Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Brown Presents NY Lawsuit Talking Points

In the June 24 NY Daily News, Campbell Brown presented the basic talking points for the newly-manufactured NY road show version of the Vergara trial. Here we go.

A Stirring Anecdote

Her story centers on the Williams family

One of their children... felt so strongly about the lack of instruction she was getting at her Rochester school that she wrote an essay about her experience. Instead of getting help, Jada was confronted about it, and her mom received harassing calls from teachers. Subjected to unfair treatment, Jada eventually had to transfer school.

This "ordeal," says Brown, began with a student's "request for sound teaching."

It's a good story because it underlines exactly what is problematic about this sort of narrative as a model of teacher evaluation. This could in fact be the story of a student who made a reasonable request, wrote an essay about it, and was unfairly hounded by multiple teachers. While I'd like to say that I can't imagine that ever happening, it's certainly not impossible (though the harassing phone calls from plural teachers is hard to imagine).

But this could also be the story of a student who decide she knew better than a trained professional how the teacher should do his job, got called on it, and had the whole thing blow up when the school tried to deal with her insubordination and disrespect.

Either version of the story could be the truth. If we put in student hands the nuclear option of ending a teacher's career, we are certainly, as Brown says she wants to, changing the balance of power. But I'm not sure how we get to excellence in teaching by way of a student smiling and saying, "Mrs. DeGumbuddy, my lawyer and I think you really want to reconsider my grade on this essay."

The Three Basic Underminers

Brown's lawsuit (there really is no need to pretend that this is the students' lawsuit) asserts that three policies of the State of New York undermine the presence of quality teachers in the classroom.

Seniority-- "last in, first out" is bad. It's also a sign of how carefully this is all crafted, because for years I never heard the policy called anything by FILO (first in, last out). But since we need to focus on the young teachers unjustly terminated by this policy, LIFO suits us better.

Tenure-- NY makes teachers wait three years and eighteen observations for tenure. This is the most obvious difference between the New York case and Vergara (California was awarding tenure after less time). This is a hard argument to make-- if an administrator can't tell whether or not she's got a keeper after three years and eighteen observations, that administrator needs to go get a job selling real estate or groceries, because, damn!

On the plus side, I look forward to Brown's accompanying argument that all New York schools should be barred from ever again hiring Teach for America two-year contract temps. If it takes more than three years to determine if a teacher is any good, then clearly TFA is a waste of everybody's time. Do let me know when Brown brings that up.

Dismissals-- Too long, too hard. I'm not in New York, so I don't know the real numbers here. This was the weakest part of the state's case in Vergara-- while you can't rush through these proceedings, there's no excuse for dragging them out for months and years. It's not good for either party.

Brown Is Stumped

Brown's clincher is a sign that either she's playing dumb for rhetorical purposes, or she really doesn't understand schools at all.

...last year, nearly 92% of the state’s teachers outside New York City were deemed effective or highly effective. If this is the case, how can 69% of students fail to show they are proficient in math or English Language Arts testing?

The strictly factual answer of course would be the studies indicating that teachers account for 14% tops of student learning. I don't know if I buy that exact number personally, but it's out there. Certainly it can't be hard for Brown to imagine that some students are capable of sitting in a classroom with an awesome teacher and still not learn from her, either because of distraction, personal issues, or simple defiance.

But the other reason that 69% of NYS students came up short on math and ELA proficiency? Because they were supposed to. Because the NY cut scores (the line between passing and failing) were not set by using some scientific study of what a "sufficient" display of skill would be, but by determining distribution ahead of time. By saying, let's draw the pass-fail line so that 30% are above it, and the rest are below it. You can read a pretty thorough run-down of these tests by Carol Burris and John Murphy here.

And nice touch on calling the fail rate 69% instead of the 70% more commonly reported. 69% sound much more inexact and therefor more "real" than 70%, which in its very tidiness reveals its made-up origins.

I feel bad once again for the prop plaintiffs who are shown in the photo looking out at the crowd, shoulders hunched, like they are seeing a huge raging river that they have to cross. But the Vergara prop plaintiffs were well taken care of, and I'm sure these will be as well. But there is a special corner of hell reserved for adults who use children as tools to further their own agenda.

In the meantime, teachers here in the East can now look forward to a PR blitz tearing down teachers in support of a lawsuit designed to dismantle teaching as a profession. We can only hope the ultimate result will be better than the California version of this traveling circus.


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  2. Peter, I certainly wish there was a way to get you a wider audience. Your analysis of what's going on is most likely spot on, but will never see the light of day in this insightful and understandable a way.

  3. It is interesting to me how now, years after I first began to fight my way through the smoke brought to our low-income school by NCLB testing and its following invasions, I hear your argument that a large percent of our kids fail these tests BECAUSE THEY ARE SUPPOSED TO and I think, "yes." If only I had known then what I know now, I could have banged my head less against the insanity wall.