Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Does Jim Wooten have a "toolette" at the AJC?

Maureen Downey is not yet comparable to the AJC's resident Conservative Tool Jim Wooten who seems to weekly recycle right wing "think tanks" claims about education, citing often flawed "research", in his quest to save our society with his beloved market forces. Yet I fear she's been drinking some of The Tool's Kool Aide when I read stuff like today's "Count on teachers making the grade" Ms. Downey, with my emphasis supplied, writes in part

The public risks whiplash keeping up with the latest twists and turns in the education research. …

"Classroom grades are horrible predictors for how students do later on," says noted Manhattan Institute researcher Jay Greene. "The SAT is the single best predictor as to how a student will do in college."

These conflicts reflect a seldom acknowledged truth in education: There's a lot of uncertainty about what works and what doesn't.

In the meantime, schools invest millions of dollars in innovations and reforms that sound impressive, but don't amount to much more than a new coat of paint on a rickety old house. And when those reforms don't deliver the promised results, schools cling to them anyway because they've spent too much money and time to walk away.

The emphasis on student achievement in the federal No Child Left Behind Act and the requirement to use data to substantiate outcomes are prompting researchers to devise more reliable ways to capture effectiveness.

"The biggest revolution caused by No Child Left Behind is the revolution in education research," says Georgia State University's Gary Henry, a scholar in educational policy and evaluation. "We are getting better at figuring out what works. But what we are seeing is almost nothing that has a very large effect."

Even when the research shows a gain, it's a very small gain produced under the best of circumstances. That's because most reforms only tug at the edges and don't address central flaws in public education: A teacher's track record of improving student performance is hidden from public view, and that performance is not used as a factor in teacher salaries.

Researchers agree that the most reliable predictor of teacher success is past success. So what parents ought to look for is a teacher who has demonstrated gains in student scores from one year to the next. That track record is more telling than a teacher's academic credentials or experience. Yet, parents never see that crucial piece of the puzzle.

"We should, as parents, have that full data," says Henry. "We have the capacity here in Georgia to make that data available. Basically, it is a flip of a switch. That would empower parents to really be active."

Apparently, that's just what schools fear, a flood of active parents armed with data showing that Ms. X raises test scores year after year and Mr. Y does not. Because that would force schools to do something about Mr. Y— either offer him professional development or suggest a career change.

Even without test scores, the informed parents in a school community sleuth out the best teachers. At a recent Girl Scout event with his own daughter, Henry says parents were deep in discussion over the one or two teachers they hoped their kids would be lucky enough to dodge next year. The parents will have to trust luck; the school has already sent them a letter saying they should not try to influence teacher assignments by making specific requests.

No reform will revitalize public education until schools stop protecting ineffective teachers and start rewarding effective ones. Parents have the right and the responsibility to try to get their kids in the classes of the teachers with proven skills.

Schools can introduce block scheduling, shrink class size and increase honor courses, but those reforms are empty gestures without bright and motivated teachers in the classrooms.

I'll write as if sitting down with Ms. Downey and perhaps will even email her my post. As for your citing Professor Greene, “single best” works for me yet that is hardly the issue is it Ms. Downey. The Manhattan Institute is a typical right wing “think tank” with funding that is revealing. Now that the Walton Family has set Greene up at Fayetteville he’s too legit to quit. Lots of profit in pandering I expect even for “scholars” that supply tools like Jim and his ilk grist for the mill. Great work if you can get it huh Jay?

So Miss Maureen, can anyone claim “truth” in education based on your own article? Most bizarre is that you are seemingly suggesting the average politician and bureaucrat listens to those truth tellers? Alfie Kohn and Michael Apple, who are as true as any scholars that I follow, aren’t getting into the conversation in educational policy these days. The right wingers don’t want to hear anything that doesn’t jive with accountability dominated discourse. Do you think Bandura’s ideas on self-efficacy work with standardized testing and teaching to the test? Hardly so yet any serious student of learning knew NCLB was dead contrary to theories that held lots of sway with Progressive educators. We have now a whole new generation of suits and bureaucrats that have learned the way to the top is by the numbers and buzzwords. Accordingly, many of the new hands on deck buy into the politicos and consultants “solutions”. Upton Sinclair long ago wrote, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” The “truth” is that learning is what most humans are wired to do. We want to learn. Today’s schools aren’t exactly celebrating “learning” with their current approaches are they?

“Sound impressive” to the suits and the average ignorant voter makes me think of Colbert’s “truthiness”. And also I know that plenty of money is flowing to the corporations and consultants selling these reforms. But the bottom line is “what works” for folks like you and The Tool is simply test scores isn’t it? Outcomes and data and achievements and … are all business-oriented conservative contructs and I’ll offer up a prior post “No Wonder We Have So Many Dropouts & Darlings” that I think covers a good chunk of what I want to parry with on your “thinking”. These constructs simply are not part of “learning”, at least not of anything beyond learning disjointed facts and processes. We’ll need problem solvers and creative cooperationists for the 21st century yet you right wingers seem to want to teach to get more tools rather than thinkers. Is that the purpose or just a positive byproduct?

GSU Professor Henry, an apparently neutral and I’d argue more authentic scholar in educational policy and evaluation than Dr. Greene, is likely correct in acknowledging that improvements are minimal even in those efforts that seem to work. However, your idea that the central flaw is simply not enough market forces and even more reliance on those damnable scores. This is laughable but for the fact your op-ed and The Tool’s trash get regular ink and readers via the AJC. It’s the model and societal factors and too much standardized testing and the … C’mon, you really can’t want to be a toolette can you? Are bad teachers part of the problem? I’m sure this is partially true yet laying the whole mess with the educators is hardly fair and certainly not complete.

Indeed consistent improvements are a solid part of showing a good teacher yet it is hardly the only factor. Again, what is success? And what about the new teachers we are desperate for with the baby boomers starting to leave the field. There is also good research that suggests many top drawer teachers leave early on due to the bureaucratic and disciplinary hassles that your model has made even worse? How do these new teachers get in the mix? And how do you compare one class and year to another? How do you isolate variables like past teachers/schools, home changes, personal problems, hormones, distractions, motivation, parental support, drugs and alcohol, discipline, distractions, materials, etc? How much will it cost to really disaggregate the data and then explain to parents. Wait to you see the costs of litigating the probably losing cases where teachers get docked on data driven evaluations that can’t hold up on examination by even a marginal attorney. A little thinking and even you tools can perhaps see the folly? Plus isn’t there much to be said for modeling intellectual thought or creating a love of learning or teaching social skills or teaching kids how to think or …? Can’t really measure that can we? And what happens if that hard work pays off in a little longer time than when you measured the kid. If teachers touch the future then should we not test then?

Your active parents wanting to dodge a certain teacher I’m sure got that information via their “connections”. They likely have some “clout” and enough get up and go where I expect their kids have at least that going for them. Yet what about the less informed or motivated parents and their kids? Market forces and reward pay in your approach would hardly work in many areas of our region yet you might only be thinking of the Professor’s Girl Scout high end world. Even around the ATL you surely know there is plenty of variety. You actually think these parents are only focusing on test scores and, even if they were, do they need the data to make a decision about their kid? Local people often know who the good teachers are as you’ve claimed in your writing. If they want to decide then enroll their darlings in a private school! Public education should meet as many needs as possible for individual parents and their kids yet it is PUBLIC. The good achieved for the whole society is what policy needs to be built around yet these conservative ideas have had their twenty years of “reform” that has done little if anything. NCLB is the ultimate top down big government solution yet you now want to let this have a local component of parents "drafting" the teachers?

So I’m really reading just a little more “competition” and “free the market forces” and … There’s no shame is there? There is certainly little if any consistency? It appears that your approach is the same old same old that Jim Wooten shills. Welcome to the tool shed Ms. Downey. Peace … or War!