VAM-pire Metrics and the Cost of Using Students as Weapons of Mass Instruction

It is generally obnoxious to say “I told you so,” but since I am often accused of being obnoxious even when I am not intending to be, I’ll risk this: I told you so.

While speaking recently to an education law class of doctoral students, I revisited my argument that using value-added methods (VAM) to evaluate, retain/fire, and reward teachers has an incredibly negative consequence: Teachers are being incentivized to use their students as mechanisms for their own job security and pay and to hope their students outperform other teachers’ students.

Being perhaps too snarky two years ago I framed this as using students as weapons of mass instruction.

I have always been disappointed that my point has gained little traction and even prompted a great deal of push back, but I am now pleased to direct everyone to a new analysis by Susan Moore Johnson, Harvard Graduate School of Education: Will VAMS Reinforce the Walls of the Egg-Crate School?

Johnson, I believe, makes a comprehensive and compelling case against VAM that in many ways reinforces my argument.

The analysis begins by acknowledging the rise in concern about teacher quality as well as offering a detailed challenge to overly simplistic considerations of teacher quality and the role it plays in student achievement.

Johnson notes that the political and bureaucratic rise in embracing VAM has received considerable push back by teachers, building to her focus for the analysis:

In this article I bring an organizational perspective to the prospect of using VAMS to improve teacher quality. I suggest why, in addition to VAMS’ methodological limitations, reformers should be very cautious about relying on VAMS to make decisions that teachers view as important. Because the wide-scale use of VAMS is very recent, scant research exists with which to answer the organizational questions about the intended and unintended consequences of using VAMS in making consequential staffing decisions. However, relevant research about teachers and school improvement, coupled with my own experiences working with states and districts that are implementing new teacher evaluations, lead me to suggest that expanding the use of VAMS in teacher evaluations (even if it represents no more than 30% of the teacher’s total score) might compromise the school’s potential for improvement.

Instead of focusing on individual teacher quality, Johnson argues for a more comprehensive approach:

Recent studies have persuasively documented the benefits of systematic efforts to improve student learning through schoolwide improvement initiatives (Bryk, Sebring, Allensworth, Easton, & Luppescu, 2010; Little, 1982; McLaughlin & Talbert, 2001;Rosenholtz, 1989). Because students move through schools from class to class or grade to grade, they are better served when human resources are deliberately organized to draw on the strengths of all teachers on behalf of all students, rather than having students subjected to the luck of the draw in their classroom assignment. Successful schoolwide improvement increases norms of shared responsibility among teachers and creates structures and opportunities for learning that promote interdependence—rather than independence—among them. By contrast, a strategy for school improvement that focuses substantially on identifying, assigning, and rewarding or penalizing individual teachers for their effectiveness in raising students’ test scores depends primarily on the strengths of individual teachers.

Broadly, evidence shows that schools should function within a culture of collaboration and not competition (another “I told you so,” sorry).

The unintended consequences, then, far outweigh the claimed advantages of measuring, identifying, and retaining “good” teachers. Johnson identifies the following unintended consequences:

Therefore, heavy reliance on VAMS may lead effective teachers in high-need subjects and schools to seek safer assignments, where they can avoid the risk of low VAMS scores. Meanwhile, some of the most challenging teaching assignments would remain difficult to fill and likely be subject to repeated turnover, bringing steep costs for students….

Given that reality, it seems possible that when districts rely on VAMS for a substantial part of teachers’ evaluations, their teachers may pull back from sharing collegial responsibility for the students in a school….

As more states require that teacher evaluations include both classroom observations and data from standardized tests of student achievement, principals who are not instructional experts will be left to interpret discrepancies between what they see in the classroom and what they read on a VAMS score sheet. Will they doubt the validity of their observations or the accuracy of the VAMS score? If they are uncertain about judging instruction or believe VAMS to be more objective and precise than their own professional judgment, value-added scores may unduly influence their decisions….

In line with Coleman’s (1988) theory about social capital, this suggests that a school would do better to invest in promoting collaboration, learning, and professional accountability among teachers and administrators than to rely on VAMS scores in an effort to reward or penalize a relatively small number of teachers.

Ultimately, commitments to VAM prove to be based on ideology, including a conscious effort to ignore evidence—a great irony considering VAM advocates are calling for dat-driven teacher quality policies.

Addressing the inequity in every child’s life outside of school and also recalibrating the culture of school—toward collaboration and away from competition—would both reap great rewards for children and society.

Plowing forward with VAM will, I guarantee, continue to bleed our field and our schools dry.

For Further Reading

The Constitutional Challenge to Teacher Tenure, Derek W. Black

Merit pay could revive child labor, Stephanie Jones

Time to Choose Equity Over Accountability

My home state of South Carolina is an ideal lesson in education reform.

SC is a high-poverty state (in the bottom quartile of affluence in the U.S.) that committed early to the accountability era built on state standards and high-stakes tests (exit exams, school report cards, etc.).

Currently, SC has in quick succession adopted and then rejected Common Core, resulting in the state having about 5 or 6 different versions of state standards and tests in those thirty years.

And as we watch winter turn to spring in 2015, ain’t nobody happy with public schools in SC. Also, SC continues to struggle with pockets of extreme poverty and segregated affluence as well as entrenched racism, hostile policies for workers, and Teflon-conservative politics.

That should lead one to question the process of accountability—although apparently it doesn’t.

Two examples, however, can help us here.

First, despite the demonstrable failure of the accountability era to improve schools adequately over three decades by focusing on test data to evaluate school quality and student achievement, the test-mania has now been targeted on teachers with the endless consideration of how best to use value added methods (VAM) to evaluate teachers.

Continuing down the technocratic road of making VAM work statistically, I argue, is another example of how to do the wrong thing the right way.

It is entirely possible that we can develop a scientifically credible use of VAM and also do more harm to education than good—and again, we will suffer the bitter lessons of chasing better tests.

And here comes the irony: If we are determined to keep our eyes focused on test data, why are we not recognizing what those tests tell us over the long haul?

The second example was highlighted for me at Schools Matter, where two charts from longitudinal NAEP data were posted, one of which I have recreated in a different format to highlight phases in education:

NAEP gap simple 2

Before us now, after ample time has passed experimenting with accountability, we can drawn some tentative conclusions [1]: (i) the Civil Rights era from the 1950s into the 1970s (for example, SC schools did not fully integrate until early 1970s) when the focus was on equity seems to have fostered greater narrowing of the achievement gap than either (ii) the state-based accountability era or (iii) the NCLB accountability era.

And so: A lack of accountability, standards, or “good” tests was never the problem in U.S. public education, but as my home state of SC shows, a crippling history of inequity driven by racism, classism, and sexism is the primary plague reflected in the measurable outcomes found in our schools.

It is time to choose equity over accountability for our education policy. In fact, it is well past time to hold the advocates of accountability accountable for misreading their own data.

[1] FairTest has offered a more detailed analysis, drawing similar conclusions.

Media Fail, 10,000 hours, and Grit: The Great Media-Disciplines Divide, pt. 2

In his The Danger of Delegating Education to Journalists: Why the APS Observer Needs Peer Review When Summarizing New Scientific Developments [1], K. Anders Ericsson makes several key points about how the mainstream media present disciplinary knowledge to the public, focusing on Malcolm Gladwell’s misleading but popular 10,000 hour rule.

Ericsson’s key point includes:

Although I accept that the process of writing an engaging popular article requires considerable simplification, I think it is essential that the article does not contain incorrect statements and misinformation. My primary goal with this review is to describe several claims in Jaffe’s article that were simply false or clearly misleading and then discuss how APS might successfully develop successful methods for providing research summaries for non-specialists that are informative and accurately presents the major views of APS members and Fellows. At the very least they should not contain factually incorrect statements and avoid reinforcing existing misconceptions in the popular media.

Through the Gladwell/10,000 hour rule example, Ericsson provides an important argument relevant to the current (and historical) public debate about school quality, teaching and learning, and education reform.

Much in the same way Gladwell has misrepresented research (which is typical within the media), and how that has been uncritically embraced by the media and public (as well as many if not most practitioners), a wide array of issues have received the same fate: learning styles, “grit,” collaborative learning, progressive education, charter schools, school choice, language gap, and so on.

Even when a claim or practice has a kernel of research at its source, popular oversimplification (often by journalists, but practitioners as well) and then commercialization/politicizing (creating programs and policies through publishers, “star” advocates, and legislation) significantly distort that research.

Education Has Failed Research, Historically

John Dewey represents an odd paradox in that he is possibly the most mentioned educator in the U.S. (either as the source of all that is wrong in education or idealistically cited as all that is right about how school could be), despite the reality that Dewey is mostly misunderstood and misrepresented; and thus his philosophy, progressivism, remains mostly absent in U.S. public schools.

Dewey can be blamed, in part, for this reality because he refused on principle to allow his experiments in education to be carefully catalogued because he believed no educational practice should be come a template for others.

Throughout much of the twentieth century, Lou LaBrant, a vigilant progressive educator, spent much of her career practicing and advocating for progressive literacy instruction, but LaBrant also confronted the many instances of how progressivism was misrepresented.

Broadly, and early, LaBrant recognized the public confusion about progressivism:

Two adults speak of “progressive education.” One means a school where responsibility, critical thinking, and honest expression are emphasized; the other thinks of license, lack of plans, irresponsibility. They argue fruitlessly about being “for” or “against” progressive education. (LaBrant, 1944, pp. 477-478)

But she also confronted how progressivism was mostly distorted in its application. LaBrant’s criticisms still reflect why education has failed research, and why research has not failed education.

Credible educational research-based philosophy, theory, and pedagogy are often corrupted by oversimplification.

In 1931, LaBrant published a scathing criticism of the popularity of the project method, an oversimplification of Dewey that resulted in students doing crafts in English class instead of reading or writing:

The cause for my wrath is not new or single. It is of slow growth and has many characteristics. It is known to many as a variation of the project method; to me, as the soap performance. With the project, neatly defined by theorizing educators as “a purposeful activity carried to a successful conclusion,” I know better than to be at war. With what passes for purposeful activity and is unfortunately carried to a conclusion because it will kill time, I have much to complain. To be, for a moment, coherent: I am disturbed by the practice, much more common than our publications would indicate, of using the carving of little toy boats and castles, the dressing of quaint dolls, the pasting of advertising pictures, and the manipulation of clay and soap as the teaching of English literature. (p. 245)

Credible educational research is often corrupted by commercialization/politicizing, reducing that research to misguided programs/legislation.

“[L]anguage behavior can not be reduced to formula,” LaBrant (1947) argued (p. 20)—emphasizing that literacy growth was complicated but flourished when it was child-centered and practical (for example, in the ways many privileged children experience in their homes because one or more of the parents are afforded the conditions within which to foster their children’s literacy).

By mid-twentieth century, LaBrant (1949) had identified the central failure of teaching reading: “Our language programs have been set up as costume parties and not anything more basic than that” (p. 16).

For at least 80-plus years since LaBrant fought this fight, the same patterns of media, political, public, and practitioners failing educational research have continued

Oversimplification, Commercialization/Politicizing: Recovering the Evidence

The list is incredibly long, too long to be exhaustive here, but consider the following: sloganism (“Work hard. Be nice.”), silver-bullet ideologies (“grit,” 10,000-hour rule), miracle schools (KIPP), evidence-based programs (Dibbles, 4-block, 6-traits), common sense claims and policy absent evidence (Common Core), and trendy legislation (3rd-grade retention policies as reading policy, merit pay) as well as politicized government reports (National Reading Panel).

Each of these can be traced to some kernel of research (sometimes robust bodies of research, and sometimes cherry-picked research), but all of these represent a current and historical fact: Education has failed research, but research has not failed education.

When educational research is reduced to scripts or programs/legislation, that knowledge base is invariably distorted, corrupted—as Ericsson details well above.

Journalists, politicians, and commercial education entities have all played a fundamental and crippling role in this reality; thus, as Ericsson argues, educators, scholars and researchers must not allow the fate of educational research to remain primarily in the wrong hands.

We have a public and professional obligation to confront these oversimplifications as well as the commercialization/politicizing of educational research. And we must do this through our public work that speaks to those failures and the public simultaneously.

As LaBrant and Ericsson reveal, unless we take that call seriously, we too are part of the reason education continues to fail research.

References

LaBrant, L. (1949). A genetic approach to language. Unpublished manuscript, Institute of General Semantics, Lakeville, CT.

LaBrant, L. (1947). Um-brel-la has syllables three. The Packet, 2(1), 20-25.

LaBrant, L. (1944, November). The words they know. The English Journal, 33(9), 475-480.

LaBrant, L. (1931, March). MasqueradingThe English Journal, 20(3), pp. 244-246.

For Further Reading

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

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

NPR Whitewashes “Grit” Narrative

Shiny Happy People: NPR, “Grit,” and “Myths that Deform” pt. 2

How I Learned to Distrust the Media (about Education)

My (Often Painful) Online Education

[1] See original and downloadable link to the paper here.

VAM Remedy Part of Inequity Disease

But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it.
Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.

Oscar Wilde, “The Soul of Man under Socialism”

In Reliability and validity of inferences about teachers based on student test scores (ETS, 2013), Edward H. Haertel draws an important conclusion about value-added methods of evaluating teachers built on standardized tests: “Tests aligned to grade-level standards cannot fully register the academic progress of students far above grade level or far below grade level,” and thus create a “bias against those teachers working with the lowest performing or the highest performing classes,” adding:

High-stakes uses of teacher VAM scores could easily have additional negative consequences for children’s education. These include increased pressure to teach to the test, more competition and less cooperation among the teachers within a school, and resentment or avoidance of students who do not score well. In the most successful schools, teachers work together effectively (Atteberry & Bryk, 2010). If teachers are placed in competition with one another for bonuses or even future employment, their collaborative arrangements for the benefit of individual students as well as the supportive peer and mentoring relationships that help beginning teachers learn to teach better may suffer. (pp. 8, 24)

All of these consequences of high-stakes testing and VAM, then, are likely to impact negatively high-poverty and minority students, who disproportionately score low on such tests.

Matthew Di Carlo’s new examination of VAM in DC reinforces Haertel’s concern:

Specifically, you’ll notice that almost 30 percent of teachers in low-poverty schools receive the highest rating (“highly effective”), compared with just 7-10 percent in the other categories. In addition, just over seven percent of teachers in low-poverty schools receive one of the two lowest ratings (“minimally effective” or “ineffective,” both of which may result in dismissal), versus 18-21 percent in the medium- and high-poverty schools.

So, the relationship between school poverty and IMPACT ratings may not be linear, as the distributions for medium- and high-poverty schools are quite similar. Nevertheless, it seems very clear that IMPACT results are generally better among teachers in schools serving lower proportions of poor students (i.e., students eligible for subsidized lunch), and that the discrepancies are quite large.

High-poverty schools already share some disturbing characteristics, including that they often reflect and perpetuate the inequities found in the homes and communities of the children they serve (see HERE and HERE). But high-poverty schools also struggle to attract and retain experienced and certified/qualified teachers.

And while virtually no one advocates for using VAM in high-stakes policies, mounting evidence shows that VAM is likely to further deter teachers from the schools and students most needing high-quality dedicated teachers.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and then Common Core have been sold to the public as policy intended to close the so-called achievement gap (a misnomer for the equity gap; see HERE and HERE)—just as advocates of VAM have attributed school failure to “bad” teachers and VAM as a way to rid schools of those “bad” teachers, again to address the achievement gap.

However, the evidence refutes the rhetoric because accountability built on standards and high-stakes testing, Common Core, and VAM have not and will not address equity, but are likely to increase the exact problems advocates claim they will solve (see Mathis, 2012Hout & Elliot, 2011Haertel, 2013; Di Carlo, 2014).

If left unchecked, VAM as a education reform remedy will prove to be yet another part of the inequity disease.

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.

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.”