Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Duncan, Civil Rights, & Highly Qualified Teachers

Whether you're David Welch (StudentsMatter) financing the Vergara lawsuit in California, or Arne Duncan, crafting new shiny policies and talking points in DC, turning classroom teachers into a civil rights issue is all the rage. I owe thanks to Michele McNeil and Alyson Klein for some of the reporting on which this column is based.

Coming Attraction and Policy Balloons

Assistant Secretary Deb Delisle did some talking shortly after the State of the Union address about the new 50-state strategy regarding highly qualified teachers, presenting a kind of coming attractions trailer of possible policy. Fans of reformy stuff will remember that NCLB put a deadline on putting a highly-qualified teacher in front of every student in the country, and NCLB waivers initially kept that requirement in place, but the Obama administration has since quietly dropped that. George Miller, retiring top Democrat of House Education committee, NCLB co-architect, and bi-partisan educational twit, even squawked a bit about that.

This notion has floated to the surface of reformy soup at various points. There are folks who believe that we just find the Highly Effective Teachers and move them around so that they are covering the most challenging classrooms, and then a million education flowers will bloom. This policy has not yet been deemed ready for prime time because of that "move them around" part. How would that work? Would districts move teachers from school to school, or would states move teachers from district to district? Would teachers be offered bribes incentives to move, or would they just be forced? Various folks have dipped their toes in these waters, but nobody's really ready to take a swim yet.

But the new 50-state plan  redefines teachers as a civil rights issue by harnessing the enforcement power of the Office of Civil Rights to ensure that poor children will have just as many highly qualified teachers in front of them as anybody else. Predictably, not everyone thinks this idea is super-swell.

Ineffective Teaching: A Highly Effective Definition

Discussion of teaching of a civil right often circles back around to the assertion that poor students have more lousy teachers than non-poor students. This assertion rests primarily on a model of circular reasoning. Follow along.

A) Teachers are judged low-performing because their students score poorly on tests.

B) Students low test scores are explained by the fact that they have low-performing teachers.

Or, framed another way, this argument defines a low-quality teacher as any teacher whose students don't do well on standardized tests. The assumption is that teachers are the only single solitary explanation for student standardized test scores. Nothing else affects those scores. Only teacher behavior explains the low scores. That's it.

Ergo, the best runners are runners who run down hills. Runners who are running uphill are slow runners, and must be replaced by those good runners-- the ones we find running downhill. Or, the wettest dogs are the ones who are out in the rain, while the driest ones are the ones indoors. So if we take the indoor dogs outside, we will have drier dogs in the yard. While it rains.

As long as we define low-quality teachers as those who teach low-achieving students (who we know will mostly be the children of poor folk), low-achieving students will always be taught by low-quality teachers. It's the perfect education crisis, one that can never, ever be solved.

One More Growth Opportunity for TFA

Remember the budget deal last fall? You may have forgotten that part of the deal was an early Christmas gift for Teach for America-- a redefinition of "highly qualified" to include TFAers. Because passing a PRAXIS and taking a five-week summer training session are pretty much the same deal.

So TFA bodies are eligible to be foot soldiers in this battle to put effective teachers into the classroom. Now, despite their glowing PR, there's no reason to believe that TFA bodies can magically erase the effects of poverty, but by the time test data has been gathered up to indicate their ineffectiveness, they will have moved on anyway. An endless revolving door churn through a black hole of teacher ineffectiveness perfectly suits the TFA model.

You might imagine that two years as an "ineffective" teacher might be a black mark on the record of a blossoming young Master of the Universe, but take heart-- Michelle Rhee was ineffective as a classroom teacher and disastrous as a school leader, but that has not slowed her rise to lucrative fame as an education thought leader and celebrity spokesmodel one bit. You only have to be able to say you were in a classroom; it doesn't matter to your career if you were great or terrible.

Hold on There a Second!

So one can reasonably conclude that redefining an effective teacher as a civil right might not be a big win for public education. But fear not-- there are people in Congress willing to stand up for teachers and public schools and those people are--- Republicans!

Representatives John Kline and Todd Rokita have sent a letter to Duncan asking for clarification (Congress-ese for "You got some 'splainin' to do, Lucy"). Their questions are (I'm paraphrasing here):

1) Exactly how do you figure the Office of Civil Rights has legal authority over teachers?

2) How's this going to work, actually. Details, please.

3) When is this going to be released to the public and how will you be handling feedback from the stakeholders? Which is polite talk for "You'd best not be thinking you can unilaterally just slip this by everybody involved."

4) How many stakeholders have you talked to about this, and what feedback did you get? Which is polite talk for "We're betting the answers are 'zero' and 'none.'"

5) How are you going to incorporate comments and concerns into your final proposals? Which is polite talk for "We've noticed that this administration doesn't listen to anybody about anything."

The five questions could also be entitled "Five things we plan to lambaste you about when you formally propose this, so you might want to get your bullshit story straight and your cover in place." And the letter concludes with a directive to contact a staffer "immediately" to set up a meeting to talk about all this.

I don't know that much about Kline and Rokita, but these two GOP Reps and the not-a-minute-too-soon departing Miller are a reminder that teachers should never assume that Republicans are a threat and Democrats have our backs.

In the meantime, watch for the more-final-ish version of the 50-states proposal for turning the Office of Civil Rights into the Bad Teacher SWAT Unit.


  1. First,a disclaimer. I'm a lifelong educator and I voted for Obama. Big mistake. If you want to know how the White House works, read Robert Gate's "Duty." Yes, the Dept. of Defense isn't the Dept. of Education but you have the same pols and know-nothing young staffers trying to micromanage the world. Ego...Duncan and Co.

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  3. The upside to all of this reformy goodness is that many teachers are finding that they have some writing chops. Great post on a great blog. I'm glad Diane Ravitch has highlighted many of these.