Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Reaction to the Liv Finne Guest column


More Hit and Miss from the Meddlers
Liv Finne of the Washington Policy Center wrote a column in the Seattle Times on Tuesday. It serves up as the latest example of a member of the ‘policy class,’ what I have called the ‘meddlers’ and the PeWKoB (People Who Know Better), expounding on her vision for what constitutes quality education.

As is typical, it is filled with phrases such as "studies show" and "research confirms," never citing any actual examples of either, and never considering that educational research is, quite often, highly questionable and dubious in its methodology. Isolating variables in a situation where you have hundreds of thousands of students from all walks of life, and teachers from the same, not to mention differing personalities, differing methods, differing budgets, differing regions and values–isolating variables in this morass is, in my opinion, prohibitively difficult.

Thus, it is never appropriate to say "studies show" anything in education. "SOME studies suggest," or, "some research indicates" may be more appropriate.

So beware. Anytime these policy wonks who have never taught and don’t know the reality of teaching in the trenches start expounding about what studies show, take their next statements with a grain of salt. Studies don’t show anything with certainty. And one study will get contradicted by the next.

That said, Finne unsurprisingly gets it about half right. Because, looking at education as a system, and without the perspective from the classroom, she’s basically guessing, probably with a bit of intelligence and insight mixed in, with a dash of deception fed to her by the educational elite.

The Good Stuff

In the spirit of positive dialogue, let’s take her good points first.

1. Money

Finne talks about how the legislature increased funding by $1 billion this year, which was spurred by the McClearly decision from the Washington State Supreme Court. Then, she astutely points out that only "59 cents of every education dollar reaches the classroom."

This is a major problem. Finne falters here, though, and fails to point out the most obscene use of the other 41 cents–testing and assessment. Last I’ve heard, the state spends about $100 million per year writing, re-writing, administering, grading, and reporting scores on the state tests.

We have more tests required to graduate than any state in the country. There’s the HSPE writing, the HSPE reading, the biology EOC (which isn’t really about biology), and the algebra and geometry EOCs. Five tests, four of which are taken by most students their sophomore year.

The money wasted on this stuff is epic. So is the time, but that’s another story. To his credit, Superintendent Randy Dorn has once again set out to reduce the testing burden, wanting to cut 5 down to 3. I’m with him. And hopefully one day they’ll cut 3 down to zero.

Yes, that’s right. Zero. What kind of radical am I, thinking such an absurd notion that we don’t need any state tests? I’m one that believes it makes zero difference to student achievement. And you can’t tell me what "studies show" because there are no studies on this, since everyone has bought into the testing industry’s mantra about how important all these te$ts are.

2. Wasting money

Off her first point, instead of identifying testing and other bureaucratic waste as the true sources of wasted money, she makes the broad but generally accepted statement that "pouring more money into an outmoded system will not succeed."

The problem with statements like this is that they are so easy to make. Politicians do this all the time. When you ask how the money should be better used, that’s where you find out what the person really thinks.

And Finne doesn’t really ever get there. She does list a bunch of reforms, but most of them wouldn’t actually cost much money. They are more like policy shifts than expenses, for the most part. We’ll get to those in a bit.

So yes, Ms. Finne, the money does need to be better spent. Throwing money at something doesn’t guarantee anything. At our school, we sure could use a fourth counselor, considering we have 1400 students.

However, she is misrepresenting the facts when she says this extra $1 billion is "an 11% increase compared to the last budget."

This is classic budget doublespeak. It’s like what the politicians do with Social Security on the national level, calling a slowing of the rate of increase a "cut." If the rate of increase is reduced from 3.5% to 3.0%, that is not a cut. It’s a reduction in increase. This is basic math, so anyone who doesn’t grasp what I’m saying needs to listen:

Suppose a senior citizen gets $1000 a month from Social Security. A 3.5% increase results in her getting $1035 the next year. A 3.0% increase results in her getting $1030.

They are both higher. It is not a cut. A cut means you get less. A cut would mean less than $1000. It irks me beyond belief when they keep misrepresenting stuff like this and leading the masses along with them.

Now, how does this relate to Finne’s point? Because she makes it sound like an 11% increase is a huge amount, and wow, we better figure out what to do with all the extra cash so the schools don’t waste it all on....what, exactly?

She never identifies what we’re wasting it on. I know, firsthand, that at the school level there is actually very little waste. We stretch everything out.

But the 11% increase is not large at all, because budgets have been cut so much (yes, really cut, not the doublespeak kind) the last few years. This $1 billion is just getting us back to where we used to be. Go back a few years and compare the current $15.2 billion budget to those years, and then we can see a better representation of how much of an increase this really is. And, you do of course have to consider inflation.

A couple years ago the Seattle district cut 90 positions because of budget cuts. I remember thinking, How can they have 90 positions they can cut, and still run all their operations smoothly? What were those 90 people doing if they can be cut, and all the nuts and bolts like HR still work?

I conclude that the waste is contained within that 41 cents Finne identifies as non-classroom spending. It’s testing, but it’s also other stuff we rarely hear about.

But sometimes we do hear about it, such as the Silas Potter scandal. Here we learned there was an entire office devoted just to increasing contracts with minority-owned businesses. And it turns out the guy running it was just throwing money at people for doing no work at all, and pocketing some for himself. How nice. And what does any of this have to do with student learning? Uh, nothing?

3. Transferring bad teachers

Not all teachers may agree with me on this one, but Finne is right here as well. Many districts will transfer ineffective teachers from school to school, rather than deal with them another way (like try helping them, or fire them). This is a real problem. Buildings are forced to accept these teachers before they can open positions up to general applicants.

So, there might be some great teachers who are a perfect fit for a job, but the school will never hear about them because the district forces a transfer on them before the position is opened up. At our school, we have gotten some really poor teachers through this system.

I remember one math teacher in particular who only lasted one year, who could barely communicate with the students. I had some students the next year who had her the previous one, and it was clear they learned next to nothing. It was a horrible situation.

So this is a real problem. I’m not getting into all the solutions right now, because it is more complicated than Finne makes it seem, but she is right that this needs to be adjusted.

4. Union Overreach

Finne’s last good point is to criticize the WEA (yes, they aren’t infallible...far from it) for seeking to end school at noon on Wednesdays or Fridays.

If you’ve read some of my other posts, you know how much I hate when my class time gets stolen. Students get called out of class all the time, and yet I’m supposed to keep teaching and get them all meeting standards. Yet some kids miss 10-20 days a year for school-related excused absence activities. It’s ridiculous.

Ideas such as this from the WEA, which have been cropping up for a couple decades now, are based on the correct notion that teachers are overworked and need more time to plan, collaborate, and grade. Yes, yes, and yes. We do.

But nevertheless, I vehemently oppose any solution that cuts out whole swaths of class time.

I have my whole year planned out. I know what I want to teach, and about how long it takes to teach it. When you take out a day here, a day there, or chunks of time every week, you are reducing the quality and depth of the education I can provide.

And so when I’m also told I’ll still be held accountable for reaching standards, that’s when I get a little feisty. That’s like telling us to make twice the bricks without the straw.

Yes teachers need more time. The best answer I’ve come up with is, stop burdening us with tasks not related to our classroom work. Stop overloading our classes. Finne points out that class size is not that big a deal. Yes and no. The difference between 30 and 26 isn’t really that much. But the difference between 35 and 30 is a lot. Especially when you only have 32 chairs.

Like most meddlers who’ve never taught, Finne looks only at the numbers, and doesn’t see the people, or the physical reality. Class size for me is not about achievement as much as it’s about...having enough time. Managing my class and procedures. Getting the grading done in timely manner.

So just like the union is wrong to want to force us all to give away hours of instruction every week, Finne is wrong to imply class size makes no difference. If it’s too big, you just can’t do as good a job getting to all the students. It’s irrelevant whether or not this shows up in testing data, which is all the meddlers tend to look at. It’s about teachers being able to do their jobs well, reach all their students, and plan instruction that works with a reasonable predictability.

Many of the more effective methods of teaching break down if classes are too big, leading teachers to be more likely to just get up and lecture.

The Flawed Stuff

So, Finne made a few good points, though missed some of the finer details. But here, we’ll see where she and other meddlers and reformers just keep getting it wrong. I won’t go into great depth here because of time. She did pack a lot into one little column, and that does make it hard to go into much depth, for her and for me.

1. Low-Ranking Schools.

Finne claims that "one-third of Washington’s schools rank as only ‘Fair’ or ‘Struggling,’ the lowest two categories on the .... School Achievement Index."

Wait, you mean a third of the schools are below average? Are a third above average too? And, let’s see, that leaves a third in the middle. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) Getting serious:

First off, here’s a tremendous example of the wasted money Finne correctly assails earlier. What the heck is the School Achievement Index? How many people at the State Board of Education are involved with these rankings? They had to come up with rubrics, ways to measure and score them, people to collect and assimilate the data, websites and conferences to present it all....think about all the bureaucracy that must go in to something like this.

(Michelle Rhee, eat your heart out).

When these meddlers go on about wasted money and bureaucracy, this is what they should be talking about! What a colossal and gargantuan cascade of resources blowing out to the Sea of Reform!

Are you getting this? This is where the money–that 41 cents of every dollar–gets wasted.

But, that’s the hypocrisy of the PeWKoB and the meddlers. They whine about all the wasted money, but then they talk about how important all these metrics are, all the data, all the standards, all the rubrics. People have to be paid to develop all this crap. And I suspect they probably get paid more than most teachers.

Because that makes so much sense, doesn’t it. Pay the data crunchers and rubric-addicts more than the teachers doing the actual work.

And, on top of that, who cares? All that money to tell us a third of the schools supposedly suck?

You know, in most cities, people already know this. Don’t they? People know which schools are perceived to be better than others. Which ones have a strong principal. Which ones turn out lots of college grads. (Which ones have the most money....ooops, my bad....annoying truth)

And, besides that, what good is this? I’ve written extensively about how the whole notion of "failing" schools is itself kind of a scam. Schools are a reflection of the culture. Put a school in a drug-infested, fatherless, poverty-stricken neighborhood, and you’re going to get a "failing" school. You want to change that? Change the culture. Build up the family unit, instead of continuing to do all we can to tear it down. Eradicate the drugs. Stop having unwanted children out of wedlock. Are these conservative ideals?

Well, yes. Who cares, if they’re true, which we all know they are. Which is why it’s funny that it’s often the conservatives who rail against all the failing schools. How can they on one hand recognize all these social ills, but then on the other hand believe that somehow, the schools should have some special superpower immunity to it all?

School are a reflection of the culture. It’s as simple, and as complex, as that.

And these rating systems, including Finne’s support for the stupid idea of "grading" schools from A to F (another conservative idea), do nothing of value. All they do is point out which schools are in troubled neighborhoods. Big deal. Stop wasting our time and our 41 cents and do something useful.

Let me say it another way: How many failing schools exist in the wealthiest, most stable parts of the big cities? I would venture, going out on a limb here....none. I rest my case.

2. Teachers Rule

Finne says "research" shows that "the most important factor in whether students are learning is the quality of the teacher in the classroom."

Tell a lie often enough and people start to believe it. Again, what research?

This insipid lie has been promulgated for years now. I’ve heard it in so many different places. But is it true? No. And there’s plenty of "research" out there to counter it.

For example, why did the Harlem Children’s Zone succeed? Was it because of the great teachers? No. They were a cog in the wheel. The real reason is because they addressed the issues I mentioned in the last section. They addressed the culture.

They have "pre-birth" classes for single mothers. They have systems in place that track the kids from before they’re born all the way through high school. They are addressing the social and family problems that are usually at the root of most failures and dropouts.

So, before the teacher, we have many other factors.
  • First, the culture and the family life.
  • Second, the level of household income.
  • Third, attendance. If you ain’t there, I can’t teach ya.
  • Fourth, behavior and self-motivation of the student. Students who hate authority, spurn the value of knowledge, disparage their future and don’t believe all the things teachers are trying to help them learn matter–these students fail. Yes, there are students like this, at least in middle and high school. And I don’t make these students. They come to me this way.
  • And fifth, perhaps, might be the quality of the teacher. But if I thought about it longer, I could probably come up with more before this.
Stop believing this lie. It just isn’t true.

3. Charter schools.

Predictably, Finne supports these wastes of time and resources. Charters aren’t inherently bad or even inferior. They just have nothing to offer that’s different from public schools. They don’t address any of the real problems. Look at the list above. The first four items in that list–charters have no more answers to them than public schools. Or, if they do, such as the Harlem Children’s Zone, it costs way, way more per student than the $11,300 Finne implies is more than enough for us.

You can’t have it both ways. All the successful charters do one of two things: They spend way more than public schools and have way more tutors, resources, and other forms of assistance. If we had all that, we’d do much better as well. Or, they kick out students who don’t meet their academic, behavior, or attendance standards. If we could do that too, what a difference it would make.

But then all the people talk about this "right" to a free education we seem to think everyone has. Well, if that’s what we believe, then someone’s got to teach the ones no one else can handle. And who’s that gonna be? Not Steven Brill, that’s for sure.

4. Compensation changes

I saved the worst one for last. This is already too long, so I can’t go into detail. But Finne says teacher pay should be changed "beyond an adjustment for inflation, [and] be provided in the form of professional training in methods that actually work at teacher underachieving students how to read, write, add, subtract, multiply, and divide."

In other words, merit pay.

But this is different than the usual merit pay approach. She’s suggesting our pay should somehow be tied to training. I’m not clear how this would work. We have to go to training in order to get paid? Does it matter if we use the training in our classes? How will this be enforced? And when will the pay be disbursed?

This is an inordinately complicated idea she’s suggesting. Which on its own, doesn’t mean it’s a bad one. But, it’s that last phrase that gets me the most worried. Where she says "methods that actually work."

This is the kind of language people often use when they think something is simpler than it really is. Finne seems to be implying here that there are obvious methods, that the smart people all know about, that easily work to teach students these basic skills.

I would humbly suggest otherwise.

It is often the reformers, especially in math, who come down with, frankly, wacked out curriculums that students, teachers, and parents universally despise. In Seattle, we’ve been dealing with a terrible new math curriculum for several years now, and at the high school levels, we’re starting to see its effects, as kids can’t do basic stuff. And this is with reform math curriculum at the lower levels.

So these "methods" she’s referring to....what are they, exactly? And how do we know they work so well?

On the contrary, first, we should differentiate between skills and understanding. These are not the same. And you don’t teach them the same way. You learn a skill by doing it, over and over. You learn understanding in a very different way, that takes a lot more time, but produces valuable fruit when it’s given enough water.

In my chemistry classes, I do quite a bit of both, because I believe both are important. When I taught math, I skewed a little more to the skills side, but not exclusively.

The point is, to suggest there are a set of methods that we all know work, and we just need to train everyone–this has been the elusive promise of many a professional development session. And it often leaves much to be desired.

And she wants to pay us based on this? I’m highly skeptical.

Wrapping Up

But that’s the whole point. Once again, this is a person with little to no classroom experience talking about how to fix a system she hasn’t participated in. She is oversimplifying complex ideas, and suggesting changes that will do little to nothing in addressing the core problems that she fails to properly illuminate.

My research shows that it’s almost lunchtime, so I will end this column now.

1 comment:

Sawdust said...

Having experienced the same situation and seeing its' effects I appreciate this column and its' insights. I am out of out of the country and have not read the original column, but will do so when I return. It seems like the author comes from the Arnie Duncan school of education that makes him qualified to be Sect. Of Education because his mom was a teacher and he tutored kids when he was young. According to this logic I'm qualified to be the leader of the FAA because my dad used to work on and fly airplanes. If you haven't been there and done it you aren't qualified to tell others how to do it. I went to a Catholic high school and was surprised that I was being taught sex ed. by a nun in religion class. I was getting an A in Sr Naomi's class until I asked her how she was qualified to teach us about sex and all it's ramifications when she had never had sex before. My grade suffered after my ill advised comment, but I still feel it was a valid concern. I'm glad you wrote that schools are simply a reflection of society as a whole, and of their location in a more specific sense. Stop treating symptoms and address the societal ills and we will see real improvement in all areas, not just in education.