Friday, October 16, 2009

Kristof, Democrats, and Schools

New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas D. Kristof wrote an opinion piece called, Democrats and Schools in which largely blames Teachers, union protection, and specifically 'bad' teachers for the real and imagined woes of public education.

And Education Secretary Duncan and President Obama are using teachers and teacher unions as their version of welfare queens. By ripping a page out of the Clinton playbook that reformed welfare in the nineties, Obama hopes to break the back of teacher's unions after Bush failed. Kristof opines:
Good schools constitute a far more potent weapon against poverty than welfare, food stamps or housing subsidies. Yet, cowed by teachers’ unions, Democrats have too often resisted reform and stood by as generations of disadvantaged children have been cemented into an underclass by third-rate schools.

President Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, are trying to change that — and one test for the Democrats will be whether they embrace administration reforms that teachers’ unions are already sniping at.

It’s difficult to improve failing schools when you can’t create alternatives such as charter schools and can’t remove inept or abusive teachers. In New York City, for example, unions ordinarily prevent teachers from being dismissed for incompetence — so the schools must pay failed teachers their full salaries to sit year after year doing nothing in centers called “rubber rooms.”

But Kristof fails to do the homework required to understand the problems in education. In fact he makes assertions that are wholly false in his arguments to indict teachers as a primary culprit for so-called failing schools.

Kristof claims,
A devastating article in The New Yorker by Steven Brill examined how New York City tried to dismiss a fifth-grade teacher for failing to correct student work, follow the curriculum, manage the class or even fill out report cards.

The "devastaing article" makes the claim that,
Test scores and graduation rates have improved since Bloomberg and Klein took over, but when the law giving the mayor control expired, on July 1st, some Democrats in the State Senate balked at renewing it, complaining that it gave the mayor “dictatorial” power, as Bill Perkins, a state senator from Manhattan, put it. Nevertheless, by August the senators had relented and voted to renew mayoral control.

On the same day of Kriftof's op-ed piece, the New York Times in a piece called, U.S. Math Tests Find Scant Gains Across New York by Jennifer Medina fond the article's assertion to be fiction.
“What this amounts to is a fraud,” said Diane Ravitch, an education historian who has been one of the most vocal critics of both the state exams and Mr. Klein. “This is a documentation of persistent dumbing down by the State Education Department and lying to the public.”

Ravitch is responding to the disparity between bloomberg and Klein's assertions that plutocratic, dictatorial powers over education have raised student competencies in reading and math.

The second assertion Kristof makes is based on yet another dubious claim. Kristof:
Research has underscored that what matters most in education — more than class size or spending or anything — is access to good teachers. A study found that if black students had four straight years of teachers from the top 25 percent of most effective teachers, the black-white testing gap would vanish in four years.

The study he refers to is Identifying Effective Teachers Using Performance on the Job by the Hamilton Foundation.

So let's take a look at what it says.

1.) Teacher certification is irrelevant>
To put it simply, teachers vary considerably in the extent to which they promote student learning, but whether a teacher is certified or not is largely irrelevant to predicting his or her effectiveness.

2.) If we suspend reality and speculatively project the idea that minority students studying under the very best teachers for four continuous years will close the achievement gap measured by high-stakes, high-stress testing methodologies.
While certification status was not very helpful in predicting teacher impacts on student performance, teachers’ rankings during their first two years of teaching does provide a lot of information about their likely impact during their third year. The average student assigned to a teacher who was in the bottom quartile during his or her first two years lost on average 5 percentile points relative to students with similar baseline scores and demographics. In contrast, the average student assigned to a top-quartile teacher gained 5 percentile points relative to students with similar baseline scores and demographics. Therefore, the average difference between being assigned a top-quartile or a bottom-quartile teacher is 10 percentile points.

Moving up (or down) 10 percentile points in one year is a massive impact. For some perspective, the black-white achievement gap nationally is roughly 34 percentile points. Therefore, if the effects were to accumulate, having a top-quartile teacher rather than a bottom-quartile
teacher four years in a row would be enough to close the black-white test score gap.

Kristof never bothers to think about what the study implies and that is that if we can identify the very best teachers in the country, force them to teach in the most challenging schools in the country for four consecutive years AND subject the rest of the country's schools to less than the best teachers that we, AS A COUNTRY, would finally close the "education gap".

I would like somebody to explain why this is remotely possible, desirable, or a worthwhile pursuit. It should be noted that the Hamilton Project pretty much is the same -cough- think-tank that created the Clinton welfare reform program in the nineties and is a thinly veiled neo-con social policy venue.

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