Monthly Archives: May 2012

Urgency and Ed Reform

In today’s WaPo, Matt Miller offers a useful critique of Obama and Romney’s respective education reform proposals. Instead of removing poor teachers, we should focus on attracting good ones:

What about starting salaries of $65,000 rising to $150,000 for teachers (and more for principals)? And federally funded “West Points” of teaching and principal training to model for the nation how it can be done? And new federal cash for poor districts now doomed by our 19th-century system of local school finance, so they can compete in regional labor markets for the talent that today gravitates to higher-paying suburbs?

In other words, the teaching profession has been devalued—in both salary and society—to the extent that our nation’s talented college graduates generally will turn towards other professions. Though “fast-track” certification programs like Teach for America (in which I participated) have helped a bit, the harsh and uncomfortable reality remains: our country’s youth don’t become teachers if they can find something better. And they usually can.

Miller is right to say  this; he asks the right questions and provides useful answers. What he fails to grasp is the urgency of the failures of public education in America, particularly in cities. Though I agree that the upcoming retirement of thousands of teachers provides a great opportunity to improve teacher quality, we can’t just sit idly by until that happens. Expanding charters, “turning around” or closing failing schools, and pushing for accountability should be used in conjunction with our pursuit of systemic change. Though perhaps politically complicated, the strategies are not mutually exclusive. As we discuss how to change the system, let’s not lose sight of the thousands of kids who have no choice but to attend terrible schools each day. Stubborn ideals should not lead us to write off an entire generation of children.

Self-Interest and the Difficulty of School Integration

In the NYT this weekend, David L. Kirp examines the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education in recognition of its 58th anniversary. Many schools that were integrated after the decision have since been re-segregated due to recent Court decisions and the absence of a vocal support for integration. And that is a shame, because integration worked:

The experience of an integrated education made all the difference in the lives of black children — and in the lives of their children as well. These economists’ studies consistently conclude that African-American students who attended integrated schools fared better academically than those left behind in segregated schools. They were more likely to graduate from high school and attend and graduate from college; and, the longer they spent attending integrated schools, the better they did.

Given that evidence, Kirp argues, we should move away from many of the common education reforms of today–charter expansion, closing failing schools, teacher accountability–and focus instead on integration. That is ultimately the answer.

I don’t disagree–I think integrating our schools, particularly between cities and  the suburbs areas, would be a great way to improve our system. But how do we actually do that? This is where Kirp’s argument is insufficient. As he writes:

In theory it’s possible to achieve a fair amount of integration by crossing city and suburban boundaries or opening magnet schools attractive to both minority and white students. But the hostile majority on the Supreme Court and the absence of a vocal pro-integration constituency make integration’s revival a near impossibility.

Indeed, “in theory it’s possible” for that to happen. But let’s think about what would need to happen. White parents whose children attend great schools in the suburbs would have to vote in favor of integration. This means their tax dollars would be diverted away from their own children and towards lower-income children from the city; furthermore, children who previously attended bad schools in the city would likely be higher need and require even more resources.. I’m not saying that this will never happen, and I hope that someday it will. But it is foolhardy to base a plan for education reform on people voting against their self-interest.

Once again, the perfect is the enemy of the good. A massive redistribution of resources spent on education–which is essentially what integration would accomplish–would definitely be the ideal solution to educational inequity in this country. If students in Philadelphia could instead attend schools in Lower Merion, they would have dramatically different lives. But they can’t. And until that changes, we need to do everything we can to help them. Making small, incremental improvements to our schools and pursuing, massive, systemic change are not mutually exclusive.

The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good in Education

In the most recent issue of The Philadelphia Public School Notebook, Benjamin Herold describes the broken pipeline between secondary education and college in Philadelphia. Money quote:

Of the 145 students who started 9th grade at [Benjamin Franklin HS in North Philadelphia] in fall 2005, only 17 enrolled in a four-year college, according to new National Student Clearinghouse data provided to the Notebook by the School District.

Citywide, only 25 percent of students who started 9th grade in one of Philadelphia’s neighborhood high schools that year have enrolled in any postsecondary education, compared to almost 80 percent of students who started at the city’s most selective magnet high schools.

In other words, schools in Philly are deeply stratified. If you aren’t admitted to the one of the  city’s handful of magnet schools, it is unlikely that you will enroll in college, much less graduate.

This piece of data serves as even greater evidence of the crisis today in urban education. If we can say with some confidence that a 9th grader will not graduate college based purely on their school, there is something wrong with the system. As ed reformers continue to argue about next steps, I am reminded of the timeless Voltaire quote, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” We need to make small, incremental improvements to our schools and abandon the quixotic attempt to design a perfect reform. As adults squabble about the merits of charters and vouchers and the symbolic importance of traditional public education, students return to terrible schools, day after day. Whether you want to measure the failings of our educational system in terms of crime rate, college graduation, lifetime earnings, or test scores, we can’t forget that those numbers are composed of kids, kids that are being failed by a system by no fault of their own. Inaction is inexcusable.

Diane Ravitch Doesn’t Understand Philly

Today in EdWeek, education scholar and commentator Diane Ravitch joined the fray of alarmist outsiders lamenting the impending “death” of public education in Philadelphia. Her concern stems from the recently released “blueprint” for school reorganization in Philadelphia  which includes closing 64 schools—they will presumably either be reopened as charters or consolidated–and dividing the district into “achievement networks” led by teams of educators or nonprofit organizations. Though her EdWeek piece (and comment on it on her blog) carry a dramatic, passionate tone, she proves little more than her proficiency at the use of logical fallacy.

Ravitch considers this reorganization to amount to an “abandon[ment]” and “death” of public education in Philadelphia. Money quotes:

The death of public education in any city or district is a tragedy. Education is a public responsibility. If some choose to pay to go to non-public schools, they have the right to do so. But for the vast majority of our kids, public education is their right and our responsibility. Any who whittle away that sense of public responsibility are doing damage to our society and our kids and our future.

As we abandon public schools, we abandon any sense of public responsibility for a basic public service. That’s worse than a mistake. It’s a tragedy. What will be privatized next? Police protection? Fire protection? Clean air? Potable water?

In other words, she argues that education ought to be a public responsibility, and shirking that responsibility would be damaging to society. That is a statement with which no one in involved in the Philadelphia reorganization disagrees. How could they? This is a  classic “straw man” argument, which misrepresents an opponent’s position. (Her claim that privatization of education could result in privatization of other areas in the second passage I quoted is also a perfect use of the “slippery slope” fallacy. Actually, I am somewhat thankful–it is a great example to use when I teach critical reading of nonfiction in my classes.)

In truth, Ravitch is ignoring a basic reality: the reorganization in Philadelphia does not remove the public responsibility for education. Whether she likes it or not,  charter schools are still public schools. They are funded by tax dollars, and students do not have to pay to go there. Sure, some charter organizations receive additional funding from private donations. But is more money in the system a bad thing? All students in the city will still attend school regardless of their financial situation. The means of implementing the public responsibility for education is changing; the responsibility itself is not.

Now, Ravitch is spot-on in her argument that inadequate funding in the district is largely to blame for the dire situation in Philly. But given her prominent position in the education reform world, she needs to double-check her facts and logic before resorting to alarmism. Otherwise we might as well  just hand her a bell and a sign:

James Madison and National Support for Same-Sex Marriage

Since the eruption of news about same-sex marriage in the past week, I have seen an increasing use of national polling data as evidence that the practice should be legalized. And on its face, it makes sense: there has been a precipitous rise in support for same-sex marriage in the last several years, and recent polls show more support than opposition. If it’s what the American people want, shouldn’t it be put in place?

Despite its elegance, that reasoning is the direct opposite of how our government was intended to function. In The Federalist #10—one of the most important theoretical foundations of American democracy, and a personal dorky obsession—James Madison warns against the dangers of “faction” in democratic society. In his words, a faction is a group of people “united and actuated by some common impulse of passion”; in modern terms, this could be anything from a political party or major interest group to a handful of people interested in protecting a forest. Madison isn’t terribly concerned about factions that are in the minority, simply because a vote should stop their views from becoming law if they are abhorrent. But a faction in the majority is a completely different issue:

When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government, on the other hand, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens. To secure the public good and private rights against the danger of such a faction, and at the same time to preserve the spirit and the form of popular government, is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed.

If a faction is in the majority, it can potentially dominate the minority and work against the public good. “The great object”—in other words, the plan for government, which we now call the U.S. Constitution—of the Founders was to stop that from happening. Our government was designed for the purpose of preventing majorities in support of single issues from imposing its will over the public. Slight national support for same-sex marriage is a perfect example of this.

Now, before you tear me apart, I want to note that I am pleased to see support for same-sex marriage gaining traction. But before we start screaming about injustice and how the country is “calling” for same-sex marriage, let’s remember that our government is supposed to be slow and deliberate in order to prevent the periodic roiling passions of the majority to change our laws. Nobody said it was supposed to be convenient.

Why We Shouldn’t Applaud Obama for Endorsing Same-sex Marriage

It may be the cynic in me, but I’ve been rolling my eyes at the outpouring of adoration of Obama after today’s endorsement of same-sex marriage. To put it bluntly, it’s about time. A couple of points:

1) I can’t ignore the political calculus here. Obama’s statement was timed two days after Biden endorsed it, and one day after the passage of the amendment in NC. Progressives in the country, particularly young voters, were encouraged and then outraged by the country’s social progress. And then who appears to brighten sorrow faces? Our President, who desperately needs to mobilize that group of people so he can win the election in 6 months.

I don’t deny the fact that politicians can legitimately be convinced to change their opinions on key issues. But I think Obama has felt this way for some time; it just hasn’t been politically convenient until now. Why else would he wait until three and a half years in the White House and close to eight as a national figure? A coincidence of that magnitude is not a change I can believe in. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

2) His statement is weak, and will not result in a change in policy. He maintains that it should still be a state issue, which gives implicit support to the result in NC. This keeps same-sex marriage on the same level as abortion and slavery once were: not a right one way or the other, but controlled at the whim of the people.

I agree that this is a significant development. A sitting U.S. President who is seeking reelection has just endorsed same-sex marriage. . . and he may still win the election! But that is a result of a change in the views of the electorate, which is far more significant than that of one man, President or not. So let’s give a cheer to the progress of the American people, not to a well-orchestrated political maneuver. May the tide continue to turn.

Performance Assessments and Certification

Today’s NYT features a piece by Michael Winerip on Ed students at UMass protesting a pilot program for an outsourced performance assessment to be used for teacher certification. Developed by Stanford University and Pearson, the Teacher Performance Assessment (TPA) would require teachers to submit a portfolio of their teaching experience, including lesson plans, student work, personal reflections, and a video of their teaching. The UMass students are concerned about the corporatization and standardization of what is traditionally a personalized process of evaluation; as Winerip quotes Barbara Madeloni, “This is something complex and we don’t like seeing it taken out of human hands. We are putting a stick in the gears.”

The TPA, which New York, Illinois, Minnesota, Ohio, Tennessee and Washington have already committed to adopt, fits with a growing trend of standardizing education nationally. If we want common core standards nationally, isn’t it logical to have a national certification process as well? The TPA also seems to prioritize teacher practice and development over the mere theoretical and content knowledge required by tests like the PRAXIS, which remains a pillar of the certification process in most states. In that sense, performance-based certification assessments seem to be another example of progressive reform.

But the practical implications are more complicated. States that implement the TPA and similar systems for certification will actually create a hurdle for “fast-track” and alternative certification programs.

The TPA features the Teaching Event, focusing on student-teaching experiences over a 3–5 day learning segment with a class of students. Throughout the learning segment candidates organize and submit evidence of their teaching (e.g., video clips of instruction, lesson plans, student work samples, teacher assignments, daily reflections) to create their own personal Teaching Event portfolio.

All teachers, then, would need to be in a position where they can have a 3-5 day “learning segment” with the same group of students. That is not difficult if a teacher has a traditional student teaching placement. But it is not something that can be easily set up independently, without the help of a college or university program. Where does that leave the increasingly popular alternative/fast-track certification programs such as Teach for America? Though the TPA is presented as a progressive, forward-thinking reform, I fear that it will have the effect of further insulating the teaching profession and blocking smart, motivated people from entering the classroom.

Don’t get me wrong. I certainly advocate using multiple metrics for evaluating teachers, and I really like the idea of using multiple sources of data–particularly student work–as part of that evaluation. But any step that further closes off the teaching profession is the wrong one. I would rather see the TPA used as a way to evaluate current teachers instead of as a further hindrance to certification.