Monday, December 13, 2010

When schools are profit centers, wreckage will be the norm

(Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 12/12/10)

A recent poll of Indiana parents revealed that 80 percent are satisfied with their local schools. To listen to Gov. Daniels or Education Sup. Bennett talk about Indiana public schools, those parents must be mistaken, duped, or school teachers. This is a problem for radical education reformers. While parents might believe there are some problems with the “education system,” the vast majority are satisfied with their local schools. Those that are not, approximate the percentage of students and families underserved by our public schools. Herein lies the need to paint Indiana schools in as bad a light as possible.

Why? An easy answer is that the “take no prisoners” approach is about Gov. Daniels’ presidential aspirations and Sup. Bennett’s gubernatorial aspirations. While I think those factor somewhat into it, I think the reasons lie more in conservative ideology.

Don’t be fooled. While Gov. Daniels hasn’t pursued a socially conservative political agenda, avoiding those hot button issues has permitted him to pursue an otherwise very conservative agenda. He has cut spending, capped property taxes, privatized great swaths of government, with both positive and negative outcomes. Keep in mind that conservative ideology is about smaller government and lower taxes. The inevitable outcome of such an approach is a reduction in “public goods.” For Gov. Daniels significantly reducing the size of government requires altering the state’s relationship to education, both K-12 and higher education. States have been getting out of the higher ed business for years. Tuition rises as state support declines. If current trends continue, public universities will probably be put up for sale or lease to education management companies (think the toll road in Northern Indiana). If conservative ideology continues to prevail, the same will be true of K-12 schools.

It’s easy to see the coordinated and persistent propaganda campaign against public education beginning with the election of Ronald Reagan and his message of government is the problem, not the solution. The aim of that campaign is to undermine public support for public education.

And conservatives are impatient. NCLB and Indiana’s PL 221, brought us more school ratings. The performance standards are ultimately unreasonable eventually leading all schools to fail and/or it will lead to “cheating” and the cheating scandals will help fuel the undermining of the public’s support for public education. Yet, despite many years of annual reporting in the papers, this effort to undermine public education has not translated to great reductions in individual’s support for their local schools and transfers “out” of failing schools have not happened the way the radical conservative reformers hoped. So, in response, Indiana will assign a single letter grade to each school.

We do not give a student one letter grade for their entire academic performance. Rather they receive a grade for each subject or skill. As has been reported in these pages, sometimes schools are struggling, “failing,” in a particular area. Why not issue a more detailed report card, actually providing better information from which parents could judge their school’s performance. “Better” information does not serve the underlying goal.

The conservative vision for public schools, if not ending them, is public finance of private schools. It will start with vouchers, and then the funding for vouchers will shrink, either absolutely or relatively, private schools will charge tuition beyond the value of the vouchers and the inevitable inequities in a private school market for education will help to ensure the reproduction of current social inequalities. This is the model for public universities and what has transpired over the last 30 years. The current public school system doesn’t eliminate social inequality, it reproduces current social inequalities, but with some notable progress that is less likely under a mostly for private school system. Social inequality relative to a public good is a moral problem, but not for a private good. By decoupling education from government, the moral imperative to address social inequalities in education, which is where so much of the problems lie, is eliminated. Conservatives don’t see social inequality as a problem, it is just the inevitable outcome of the market. In fact, it is a necessity.

When schools are profit centers, there will be mom and pop versions, franchise versions, Wal Mart versions, “exclusive country club versions,” and out of business versions. Just as we see one company buyout another one and strip it of its assets, leaving wreckage in its wake, that will be a regular occurrence in a future where education is a private, rather than, public good.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Are teachers not part of the learning equation?

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 12/5/10

TERRE HAUTE — “A teacher’s influence on student achievement scores is 20 times greater than any other variable — including class size and student poverty.”

This is a quote taken from Gov. Mitch Daniels’ “Legislative Priorities” ( It didn’t read to me as something he or even one of his staffers wrote. So, I donned my sleuthing persona, and quickly found the quote repeated in many sources, the Houston Chronicle, some foundations, eventually though I traced the quote to Kati Haycock, the director of the Education Trust, an education policy advocacy group.

The Education Trust is a fairly mainstream group. They are funded by such groups as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trust, and others. I suspect Kati Haycock would smile at some of Indiana’s proposed education reforms and frown at others.

Haycock is not a statistician. Among other things, she edits an in-house journal. She, I think, is making a rhetorical claim, based upon the research of William L. Sanders, who is a skilled statistician/econometrician from Tennessee, who created the Tennessee Valued Added Assessment System (TVAAS). This is an assessment and accountability system ushered into Tennessee under Gov. Lamar Alexander in the mid-1980s. In fact, the model underlying the assessment system is known as the “Sanders Model.”

Many of the claims being made by Gov. Daniels and Education Superintendent Bennett stem, I think, from Sanders’ claims. And he makes some pretty remarkable, albeit controversial, claims. Among them is that class size, heterogeneity of the classroom, social class and other commonly found influences in other research are not important. It is as though once students enter the classroom only the influence of the teacher matters. What I find interesting is that there is a lot of sophisticated research using data from Texas, Florida, North Carolina, Alabama and Kentucky.

Tennessee may have the best data, but I can only find research using TVAAS data by Sanders. Essentially, the creator of the system is the only one who has evaluated the system. (Perhaps the databases I use, which located Sanders’ articles, just don’t find articles published by others using TVAAS data.) Maybe Tennessee won’t grant access to any other researchers? Sanders’ claims cannot be tested by other scholars if the data is not made available.

The value-added model of assessment makes sense for students. To use the same model to assess teachers raises some questions. Any occupation can be divided into quintiles based on productivity, job satisfaction or height. No matter how well the bottom quintile (20 percent) does, they are still low-performing relative to the top. And if you eliminate the bottom quintile and redistribute, there will still be a lowest quintile.

What we need to do, if we are going to adopt value-added assessment to evaluate teachers, is to establish a minimum acceptable absolute performance, not a relative one.

There are other troubling findings in this literature. There is no observable teacher characteristic that consistently correlates with student outcomes. It doesn’t matter the quality of the school a teacher attended, it doesn’t matter how well they scored on any teacher licensure exam, their own SATs, how experienced they are, whether they have a master’s degree, nothing. The idea that good teachers are born, not made, is the inevitable conclusion.

They burn out quickly, however. Research consistently shows that except for the first 10 to 15 years, a teacher’s experience is generally negatively related to student achievement, especially in math.

Superintendent Bennett uses sports metaphors all the time. The research on teacher experience and student achievement suggests this one: Teachers are like NFL quarterbacks. They improve through the first few years, hit a plateau, and then decline. Time to draft a new one.

All of Tennessee’s students take the ACT. In 2010, not one of the areas ACT covers shows Tennessee’s students exceeding national averages in readiness for college. Fewer students in Indiana take the ACT, but Indiana’s students exceed the national averages in readiness for college in each category.

There is not a lot of research on home-schooled students. What research I found shows that home-schooled students do better on standardized achievement tests than formally schooled students. Who home schools? Married couple families with one or two children, highly educated, single-earner families in the mid-$70,000s, and either Mom or Dad stay home to exclusively teach their kids. Interestingly, those parents who happen to also be certified teachers don’t do as well as the students of non-certified teachers. So maybe teachers are not the most important factor; perhaps it is parents’ emphasis on education, small class size, and highly tailored curricula.

Note: Steiger is married to a public school teacher.

Are teachers not part of learning equation?

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 12/5/10
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