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left/right media on schools: 'no one cares about black kids!'

by fairleft Wed Sep 15th, 2010 at 03:39:28 PM EST

The politics of many aspects of American life are more or less 'owned' by their associated interest groups, often just one, the interest group making money from that aspect of U.S. life. But education is not one of those, and that might be a blessing, except that actual learning for our young people is not 'the prize' for either of the two interest groups -- 'anti teachers union' and 'pro teachers union' -- that do dominate. And we do have problems making sustained progress and resisting regress if we follow either of those interest groups all the way down their road. (A sidenote that these days the anti-teachers-union crowd is much more media/politically powerful and therefore potentially dangerous than its opponent.)

However, progress sometimes really happens when, somehow, an actually good idea from one side is implemented. For example, by the teachers union side, introducing free day care and kindgergarten, and reducing class size in primary grades. And, from the anti-teachers union side, using (in theory fair, predictive and reliable) tests to put some accountability pressure on teachers. While none of the preceding has worked miracles (maybe it's not helpful or 'real' to promote expectations of rapid improvement), the numbers (here's another take on them) indicate the U.S. has made solid progress in elementary school education. The chart below, on writing, reading, and mathematics test scores from the 'testing gold standard' NAEP in the 2000s, shows half-grade (10 points is roughly one grade level) or better improvements in 26 of the 38 comparisons, in the short span of 5 or 6 years between 2003 and 2009 or 2002 and 2007 (less than half-grade progess blocks are in grey):


The results have been even more respectable over a slightly longer time span (PDF). Here is a summary of the data in the PDF link:

Starting in 1999, the score gains have been very large among [9 and 13 year olds]. From 1999 to 2008, 9-year-old black kids gained 21 points in reading, 16 points in math. Over that same period, 9-year-old Hispanic kids gained 20 points in reading, 22 points in math. . . Among 13-year-olds, black kids gained 14 points in reading, 16 points in math. Hispanic kids lost one point in reading, gained 10 points in math.

However, here's the thing: the progress displayed on the chart and in the PDF file, though it is undeniably good news, cannot be talked about by either of the two interest groups that largely control the education debate. This weird "can't talk about it" is widely shared -- by, for example, Thomas Friedman in the NYTimes and Robert Samuelson in Washington Post on the anti-teachers-union side, and Diana Ravitch in The Nation and Kevin Drum in Mother Jones on the pro-teachers-union side. All four wrote recently about the general state of U.S. education over the last decade or so, and all four ignored the widespread and very real educational progress that has taken place, even while sometimes staring directly in the face of the NAEP results. Daily Howler Bob Somerby's brilliant series on the lazy elite media politics of education inspired this diary; it's called "Who cares about black kids?"; answer: pretty much no one in our media/politics elite.

This doesn't mean we shouldn't improve the scope, reliability and predictive power of assessment that is the foundation of the Bush Jr.s No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and understand the unique circumstances of teachers in the impoverished schools that are often the focus of NCLB punishment. NCLB's quick, simple and mostly stupid closing of urban schools marked as 'failing' and then often rushing to replace them with no-teachers-union charter schools (this is what happens when the anti-teachers union folks get too powerful), needs to be heavily rolled back. (Which, of course, we notice anti-teachers-union Barack Obama very much not doing). (Read about excessive school closings here).

Again, as a by the way, the assessment numbers show that charters do no better than regular public schools at educating children. So a reality based debate on improving education would not even include them as an option. But we know that won't happen, because it is basic DNA of the anti-teachers-union interest group to push privatized and union-free charters.

But first of all let's recognize reality: our young people by and large are doing better in school over the last decade or so. And then try to understand it so better to preserve that success. Recognize, for example, that big city African-American 4th grader reading ability and 4th and 8th grader math ability has improved by nearly a grade level between 2002 and 2009. And they and Hispanic kids are doing even better longer term, as are nearly all U.S. elementary school kids. And these are real, NAEP results.

But also, somewhat tentatively, let's be willing to recognize that maybe increased accountabilty pressure on teachers and administrators, including NCLB's mandated publication of student test scores every year, might be a good thing. Though, yeah, many of the state-run tests are inferior to the NAEP tests (why can't we just use NAEP's tests everywhere (no one in the official two-sided debate ever asks)?) and we have ample (but underpublicized in the elite media (cuz those scandals typically contradict their 'reform hero' narratives)) evidence of cheating on high-stakes tests over the years, most recently in Atlanta and New York City (more here about New York). Obviously, testing should not be controlled by the very groups (politicians, administrators and/or teachers) that we as a society are trying to monitor and pressure with those tests. But the preceding is one of those important things that neither official side in the debate is interested in recognizing.

Control issues. Oh well. Read Daily Howler.

That is some interesting data you have presented, and stuff that I've not heard before.  Thanks for the long and detailed post.

I'm a teacher now, and I've been an activist in a teacher's union in the past, though my current job is non-unionized (and Japanese, but that's a whole different issue.)  On the one hand, I saw first hand how utterly and totally corrupt to the core my hiring institution was, just by being present at the bargaining table.  This was a state University, and the administration was as utterly evil as any corporate entity can be.  So, I completely understand the need for teachers unions to be so proactively aggressive as they are.  Anything, no matter how well-intentioned it may be, can and will be turned into a tool used to destroy whatever scraps of dignity, respect, and leisure that teachers may enjoy.

On the other hand, teaching is a job that, in my opinion, most people cannot effectively do for their entire lives.  Good teachers are good because they care, but the more you care, the quicker you burn out, and become mediocre or bad. Some may survive burnout without losing their effectiveness, but I suspect this is nowhere close to half.  Even if management and admin were entirely staffed by former teachers (which would be far from a good thing even if possible), there's still not enough room for everyone who's burned out, and many of those may have no interest in management jobs anyone - not everyone realizes they've become incompetent.  This poses a serious dilemma in a union situation, however - you represent a group of employees who want permanent employment (just like any group of workers), but some of whom are damaged or destroyed beyond effectiveness by that employment in non-physical ways that cannot be effectively evaluated in an objective manner.

Why can't it be evaluated effectively?  Because student background, interest, and ability are far more important to student achievement than any teacher.  Sure, some teachers are miracle workers, and can turn any group of kids into interested learners - especially with younger kids.  These are the teachers most likely to burn out, though, because working miracles is hard.  Mere mortals may nudge students in the right direction, and curb their worst problems - but that's hardly enough to turn problematic students into top achievers.  Stick ordinary teachers with a difficult group of students, students from poor families, students with learning disabilities, students who are lazy slackers who don't care about anything, students who are vicious and aggressive monsters, and those students will likely perform pretty poorly.  Stick that same teacher with a bunch of smart, motivated students from good families, students who work hard and want to be in school, students who want to go to college, and they'll do pretty darn well.  Then again, that's an ordinary teacher.  The real lemons may well turn motivated students off to subjects they once liked, encourage aggression, promote bullies, and drive students away from accomplishment.  But unless the school has a pretty consistent student body, all good or all bad, it's really, really hard to tell from the outside whether it was just a bum group of students who would give any teacher a challenge, or an average group who was turned into delinquents by bad teachers.  So, testing?  Testing tests the students far more than the teachers, and I'm seriously suspicious of any causal links drawn between test scores and teacher performance.

So, it's in the general interest to find the mediocre and the incompetent, but any attempt to do so will be used by the thoroughly corrupt administration to degrade and denigrate the faculty as a whole.  Thus, it is incumbent upon the union to resist any such efforts, even though the ultimate effect is to protect the ineffective members of the union who are the cause of the problem to begin with.

Here is where I disagree with the OP's assessment of charter schools.  In situations where school district administration has been totally corrupted by the forces of evil, being free from that administration, and instead under the control of the school's founder, whoever that may be, could be an improvement.  It really depends on the founder, their own philosophy, and their own management practices.  Unionization is about organization to defend from predatory management, and is always less necessary if the management happens to be less predatory.  In small organizations run by single individuals who just happen to be reasonable and not-evil, this may result in a better situation than the unionized public schools which suffer from evil management.  Then again, it might not.

by Zwackus on Thu Sep 16th, 2010 at 06:10:44 AM EST
superb comment, Z.

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty
by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Thu Sep 16th, 2010 at 06:21:37 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Great comment, but very busy at work right now, so I'll have to get back to you about it later today.

by fairleft (fairleftatyahoodotcom) on Thu Sep 16th, 2010 at 12:50:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't completely agree with paragraph two, but it's not far off. Elementary and high school teachers unions in nearly every city have great power, and have forced management to show them some degree of due process and fairness.

About paragraph 3, I've seen many good teachers keep at it for many many years. They're constitutionally different than I am, for sure. By and large they're very well-organized people, the opposite of procrastinators, and, of course, like me, they have high expectations and care about their students. But those last two are the easy part, imho.

But I also have known far more average teachers, who, even though they're just average, still earn their paychecks and don't short-change students. In my real world experience, most teachers are average, and we need to accomodate those people too. It's only the bad teachers that school systems should be trying to get rid of, or else there just won't be enough teachers.

I agree with your paragraph 4. The idea that you look at a year of test scores and use that as your guide to firing is outrageous. But test scores can play a part in the process, if they are from several years rather than one year, and if, as should be OBVIOUS, evaluation looks at the context of those test scores. Teachers working in tough schools, with high transcience, absenteeism, and physical danger, should be proud of the job they do even if their students don't post the reading score gains that nice suburban schoolkids routinely post. So evaluation is often a nuanced thing for the great majority of teachers. Yeah, there will be demonstrably bad new teachers you can and should get rid of after only a year, but that's done already and should not a problem in the real world. The trouble, always, is understandable lack of good faith, after the harassment and incoherent evaluation of teachers over the last decade or so.

I agree that many teachers unions want to take the approach you outline in paragraph 5, but realistically I think they know they can't. Not at least for clearly bad new teachers. As for mediocre veteran teachers, I've always had a problem with the meaning of the word 'mediocre'. Average people who do an average job should not be in fear of losing their teaching jobs. I know we live in a country where everyone imagines he or she is above average, but it just ain't so and it's very unfair to the average majority to make it a policy to fire the average.

Charters are a mixed bag. If we could just have the good charters and not the 'profits over education' ones or the 'incompetent but politically well-connected management' ones, great. But that is not the way the real world has worked, so charters don't provide a solution, instead they're a gamble with wildly varying results imposed on your kids. I'd rather stay with getting the screwed-up but still sorta working local democracy to do a good but not great job educating everyone.


by fairleft (fairleftatyahoodotcom) on Thu Sep 16th, 2010 at 06:00:35 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I agree entirely with your point about the average teachers.  I think the problem is that that in many situations, schools are being asked to do too much, and in that context, average isn't good enough.

Schools are expected to somehow erase differences in class and ethnicity, and make everyone into high-performing members of the professional upper-middle class.  When they don't, they're considered "failing."

Occasionally, in good situations, good teachers can help students perform well enough (that is, distinctly over-perform what would be normally expected from students of their class and ethnic group) that over-idealistic (or bad-faith) reformers start licking their chops, and thinking that schools can work miracles on a daily basis.  I think a lot of the drive towards testing and evaluation is powered by a, in my opinion, misguided belief that all schools can work miracles every day -- that is, when they aren't driven by a desire to turn teachers into cheap and interchangeable proletarian cogs.

This, in turn, leads to the unrealistic expectations that make average teachers look ineffective.  Unfortunately, no amount of training or credentialing is going to turn someone from average to excellent, not that kind of excellent.

And anyway, the idea that schooling alone can somehow erase all class and social differences is absurd.  Schools can't create employment opportunities, and no industrial policy is going to make a society of %100 lawyers and doctors possible.

by Zwackus on Thu Sep 16th, 2010 at 09:18:34 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I agree. One of the motivations for this diary was simply to show how tied to their narratives both sides of the official schools 'debate' are. Both of those narratives include 'if you just let our side take over miracles will happen.' Neither narrative respects slow, incremental progress that, over time, has produced full-grade level improvements for most American kids over the last 12 years or so. So neither narrative can allow that progress into its 'reality'. The progress is a big deal, but more important is how crippled and other worldly the talking-past-each-other 'debate' is.

Like you say, OBVIOUSLY huge, leaping progress just won't happen for the bottom half, and the gap between the wealthy/upper-middle-class and the working-class/poor won't close in a society with the worst distribution of income in the 'Western' world, especially when that distribution is getting sharply worse over recent decades. If anything, you'd expect the gap between the two ends of the income distribution to get worse, all things being held equal.


by fairleft (fairleftatyahoodotcom) on Thu Sep 16th, 2010 at 09:43:55 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Agreed, and good point about progress being invisible to those whose arguments depend on its absence.
by Zwackus on Thu Sep 16th, 2010 at 10:29:55 PM EST
[ Parent ]
so I don't know if the difference is the times or location, but I could not in good conscience recommend anyone put their kids in public schools where I live.  

Good teachers--the type that care--are great with kids, as you imply, but they are an embarrassment to everybody (administration, politicians, staff, parents, teachers) and are harassed until they leave.  

As someone who has always tested well, I must nevertheless say that learning and learning to take tests are two totally different things and most students become worse at the former the better they get at the latter, especially as they come to believe that learning itself has no value, either in the present or the future.  

Testing itself is usually corrupt in a subtle way:  It makes sense to decide that certain skills or knowledge are necessary and then figure out a way to test for them, and to require success as a requirement for advancement.  Most testing in schools does not do this, but instead is a process of competitive ranking merely.  Success is not required--only doing better than your peers.  And the material itself is usually of doubtful importance.  Education itself then becomes a game of corner-cutting and social climbing.  

This may be an apt reflection of American life as it really is, but is hardly the foundation for a functioning future.  

The Fates are kind.

by Gaianne on Tue Sep 21st, 2010 at 12:23:18 AM EST
As someone who has always tested well, I must nevertheless say that learning and learning to take tests are two totally different things and most students become worse at the former the better they get at the latter

It really depends on what sort of tests you run and what you're testing for. I can make you a math test that will be a pretty good indicator of your lasting proficiency. Same with physics and chemistry. But it won't be a multiple-choice test, and it will take a good amount of teacher time to evaluate and grade.

The biggest problem with tests isn't actually a problem with tests at all, but with the toxic political climate that the discussion takes place in: The people who don't have neurotic hangups against government spending are almost all opposed to standardised tests. The people who are in favour of standardised tests are almost uniformly penny wise but pound foolish when it comes to the public sector. And they tend to (profess to) be labouring under the delusion that testing can be done cheaply. It can't. And if you're going to do cheap garbage tests, you're wasting your money (not to mention the time of everybody involved).

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Tue Sep 21st, 2010 at 01:53:21 AM EST
[ Parent ]
You make a good point, but as you say, in that case
it won't be a multiple-choice test,

yet of course the tests are multiple-choice, and machine graded
and it will take a good amount of teacher time to evaluate and grade.

which means fewer students per teacher, which means more cost.  

The Fates are kind.
by Gaianne on Tue Sep 21st, 2010 at 02:05:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]
That is not an argument against tests. That is an argument against letting right-wingers define the form and content of the tests.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Tue Sep 21st, 2010 at 03:02:42 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Testing needs a lot more time and resources devoted to it, but that doesn't mean more cost or lower student-per-teacher ratios. What you need is a couple weeks a year devoted to testing and scoring. The resources are there -- the teachers -- and they would score the tests (anonymously of tests from across the school district) after getting trained for it. For elementary students, I see no reason why writing, speaking, social studies, phys ed, science can't be tested in multiple, interesting, involved ways.

by fairleft (fairleftatyahoodotcom) on Fri Sep 24th, 2010 at 11:31:11 AM EST
[ Parent ]
the coup de grace to public education.  

It is working.  

By penalizing schools that test poorly, it encourages corruption in the administration.  It eliminates problem schools in order to replace them with nothing.  Meanwhile the endless testing eliminates learning in the schools that are doing well.  

All this, however, no longer matters much.  As the US goes bankrupt at every level, public education is going to be abandoned.  

Back in the 19th century, education was thought to be necessary for democracy to function well.  That idea has not so much been discarded, as replaced by the idea that there is no need for democracy to function well--nor to function at all.  

The Fates are kind.

by Gaianne on Tue Sep 21st, 2010 at 12:35:17 AM EST

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