Monday, October 4, 2010

I'll give Superman a pass

Our friends to the south have been bombarded with a frenzy of teacher and union bashing in the last couple of weeks since the release of "Waiting for Superman" and the added onslaught of NBC and Oprah and the Gates foundation, the Waltons (of Walmart fame), and no doubt a few other billionaires all weighing in on the broken US education system in the press, TV, and through giant televised forums. The mantra is that the solution to the ailing system is charter schools and getting rid of bad teachers and intrasigent teacher unions.

Charter schools are the US version of a "public private partnership" - public funding for privately run schools. They don't run under an elected school Board, but rather a private board that operates just that one school. Although touted as the solution, in fact about 37% of charter schools do worse than their public counterparts on test scores, while 20% do better.

And as to whether unions are the problem, as Diane Ravitch, an educational historian has pointed out, the states with the highest test scores historically are those in the unionized north, whereas scores in the non-unionized "right to work" states have fared worse. If test scores are what we are worried about, seems the unionized states do better. But are test scores the sign of a quality system?

The tragic suicide of a beloved Los Angeles teacher upset about his "average" rankings in the LA Times teacher ranking demonstrates just one facet of the problems with the testing approach to teacher evaluation. Interestingly, "value added" statistics like those used in the LA Times ranking also placed 13% of teachers in the lowest category one year (worst improvement in test scores) and the highest category the next (most improvement in test scores). It's hard to imagine that more than one in ten teachers magically tranformed into a "great" teacher in the course of a single year. Perhaps there is more to teaching than test scores, and more to evaluating good teaching than simple scores in a woefully unfair and invalid statistical scheme.

So what is really going on? Nothing more insidious than a complete attack on one of the most important public institutions we have - a public school system. The interference of billionaires, media empires, and the charter movement is about a massive transfer from the public to the semi-private system that charters represent. The use of the New Orleans school system as an example (as was done on the NBC program) shows the underlying agenda - shut down public neighborhood schools, eliminate school boards and other elected administrators and replace them with privately run, unaccountable "boards" that fire the teachers and replace them with younger, less trained teachers at lower wages and without a union. This is what happened in post-Katrina New Orleans. This is also what Arne Duncan did in Chicago, prior to being appointed by Obama as the chief education czar. As a result, hundreds of neighborhood public schools are gone.

There is lots of excellent commentary about these issues. Here are a few good articles:

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