Will Free-Pass Mainstream Media Clean Up Their Chetty Mess?

The New York Times couldn’t hold back: Big Study Links Good Teachers to Lasting Gain.

And for two years now, the so-called Chetty study that claims teacher quality directly causes higher lifetime earnings for their students has been re-released by Chetty and colleagues as well as rehashed by the free-pass mainstream media with a fervor that seems at least over-the-top.

When the Chetty numbers (has anyone noticed that the lifetime earning numbers appear to change?) are put into perspective, all the air should deflate from that misleading balloon: $50,000 gained over a lifetime (40 years) is only about 1.5-2 tanks of gas a month. But inflating that balloon to $1.4 million for a class of 28! Now you have something … (Hint: An overinflated balloon, possibly filled with poop.)

Initial scholarly responses to the Chetty balloon were cautious and critical (see notably Bruce Baker and Matthew Di Carlo here), but the free-pass mainstream press kept on keeping on.

Thus, since I have made a case for our needing a critical free press (in other words, “free press” and not “free pass” found among press-release journalists), we are at a key moment with the release of a thorough review of the Chetty study, a review that discredits the claims, Review of Measuring the Impacts of Teachers by Moshe Adler:

Can the quality of teachers be measured the way that a person’s weight or height is measured? Some economists have tried, but the “value-added” they have attempted to measure has proven elusive. The results have not been consistent over tests or over time. Nevertheless, a two-part report by Raj Chetty and his colleagues claims that higher value-added scores for teachers lead to greater economic success for their students later in life. This review of the methods of Chetty et al. focuses on their most important result: that teacher value-added affects income in adulthood. Five key problems with the research emerge. First, their own results show that the calculation of teacher value-added is unreliable. Second, their own research also generated a result that contradicts their main claim—but the report pushed that inconvenient result aside. Third, the trumpeted result is based on an erroneous calculation. Fourth, the report incorrectly assumes that the (miscalculated) result holds across students’ lifetimes despite the authors’ own research indicating otherwise. Fifth, the report cites studies as support for the authors’ methodology, even though they don’t provide that support. [emphasis added] Despite widespread references to this study in policy circles, the shortcomings and shaky extrapolations make this report misleading and unreliable for determining educational policy.

So my question now is: Will the free-pass mainstream media clean up their Chetty mess?

I suspect we will not have a NYT scorching headline, we will not even have a NYT article, we probably will not see interviews on NPR with Adler, and I am skeptical about Education Week‘s coverage (beyond some bloggers).

The fair and balanced mainstream media, alas, (those journalists who cannot judge the credibility of the research they cover) will not fall all over themselves to cover and then repeat for two years to come the popping of the Chetty balloon because that would mean admitting their own incompetence, which is the sweet allure of fairness that leaves us all misinformed.

Education Reform as the New Misogyny: A Reader

While watching The Wolverine (2013) starring Hugh Jackman, I noticed that along with Wolverine’s adamantium claws, Jackman’s nipples were featured prominently, leading me to search for the film’s promotional poster. And my suspicions were confirmed:

The Wolverine (2013)

Apparently Eva Green’s thinly-veiled nipples are not only more dangerous than the gun she is holding in the new Sin City sequel, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, poster, but also more offensive than Jackman’s nipples (despite the violence and extended sequences of a topless Jackman, the film is rated PG-13 “for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, some sexuality and language”).

This contradiction highlights Hollywood’s perverse double-standard that includes tabooing female nudity while also disproportionately objectifying women in gratuitous sex and nudity in films, and then speaks to the remaining systemic and institutional misogyny throughout the U.S.

Along with Hollywood and the complicit media, the central elements of education reform in the U.S. share one important thread among the repeated blaming of “bad” teachers, “bad” teachers unions, and the urgent need to fire those teachers by dismantling those unions.

That thread? Teaching remains a field dominated by women, and one we can assume the public identifies with women. As Nancy Flanagan explains:

But–as Solnit deftly points out–a great deal of bias goes unrecognized and unacknowledged in ordinary life in a male-dominated culture. Folks in education–male and female–just don’t see it, or feel it. Or the huge imbalance in power and influence is obscured by a handful of women who serve as highly visible role models.

Do the math, however–about 84% of K-12 teachers in the United States are female, a rapidly increasing disproportion.  Combined with the fact that the modal level of teacher experience is currently one year, it’s easy to see how major shifts in curriculum, instruction, assessment and hiring have been accomplished. Nobody’s pushing back.

I am struck that of all the professions in the U.S., why is there no urgent call for no “bad” doctors, no “bad” lawyers, no “bad” CEOs, or no “bad” politicians? And I must note that each of these remains male-dominated—both in numbers and in social perception.

As well, teaching as the work of women has been traditionally monitored by a demand that teachers remain politically quiet, passive, and now in 2014, education reform is the new misogyny.

The surface elements of education reform that currently target teacher quality and teachers unions are as thin veils as Green’s nightgown, but socially, the U.S. appears offended only by the exposed breast on a film poster.

But once we remove that veil, it seems irrefutable that education reform is driven by a 21st-century misogyny that must be confronted. I offer, then, this reader:

In Acts of Resistance, Pierre Bourdieu nearly 20 years ago recognized:

In the United States, the state is splitting into two, with on the one hand a state which provides social guarantees, but only for the privileged, who are sufficiently well-off to provide themselves with insurance, with guarantees, and a repressive, policing state, for the populace. (p. 32)

Only a decade later, New Orleans was ground-zero for disaster capitalism’s end game: The entire public school teacher workforce was fired, a workforce dominated by African Americans and women, a representation of the so-called middle class that U.S. political leaders claim to cherish.

Bourdieu adds:

In all countries, the proportion of workers with temporary status is growing relative to those with permanent jobs. Increased insecurity and “flexibility” lead to the loss of modest advantages…which might compensate for low wages, such as long-lasting employment, health insurance and pension right. (p. 37)

While teaching as a profession has remained relatively low-pay, teachers have often been pacified by the mirage of “fringe benefits,” but now it seems, that as the circumstances of all workers are reduced (the Walmartification of the U.S. workforce as part-time with no benefits), the next phase of that reduction is the lowest rungs of the professional ladder—those professions held mainly by women.

As Bourdieu explains by way of Max Weber, “dominant groups [read: white males in the U.S.] always need…a theoretical justification of the fact that they are privileged. Competence is nowadays at the heart of that” justification, which for teachers is the rise of proving teacher quality through measurement—something that those in power do not need to do since they maintain the public’s gaze on the demand for others to prove their worth (p. 43).

Systemic and institutional racism, classism, and misogyny are protected by repeating pacifying and distracting narratives, as confronted by Bourdieu:

I’m thinking of what has been called the “return of individualism,” a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy which tends to destroy the philosophical foundations of the welfare state and in particular the notion of collective responsibility….The return to the individual is also what makes it possible to “blame the victim,” who is entirely responsible for his or her own misfortune, and to preach the gospel of self-help, all of this being justified by the endlessly repeated need to reduce costs for companies. (p. 7)

Racial minorities, women, and children remain disproportionately disadvantaged in the U.S., the wealthiest and most power nation in human history. But that wealth and advantage also remain disproportionately hoarded by a white and male leadership that demands everyone proves her/his worth.

Education reform is the new misogyny as well as the new racism and classism.

The commonality we are failing to recognize and mobilize is that most of us are and always will be workers. To protect and honor the field of teaching is to protect and honor all workers—just as to protect and honor the field of teaching is to call for an end to misogyny.

Debating the Gates Moratorium, Or Life among the Roadbuilders

As a lifelong fan of science fiction (SF), I want to start by invoking a SF convention that never gets old: time travel (but I’ll spare you the whirlwind prestidigitation mastered by Kurt Vonnegut, who married time travel and non-linear narrative in Slaughterhouse-Five).

Once upon a time (well, I must confess, I enjoy a bit of genre-splicing also), Bill Gates, billionaire and burgeoning education hobbyist, began tossing his considerable expertise (read: money) at small schools projects. Low and behold, Gates eventually looked at the research his own foundation gathered, declared the project a failure, and scuttled away—only to decide that the greatest scourge on the planet was the enormous number of “bad” teachers failing our children everyday!

Since we are now back in time (and you may notice a pattern here about history repeating itself, and such), let’s look at that Gates/small school dynamic as I blogged about this in April and May 2011:

And, Gates’s small schools experiment? While Gates himself declared the experiment a failure, Marshak explains that Gates’ small school experiment actually exposes Gates’ own inability to understand the education dynamics he claims to reform. But ample evidence reveals both that Gates is inexpert and remains unsuccessful as an education reformer. See here, here and here – including his failure to understand statistics and the charts he enjoys using to make his points here. (Accountability? Start at the Top, OpEdNews 11 April 2011)

Let’s do some truly basic math.

First, consider that Bill Gates, a billionaire whose wealth and success have been built on computer innovation and entrepreneurship, has been an education reformer for many years now–stretching back to a small schools focus:

“Bill Gates used to believe that one of the solutions to failing schools was to create smaller ones with 500 students or fewer. His foundation spent $1 billion toward this; seeing the opportunity to bring in private dollars, districts started shifting to smaller schools. Small schools became the big new trend. But then the foundation conducted a study that found that, by itself, school size had little if any effect on achievement. The foundation dropped the project and moved on to teacher reform, but by then some urban districts throughout the nation had changed to small–and more expensive to operate–schools.”

So the first formula is:

Gates initiative + Gates funding = abandoned schools in the wake of failure (with no consequences for Gates)

As the Los Angeles Times reports above, Gates is now focusing on teacher quality–including calls for teacher evaluations tied to test scores measuring student achievement against the common core standards.

This suggests a new formula:

Gates money + common core standards + testing industry = profit for Gates and testing industry at the expense of students, learning, and public education. (If There Remains Any Question, Daily Kos 1 May 2011)

Let’s return now to the present where the Gates machine has called for a moratorium on all that Common Core and VAM stuff because his own people’s research appears to refute what Gates has been pontificating about in the compliant media gaze that only Gates seems worthy of receiving (I hate to beat this to death, but do any of you see a pattern here?).

I want to offer now that this call for a moratorium is another teachable moment—those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and all that—and therein we have at least two important lessons:

First, Gates/small schools, Gates/VAM, and Gates/Common Core are all the same flawed dynamic in which political leaders, the media, and the public confuse wealth with expertise. Remove Gates’s billions and he would have zero credibility in any of these ventures—and I still maintain that the small school debacle is the most telling part of this story [1] because Gates misread his own research, declared erroneously the commitment a failure, and simply walked away leaving others to hold the bag (roadbuilder he has always been, roadbuilder he will always be).

And this leads to the debate and discussion that has blossomed from the Gates moratorium announcement.

So our second lesson is somewhat positive: If we could ever set aside confusing wealth with expertise, we may come to recognize that among educators, scholars, and researchers we already have a wealth of expertise that could better serve our goals of education reform.

And thus, I maintain my stance that the Gates moratorium is a sham, but I want to highlight here that within the credible responses to that moratorium call, we see how education reform should be debated: by those who know the field:

And while I enjoy coming back to and finding new SF again and again, in education reform I am eager to step off the “Déjà vu all over again” merry-go-round.

Bill Gates, about that moratorium? No thanks. And while we are at it, no thanks to all the rest either.

If you’d stopped building your roads we never asked for right through the middle of our villages, we would have time to take care of business here, instead of constantly staying one step behind underneath the rubble of the disasters you create.

[1] Please read carefully Good Doubt and Bad Doubt from 2007 and Why Did the Gates Small-High-Schools Program Fail?: Well, Actually It Didn’t from 2010 for some really powerful time travel. And this is just must-read: Bill Gates should hire a statistical advisor.

My Open Letter to Journalists: A Critical Free Press, pt. 2

Dear Journalists (especially those who write about education):

After posting my U.S. and Education Reform Need a Critical Free Press, which represents a recurring effort in my public work to address the problems with journalism about education and education research/reports, I continued to interact with Juana Summers (NPR) and Stephen Sawchuk (Education Week) on Twitter. Those exchanges have suggested to me that I need to examine more fully what my concerns raised specifically about mainstream coverage of NCTQ’s reports mean to my wider call for a critical free press.

First, I think I need to establish the foundational context of my complaints about journalism/education journalism.

I believe journalists and teachers should be (must be) comrades in arms because a free press and universal public education are essential foundational institutions for a free people.

I am not, however, suggesting that this camaraderie is some sort of wink-wink, nod-nod collusion between the two professions in which we “cover” for each other, but that we are comrades joined by the same mission to build the free society that many claim the U.S. seeks. In fact, as comrades I expect we should be each other’s most vigilant and accurate critics to insure that we both stay the course.

And that builds on my second larger context for my concerns about journalism and my call for a critical free press. My use of the term “critical” is the source of my calls for reform of both education and journalism—two fields that reach their potential when critical, but fail when they are bound by traditional expectations of impartiality, calls that teachers and journalists avoid being “political.” Critical teachers and critical journalists are activists; they use their professions as mechanisms for change. Apolitical teachers and journalists are essentially defenders of the status quo (thus, the calls for impartiality are always loudest from those with power and wealth).

So I want to return briefly to my criticisms of mainstream media coverage of NCTQ’s latest report.

While Summers, Sawchuk, and I exchanged Tweets related to my post, Adam Bessie, whose important public work refuting the “bad” teacher meme is central to my points here, offered a Tweet that simply identified a fact about Gates funding among NPR, Education Week, and NCTQ:

This Tweet represents the central issue to my concerns: Among the New Media (blogs, Twitter, Facebook, etc.), many critical educators have been confronting the disproportionate and inappropriate (because Gates has no credibility in the field of education, but nearly endless funds) influence of Gates on education reform—an influence that I have confronted often with a question: If Bill Gates had no money, who would listen to him about education reform? No one.

Also, Bessie’s Tweet about the ubiquity of Gates funding has finally begun to gain some traction in the mainstream press. But bloggers still carry the greatest weight for being critical about the influence of Gates on education reform. (The most common places now to find critical journalism is in the New Media, such as blogs at Education Week [see Anthony Cody and Nancy Flanagan] and The Washington Post [see Valerie Strauss] or alternative press such as Truthout and AlterNet.)

Despite Bessie’s Tweet only stating facts, Sawchuk immediately responded with this:

It is at “offensive” that I think we should all pause and consider carefully.

I do not in any way think Sawchuk is a careless, “bought,” or shoddy journalist. In fact, as I stated to him, I have interacted with Sawchuk because I respect him, his work, and his profession (I do not interact with others about whom I cannot say the same).

I must add that my concern with Sawchuk’s coverage of NCTQ (as well as the other coverage I identified) is that the work fails because it conforms to the flawed traditional convention of fairness that Sawchuk mentions directly.

The traditional view of fairness in journalism has been brilliantly skewered recently by John Oliver on his HBO show: Oliver exposes that being “fair” in the climate change debate—having one person for “both sides” debate the issue—actually greatly misrepresents the current understanding within the field of science for the lay public. Mainstream journalists committed to this sort of “fair and balanced” are doomed to fail the much more important goal of accuracy. As Oliver demonstrated, the ratio of for and against climate change within the sciences is not 1 to 1 as a “fair” debate implies, but about 97 for and 3 against (and while Oliver didn’t explore this, a careful look at the against shows that even those 3% are less credible within the field).

If we extrapolate the Oliver Rule, then, to education reform, we do not find an equal 1 to 1 ratio of research on using value-added methods (VAM) to evaluate and dismiss teachers because the field overwhelmingly refutes using VAM in highs-stakes situations (even pro-VAM researchers call for “modest” uses of VAM) and mostly ideological advocates and political leaders (without expertise) endorse VAM for high-stakes education policy. However, VAM advocacy garners primary coverage in the mainstream press with little attention paid to the more credible research refuting its high-stakes and disproportionate use.

So let me be very clear here about both Sawchuk being offended and the difference between critical journalists and fair journalists.

I’m sorry, but journalists and journalism will always look bad when money speaks louder than expertise (see again Gates).

Now, imagine, journalists, if every day your field was repeatedly and inaccurately trashed for all the public: U.S. public education is a failure because our tests scores rank poorly internationally (misleading), schools with impoverished students have low test scores because of low expectations by the teachers (untrue), U.S. public education is failing because of corrupt teachers’ unions (untrue and basically opposite of the evidence), to improve public schools we need to identify “bad” teachers and fire them (untrue), public school teachers are “bad” mostly because they have tenure (untrue) [1], and the list goes on.

I genuinely regret Sawchuk being offended because he doesn’t deserve it, but I must emphasize that Sawchuk is among the media who are complicit in offending teachers, teaching, and schools everyday because journalists are quick to assume the misguided pose of “fair” and unwilling to assume the needed position of critical.

Many issues simply do not have “sides” (rape, genocide), and to be honest, most issues do not have equally credibly sides.

Does teacher education/certification need to be reformed (full disclosure: I am a teacher educator)? Absolutely.

But NCTQ has no credibility and garners its influence through the impact of money and media endorsement, and not validity (just as Gates has done).

Louann Reid, Chair of NCTE’s Conference on English Education, has identified this problem perfectly in her rebuttal of NCTQ’s recent report:

The recommendations are, however, backed by considerable funding, which helps extend NCTQ’s reach. CEE doesn’t have that kind of funding, but we do have reliable researchers and educators who can mobilize to tell the true stories of effective English teacher education. And I believe we must do so.

And herein lies the problem. While I also spurred some offense by my use of “press-release journalism,” the inordinate and uncritical coverage of NCTQ by the mainstream press proves my point that mainstream journalists respond to press releases (funding) while the experts (NCTE/CEE) remain mostly ignored.

And that’s the problem with “fairness” as the journalist’s guide instead of “critical.”

As researcher and scholar Bruce Baker added to the Twitter discussion, critical journalism would have responded to NCTQ quite differently:

It may appear “fair” to respond to NCTQ as one perspective in the education reform debate, but it isn’t beneficial to afford an organization and a report without merit more credence (or even the same) as the contributions of those who have credibility.

And choosing to cover a topic is a political choice; coverage is never unbiased. And framing a topic is also a political choice (what perspective to present first, how to frame in the headline and lede, etc.). In truth, assuming a dispassionate pose is always dishonest since as humans we are always being political. I suggest we are all better off being openly and purposefully political instead of conforming to misleading norms of “neutrality.”

Yet, this is how the mainstream media carry on day after day—especially in the misguided assault on teachers, public schools, and now higher education.

Legions of hardworking and dedicated classroom teachers are offended daily by the mainstream media being complicit in a false story being told by those with money and an agenda—while that same mainstream media either offer secondary equal time [2] or ignore a powerful group of educators, researchers, and scholars who have the experience and expertise to reform education as it needs to be reformed.

Journalists, if you are ever offended, I would add that coincidentally you are now educators’ comrades for another reason.

As a lifelong teachers (31 years with 13 years teaching journalism to wonderful high school students), I am asking that you join us in the fight instead of taking your impartial stance that allows the well-funded but misguided reformers to keep on keeping on.

Any takers?

[1] How many mainstream journalists covering the Vergara ruling in California addressed that the judge issuing the ruling has job security himself?

[2] As “fair,” we are occasionally allowed to rebut the “reformers” somewhere in the middle or bottom third of the coverage, but even then we are framed as “critics.”

U.S. and Education Reform Need a Critical Free Press

Few things are worse than mainstream media coverage of education.

Except for that sentence above, which stretches hyperbole beyond credibility.

But that is exactly where the mainstream media finds itself when covering education. Journalists, in their quest to maintain the traditional commitment to “fair and balanced” journalism [1], consistently endorse and perpetuate organizations without credibility (such as NCTQ) and baseless claims (such as cries of “bad” teacher, “bad” teacher certification, and “bad” unions).

With yet another report released by NCTQ, that failure of the mainstream media has been highlighted once again—notably at NPR [2] and Education Week: Study Delivers Failing Grades For Many Programs Training Teachers, Claudio Sanchez and Juana Summers; Alternative Certification Deemed Weak by NCTQ in New Teacher-Prep Report, Stephen Sawchuk; Most Teacher Preparation Falls Short on Strategies for ELLs, NCTQ Finds, Lesli A. Maxwell.

First, the mainstream coverage of NCTQ’s reports remains trapped inside assumed crises that have no basis in fact; NCTQ’s reports and then the media begin with the givens that education suffers under the burden of “bad” teachers, “bad” teacher certification, and “bad” unions. However, at the very least, these claims are disproportional, if not outright erroneous:

  • If we maintain the current context that student achievement is accurately reflected in test scores (and it isn’t), then we must acknowledge that teacher quality (10-15%) and school quality account for only about 20% of that measurement, but “60 percent of achievement outcomes is explained by student and family background characteristics (most are unobserved, but likely pertain to income/poverty),” as Di Carlo details.
  • If we accept that value-added methods (VAM) can accurately and consistently identify “good” and “bad” teachers (and the evidence is that it cannot) and if we accept the much repeated claim by Chetty et al. that teacher quality can add $50,000 to the lifetime earning potential of a student (and that also is a significantly contested claim, as well as another example of advocacy and media hyperbole since that lifetime earning figure equates to about 1.5-2 tanks of gas per month), the enormity of the claims about “bad” teachers and the urgency expressed about creating and implementing huge and expensive test-based systems to address teacher quality are at best overstated. No rational person would endorse the cost-benefit analysis of such schemes.
  • Finally, claims that teachers unions are primary or significant negative influences on educational quality are powerfully refuted by the historical and current fact that the states in the U.S. with the lowest standardized test scores tend to be those that are right-to-work (non-union) states. Unionization correlates positively with measurable student achievement, in fact, while poverty is the greatest correlation with low measurable student outcomes (for the record, union bashing is a straw man because U.S. public education has a poverty problem, not a union problem).

Next, NCTQ has established a sort of immediate appearance of credibility through three strategies: partnering itself with U.S. News & World Report, garnering significant and influential sources of funding, and bombarding the mainstream media with a series of reports without vetting those reports as is common in traditional scholarship (which slows down and greatly harnesses higher-quality research from reaching the public [3]. But scholars don’t issue press releases, and apparently, journalists respond primarily to press releases instead of conducting investigative journalism [4].)

Finally, once I engaged Sawchuck (EdWeek) and then Summers (NPR) on Twitter, several key aspects of this phenomenon were highlighted. Both journalists argued that their pieces on NCTQ were fair, and even critical—which I will examine below—but even more significant is a comment on Twitter from Summers:

My two reactions to Summers deferring from examining the credibility of NCTQ are, first, to strongly disagree, and second, note that no journalists need to do any real investigative journalism to uncover that NCTQ has no credibility because all of that work has been done already by a number of scholars (see those critiques catalogued here and here).

As disturbing, however, as that stance is, examining carefully the coverage of NCTQ reveals that the mainstream media does in fact endorse NCTQ implicitly (despite claims of impartiality) and also marginalizes the credible critiques of NCTQ.

All three articles (see above) have headlines that establish immediately for any reader that NCTQ’s report is worthy of major media coverage. Next, all three articles have ledes that also present NCTQ positively:

The nation’s teacher-preparation programs have plenty of room for improvement, according to a new report. (Sanchez and Summers)

Alternative-certification programs for preparing teachers suffer from many of the same problems that the National Council on Teacher Quality has identified in traditional, university-based programs, the Washington-based group concludes in a new pilot study. (Sawchuk)

More than 75 percent of elementary teacher-preparation programs are failing when it comes to readying future teachers to work effectively with English-language learners, a new report from the National Council on Teacher Quality contends. (Maxwell)

Sanchez and Summers (again, note that Summers argues it isn’t her job to assign credibility to the study) certainly imply that the study is credible by using this language: “The study is a dismal read, given that the U.S. spends more than $6 billion each year to prepare teachers for the classroom.”

The NCTQ study is only a “dismal read” if it is accurate (and it isn’t). NCTQ has been carefully discredited in scholarship (for example, see Fuller here and here) for serious conflicts of interest (Teach For America and KIPP leaders sit on the Advisory Board, for example), for a flawed study design, and for shoddy methodology [5].

So how are credible academic critiques of NCTQ characterized in the journalism that claims not to take evaluative positions?:

When NCTQ released a version of this report last year, it was met with some skepticism among educators and those responsible for preparing teachers. Critics said the advocacy group should have visited individual teacher-prep programs and talked to graduates and students, rather than relying on syllabi. (Sanchez and Summers)

Last year’s inaugural teacher-prep review was immediately rejected by most teacher colleges and, especially, by their main membership body, the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

Criticism focused on the NCTQ’s tack of reviewing syllabi and other course materials rather than visiting institutions; its use of open-records requests and current students to obtain documents; the complaint that its standards weren’t agreed to by the profession; and the fact that its research products aren’t peer reviewed. Additionally, critics have claimed that the project is ideologically driven, given NCTQ’s role as incubator of an alternative-certification group, the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence (ABCTE), which received federal funding from the George W. Bush administration.

The latter complaint seems less viable now that the NCTQ has turned its green eyeshade toward alternative-certification programs. (Sawchuk)

“Some skepticism” and “critics” clearly position credible scholarship negatively while maintaining the implied endorsement of NCTQ as an organization and NCTQ’s reports. And while Sawchuk appears to address more directly NCTQ’s lack of credibility, he still marginalizes scholars as “critics” and then in the last paragraph above, simply discounts the criticism [6].

Further in Sawchuk’s piece, the contrast between lacking credibility (NCTQ) and credibility (scholarship discrediting NCTQ) is reduced to a simple misunderstanding and a matter of tone (not substance):

Notably, the report’s introduction this year contains a number of mea culpas regarding the bad blood between the NCTQ and teacher colleges. And Walsh agreed that her group bore some of the blame.

“At times we were a bit arrogant about what it is we think teacher education should be doing,” she said. “Even if we agree to disagree, we can be more respectful.”

Again, this trivializes criticism of NCTQ and further equates NCTQ (an advocacy think tank) with scholarship—while also painting NCTQ as apologetic (despite the organization maintaining its threat of ranking programs whether they cooperate or not; a powerful tool afforded NCTQ because of its media partnership with U.S. News & World Report).

One of my strongest criticisms of teachers is that we far too often allow ourselves to be trapped within traditional calls that we take neutral stances; however, the U.S. needs critical teachers (political teachers) if our public schools are to be a foundation for our democracy.

What I have detailed above is that journalists in the U.S. have bowed to the same call for neutrality, one that cannot be accomplished but can serve as a shield for maintaining the status quo.

The U.S. needs critical journalists, ones who see their job as maintaining a commitment to seeking out and identifying the credibility of things they report. Only those in power benefit when the free press is mostly free of taking to task those in power.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in how the mainstream media fails the education reform debate.

[1] Journalists and teachers share the burden of traditional expectations that they should never be “political,” but taking a neutral stance is, in fact, taking a passive stance endorsing the status quo. In other words, taking a dispassionate pose is a political stance (see The Politics of Calling for No Politics).

[2] See a similar example with NPR’s coverage of “grit.”

[3] See the following in terms of how the mainstream media disproportionately reports on think tank (non-peer reviewed) reports as compared to peer-reviewed and university-based research:

Molnar, A. (2001, April 11). The media and educational research: What we know vs. what the public hears. Milwaukee, WI: Center for Education Research, Analysis, and Innovation. Retrieved from http://epsl.asu.edu/epru/documents/cerai-01-14.htm

Yettick, H. (2009). The research that reaches the public: Who produces the educational research mentioned in the news media? Boulder, CO and Tempe, AZ: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. Retrieved from http://epicpolicy.org/publication/research-that-reaches

[4] I make this claim not as a direct attack on any journalists, but teachers and journalists now experience very similar and negative influences on their ability to conduct their professions. While education reform tends to impeded good teaching, the contracting media market has tended to overburden journalists. As a result of newspapers and magazines disappearing and contracting their staffs, many journalists resort to press-release journalism as a survival technique, similar to teachers teaching to the tests. The conditions of both professions, teaching and journalism, are stark reasons why both teachers and journalists must exert their political selves in their professional work.

[5] As a brief glimpse into NCTQ’s accidental admission of their methodology, in an effort to twist criticism of their practices, this post adds at the end “As one teacher candidate who is working on our office this summer said,” highlighting that anecdote is enough for NCTQ, as long as it matches their advocacy.

[6] Sawchuk fails to recognize that NCTQ is working within a scorched-earth policy as part of the large disaster capitalism driving education reform in the U.S. For a vivid example of how this works, and why NCTQ, TFA, and KIPP benefit once the traditional education system is dismantled, see the events that have occurred since Katrina in New Orleans where the public school system has been replaced by charters schools, many KIPP and many staffed by TFA recruits.

NCTQ: “their remedies are part of the disease”

Accordingly, with admirable, though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.

Oscar Wilde (1891), The Soul of Man under Socialism

And so: NCTQ releases yet another think tank faux-report that will spur yet more press-release journalism.

In the wake of the Vergara ruling in California, which is one intended consequence of maintaining the distracting drum beat about “bad teachers,” I am convinced that NCTQ is implementing a strategy dramatized in the (regretfully) ignored film In Time: Keep everyone so frantic and thus distracted that no one can confront, as Oscar Wilde so wonderfully states, that NCTQ’s “remedies are part of the disease.”

I cannot and see no need to speak directly to new reports from NCTQ because, as I have stated before:

NCTQ offers no credible agenda or scholarship worthy of reforming teacher education. But this ideological think tank is a disturbing example of all that is wrong with the current education reform movement that has allowed people without experience or expertise as educators to perpetuate an education reform agenda through the weight of money, political influence, and media compliance.

Here, however, I will gather my previous posts on NCTQ as well as the expected responses to come—keeping in mind that we can feel safe even before looking at the report that NCTQ remains a think tank without credibility.

Responses to NCTQ

Why NCTQ Is Wrong, NCTE

A Plethora of Recommendations Based on a Paucity of Evidence, Louann Reid

NCTQ’s Gradual Unmasking [UPDATED] (See compiled list of earlier responses to NCTQ at the end.)

UPDATED: NCTQ’s Free Pass in an Era of Press-Release Journalism

Those Nonsense Annual NCTQ Ratings Are Coming on June 17, Mercedes Schneider

Peter Smagorinsky: Response to the new NCTQ Teacher Prep Review

A “Fuller” Look at Education Issues, Ed Fuller

Shaky Methods, Shaky Motives: A Critique of the National Council of Teacher Quality’s Review of Teacher Preparation Programs, Ed Fuller

Knowledge Ventriloquism, EduShyster

Bunkum on teacher quality from the corporate reformers, Fred Klonsky

Professor: How NCTQ Restricts My Reading List, Katherine Crawford-Garrett

Reading Professor Responds to NCTQ Blast at Her Post, Katherine Crawford-Garrett

Statement on NCTQ Teacher Prep Review from Sharon P. Robinson, Ed.D., AACTE President and CEO

NCTQ/USNWR Review, AACTE

Resisting the National Council on Teacher Quality’s Propaganda, Jack Hassard

Also from Schneider

The Very Disappointing Teacher Impact Numbers from Chetty

It appears that Raj Chetty, of the very famous and mostly hypothetical Chetty et al. study addressing teacher quality’s impact on students’ lifetime earning potential, had a big influence on the Vergara case in California:

But one has to wonder how much impact that testimony would have had if the judge had considered that most reviews of the study find it to be poppy-cock (see Baker on the Chetty et al. molehill and Di Carlo) or if we simply displayed the numbers differently.

A 40-year “lifetime earnings” of $50,000 is only about $1250 a year, or about, after taxes, $75-80 per month, or about 1.5 to 2 tanks of gas a month.

Hmmmm. Compared to the $50,000 of hypothetical life-time earning or that insane $1.4 million for a class of 28, 1.5-2 tanks of gas a month appears to be much ado about nothing.

Chetty also fails to make a very important point about the economics of investing in measuring teacher quality: It will cost billions of dollars in public funding to create and implement a significant increase in high-stakes testing in order to hypothetically raise the monthly earning income of students enough for them to buy 1.5-2 tanks a gas each month.

A much more effective strategy would be to take those billions of dollars needed to create and implement VAM and give every worker in the U.S. $75 per month tax free. Simple, direct, and guaranteed.

Setting aside that this is all hypothetical, seems a ridiculously inefficient cost/benefit analysis of addressing a teacher quality issue that already is only about 10-15% of measurable student learning.

What We Tolerate (and for Whom) v. What the Rich Demand: On Teacher Quality

Two of the best teachers and education advocates I respect and listen to carefully, Nancy Flanagan and Susan Ohanian, had an important exchange on Twitter recently:

Prompted by the Vergara court case in California and a related article in The Atlantic, Flanagan and Ohanian share a concern about the political, popular, and media claim that “bad” teachers work in “bad” schools with “bad” students (all of which is the result of a flawed misreading of the conditions common in high-poverty schools that serve high-poverty communities).

Before examining the issue of teacher quality raised above, please take note of a Big Picture problem at the heart of the Vergara ruling: All professions, including teaching, have elite, solid, and weak practitioners, but to suggest that teacher quality is the or one of the primary causes of educational problems is simply false, a manufactured scapegoat to keep the public view off the real problems facing us—mostly social and educational inequity.

Let’s look carefully, now, at how the complex issue of teacher quality is further complicated by high-poverty schools:

  • Teacher quality represents only about 10-15% of measurable student outcomes (test scores); thus, since high-poverty students are disproportionately likely to produce low test scores, it is a mistake to read raw tests scores as a reflection of teacher quality (or even student learning) since those test scores are primarily a reflection of out-of-school influences. (Also note that outliers to that dynamic do not disprove a generalization and do not suggest what the norm should be; as well, all claims of such “miracle” schools have been discredited.)
  • High-poverty schools and high-poverty students are staffed and taught by teachers who are disproportionately new, early career, and/or under-/un-certified. That dynamic does contribute to “teacher quality,” but not in ways popular claims mean (for example, a new teacher is not “bad,” but experience certainly contributes to greater teacher effectiveness—although that is not necessarily reflected in measurable student outcomes).
  • High-poverty students and their parents value education as much as more affluent students and parents, but living in poverty is existing in a state of scarcity that taxes adults and children physically, psychologically, and mentally—often leaving them less capable of advocating for education and benefitting for learning opportunities. Conversely, students and parents from relative affluence are afforded the slack necessary to advocate for education and fully engage with learning experiences. The important point here is that teaching, parenting, and learning in conditions influenced by poverty negatively impact nearly everyone involved, but by changing those conditions (and not the people), those same people would perform differently. (This contradicts claims that we need to rid schools of “bad” teachers and instill poor students with “grit”—both of which focus the problems in the people and not the system.)

Flanagan and Ohanian, then, are right that high-poverty schools are not overburdened by “bad” teachers; many wonderful teachers work in high-poverty schools (but some genuinely weak teachers are protected by the mask of affluent students, affluent schools, and affluent communities)—and high-poverty students are potentially as capable of learning as their more affluent peers (impoverished students don’t need to be “fixed” and don’t need to be taught “grit”).

But those facts are harshly clouded by the knee-jerk conclusions drawn from raw test scores—just as most people erroneously believe private schools are superior to public schools simply because the outward evidence appears to suggest so.

What do the data show, then, when we look at teacher characteristics (interpreted as “quality”) in high-poverty schools along with student test scores as that contrasts with teacher characteristics and student test scores in affluent public and private schools?

As a society, we tolerate the worst possible conditions for the students with the most need (teacher characteristics, school conditions and funding, and high percentage of children living in poverty are the failure of adequate public response and policy) while students living in relative affluence have the advocacy of their parents demanding that they do not suffer the same conditions experienced by children in poverty (disproportionately children of color): high student-teacher ratios, inexperienced and un-/under-certified teachers, underfunded schools, facilities in disrepair, and worksheet and rote instructional practices aimed at test-prep.

The cruel reality is that high-poverty and high-minority schools are not staffed by “bad” teachers forced to teach “bad” students, but that those teachers and students have the most challenging conditions in their lives and schools to overcome while affluent students have slack in their lives and the best conditions in their schools.

Instead of misguided commitments to value-added methods (VAM) for finding the best teachers (which do not work), policies that address equity would serve us much better:

  • No child should be taught by un-/under-certified teachers.
  • No child should have new or early career teachers for several years in a row.
  • Teacher quality must be re-imagined as an effective matching of teachers with students and not reduced to measurable outcomes.
  • Student achievement must no longer be reduced to measurable outcomes.

As with much of the flawed education reform agenda, the teacher quality issue reflects the overuse and misuse of test scores.

Until we address the scarcity in children’s lives and schools, addressing teacher quality is a futile distraction, just as continuing to change standards and tests is a futile distraction.

Instead of labeling, ranking, and then firing teachers, our first best step would be to end the cult of high-stakes testing because the problems of education are mostly systemic (social and educational) and not the adults who choose to teach or the children we seek to serve.

Autonomy Must Precede Accountability

Nearly 2.5 years ago, I wrote directly about the essential flaw with the thirty-plus-years accountability movement in K-12 U.S. public education. That essential flaw is that accountability built on standards and high-stakes testing is a corruption of the concept of accountability—which may be better understood as “responsibility.”

The corrupted “accountability” imposed on students, teachers, and schools in this model fails to establish first some key conditions in which accountability proper can be valid, ethical, and effective:

  • Identify clearly and openly the conditions that are in need of reform as well as the causational roots of those conditions.
  • Insure and then honor the autonomy of those being held accountable.
  • Insure accountability does not include conditions over which those being held accountable have no real control.

As a teacher, and if I am allowed my professional autonomy, I cannot control the outcomes of my students since those outcomes are impacted significantly by many different cause agents outside my control, but I can (or should be able to) control the opportunities to learn that I provide students each day.

And thus, as we dig deeper the corrupted accountability hole with the shiny new Common Core shovel, it is with great sadness that I must assert that the reposting below remains the ugly reality of today as we near mid-2014 (in handy-dandy bumper sticker format):

UntitledAccountability without Autonomy Is Tyranny

When educational research reaches the public through the corporate media, the consequences are often dire. Chetty, Friedman, and Rockoff released “The Long-Term Impacts of Teachers: Teacher Value-Added and Student Outcomes in Adulthood” and immediately The New York Times pronounced in “Big Study Links Good Teachers to Lasting Gains”:

Elementary- and middle-school teachers who help raise their students’ standardized-test scores seem to have a wide-ranging, lasting positive effect on those students’ lives beyond academics, including lower teenage-pregnancy rates and greater college matriculation and adult earnings, according to a new study that tracked 2.5 million students over 20 years.

The simplistic and idealistic headline reflects the central failure of the media in the education reform debate, highlighted by careless reporting such as including this quote from one of the study’s researchers:

“The message is to fire people sooner rather than later,” Professor Friedman said.

This newest attempt to justify value-added methods for identifying, rewarding, and retaining high-quality teachers (as well as firing so-called weak teachers) was yet to be peer-reviewed, but two close initial examinations of the study—by Matthew Di Carlo and Bruce Baker—have praised the data but urged caution about conclusions drawn by the researchers and in media responses:

This appropriately cautious conclusion stands in stark contrast with the fact that most states have already decided to do so. It also indicates that those using the results of this paper to argue forcefully for specific policies are drawing unsupported conclusions from otherwise very important empirical findings. (Di Carlo)

These are interesting findings. It’s a really cool academic study. It’s a freakin’ amazing data set! But these findings cannot be immediately translated into what the headlines have suggested – that immediate use of value-added metrics to reshape the teacher workforce can lift the economy, and increase wages across the board! The headlines and media spin have been dreadfully overstated and deceptive. Other headlines and editorial commentary has been simply ignorant and irresponsible. (No Mr. Moran, this one study did not, does not, cannot negate  the vast array of concerns that have been raised about using value-added estimates as blunt, heavily weighted instruments in personnel policy in school systems.) (Baker)

Despite these strong and careful cautions, Dana Goldstein followed up with a praising piece in The Nation that links to Di Carlo’s work, but on balance accepts Chetty, Friedman, and Rockoff’s claims and suggests:

Given the widespread, non-ideological worries about the reliability of standardized test scores when they are used in high-stakes ways, it makes good sense for reform-minded teachers’ unions to embrace value-added as one measure of teacher effectiveness, while simultaneously pushing for teachers’ rights to a fair-minded appeals process. What’s more, just because we know that teachers with high value-added ratings are better for children, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we should pay such teachers more for good evaluation scores alone. Why not use value-added to help identify the most effective teachers, but then require these professionals to mentor their peers in order to earn higher pay?

Journalists, politicians, bureaucrats, and researchers are nearly uniform in failing to identify the central flaw in pursuing data as the holy grail of identifying and rewarding high-quality teachers, and the persistent positive response to Chetty, Friedman, and Rockoff’s study doesn’t prove VAM works but does reveal that there is little hope we’ll make any good decisions about teachers and schools any time soon.

Teaching in a Time of Tyranny

Ten-plus years into the federalized accountability era designated as No Child Left Behind, one fact of education is rarely mentioned (except by people who do spend and have spent their lives actually teaching children day in and day out): Since 1983′s A Nation at Risk, and intensified under NCLB, teachers have systematically been de-professionalized, forced by the weight of policy and bureaucracy to implement standards they did not create, to prepare students for tests they did not create (and cannot see, and likely do not support), and to be held accountable for policies and outcomes that are not within their control.

And this is the fact of the accountability era that has evolved from holding students accountable for test scores in the beginning to the more recent call to hold teachers accountable because, as media pundits claim, teachers and their protective unions are all that is wrong with the U.S.—at least according to Mort Zuckerman on CNN:

I think there are huge problems in this country and a lot of it, in my judgment, stems not from capitalism [emphasis added] but from the government….

Because the education is a government function. If there ever was a public function in this country from the days it started, it’s public education and we’ve done a lousy job. Part of it is frankly because we have lousy teachers.

Part of the reason we have lousy teachers is we have teachers union that say won’t deal with those issues. So there are lots of reasons why education is not being properly handled in this country.

If U.S. public education is failing (and that is at least complicated, if not mostly misleading) and if teachers are the source of that failure (and that is demonstrably untrue since out-of-school factors represent at least two-thirds of the influence on measurable student outcomes), let’s consider where the accountability should lie.

For the past ten years, teachers have been reduced to mere conduits of policy, curriculum, and tests that have nothing in common with what educators and researchers know to be best practice. Teacher have had little or no autonomy in these decisions and practices. To hold people accountable for implementing behaviors they do not control or support is, simply put, tyranny—not accountability.

The teacher quality debate is failing among political leaders, corporate elites, and the media because none of them are teachers, and as a consequence, they are controlling a debate about reform that they do not allow to start where it should—not at how to measure teacher quality, but at creating teaching and learning environments that honor the autonomy of children and teachers as professionals.

The ugly truth is that the leading elite do not truly respect children (especially children of color, children living in poverty, and children speaking home languages other than English), and they genuinely do not want professional teachers.

If children were treated with dignity in our schools and provided the environment they deserve to look critically at the world and if teachers were allowed their professional autonomy and held accountable for only that over which they have control, those children and teachers would likely notice and confront the tremendous inequity being controlled and perpetuated by the corporate leaders, corporate politicians, and corporate media—threatening the privilege that is being protected by calls for more testing, more data, and more accountability.

Hasty and misleading reactions to research that confirms the corporate narrative and even moderate pleas for compromise, such as Goldstein’s, are equally inexcusable because they all fail to confront that accountability without autonomy is tyranny.

We are a people tragically enamored with data to the exclusion of humanity, dignity, and the very ideals we claim to be at center of our country—individual autonomy.

And we have sold our souls to capitalism, blind to the reality that the only thing free about the market is that our consumer culture is free of any ethics, free of any commitment to social justice.

Of course teacher quality matters, of course every child deserves a quality teacher. But neither is something we can measure and force to happen as if students and teachers are cogs in a machine.

So ultimately every second spent crunching data about VAM is wasted time; every moment and penny spent on more standards and testing, also wasted time.

Teaching, learning, and human autonomy are complicated and beyond metrics, but they must become the ideals we put into practice. All else is tyranny