Thursday, December 2, 2010

Progress needed

So here we have another example of the central flaw in our educational debate. Jonathan Alter of Newsweek sits down with Bill Gates to talk about education and the reform movement he has embraced. Alter writes this article entitled A Case of Senioritis. Clearly, Gates' beef is one of seniority, right?   Alter writes:

 After exhaustive study, the Gates Foundation and other experts have learned that the only in-school factor that fully correlates is quality teaching, which seniority hardly guarantees. It’s a moral issue. Who can defend a system where top teachers are laid off in a budget crunch for no other reason than that they’re young?

In most states, pay and promotion of teachers are connected 100 percent to seniority. This is contrary to everything the world’s second-richest man believes about business: “Is there any other part of the economy where someone says, ‘Hey, how long have you been mowing lawns? … I want to pay you more for that reason alone.’

It's a piece about creating change through the end of the seniority system.   It is a moral issue.   And it's why that if I had to take sides- I take sides with Gates.   Not that I fully embrace his ideas for education reform- but he does understand and attempt to solve a central problem.   The education profession is indifferent to quality.
Dianne Ravitch, who has made a second and very profitable career of  "defending"  educators from the so called attacks of Gates, responds directly to some of the rhetorical questions posed by Gates on Valerie Strauss' blog, The Answer Sheet.   Ravitch pokes some pretty serious holes in the seemingly logical solutions proffered by Gates and other reformers.   But how many times do you think Ravitch uses the word seniority in her response?

Not once.

Why not?  It seems to me it's a losing issue.   Ravitch thus focuses her attack on Gates' main solution, testing:
I don't hear any of the corporate reformers expressing concern about the way standardized testing narrows the curriculum, the way it rewards convergent thinking and punishes divergent thinking, the way it stamps out creativity and originality. I don't hear any of them worried that a generation will grow up ignorant of history and the workings of government. I don't hear any of them putting up $100 million to make sure that every child has the chance to learn to play a musical instrument. All I hear from them is a demand for higher test scores and a demand to tie teachers' evaluations to those test scores. That is not going to improve education."

Ravitch may be right about testing.   Testing students too many times, in too many subjects could have serious ramifications.   And value-added modeling in its current form, likely poses more questions than answers. I suppose that's why she spends so much time talking about testing rather than seniority rules; the battle over testing is, as Gates would say, a moral one.  And it's grounds where Ravitch may have the moral authority.   So I would like to take this argument backward- to what I believe is its foundation.  Is there agreement between Ravitch and Gates on seniority?  If we can agree, perhaps we can find new ways to pay and evaluate teachers.   A system that is more effective than the one used now, and one that will not turn the measure of teacher effectiveness into a test taken by students.   Or maybe the two don't agree, and seniority is the best way to go after all.  Either way, I think we could all benefit by an explicit answer.   So here is a new rhetorical question for Ravitch to answer:

Is the seniority system the best way to compensate teachers for their hard work?

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