. Diane Ravitch discusses the many prongs of NCLB in her most recent book The Death and Life of the Great American School System. However, one of those prongs were particularly important here:

“All public schools receiving federal funding were required to test all students in grades three through eight annually and once in high school in reading and mathematics and to disaggregate their scores by race, ethnicity, low-income status, disability status, and limited English proficiency. Disaggregation of scores would ensure that every group’s progress was monitored, not hidden in an overall average.

That last line is particularly important here. The development of API was supposed to ensure progress was monitored. The monitoring of the progress was supposed to cut across the various population groups. In other words, this was an attempt to “control” for the outside circumstances that a student may deal with during and after school. To the Jasons and Doug’s own admission that is not what API has done.

“But even those who designed the API more than a decade ago…. recommended measuring student progress as soon as possible.”

“The superiority of looking at student growth was recognized from the very beginning,” said Ed Haertel, a Stanford professor and testing expert who helped develop the API for the state. “It’s much more sensitive and accurate than the current system.”

But California, like most states, isn’t doing it.”

They suggest on their “More on the Value-Added Method” page that “[v]alue-added measures individual students’ year-to-year growth. The API compares the achievement level of one year’s students with those in the same grade the previous year. Experts say both are important and tell parents different things about a school.” The question that comes to my mind is how is a parent supposed to choose which one is more important API or VAA?

This is the issue I am having with the entire LA Times “study” on education. I often get the image of a small child closing their eyes and putting their fingers in their ears. Despite the fact that API was all the rage almost ten-years ago and it is shown (even by their own analysis) that it has problems and limitations, they insist on using a new “trendy” statistical model for evaluating schools and teachers. It is clear that there is NO evidence that VAA will help close the achievement gap for the various populations that were “tackled” in the development of the first statistical model. However the use of stories about Wilbur Elementary School “starting out as high achievers but [losing] ground on state standardized tests” is supposed to convince us otherwise. Maybe they will use the story of Maywood Elementary and the high population of students on free/reduced lunch improving the most. Either way, the LA Times study is a disingenuous attempt to improve education and is offering convoluted and inflammatory rhetoric about teachers and schools under the guise that empiricism will save the day. Unfortunately in this case, the “facts” that the Jasons and Doug are using has done nothing but make the misinformation about the nature of schooling, teaching, leadership, and testing more prevalent.

It was issues like this that I wanted (and I am sure others wanted) to discuss in their “chat” last Thursday. However, they circumvented the concerns of many in order to replace it with tired rhetoric and ambiguous statements.

Unfortunately, they still haven’t changed since the “chat.” In the most recent article they said, “The approach generally doesn’t penalize schools for things beyond their control.” I generally don’t eat fish (because I am a vegetarian) but if there is nothing else available I will. Marriages are generally perceived as a life long commitment, but people get divorced.

I really hope that their true intentions surface as a result of this project.

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.