July 30, 2010

"Pushback" week

It's almost as if Nick Anderson and Ruth Marcus worked at the same paper, because "pushback" appears to be the talking point of the week on education policy. Yesterday, Anderson reports, President Obama "pushed back" against some civil-rights groups' criticism of Race to the Top, and Marcus applauded him when the president "took the opportunity to push back." Oh, wait: they do work for the same paper. Well, at least we know that at the Post, some colleagues talk with each other, unlike the one who fired Dave Weigel last month and the other who hired him this month. Then again, the fools at the Post, Inc., appear to be management and bull-male columnists, not rank-and-file reporters.

There are four major stories that dominated national education news in the past week, at least as far as I was paying attention:

  • The drama surrounding the civil-rights group report and non-presser and the two major education speeches this week by Duncan and Obama.
  • Continuing problems in trying to attach state aid to federal bills (after the emergency war appropriations, there's the inability to break the small business aid bill, which had jobs money attached).
  • Michelle Rhee's plans to fire several hundred teachers based on the IMPACT evaluation system.
  • The New York state testing cut-score embarrassment.

Pushback was used in the Post's coverage of the first story, but I think you can say it's a theme for the week. House and Senate members are now in almost open warfare over education jobs riders to bills (possibly extending to the FMAP aid to states on Medicaid, stuck in Congress since early this year). There is debate over how many teachers Rhee is firing and how bad a system IMPACT is. And Joel Klein is twisting himself in knots trying to explain how the mistakes in proficiency rates that he used to puff up his record really isn't a problem and, uh, Lady Gaga shows how good the New York City schools are. I'm half-expecting him to talk about New York's smog swampy beauty, the East River though, doesn't it split the Park Slope from the Palisades? Someone get Bill Shatner to read Joel Klein's ratiocinations!

Some things behind the headlines that seem obvious to this historian:

  • Part of the loose (and fragile) coalition criticizing the Obama administration's turnaround policy stems from unions concerned about due process for employers and community-based organizations worried about the closure of public facilities in poor neighborhoods and the role of public employment in providing a leg up to the middle class. That's not new, and it's complicated. The civil-rights group interest in public employees can be salutary (my understanding is that Black teachers were a solid core of local NAACP chapters in the mid-20th century) but sometimes at cross-purposes with other interests: I heard informally from some observers that part of the pushback against the decentralization of Chicago schools in the late 1980s was the role of the central school bureaucracy in providing a leg up into the middle class, and the reduction of the central bureaucracy threatened those positions. Today, the invisible risk is the position of minority teachers' aides and other non-certified employees. My guess is that they've been disproportionately affected by school-system layoffs that try to hold onto classroom teachers.
  • I still don't have a clue how much test scores played a role in the firing of DC teachers, and my guess is that you don't, either. IMPACT included test scores, but you'd have to look at the details of individual employees to know whether an individual firing is a case where all the indicators (including the required five observations) pointed in the direction of an incompetent teacher or whether test scores trumped supervisory judgment for any. Normally employers have broad discretion in evaluation systems, but the failure to bargain IMPACT may put the DCPS in some jeopardy of an unfair labor practice finding. (That depends on both the structure of DC collective-bargaining law and the details of what happened with IMPACT and WTU's requests for bargaining.) Double jeopardy for Michelle Rhee: the inclusion of the pseudoscientific "learning styles" in the IMPACT observation system. My guess is that the AFT (the national affiliate for the Washington Teachers Union) can quickly get their hands on well-known psychologists to rip that to shreds for any teachers where the tipping factor was a supervisor's judgment that they didn't cater to student "learning styles."
  • Joel Klein's dancing around the cut-score fiasco in New York illustrates once again that the performative setting of cut scores is often a result of the tension between bravado and "reform testosterone," on the one hand, and politically acceptable failure and the political need to game the system, on the other. We'd like to think that cut-score setting is arbitrary in the sense of arbitration, but it's too often arbitrary in the sense of caprice and politics. Two years ago, Jennifer Jennings and I wrote a commentary for Teachers College Record ($$ required) about the dangers of trusting threshold-based proficiency percentages as opposed to central tendencies such as means and medians, with New York City as the object lesson. She's too mature for this, but I have no such reticence with the last week's revelations: nyah nyah nyah, we told you so. And from those of us who warned years ago about the fragility of growth/value-added statistics? same message.

Bottom line here for administrators: test-based measures should only be used as a case to fire teachers or administrators where they strongly point in the same direction as observation-based evaluation instruments that are developed with some common sense, with unions and excising crap such as learning styles.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein on July 30, 2010 10:58 AM | Submit