Wednesday, August 10, 2011

When statistics lie- MCPS and the SAT

MCPS reported more than just a record for average SAT scores in 2010.   They also reported a new record in the percentage of students earning a "college ready score."    More than 50% of test takers received a college ready score of 1650 or better on the SAT.   The Office of Shared Accountability used this data point as further proof that reforms implemented in Montgomery County were producing results.  But when compared to the percentage of graduates who scored a 1650 or higher we see something different.

We see stagnation.

So what happened?   How did MCPS raise the percentage of test takers who scored a 1650 or better without improving the percentage of graduates who scored a 1650 or better?    It seems implausible- until you consider the participation drop off that occurred.

 If (hypothetically) one were to encourage lower scoring test takers not to take the SAT, one might see the kind of data produced in 2010.   One might a series of decling SAT scores become records.   One would see more impressive gains in the groups that were encouraged not to take the SAT. Scoop out the lower performers, and the average rises.  Likewise, when lower scoring students do not take the test- the percentage of test takers who score high (say above 1650) also must go up.  The statistic that will not lie, however, is the percentage of graduates who perform well.   This weeds out flucuations in participation on the SAT. 

Let us now consider Hispanic performance on the SAT over the last five years.   Remember that MCPS reported impressive gains.  They explained the average rose in one year, by more than 50 points.  They further explained that impressive gains were made in the percentage of Hispanic test takers who scored above 1650.   The achievement gap was closing.  Yet the data below leaves serious questions.

Is Montgomery County Public Schools truly the model we have been told it is?  Or does it face some very serious problems that deserve honest and open discussion?   When I look at this data I'm reminded of a story from 2003.

More to come.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

How records are made

The MCPS press release was straight to the point.  The results were nothing short of miraculous:

Students in the Montgomery County Public Schools Class of 2010 produced the district’s highest-ever composite score on the SAT and dramatically outperformed their state and national peers, according to data released today by the College Board...

...African-American and Hispanic test-takers posted the strongest gains in MCPS, improving on last year’s average composite scores by 49 and 54 points, respectively. Those increases outpaced the growth in scores for Asian students (up 21 points) and White students (up 15 points), and further narrowed the district’s racial and ethnic gap in SAT performance.
It was an exclamation point on the tenure of Superintendent Jerry Weast.   What was at one time falling SAT scores, had turned on a dime, and turned hard.   The proof was in the preverbial pudding.   The accountability department published the remarkable data.   

The achievement gap was closing on perhaps the most educationally important data point there was, the SAT.   But what was the cause?

Was it excellent teaching?   Fierce Leadership?   I was skeptical.  My search started with the discovery of the  lowest participation rate in ten years, but that would just be the beginning.   It was even more important to figure out who did not participate.   The answer I found was unfortunately, not surprising.   In statistics circles it is well known that as participation increases, averages tend to fall, and vice versa.  

Fantastic rises in achievement were accompanied by equally fantastic decreases in SAT participation.   African American and Hispanic sub-groups led the decline in particpation.   The accountability office said it this way:

Examination of trends in SAT participation and performance provide evidence that MCPS is making progress toward the strategic plan of ensuring success for every student.
I suppose I saw it differently. What I saw as a problem, MCPS saw as evidence of success. Jerry Weast was no different

Superintendent Jerry D. Weast credits the record-breaking SAT results to talented teachers, committed staff, and motivated students as well as to the reform plan implemented 11 years ago.

“We believe in high standards, high expectations and high performance,” Weast said. “We’ve followed a clear path that works and produces exceptional results for our students at every level.  These SAT scores are extraordinary and are something that our entire community should take pride in."

 The participation data was even more disconcerting when disaggregated by service group.

Records were indeed set in 2010.   I'm just not sure they were the kind of records that should be making headlines.   And if this is how "records" were made in Montgomery County- we needed to do some real and honest soul-searching.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Stomach Churning Letter

My wife thought it was of little consequence.  

However, as I read congratulatory emails sent out to staff and watched videos celebrating Montgomery County Public Schools' record high SAT scores, my stomach churned.   "What do you expect them to do?" my wife chimed.  I suppose I took it personally.  Yes, the mean SAT in MCPS had risen to its highest level ever- but the conclusions circulated by MCPS were nothing short of complete misrepresentations.    I couldn't help but feel insulted as I read the email from Superintendent Weast to the staff:
The College Board released SAT scores for the Class of 2010 this morning and MCPS students set an all-time record. Our 2010 graduates scored an average of 1653, which is our district’s highest score since the “new SAT” was implemented in 2006 and represents a one-year increase of 38 points. MCPS graduates outscored their Maryland peers by 151 points and the nation’s 2010 graduates by 144 points. Students in all racial subgroups improved over last year, but African American and Hispanic students made the biggest gains, further narrowing the achievement gap. The best news of all is that 51% of our students scored a 1,650 or higher, meeting the 7th Key to College Readiness—again, an all-time record.

Of course, these results did not happen in one year, or even in four years. The students whose achievements are described in this report were second graders when we began working together in 1999 and made a firm commitment that we would give all students access to an outstanding education. From elementary school, through the middle grades, and into high school, you provided our students with the opportunities and support they needed to be successful. The SAT results released today are the culmination of all the work done by you and your colleagues since these students entered MCPS.
Yes, insulted.   MCPS had long told me about the importance of data.  It had long emphasized how to use that data to guide my instruction.   Yet now I was being told that the most recent "record" SAT scores were evidence of MCPS's unparalleled success.

I finally replied to my wife, "I expect them to be reflective practioners.  I expect them to have an honest dialogue about the progress of MCPS."     

I showed my wife the data that initiallly raised an eyebrow.

Math and Verbal combined SAT scores for MCPS (writing excluded)
My wife was unconvinced.

I would need to spend more time proving my point.   The achievement gap hadn't closed.  The mean SAT was no more a record than had I served as Superintendent and asked only the top 1% of students to take the SAT.   Yet Weast would tell Bethesda Magazine that this data point was one of his top ten accomplishments as Superintendent of MCPS.

It couldn't be.  It wasn't even an accomplishment.

I dangerously decided to see if I could make my wife see it my way.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

What's in a name

On May 5th 2011 I received my 3rd email invitation in three months. I was cordially invited to attend a celebration of 12 years of service for outgoing Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent, Dr. Jerry Weast. It was now a model of communication for which I had become all too accustomed- whether through pat-on-the-back celebratory emails or via holiday robo-calls reminding me of my dedication to the school district. The invitation was titled, “A Legacy of Excellence” and directed readers to the where ticket purchases could be made for $38. The invitation explained that one could also make a donation to the newly established Jerry Weast Book Project. This project would “enhance the book collections in all 131 MCPS elementary school media centers.” The books purchased would also include a bookplate indicating it was purchased by the Jerry Weast Book Project. It was a fitting end, and we could now say our “collective thank you” to the tenure of Jerry Weast. The invitation was signed, “Patricia O’Neill, Member Board of Education.”

In a vacuum, the invitation was unassuming. It was a pleasant send off for the leader of one of the largest school districts in the United States, and Dr. Weast would do it in class- establishing a small foundation as a way to say thank you to the students he served. It was an appropriate way to say good-bye.

However as a teacher who knew nothing but the Weastian way of doing business, I could not help but view the invitation an entirely different light. After ten years of teaching in Montgomery County, my mind had turned what appeared to be a simple charitable act into a self-serving marketing event. With a certain amount of guilt, I imagined thousands of book plates with the Jerry Weast name affixed- now circulating  ad finem through MCPS libraries. It had become the way things were done in Montgomery County. Of course, I was not surprised by the invitation- but my vision of the “Weast Legacy” was probably much different than what Board of Education member Patricia O’Neill imagined.

The invitation- to me- was a symbol of what had become of the Montgomery County school system; one that was more concerned with creating a perception and protecting a reputation than in instituting meaningful reforms. It was a county that meticulously gathered data about student performance. It paid special attention to those metrics that were gathered by outside organizations- Newsweek, AP Board, and Education Week to name a few. It then focused its instructional programs and decision-making on ways to move this data.

Consider for a moment- the release of the Montgomery County 2010 SAT scores. The MCPS press release read the following: “MCPS class of 2010 scores at record levels on the SAT.” When the local county Gazette picked up the results they explained “Montgomery County Public Schools students… achieved the highest average SAT score in the school system's history, while black and Hispanic students posted the biggest improvement in SAT scores.” And the Washington Post could not have been more favorable in their coverage, reporting that “Montgomery County public school students posted record-high scores of 1653, and the school system took steps to narrow the persistent achievement gap.” However, these headlines and articles often concealed facts that were less than flattering. But they were facts buried in raw data that few reporters or even educational experts had time to review. The headlines were simple and celebratory. It was news that made everyone feel good- so they were easy to accept as fact.

However when we deal with large organizations- the stakes of this type of misrepresentation- the type of misrepresentation that I will show occurred with the 2010 SAT results- are substantial.   They have large ramifications because school districts accepted as successful by their peers  serve as models for others.   When we read that Montgomery County closed the achievement gap- we conclude that the district has done something worthy of repetition.   But if these types of statements are merely window dressing- then what is copied is really of no social value.   In fact- it is a waste of valuable resources.  Unfortunately, I believe that Montgomery County Public schools has done much in the last ten years to increase their brand name- to increase their national and international reputation- but little to institute reforms worthy of the brand it created.

What may sound like an indictment of MCPS is really not.   MCPS plays by the rules and the incentives valued by our culture- they just happen to do it extremely well.   Under Weast, MCPS created a thesis and advanced it through what grew to be a ten million dollar communication and outreach budget.   And it was a thesis which united unions, parents, corporate leaders and academics behind it.    The thesis- however- that MCPS has systematically narrowed the achievement gap or in some other way improved the quality of teaching within the county is simply put- not supported by the data in any meaningful way.

The stakes are thus considerable.    If our models of reform have it wrong, then our educational system will not provide the human capital ready and able to compete in  (as Friedman puts it) a flattening global environment.     We must pick our models of reform well.     

My hope is to help us do just that.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

First in schools but last in fiscal responsibility

An article from the Maryland Public Policy Institute:

The Pew Center ranks Maryland at the bottom of the pack when it comes to funding pensions, along with 18 other states. The center also says the state "needs improvement" when it comes to paying for OPEBs, although 39 other states share that label.

"This puts us in a tier with states known for serious fiscal problems like Illinois and New Jersey," said Gabriel Michael, a fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute, which sponsored the event.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

A Letter to Maryland State Legislators

Dear state representative:

I'm a resident of Howard County and a teacher with Montgomery County. I'm not a union apologist- in fact, I believe my union is largely a failure when it comes to representing the average teacher- but I do have a question for you.

Are you really planning to increase my retirement contribution to 7% from 5% then use that benefit for the state's general fund instead of the retirement system? Is this really true? Is this legal? I'm sure you've consulted your lawyers already, but my goodness. I'd like to invite each of you to attend my AP Government and AP Economics classes- perhaps you could go over this plan with some of my students. I'm quite confident they could teach you a thing or two.

Please- if this be your plan- if you can't find it in you to locate sound judgement- or if no such judgement exists- let me manage my own retirement. Let me opt out. Send me whatever scraps you have left over for a sucker-teacher like myself and I'll go it alone. It's abundantly clear you have no intention to live up to your end of the "bargain," however unsubstainable that bargain may have been. After all, you haven't fully funded the pension since 2001. But now you're going to increase my personal contribution to the pension WITHOUT increasing the total contribution?   Raise your hand if you came up with this idea!  The pension is 60% funded.  Ladies and Gentlemen, this is an EMERGENCY!

I believe I sacrificed enough money when I decided to become a teacher.  I don't need a bunch of hopeless politicians specifically taxing me and other teachers because they don't have the chutzpah to a) raise taxes on EVERYBODY in order to properly fund the general fund or b) take austerity measures that will impact the services provided to all citizens. Then you wouldn't have to hide a tax increase on teachers from the rest of the state in efforts to make believe everything is just fine so that you can claim victory and get reelected. Either of those options- the 2nd of which would likely be very painful for education- would be a more honest thing to do.

Real leadership is equally measured as it is bold. It does not hide from difficult or unpopular decisions. And it takes responsibility for past mistakes.

I think it's well past time that we see some of that leadership in our state capital.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

What happens when you defend a losing position

MCEA and MSEA have been largely silent with regard to seniority issues.   Failure to address these issues destroys public confidence.   It's a horrific miscalculation to believe this issue- that of seniority- will not result in political losses.   Perhaps those inside of blue Marlyand feel so protected that feel immune for calls for change.   However- look no farther than Ohio or Wisconsin to see the very real consequences of foot dragging.    Here's a scary piece from the Baltimore Sun that shows how seniority issues can be used as a springboard to make broader- often more politically charged attacks- onteacher unions.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The public, teachers, and seniority

How does the public feel about seniority?   Here's a snap shot via Teacher Weak:

With plans for massive teacher layoffs in New York looming, a recent Quinnipiac University poll reveals that 90 percent of public school parents in the state think performance—not seniority—should be the basis for such firings, reports the Buffalo News. Eighty-five percent of all registered votes polled agreed, compared with just 12 percent who favored the seniority-based system.

Of course, that's a much higher percentage than teachers (from two urban districts in California).   Only about 75% of teachers want to consider other factors beyond seniority when making personel decisions.

So everyone wants to change seniority rules.   And when they aren't changed, this public support is hijacked by some the Right in an effort to destory collective bargaining.    Call me a rocket scientist- but maybe we should just go ahead and change seniority rules in Maryland, now.   It would be right.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

When issues turn into politics

It's sad, really.   A chance to improve the teaching profession has seemingly been lost in poltiics. 
Let's see what happens in New York.
The bill would do away with the so-called "last in, first out" (LIFO) rule that requires new teachers to be the first to go during layoffs regardless of merit. Seniority could no longer be the sole criteria. Instead, the city could eliminate teachers with unsatisfactory ratings and other performance issues. Mayor Bloomberg plans to layoff more than 4,600 teachers to close a budget gap. Another 1,500 positions would be lost through attrition.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Collective bargaining and budget deficits

So it was collective bargaing that caused the state budget crises circulating the United States, right?  I'm certainly not a union appologist- but let me offer a second solution.

A revenue bubble caused by housing policy caused the state budget crises.  It began with a new innovation in the mortgage industry- the mortgage backed security.  Back in the 1980's- savings and loans would take deposits from customers and then offer mortgages from those deposits.   However, this limited the number of loans that could be made (at least in theory).   Every loan required a proportional amount of money in reserve.   Securitization of loans changed this.  Through securitization, loans could be sold on a market.   Once loans were off the books- and into the hands of a 3rd party- lenders could issue more loans.  They quickly found out that they could make more money selling loans than they could holding them.   As these loans became more numerous- politicians were asked, then asked again, to regulate them.   Neither Republicans nor Democrats wanted any part of this- as to do so would limit home ownership rates.   Instead, they basked in the glory of an accelerating housing market.   More and more people were realizing the American dream. 

As the housing market accelerated, ratings agencies- who were tasked with rating the newly securitized debt.   However, these industries quickly succumbed to the allure of money- rather than the nitty gritty work of effectively analyzing this debt.  Banks came to ratings agencies expecting AAA ratings (the highest rating).   If Moody's would not give it to them, they went to S&P, and vice versa.  This quickly became a conflict of interest- for if ratings agencies wanted market share- the path was to keep the banks happy.   Before long, nearly every basket of loans was AAA, creating what was essentially a false demand for more mortgages.  A bubble.   Standards shot- the banks felt free to loosen their credit standards.  If every loan could be sold in a AAA basket-  it didn't matter who they gave a loan- no matter their credit worthiness.   The loans were easy to sell- and with a AAA rating- they sold at a premium price on the market.   The house of cards was stacked.

The housing market exploded- and nearly everyone benefitted.  Although the revenue bubble was not caused by public sector unions- they certainly benefited from it in the short term.   It's funny now that some people blame unions for bankrupting state coffers.   As if the money that went toward salaries of unionized employees would not have gone somewhere else.   Even my 3 year knows that no matter the size of the cookie- he had better eat it- lest someone else come along and take it from him (that would be me).   I do know of one state that put money aside for the recession- Montana.   Good for Montana.   Smart.

The point here is that collective bargaining was no more the cause of the state deficits than it was the cause of the state surpluses which preceded it.   To cast collective bargaining as the problem- as is currently being done in Wisconsin- is nothing more than politics.  The public sector will be forced to take less money now- just like they got more money when states were fiscally strong.   But to point the finger to the collective bargaining process- is scapegoating- not problem solving.   I think we all deserve much more of the latter.

And if we want to have a debate over collecting bargaining- or giving people choice when joining a union- let's have that argument.    But let's have that argument over the merits.    It could prove a much more useful dialogue than what is going on now.   And perhaps we could all be made better off- I nominate the governor from Montana to lead the discussion.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The value of a contract

For a few months now, I have developed an interest in the work of Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist from Duke.   His work has many applications in the world of teaching.   In his this most recent blog post- Ariely talks about the value of the handshake.    Union members, on the other hand, often harp on the importance of the contract.   We can't work during lunch.   We can't be required to come at this time or that time.  Or from the other perspective, I can't believe so and so left before the duty day ended. I think we'd all be better off if things were settled with a handshake.    I once read that one of the least happiest professionals is the attorney.   They bill by the hour- or rather, the 6 minute.   Constantly reminded of the market value of their work- their happiness is drained.  

I suppose many see the handshake as something straight out of Utopia.  But as the Montgomery County Council- and the state of Maryland begin their budget decisions- they will most likely remind all teachers not of the handshake- but of the written contract.   I suppose we'll have to wait see what the result will be.   From Ariely's post:

All contracts deal with the direct aspects of the expected exchange and with unexpected consequences. Incomplete contracts lay out the general parameters of the exchange (the part that we shake hands over), while the unexpected consequences are covered by social norms governing what is appropriate and what is not. The social norms are what can motivate me to work with you, and what would establish goodwill in resolving problems that might arise.

As for complete contracts, they too specify the parameters of an exchange, but they don’t imply the same adherence to social norms. If something is left out, or if circumstances change, there’s no default to goodwill—it’s happy hunting season for all. When we use complete contracts as a basis for working together, we take away flexibility, reasonableness, and understanding and replace them with a narrow definition of expectations. That can be costly.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The best defense of seniority (so far)

I found this reprint of a Matthew DiCarlo piece from the Answer Sheet.   It's the best attempt to "defend" seniority based decision making that I've seen.   Needless to say- I take issue with several points made by DiCarlo- which I hope address in the near future.   Here's a snippet:

Third, all of the outrage against seniority seems way overblown. It has for decades been considered a fair and impartial way of proceeding, in both the public as well as private sectors (though it is far more common in the former, and among unionized employees in both sectors). In education, this policy also has some research backing: Even by the narrow measure of student test score growth, experience is among the few proven signals of teaching quality (see here, here, here, here, or our summary here), to say nothing of the possibility that experience matters more when it comes to other student learning outcomes (including, by the way, reducing attrition; experienced teachers are less likely to leave the profession).

In short, seniority is definitely imperfect, but it is hardly outrageous to use it as a proxy for quality

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The failure of targeting data

I wrote last week about the dangers of targeting data rather than the underlying conditions that serve as the cause for the data.   Jay Mathews of the Washington Post then wrote about this policy at West Springfield High in Virginia.  The school provides some type of review session for students in need remediation.  That sounds benign enough- except that while a small percentage of students attend these sessions, the rest of the school is left to litterally, do whatever they please:
Fairfax high schools have different names and schedules for the periods. At West Springfield, two 45-minute sessions a week are used to help the 10 percent or so of students in danger of flunking Virginia's Standards of Learning exams.
The decision made above is not one that was made in a vaccuum.   Rather, this is symptamatic of the way data drives narrowly tailored decision making across the country.   Often, this type of decision making drives data driven results that are celebrated as successes.   Yet little is done to consider  the cost of such decision- making.   Are the students at West Springfield High School better off for a policy where 90% of the student body sits idle?   I am inclined to think the answer is no.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The failed logic of seniority based lay-offs.

A union cannot also be a professional organization so long as it defends seniority rules.   What type of organization protects more experienced workers over less experienced ones irregardless of quality?   Not one concerned about professional reputatoin of its workforce, that is for sure.  Here's a great editorial from the New York Post.   Richard Whitmire explains the problem associated with seniority based decision-making.

National teacher union leaders seem to sense their vulnerability on this issue. Rather than defend seniority-based layoffs, they insist the real issue is avoiding layoffs at all. Or, they answer indirectly. “In no other profession is experience deemed a liability rather than an asset,” said Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union. “Teaching is a complex profession, and experience matters.”

Yes, but nobody is arguing that teachers get worse with experience, only that the best teachers aren’t always the most experienced.

We haven’t heard any good defense from union officials of last-hired-first-fired — perhaps because there aren’t any. If you want to the best teachers on the job, you find a different way to allocate layoffs. For political protection against what Rhee experienced in Washington, districts should announce the grounds for layoffs well in advance.

Read more:

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Do we protect incompetent teachers?

I probably don't agree with 90% of what this blogger writes, but ok, so, I'm going to do it.  A quote from Liberty's Lifeline:
Why in the world would a talented teacher want to link his career to an incompetent teacher and be sold to a school district as a package? Are teachers professionals or are they not? If they are, then why do they aspire to the level of an unskilled assembly line worker?

Every school teacher should probably ask whether or not this is the case with their own union- and act accordingly. I believe in unionization. However I also believe in choice and democracy and accountability. 

Monday, January 31, 2011

On data driven accontability

Data is powerful because it has the ability to provide the objective evidence we use to support claims valued by society.    Want to know if we are making progress?  Simply monitor the right data.  For example- Our schools are failing- just look at the most recent PISA results from reading and mathematics.   Want to know if students in Montgomery County Public Schools are "college ready?"   There is data for that too.  These selective still frames of evidence help us to build an argument- or in essence tell a story about successes and failures- from which we can hopefully make more thoughtful and socially optimal decisions.   It is thus helpful to think of data as a form of evidence that helps formulate an argument. 

No Child Left Behind has recently made famous this use of evidentiary argument.  If schools fail to meet certain performance thresholds across various demographic groups in reading and math, schools are labeled as "failing."  For this reason, many have hailed NCLB as the beginning of the accountability movement.    The result, of course, is that we now have thousands of failing schools across the United States.

However valuable data can be- and however useful it is in helping to guide decision making, the use of data also has serious though often ignored limitations.   We obsess not over solutions to serious problems, but over the most recent release of data points of dubious value.   As if that one data point could make or break a school system, school, principal, or teacher.  If the data can be moved, the reasoning goes, there must be progress.  Decision makers therefore attack data points, and not the underlying condition or problem which a data point suggest might exist.   Of course, we cannot simply conclude that policy decisions which target specific data points are all wrong all the time;  in fact, very often these decisions are accompanied by positive externalities.  However, it is also true that this type of decision making can prove particularly superficial, if not entirely problematic, when attempting to answer our most pressing issues.

As I was reading All the Devils Are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis, I was struck by the type of catastrophic mistakes that can result when we try to fix data rather than problems.   By now, we are well aware of the housing crisis that led to the "great recession" of our generation.   In part, I believe this was caused by an obsession with data points.  As the book reveals, in 1980 the home ownership rate in the United States reached a temporary peak of 65.6% and by 1990, this number had fallen to 63.9%.    The country, according to the data, was failing.  A few years later, then President Clinton embarked on a concentrated effort to reverse this trend- announcing the specific goal of increasing home ownership by 8 million families.   The goal was noble- raise the percentage of people who own their homes.   How could we go wrong?

When we attack data points rather than underlying problems- we ask ourselves an inherently different set of questions than when we attack problems.  For instance, when we attack data like home ownership rates, we ask how it might be possible to move one more family, or one million more families, toward home ownership. We concentrate on the result- understanding that by increasing home ownership we realize success.  However, if our recent past is any indicator, this was indeed the wrong question.   To move the data point we did not have to increase the ability of people to afford homes, we could simply relax the  lending standards necessary to qualify for a loan.   Indeed, home ownership at the end of 2009 stood at 67.4%; the past twenty years verify the trend.  But how many people would dare declare we are now better off now than we were twenty years ago?   And how many people who own homes today wish they did not because they are not house rich, but pitifully house poor?

Home ownership is not an end- but one piece of evidence that could support a claim about standards of living.   To truly attack this problem, we must do something other than move an economic needle.   We must address a wide range of economic indicators of well being.  Not a simple chore- nor one that could be accomplished in the short political life cycle of an individual politician.

The same type of data driven decision making is made in education today.  Let me start by offering a common example of how principals might use data to evaluate a teacher.  As we know, a successful teacher will most often have a well behaved classroom. In education we call this skill behavior management. It thus makes sense to use office referrals as an indicator of behavior management.  The premise is simple, a teacher who refers many students to the office over the course of a year has a behavior management issue in his or her classroom.   Likewise, a teacher who refers very few students to the Principal's office has no such issues.   Hopefully by now, you see where this is leading.   A teacher who wishes to appear "successful" simply must forgo sending students to the office; in so doing the teacher eliminates the appearance of behavior management issues.  The principal need not spend valuable minutes or hours reviewing behavioral management techniques with the teacher.   And the teacher need not attend any professional development classes.   The problem- or I should say the appearance of a problem- has disappeared.

This type of decision making, decision making which targets data and the perceptions the data creates- is not limited to classroom teachers or principals.  In fact, I believe it is fully integrated into the culture of school systems nationwide.  To return briefly to the example of No Child Left Behind, we might imagine the following scenario: a middle school fails to meet the testing threshold for NCLB (known as Adequate Yearly Progress) in 8th grade reading.  The school therefore faces a probationary period before being added to the list of  "failing schools."  If the the school moves enough 8th grade students in the right demographic groups across the threshold, the school can once again be considered a darling.   So the school spends time, money, and resources targeting all students that are most likely on the precipice of passing the statewide 8th grade reading test.   The school, in order to avoid being taken over, smartly chooses to ignore students who are above grade level in reading, and furthermore decides to ignore students substantially below grade level (reasoning that no matter what interventions take place- those students are likely to fail).  The school then pumps resources into a group of 20 students in 8th grade reading that will likely make the difference between a "successful" school year and a "failing" one.   The school passes, and the principal and school announce their success.  All the while, there has been no change in the underlying problems that the school community may face.   Nonetheless, system superintendents continue to target data points that create favorable perceptions of their performance, and principals race furiously to make those superintendents happy.

The question is whether the data driven accountability movement will likely lead to the decisions that improve our educational system.   Unfortunately, most of those who make the decisions that affect students are not around long enough to see their impact. As far as careers go, it is much more effective to appear successful immediately.  With only three to  five years before the next big promotion, decision makers must act quickly (just enough time to move data).

Furthermore, adding more data points as evidence of success will do little to address the underlying problems faced by educators today.   Rather, the use of additional data only serves to occupy even more people with the time consuming task of figuring out how to move all the needles in the correct direction.   That is not to say that data cannot be useful as feedback or promising as a tool when considered holistically.  But the current trend that sends teachers and principals after nuggets of pseudo success will only result in more educational stagnation. 

These solutions fix data, but not education.  And we cannot afford to be underwater on our future.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Education and the (state of the) union

Who are we?   What do we stand for?   And how do we position ourselves to be the strongest possible professional workforce?   I wish I could fight for what I believe fulltime.  Instead, I am only left to watch and wonder: what could the teaching workforce be if unions led reform instead of responded to it?   What if teachers were the reformers instead of the protectionists?   That's an educational revolution worthy of pursuit.   The following excerpt is from John Merrow's blog, Taking Note.   In it he captures the heart of Obama's message on education.   If we could only hear it and act on it.
“Stop with the trade union stuff,” the President was saying. “Start putting the interests of students first.”

Unions don’t seem to have much choice in the matter, given the outpouring of anti-union and anti-teacher rhetoric and actions in New Jersey, Alabama, Wyoming and just about any state you can name.

Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers, the smaller of the two unions, seems to get it, but she has to persuade her mostly urban locals to move. The far larger National Education Association hasn’t shown any signs that I have seen that it recognizes that the ground has shifted, dramatically and probably permanently.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Waiting for Superman- logic for the pigeons

As my union says: if super duper left of left leaning Hollywood doesn't nominate "Waiting for Superman" for an Oscar, it must not be very well done.

Good one.

But apparently not only was it a grossly misleading film, it was apparently not a very well done one either...
The Academy Award for Documentary Feature is among the most prestigious awards for documentary films. Here are the nominees:

Documentary (Feature)

"Exit through the Gift Shop"
"Inside Job"
"Waste Land"

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Say no to seniority

From the Boston Globe:
IN ORDER to attract the best and brightest to education, we need to make it worth their while. This means paying some teachers more than others based on their effectiveness in the classroom instead of their seniority and education level (“Teacher salary system decried,’’ Page A1, Jan. 18). The Boston Teachers Union can help kids and make the profession it represents more enticing by dropping its opposition to this reform.
And here, at

Cognitive dissonance is the holding of two diametrically opposed ideas at the same time and believing both of them equally. I think of this phrase often when confronted by the demands of teachers unions. On the one hand, the unions believe that teachers are incredibly important to the development of children — that they are dedicated educators who can change the lives of any child through their efforts.* On the other, unions resist methods to judge the efficacy of educators because, they claim, factors for success in school have little to do with what goes on in the classroom and everything to do with factors out of their members’ control: poverty, parental involvement, and other factors are more important, they claim.


Saturday, January 22, 2011

Change far away from Maryland

Interesting developments in LA- brought to us by the Washington Post.

LOS ANGELES -- A judge on Friday approved a sweeping overhaul of how teachers are laid off in what education reformers hail as a landmark decision to keep more effective instructors in the classroom, but unions denounce as a step toward dismantling tenure policies.

And the classic union response:

"What it is really saying is that experience in teaching has no value," she said. "We feel that this remedy, if allowed to go through, will actually exacerbate the problem."
As if someone who goes from really really really bad, to just really really bad should be teaching because they got better over time.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Someone else who doesn't get it

The Chicago Tribune editorial board recently published this commentary on the state of the education reform movement.   A movement which union leadership describes as an attack on the teaching profession. This is a poltical move by unions, and their sympathizers,that I have never quite understood. After all, this is not the fight for teacher livilhood that took place in 1900.   This is quite a different fight, in different financial times.    I think the Tribune says explains it best:

Some union leaders look at that and accuse us of teacher-bashing. This has reached a pretty silly level. In a recent newsletter, the president of American Federation of Teachers Local 604 awarded us his "2010 Doofus Award."

"The Tribune editorial staff has, for the past year, trashed public school teachers," wrote local President Dick Manley. "Whether the issue is tenure, seniority, pensions, salary, evaluation or respect, as far as they are concerned, we come up short. They believe that we are at the bottom of the food chain. … Color me defensive, if you will, but perhaps this is an example being judged best by the enemies we make."

Mr. Manley, since you raised it: Why are you so defensive? Why are some union leaders so defensive about teachers being measured on what their students learn?
We're so busy being defensive in fact, that we have no time to move forward.   And that is the real shame.   You don't need money additional money to move forward.   You just need the will.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

How to fire a teacher- Washington state style

Here is a wonderful post from in the great state of Washington about the tedious and often problematic process of removing ineffective teachers from schools.  To be honest, this is not too far from what it's like to get rid of an ineffective teacher in Montgomery County, Maryland. Perhaps the only difference is that we add a whole year of peer evaluation and support, which makes principals even more leery of engaging the process.  From Tom in Washington:

I was standing in the faculty room one morning, waiting for the coffee to brew. Two colleagues were talking about principals they’d worked with, and one of them said to me, “Tom, you would be a great principal. I would love to work in your school.”

She should have waited until I had some of that coffee. I would have been a lot less blunt. “Really? because the first thing I’d do would be to fire you.”

Choosing to believe that I was speaking facetiously, she laughed nervously and hurried off.

(Fun fact: the word facetiously has every vowel, in order, including Y!)

Actually, I wasn’t kidding. If I really was a principal and she really was on my faculty, I really would fire her. She was a bad teacher. Ineffective. Weak.

But it would have been difficult.

Read the whole bit and you'll see why it is we're going the value-added testing route.   And unless alternatives arise, it's why we'll continue down that mountain.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Student's First- a take on evaluation

Michelle Rhee's new advocacy group, Student's First,  just came out with a rather extensive list of priorities.  I don't always like the tone- but I unfortunately find that much of what her organization says contains too much truth in it.   These are criticisms that unions should not take lightly.   Viewing this simplistically as a war on teachers might galvanize some, but will hurt the political clout of unions in the long-run.   There are valid criticisms here.  And to simply ignore them does a disservice to the majority of teachers unions pruport to represent.   I believe the following: that teacher unions will be better politically situated if they do not simply do what is best for teachers, but when they do what is best for teachers and students.   The public is perfectly willing to pay teachers more for what they do.   But they have reached a boiling point- they want to pay effective teachers more, not ineffective ones.   And until we acknowledge and address our faults- we willl  leave not only the public wanting- but the profession.   We will also in effect turnover political muscle and decision making to reformers- those who often have little educational experience.   This is not the fault of those reformers, as some would like to argue, but rather this is due to our own failure to address valid criticisms in a forthright and proactive manner.

The following  provocative ideas come from the Student First website.   Ideas that as I said, contain too much truth.  I can only imagine the union response to these "attacks."

Union leaders are legally obligated to represent the interests of all of their members, including ineffective members. Although union leaders express an interest in quality, they have a fiduciary responsibility to their organization to enhance unity and protect low performers. As a result, union leadership, or the vocal minority of teachers, disproportionately influences the evaluation process to skew toward interests that conflict with those of high-performing or promising teachers. The majority of rank-and-file teachers deeply value strong colleagues and a culture of excellence. The ethic of high standards becomes lost in the process when the union dedicates time, effort, and money fighting for the lowest performers. Simply put, labor leadership has a conflict of interest when it comes to evaluation of their members. Recognizing this conflict, steps should be taken to balance the mission of school districts against the collective interest of district employees. A school should not be impaired in its ability to serve families by an evaluation system negotiated to protect the jobs of poor performers.

In school districts across the country, superintendents have no choice but to accept the teacher evaluation system codified in local teacher union contracts. This practice has become the norm over the past 20 years, resulting in weak evaluation systems in district after district. Meanwhile, even the most forward-thinking superintendents rarely have the political backing to negotiate better systems, since school board elections can be easily influenced by highly motivated union organizers. In this way, unions often hold a controlling interest in both sides of the negotiating table. This conflict of interest creates a barrier to developing and implementing meaningful evaluations that are based on what practices will most benefit the students. By including teachers in the evaluation process and simultaneously taking it off the bargaining table, districts will have new opportunities to build on teachers' strengths, drive professionalism, and demand great results for their students.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Is MCEA any different?

The Montgomery County teacher's union, MCEA, recently reprinted this post by Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post.   But as I read it over, I couldn't help but think that my union, MCEA, was no different than the political machine that created the problems Strauss blogs about:

[If we cared about children] we would never tolerate a poverty rate among children of 21 percent.

That’s one in five kids who live in poverty, or nearly 15 million children in the United States who live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level, currently pegged at $22,050 a year for a family of four.

And that, of course, doesn’t include the kids who live in families of four who make $22,051 a year. Or $22,052. In fact, research shows that families need an income of about twice the poverty level to cover basic costs, so at that rate, 42 percent of American children live at or close enough to the poverty level so that basics aren’t being covered.

Which groups in the U.S. are least likely to be in poverty?   The old.   Those on social security.   It is the same group of people who are politically active.   Those unable to vote?   Most likely to be in poverty.

Now let's talk about the haves and have nots in our union.    A 1st year teacher makes half as much as a teacher who has taught for twenty years.     A 1st year teacher is involuntarily transferred before a more senior teacher.   A 1st year teacher must be fired before a more senior teacher.   If our children are the second class citizens of society, then our new teachers are the second class citizens of the union.

I went to an MCEA Representative Assembly meeting in December.  My first.   The median age in that room must have been 50 years old.   Retired teachers have more of a say in our union than new teachers.  This is not hyperbole.   I could count on one hand the number of teachers under 30 at the meeting.  This despite the fact that 60% of our teachers have less than 10 years of experience.   Of course, this is just democracy in action.

We can say we're a democracy, but that doesn't mean we represent the interests of our constituents.  It is much more likely that we represent the interests of those who are politically active.   And that's why we continue to have arcane seniority rules.   And it's why we'll continue to have reform dictated to us from above.

Pleasant testing, kids.

A plan for removing teachers

Everyone is predicting bad things for next year's budget.    Here is a good one from the Gazette:

After noting that "no one here is an advocate on behalf of reducing staff in schools," Edmonds asked Weast whether the school system had a plan in place for determining which teachers should be let go first, if some have to be cut.

Weast replied that there was, but that the decision might have to be made in the latter stages of fiscal 2011, which ends June 30, because of uncertainty over state funding.
Of course there is  a plan.  First play bureaucratic hot potato.  Then play last hired, first fired.  Great idea!

Given that is our system, does it make sense to complain about a new system that will force us to recognize differences in teaching ability?    If you fail to recognize and fix your own problems, don't complain when someone else tries to fix it for you. 

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Sky is Falling- Until we do Something about it.

Here is the classic "we're all under attack" post from Anthony Cody on the Answer Sheet.   He laments the testing craze and the reformers who serve as its advocates.   He moves on to explain that teachers are too busy teaching to fight back:
 In our classrooms we depend on the authority of the school as we exert our own authority to maintain order. Accustomed to our place in the hierarchy, we serve "under" the supervision of our principals, as our students work under our supervision.  This deference to authority is perhaps one reason teachers have been so slow to understand the systematic attacks we face as a profession. But make no mistake, our profession, our retirement funds, our schools, even the classrooms in which we teach -- all are under a systemic and coordinated attack.

This is the wrong fight.   The fight should be a parallel one putting forth alternative evaluation systems that answer the oh so very valid criticisms on the state of our education system.   Yes there are other issues, as Valerie Strauss eloquently argues, that impact what goes on in schools.   Not the least of which is poverty.   However, until we tackle the fact we spend too much time removing extremely ineffective teachers, and not enough time removing mostly ineffective teachers, we will be forced to swallow the reforms of outsiders willing to address the failures we are not.  

I do agree on one thing- most teachers are not politically motivated enough "to get involved."   But I'm not sure they'd all line up behind Cody and company if forced to choose- if only those teachers weren't so busy!!!!

Here is a partial vision, however incomplete, as I see it.   I left the following comment at several days ago.   No matter what however, we must move forward with our own reform rather than spend time claiming the new reforms don't do enough.

In my system in Maryland we have what I would call a "partial" peer evaluative system. Admins still complete the evaluation, but master teachers serve 3 year stints outside the classroom providing feedback to both novice (1st year teachers) and tenured teachers rated unsatisfactory. I'd say they these master teachers make it into classrooms as little as once a month and as much as once every 8 school days depending on need of the teacher. The master teacher makes a recommendation but is completely independent from the admin. They are on the development side. The ultimate decision is made by a PAR (peer assisted and review) panel of teachers and principals. Good, but part of the problem is that tenured teachers rarely if ever make it into the system. Principals find documentation needed to place in the PAR system a pain. Teachers in PAR cannot make lateral transfers to other schools. And so it is under-utlized. I'd make some changes:

One, I'd make the teachers above a kind of evaluation team to be in charge of all evaluations- including firing. I like the 3 year rule- so that they'd have to return to the classroom. Admins would no longer handle evals- they would simply be in charge of the building- handling discipline and money and scheduling decisions. If they had issues with teachers they'd report to the teacher evaluators. In large schools, this would mean less administrators.

Inside the building, I'd like there to be a career path to become a different kind of master teacher- one focused not on administrative duties, but on instruction. I'd like this master teacher to be in the classroom maybe 60% of the time, but also have observation and staff development duties. THey would observe, support, and give feedback. Developing teachers would watch this teacher teach... in large schools, there would be several master teachers in a building. Like administrators they could report ineffective teachers to the evaluation team. The goal for every teacher would be to become a master teacher.

The first part, a roaming evaluation team would be expensive. THe 2nd part, placing master teachers in school building would just require a reshuffling of duties. Fewer admins, fewer team leaders or resource teachers. I was in a middle school once that must have spent 100 teacher hours planning for a 3 day outdoor edcuation event. A great event, but at a tremendous cost. Instruction takes a back seat.

Anyway- my big picture idea- is that we need people who are focused ONLY on instruction. If you're pulled away from admin duties those admin duties tend to take priority. Admins HAVE to order supplies, or plan meetings, or make sure there is sub coverage. Instruction often takes a back seat. I'm willing to embrace any system that makes quality instruction the priority- that makes it a culture.