Thursday, October 23, 2014

Time's Tenure Story

Time's cover story by Haley Sweetland Edwards is the tale of David Welch's crusade to provide school CEO's with more power to control their workforce. I'm sure there will be much reflection on this article in the days ahead, but here's my quick read over lunch reaction.

It comes close to being a balanced reporting of the story. Public education advocates will find that it goes to easy on Welch. Reformsters will find that it is a bit too transparent and doesn't fully capture Welch's awesome heroism.

You'll want to read the whole thing for yourself, but here are some highlights that jumped out at me.

On Vergara: It was the first time, in California or anywhere else, that a court had linked the quality of a teacher, as measured by student test scores, to a pupil’s right to an education. 

Yes. It was the court that created that linkage. The plaintiffs did not, the research does not, and reality does not. But the court did.

It is a reflection of our politics that no one elected these men to take on the knotty problem of fixing our public schools, but here they are anyway, fighting for what they firmly believe is in the public interest. 

Edwards strikes this note several times, and I give Time credit for at least including the observation. But the Real Big Story here is not the tenure wars. The real big story here is that a bunch of unelected amateurs with large piles of money have decided that they should go ahead and take over previously-democratic portions of the public sector. Perhaps the editors at Time lack the balls to pick that angle, or perhaps they simply judged that the angle would not generate the kind of clicks and sales that a tenure wars angle would.

I don't really fault Edwards. The elements of the story, the reporting, are all here. But for whatever reason, we've decided not to treat the derailing of democracy by some Very Rich Guys as the main story here.

[Update: When I wrote this earlier today, I was just looking at the cybercopy of the article. I've since seen the cover, on which Time editors have put "Rotten Apples" in big bold letters. To see the cover, one would expect a massive hatchet job on teachers inside, so I guess that answers the question about how Time editors are inclined to slant Edwards's article. That just leaves the question of whether Time editors are philosophically inclined to give teachers a big punch in the face, or they just think that punching teachers in the face is mostly likely to draw a large paying crowd. Either way, I'm not impressed. If you are also unimpressed, please use this link to an AFT action to let Time know how unimpressed you are or email]

Edwards does try to draw a line between technocrat gazillionairs of today and the robber barons of yesterday, but doesn't really stick the landing on the distinction between them. The Carnegies and Rockefellers worked mostly to create new institutions such as library systems and colleges; but today's "philanthropists" are busy engineering hostile takeovers of the public institutions that were already in place.

Welch remembers asking a big-city California superintendent to tell him the one thing he needed to improve the public-school system. The answer blew Welch away. The educator didn’t ask for more money or more iPads. “He said, ‘Give me control over my workforce,'” Welch said. “It just made so much sense. I thought, Why isn’t anyone doing something about that? Why isn’t anyone fixing this?”

In this version of the story, that is the extent of Welch's research. His next move was to start getting legal advice because "if children are being harmed by these laws, then something, somewhere, is being done that’s illegal."

Edwards does not cloak any of Welch's moves in gauzy idealistic terms. Welch hires a PR firm to start Students Matter, an astro-turf group tasked with 1) ginning up support and money and 2) finding "a team of lawyers who were willing to reverse engineer a lawsuit on the basis of an untested legal theory on behalf of plaintiffs who didn’t yet exist."

The retelling of the Vergara story includes this line:

 Happily for Welch’s lawyers, their innovative argument happened to coincide with a flood of new academic research on teacher quality that could serve as evidence in court. 

One does not have to be a raving conspiracy theorist to note that the happy coincidence was the result of "research" funded by Welch's fellow technocrats and reformsters, much of it begun at about the same time that Welch started shopping for lawyers.

One major dropped ball for Edwards-- she does not discuss the major holes in the Veraga plaintiff arguments (including WAG statistics).

Edwards quotes, of all people, Mike Petrilli and Michael McShane on the problems of Vergara and government intervention. It's up to McShane to point out that measuring "grossly ineffective" is problematic. Edwards cherry-on-tops with the note that the teacher described as "ineffective and undeserving of tenure" was also a Pasadena Teacher of the year.

Edwards goes on to note that there's an irony that Vergara hinges on the ability to identify poor teachers just as we're all figuring out that we don't have that ability. She notes the current "outright mutiny" over high stakes testing and provides a quick guide to the studies showing that VAM is garbage science.

The close is a bit chilling:

 David Welch says he’s undeterred. While he’s received an informal crash course in the unforgiving politics of education reform in this country in the past year, the back-and-forth doesn’t interest him. “I look at this as my responsibility to help and improve the society I live in,” he says. “And I’m willing to fight that battle as long as I have to fight that battle.”

Welch would do well to remember that the society he lives in is a democratic one, where it's not up to a rich and powerful amateur to just commandeer a public service because he has some ideas-- ideas that or no better-informed or professionally supported than the ideas of any average non-billionaire shmoe. Nobody elected Welch to do any of this. And nobody thinks that the best way for America to work is for us to have a democratic system that can be shoved aside by any rich guy on a crusade.

Edwards article is a plus in that it pulls back the curtain (at least part way) on much of what has actually happened in the Vergara assault on tenure without gauzing it up or calling it pretty names. She misses, however, the full implications of the "control over the workforce" quote. The assault on tenure makes much more sense in the context of continued attempts to de-professionalize teaching and turn it into a low-paying, short-term, easily replaceable line of work. She missed that entirely.

Edwards could certainly have turned a more critical eye on the Vergara plaintiff's case, and she stops short of calling out some of the larger issues. On top of the rich-guy-buys-democratic-institution problem, Edwards also glosses over much as "political" issue; the tenure wars are "political" only to the extent that they represent the use of political power to smash another part of public education.

Should this be a country where anybody, regardless of his lack of professional background, can set education policy for the entire nation just because he wants to and just because he's rich? That would be a really good question to start some reporting. Edwards almost raised it-- but not quite.

In other words, Edwards has presented a reasonably fair and accurate part of the picture-- but it's only part of the picture.

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