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Nick Kristof’s column in the New York Times  about Chicago teachers zeroed in on teacher evaluations, the issue at the center of the strike. Kristof says teacher quality must be addressed to improve the test scores of poor, urban children.

I thought the column was problematic for several reasons.

First, do we know teacher quality is a primary reason poor children are failing? Are suburban teachers so much better? If urban teachers need qualities superior to their suburban peers, will they be paid more?

Second, even if you accept that teacher quality can and should be improved, the use of students’ standardized test scores to grade teachers is suspect. Kristof admits this:

How does one figure out who is a weak teacher? Yes, that’s a challenge. But researchers are improving systems to measure “value added” from beginning to end of the year, and, with three years of data, it’s usually possible to tell which teachers are failing.

Value-added metrics are riddled with problems. For example, teachers rated highly one year can be rated poorly the next year. New York City insisted on making its  teacher ratings public, leading to debate among news organizations about whether to publish them because they were so flawed.

Consider the fact New York State won’t allow districts to exempt truant students from a teacher’s evaluation. Then say with a straight face the evaluations are reliable tools.

Third, Kirstof has no problem with Chicago teachers being laid off when their schools are closed. In Rochester, there wouldn’t be many teachers left if the district was able to fire  teachers when it closed schools. Franklin, Edison, Madison and Freddie Thomas have all been reinvented more than once. The current education reform movement shuffles students and employees and creates considerable chaos.

Fourth, Kristof supports allowing principals to choose the teachers they want to hire from the list of those who are laid off. If you think giving principals the right to hire and fire teachers creates a pure, merit-based system, you’re living in fairyland. Anyone who has observed school-level politics knows that’s unlikely to happen. There will be cases where inexperienced teachers are called back because they are cheaper and experienced teachers are left on the sidelines because of clashes with administration.

Unions exist as a check on management. In Chicago, the teachers union is checking management’s desire to control teachers’ fates based on the whims of principals and faulty metrics.

Bad teachers should go. But how many good teachers – and students – will be penalized under this new paradigm? Kristof wrote:

This isn’t a battle between garment workers and greedy corporate barons. The central figures in the Chicago schools strike are neither strikers nor managers but 350,000 children. Protecting elements of a broken and unaccountable school system — the union demand — sacrifices those students, in effect turning a blind eye to a “separate but equal” education system.

The corporate barons exist in education. (See The Broad Academy.) The new wave of superintendents and principals wants the same thing as the garment factory owners – ultimate power. This begs the question of whether this debate is about teacher quality or simply breaking unions.

And while we obsess over teachers, are we ignoring the more important reasons urban schools are failing?

Links of the Day:

– People who live and work in the East High School neighborhood are fed up with students loitering and smoking weed.

– A massive housing development planned in Brighton has finally started construction. It’s ritzy. It’s suburban. It’s expensive.

– This is such a cool project. The University of Rochester is building an online archive of the Post Family letters. The Posts were involved in the women’s rights, abolitionist and Spiritualist movements in the mid-1800s.

Class matters in America

10 Responses to Dear Mr. Kristof…

  1. It’s all about demonizing unions, period. The mainstream media has bought into doing stories about this because they don’t want to be ‘left behind’ so they accept the nitwit view that the union haters have pushed as the view of the majority of Americans. As you have asked, where is the outrage in the Burbs? There isn’t any, because voters in the Burbs are happy with the education they can afford (and by afford I mean by accepting that more expensive Burbs equal better schools, another myth).

  2. All anyone blaming teachers needs to do is spend a week riding around with the police to see that teachers have absolutely zero to do with how well kids do overall, it is home life, peer pressure and poor choices that have led to our current outcomes. The Democrats even allow teachers to be blamed shows the shift of their party to the right of center to ‘match’ the move to the extreme right by the Republicans. Rockefeller, Nixon, even Pataki would be Democrats today.

  3. You hit it right on Rachel. As usual. Rating teachers through student performance which includes all students whether they attend or not or are qualified to take the standard tests is simply ridiculous and grossly unfair.

  4. September 13, 2012 at 9:55 pm Edward Richards responds:

    Is is a true fact kids hate their teachers. Especially when they are poor in both quality and attitude.
    Mr. Kristof makes no sense.

  5. September 13, 2012 at 10:00 pm Edward Richards responds:

    Define the perfect teacher. And what makes a teacher so bad anyway? Please someone.


  6. September 13, 2012 at 10:13 pm Joe Mineo responds:

    I truly believe the people who are clamoring loudest for teachers to be evaluated and fired due to those flawed evaluations have never set foot in a city school. New York’s insistence that teachers be held accountable for truant students is ignorant and naive. Truant students are not absent from class one or two days a year. They are not even absent 1 or 2 days a month. There is a huge and probably growing number of students who do not show up for weeks on end. And then they only show up for one class just in time to be kept on the roster. And when they do show up, they are disruptive and impede those students who actually want to learn. In general, the problem is not with the teachers or the schools, it is home life and environment in which far too many students grow up. Fix the problem at home and you will see the problems in school disappear.

  7. September 13, 2012 at 10:50 pm Derek Sanderson responds:

    Great commentary Rachael. And great comments too. Frankly, I blame Cuomo and Duffy for not having the vision or courage to deal with the real problems plaguing urban education. Instead, they implement these highly suspect evaluations and give credibility to people like that idiotic woman from Rochester pushing the parent trigger nonsense. None of these people would be highly effective educatirs, but teachers have to live with their ill conceived and damaging dictates and ideas.

  8. Pretty common knowledge Duffy was a Republican and became a Democrat to ‘play along’ with City politics. He used to brag about it publicly to a family member. Cuomo and he are exactly the type of Democrat I was talking about, in name only. Both of them played NY’ers just like the fools we are. Remember, Andrew has ‘no’ national level aspirations, just like Duffy would be able to ‘do more for Rochester’ in Albany. How’s that working out for us? I know Buffalo is loving it.

  9. This isn’t how the politics have damaged urban education but all education across the board. All school districts have hired Assistant Superintendents or superintendents who say they are data based. The wealthier districts have the constituents who actually voted for the politicians who created these laws. They are made to compete with each other and the pressure there is tremendous too. Urban schools take the brunt for sure but it has affected everyone. People forget that grade level is a ruse and not accurate. Remediation is for students who have been taught something and haven’t gotten it. Not appropriate for something students have never learned before. A standardized test is based on a bell curve, 50% have to be above the norm and 50% have to be below. If scores get to high, the test scores are recalibrated. That test questions are created by a group of “experts” who decide if a question one person has created can be answered by a student of a particular grade level 50%of the time and whether it is something a student should know. Tests are a ruse being used to make money for testing corporations and who make remeadial materials for the further down the line profit of creating charter schools.

  10. No right thinking person (and I am guessing that we have a decent amount of those here judging by the comments) would say no to getting rid of bad teachers. If more administrators did the ground work of their jobs, ie walked around watching teachers, they should be able to figure it out who those (I believe relatively few) bad teachers are. This isn’t about this though. This is about, as mentioned above, an attack on unions in general. It is about a deliberate attack on education in this country, because an educated populace is harder to manipulate. Keep those class rooms large and keep raising the bar higher than necessary so those poor kids never have a chance to arm themselves with the greatest tool for their independence: knowledge.

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