School Reform: Baseball Bats to Bad Data

Cross-posted at A New Jersey Farmer.

Remember when Joe Clark was the face of educational reform? The former Principal of Eastside High School in Paterson, NJ patrolled the hallways of his out-of-control institution in the 1980s with only a bullhorn and a baseball bat, fighting poverty, gangs, crime and under-performing students as the face of urban education. His tactics were crude and anti-education, but the fact that he was a hero to many spoke volumes about the way in which people saw the problems in our schools.

Today, the people with the bullhorns and the weapons are politicians and business owners who believe that the best way to cure the ills of public schools that have educated the freest, most productive people who’ve ever lived on this planet, is to make our schools just like the entities that led the way towards job outsourcing, unconscionable home loan processes, and a laser-like focus on stock prices that have almost bankrupted the economy.

Joe Clark’s sounding mighty effective right now.

I can understand how many politicians view the public schools. When your political ideology glorifies competition above cooperation and the bottom economic line over investment in the future, you’re going to behave this way.  Of course, it’s easier if you have little contact with the public schools, either becuase you didn’t attend or you’ve decided that even in the great neighborhood that you live, a private school is better. Even the progressive Clintons sent their daughter to a private school. Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter were the last White House residents to put their money where their mouths were. Just so you don’t think I’m contradicting myself too much, I do believe firmly in the right of parents to make decisions in the best interest of their children. Those choices, though, have consequences when you are an elected official with direct influence on public schools.

The main point, though, is that the people pushing for changes in schools now have little, if any, experience working in education and are deliberately excluding those who do.

Here in New Jersey, the person in charge of the program to ensure teacher quality has not one minute of experience in the classroom. Is classroom experience absolutely necessary in order for someone to create a program that will assess teachers? I would say yes. Everyone who works in schools or education should have at least 5 years of teaching experience and preferably even more. How else will you know the pressures and challenges that teachers face on a day-to-day basis? How will you know how to evaluate teachers of students with varying learning styles, academic strengths and weaknesses, and social problems? How will you see the effects that more testing has on the curriculum? Reading articles and interviewing stakeholders (well, most of them) is fine, but there’s something about direct experience that warms the souls of those who will be evaluated. Maybe it’s that we’ll see you as one of us. With some credibility. On education.

That won’t happen. And that’s the point. Without experience, all someone can do is apply the research on teacher evaluation, which is certainly not conclusive, and make assumptions. Governor Christie has not consulted public school teachers about his proposed plans not because he has legitimate differences with the teacher’s union, NJEA, over curricular matters, but because he wants to destroy the union. He isn’t interested in what public school teachers have to say about the issues because they might bring in valid but contradictory evidence that he would be responsible for addressing. His is a political argument, not an educational one. That’s why most teacher oppose them, and him.

But what about merit pay, you say? Don’t teachers want more money? In Washington, D.C., some teachers are earning up to $20,000 extra per year because they’ve been labeled “highly effective” by their supervisors. In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg has proposed a similar system of merit pay for the city’s teachers. So why do many teachers oppose it (listen to the podcast)?

There are many reasons.

Competition, while a highly prized skill in business, works against the interests of schools. teachers need to cooperate with each other in order to educate students. They share lesson plans, teaching strategies and materials. If you force them to compete for money, or tell them that they are competing against other 4th grade teachers for a bonus, it destroys the trust that’s built up between those educators.

It also begs the question of where this extra money is going to come from. Budgets are already tight and spending is capped at 2% in New Jersey. If more teachers earn bonuses than the district has budgeted for, then what happens? Are raises for other teachers sacrificed?

There is also no reliable evidence that shows merit pay for teachers results in better teaching, even if you use the false argument that teachers can be evaluated based on student standardized test scores.

Merit pay is not the only issue that will harm public schools. Among the other reforms, promoting Charter schools is probably the most prominent. Charter schools do have their place as laboratories for innovative programs, but there is no reliable evidence to show that Charters perform better than public schools. They might also be harmful to a district because charters are also publicly funded and take money away from local schools. In the New Jersey suburbs, the blow-back has already begun.

The governor’s educational reform program is on hiatus at this point, but he is going to make it a priority for this year, starting with today’s State of the State Address. If he is serious about making our schools better, he’s going to have to include teachers in the conversation.

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