Hold teachers accountable? I don’t think that word means what you think it means

June 18, 2013

Diane Ravitch gets all the good discussion — of course, she’s much the expert and she’s done several thousand posts in the last year.

View of a two-story wood-frame school house wi...

View of a two-story wood-frame school house with students and teachers out front, by H. N. Gale & Co. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ravitch engaged in a brief back-and-forth with Ben Austin, a guy who contributed to the invention of virtual IEDs to blow up California schools, called parent trigger laws.  Under California law, if 50% +1 of the parents of the students at a school sign a petition, the district must take apart the faculty or give up control of the school to a non-public school entity.  See my posts repeating the early parts of the exchange under “More” at the bottom of the post.

For reasons I can’t figure, parent trigger advocates claim these moves bring “accountability” to education, though the only effect is usually to fire public school teachers.  Oddly, most of the time replacements then are not accountable to the local school district nor the state for similar levels of student educational achievement.  But a public school is dead and a private entity has taken its place.

Discussion on the threads at Ravitch’s blog get long.

Phila. Teachers on Capitol Steps, Wash., D.C.,...

Philadelphia teachers on Capitol Steps, Washington, D.C., May 13, 1011. Library of Congress colleciton

I responded to a guy named Steve who rather asserted that teachers are just trying to avoid accountability, and so should probably be fired (there’s more nuance to his position, but not enough).  A few links are added here, for convenience of readers.

Steve said:

Wouldn’t it be nice if there were absolutely no standardized measures for educational success, and teachers could simply focus on educating children in whatever way they believe is best, and that all schools were funded to their greatest need and without oversight? And students learned to their capacity and everyone would sing kum-ba-yah at the end of the day?

No. The premise of no standardized measures is a bad idea. In that case, as now, we would have no real way to determine whether the system is working.

You mistake testing for reform, and you mistake test results for quality; you assume that test results are the result of what a teacher does in the previous few months, without any assistance (or interference) from parents, the front office, state agencies, and smart phones.

It would be good if we had research to guide teachers in the best ways to educate kids. We have way too little now, and what does exist rarely can break through the complex regulatory web created by NCLB proponents who ironically, and probably sardonically, require any new process to be “research tested and proven,” probably knowing that gives raters more opportunities to fire teachers.

That’s where our dispute lies.

Yes, sometimes it’s best to hold hands and sing “Kum Ba Yah.” Especially in school. Singing is good, music education is important to the development of sterling minds. Group activities to celebrate milestones produces greater achievement.

I gather you’re opposed to that. That’s a key part of the problem. “Reformers” are too often working against what we know works (though often we’re not sure why it works), against what many regard as “frills” like music and poetry (well, Aristotle argued against it, didn’t he?), and against achievement that can’t be used to fire somebody.

It’s a problem of models. A group singing a song together shows some developmental progress, and may show other progress. The Donald Trump “You’re Fired” model is much more titillating to bullies. Bullies tend to rule too many places.

We need a model that works, a model grounded in good theory (“theory” does not mean “guess”), a model that produces some sort of scoreboard teachers can use, day-in and day-out, to determine what to do next.

“Accountability” is a light on that scoreboard, but it’s not the score, and it’s not the game.

And yes, it certainly would be a better world if poverty, racism, abuse and more simply didn’t exist.

Don’t patronize with stuff you don’t believe and you know policy makers won’t work towards.

Poverty is the big one here. We’ve known for 40 years that poor parents as a group cannot produce students who will achieve well academically as well as rich parents, not because they’re not the great parents they are, but because middle class wealth brings learning opportunities for preschool kids and pre-adolescents and teens that mold minds and make them work well; kids in poverty miss that. Until you’ve tried to get your students up to speed on the Constitution with students who do not know how many states there are, what oceans border our nation, who George Washington was, what a Constitution is, how laws are made, or where food comes from, you really don’t appreciate the difficulty.

Yeah, they used to get that stuff in the newspaper. But their families can’t afford newspapers.

And when I get those kids to “commended” levels on the state test, how dare you tell me I’ve failed. Shame on you, and may you be nervous every time you hear thunder, or go under the knife with a surgeon who passed my class.

But this isn’t the world we live in. This is an organized society. When public funds are spent, there needs to be accountability.

There can be no accountability where there is no authority. If I do not have the authority to obtain the tools to educate the students in my tutelage to the standard, why not hold accountable those who are the problem? I produced four years of achievement in the bottom 20% — you’re bellyaching because the top 3% only got one year of achievement? They were already scoring at the 14 year level — sophomores in college. “Adequate Yearly Progress” can’t be had for those students, if you define adequate as “more than one year,” and if they’re already far beyond the material we are required to teach.

Accountability is a tool to get toward quality. You want to use it as a club. I think it should be a crime to misuse tools in that fashion.

You really don’t have a clue what’s going on in my classroom, do you.

I am *so* tired of the educators on this blog berating anyone who suggests that a teacher be accountable for *anything*.

Show me where anyone has said that. I weary of anti-education shouters complaining about teachers not being accountable, when we’re swimming in “accountability,” we’re beating the system most of the time, and still berated for it; our achievements are denigrated, our needs are ignored. If we win the Superbowl, we’re told we failed to win an Oscar. If we win the Superbowl AND an Oscar, we’re told someone else did better at the Pulitzers. If we win the Nobel Prize for Peace, we’re asked to beef up our STEM chops.

I was asked to boost my state passing scores by 5%. Part of the reason Dallas dismissed me was my abject refusal to sign to that (“insubordination”). That it’s mathematically impossible to boost a 100% passing rate to 105% didn’t change anyone’s mind, nor give anyone pause in passing along the paper. College acceptances didn’t count, SAT scores didn’t count, student evaluations didn’t count.

I wish idiots who can’t do math would be held accountable, but you want my gray scalp instead (and larger paycheck; but of course, that’s not really in the system, is it?). Is there no reason you can find to cling to?

There’s a difference between “accountability,” and “pointless blame.” See if you can discern it. Your children’s future depends on it. Our nation’s future depends on it. We’re not playing school here.

People are accountable for the work that they do.

That’s absolutely untrue in about 85% of the jobs in America. W. Edwards Deming died, and people forgot all about the 14 points and how to make winning teams. Are you familiar with the Red Bead experiment?

Most people calling for accountability can’t define it (Hint: in the top management schools, you don’t see this equation: “accountability=fire somebody”).

Can you do better? What is “accountability?” Will you please rate me on the advancements of my students? No? How about on their achievements? No? Can you tell me even what you want to hold teachers accountable for?

Don’t wave that sword when you don’t know how to use it, or if you can’t recognize the difference between a scalpel and a scimitar, please.

You give me white beads, I turn 80% of them red, and you complain about the few that remain white? [If you’re paying attention and you know Deming’s experiment, you know I reversed the color in my example — no one ever catches me on that.  Why?]  You’re playing the guy who, having witnessed Jesus walking on water, wrote the headline, “Jesus can’t swim!” That’s a joke — it’s not how to make a better school, or a better education system, and it’s not accountability.

NOBODY wants a teacher to be accountable for things that are beyond their control. You have had FIFTY YEARS to develop a means to show that you are accountable in your use of public funds. You have not done it to the public’s satisfaction.

As Deming noted occasionally, we’ve had 5,000 years to develop standards of quality for carpentry and metalwork, and haven’t done it.

The Excellence in Education Commission in 1983 recommended changes to stop the “rising tide of mediocrity” in education. Among the top recommendations, raise teacher pay dramatically, and get out of the way of teachers so they can do their job.

Instead, teacher pay has stagnated and declined, and we have a bureaucracy the sort of which George Orwell never had a nightmare about standing in their way.

But you want to “hold the teachers accountable.”

I suppose it’s impossible to be part of the rising tide of mediocrity and also recognize you’re part of the problem.

Your failure to understand accountability should not cost me my job. I not only want accountability, I want justice, especially for my students. 97% of my students will face invidious racial discrimination when they go out to get a job; many of them (about 50%) come from families who don’t use banks. No checking accounts, no home loans, no car loans from a bank. More than half of the males have never worn a tie. 75% of them come from homes where no novel is on any bookshelf; 30% of them claim to come from homes where there are no books at all, not even a phone book.

They passed the test with flying colors despite that.

That kid who came in not knowing how to write a paragraph went out of my classroom with a commended on his state test, and writing well enough to score 80th percentile on the SAT including the writing part. You have a lot of damnable gall to claim that my work to get him to write his brilliant ideas, well, was wasted effort.

Why won’t you hold me accountable for that? Why do you refuse to look at real accountability?

Don’t claim I’m shucking accountability, when you haven’t looked, and you don’t know what it is.

So – others are now coming in to try and develop what you failed to do. Yup, some of them are shysters. Some of them are ego-maniacs. And some of them are doing so because they have experience and success and they can apply those to helping to improve education and measurement of same.

Good luck to them. Why not let me compete with them. I mean compete fairly — either they don’t get to take money from me merely by existing, or I get to take money from them when I beat them in achievement, and when we take students away from them because they aren’t getting the job done?

You seem to think that these other alternatives for sucking taxpayer money work better. My schools beat charter schools and most private schools in our same population in achievement, in yearly progress, and in a dozen other categories. (Our art students took the top prizes at the state show, beating students from one of the nation’s “top ten high schools” four miles away; the art teachers who got them there? Rated inadequate, given growth plans, funding cut . . . I though you were campaigning for accountability?)

Don’t change the subject. I thought you were for accountability. All of a sudden, you’re against it when we’re talking brass tacks. When we miss a standard, we public school teachers get fired. When we beat the hell out of a standard, we still get fired. When we beat the private schools, the charter schools, and the home schooled kids in achievement, we get zip, or a pink slip.

Accountability? I’d love to see it. You can’t show it, though, so you’re wasting my time and taxpayer money hollering about it.

Some of you even have the temerity to say that the system isn’t broken. Well, maybe it’s not broken for *you*. But it IS broken for the rest of us. And it’s public money here – so – if you are so certain that everything is hunky-dory in what you are adding to the process, well then, prove it. That’s what using public funds requires.

Your kids are in jail? Sorry the system failed you so badly. I had a 90% graduation rate out of my students, in a state where 75% is the state norm and suspected by everyone to be inflated. If your kids are not in jail, and didn’t drop out, that’s good.

Public education isn’t a right (in most states); it’s a civic duty, the thing that keeps our republic alive and democratic. School worries about your kids, sure — but we must also worry about every other kid, too.

What about the 200 other families in your neighborhood? The levels of vandalism and other crimes in your neighborhood depends on the children of those families getting an education. I was able to turn around a dozen of them. The local cops actually did a good job with another dozen.

The local charter school wouldn’t take any of those 24 kids. The private schools took one on an athletic scholarship, but he flunked out his junior year, after football season ended. He was out of school for full six months before we got him back. Three of those girls got commended on the state test despite their having infants; two others got commended and one more passed for the first time in her life despite their delivering children within three weeks of the test. We covered the history of children’s literature one week, convincing more than a few that they should read to their babies, as they were never read to. I got the local bookstore to donate children’s books for each parent in my class, so that their children won’t grow up without at least one book in the house.

We’re teachers, and we worry about the future. Why won’t you allow accountability for that?

Accountability? The word does not mean what you think it means.

Firing teachers is not accountability. It’s an evasion of accountability. It’s destructive of schooling and education. Firing teachers damages children. Even if you could tell who the bad teachers are — and you can’t, no one can do it well — firing teachers cannot offer hope of getting better teachers to replace them.

Why not improve education instead? Who is accountable for that?

Again at Diane Ravitch’s blog, Steve responded that he wants everyone held accountable, including parents and administrators.  Good, so far as it goes.  I think that’s just lip service.  He’s still firing teachers with no way to tell the good from the bad.

More:


An unfriendly view of parent trigger laws

June 10, 2013

Parent trigger laws portrayed, At the Chalkface

Parent trigger laws portrayed, At the Chalkface; it’s a warning sign, of course.


War on Teachers and Education, Part 3: Prof. Ravitch’s response

June 10, 2013

At her blog again, Diane Ravitch responded to Ben Austin’s open letter to her at the Huffington Post.

Earlier today, Ben Austin wrote an open letter to me on Huffington Post. He expressed dismay about my characterization of him and his group Parent Revolution. Read his letter here. Here is my reply.

My Reply to Ben Austin’s Open Letter to Me

Dear Ben Austin,

Thank you for your invitation to engage in dialogue in your letter posted on Huffington Post.

You probably know that I have been writing a daily blog for the past fourteen months and during that time, I have written over 4,000 posts. I can’t remember any time when I have lost my temper other than when I wrote about your successful effort to oust an elementary school principal in Los Angeles named Irma Cobian.

I apologize for calling you “loathsome,” though I do think your campaign against a hardworking, dedicated principal working in an inner-city school was indeed loathsome. And it was wrong of me to say that there was a special place in hell reserved for anyone “who administers and funds this revolting organization that destroys schools and fine educators like Irma Cobian.”

As I said, I lost my temper, and I have to explain why.

I don’t like bullies. When I saw this woman targeted by your powerful organization, it looked like bullying. Your organization is funded by many millions of dollars from the Walton Family Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. You have a politically powerful organization, and you used your power to single out this one woman and get her fired.

Your organization sent in paid staff to collect signatures from parents. The teachers in the school were not permitted to express their opinion to parents about your efforts to fire their principal. When you succeeded in getting her fired, 21 of the 22 teachers on staff requested a transfer. That suggests that Cobian has the loyalty of her staff and is a good leader.

Who is this woman that you ousted?

All I know about her is what I read in this article in the Los Angeles Times.

It said: “More than two decades ago, Cobian walked away from a high-powered law firm to teach. The daughter of Mexican immigrants, she said she was inspired by a newspaper article about the low high school graduation rates of Latinos and wanted to make a difference.

“Her passion for social justice led her to Watts in 2009.”

Irma Cobain is now in her fourth year as principal of the school, and you decided that her time was up.

What did her teachers say about her?

“Third-grade teacher Kate Lewis said Irma Cobian is the best principal she’s had in nine years at Weigand Avenue Elementary School in Watts.

“Joseph Shamel called Cobian a “godsend” who has used her mastery of special education to show him how to craft effective learning plans for his students.”

“Fourth-grade teacher Hector Hernandez said Cobian is the first principal he’s had who frequently pops into classrooms to model good teaching herself. Recently, he said, she demonstrated how to teach about different literary genres by engaging students in lively exercises using characters from the “Avengers” comic book and film.”

When Cobian arrived at the Weigand Avenue Elementary school four years ago, she found a school with low test scores, low parent involvement, and divisiveness over a dual-language program. “All the students come from low-income families, more than half are not fluent in English and a quarter turn over every year,” the Los Angeles Times story said.

Cobian decided to focus on improving literacy and raising morale. She certainly won over the faculty.

The day after Cobian learned about the vote removing her, she went to a second-grade classroom to give prizes to children who had read 25 books this year. She cheered those who met the goal and encouraged those who were trying. But she could not hide her sadness.

“I need happiness today,” Cobian told the bright-eyed students. “What do I do when I’m sad?”

“Come here!” the students sang out.

For a moment, her sadness gave way to smiles. But later, she said: “I am crushed.”

Ben, how did you feel when you read that? I felt sad. I felt this was a caring and dedicated person who had been singled out unfairly.

Ben, I hope you noticed in the article that Dr. John Deasy, the superintendent of schools in Los Angeles, praised the plan that Cobian and her staff developed for improving the school. He called it a “well-organized program for accelerated student achievement.” He thanked Cobian for her commitment and hard work.” But you decided she should be fired.

Ironically, the parent who worked with you to fire Cobian said she preferred Weigand to her own neighborhood school where she had concerns about bullying. Even stranger, the parents at Cobian’s school voted to endorse her plan. Your parent spokesperson said she did not like the plan because it focused on reading and writing, but she told the reporter from the Los Angeles Times that she actually never read the plan.

I understand from your letter, Ben, that you somehow feel you are a victim because of what I wrote about you. But, Ben, you are not a victim. Irma Cobian is the victim here. She lost her job because of your campaign to get rid of her. She is the one who was humiliated and suffered loss of income and loss of reputation. You didn’t. You still have your organization, your staff, and the millions that the big foundations have given you.

I am sorry you had a tough childhood. We all have our stories about growing up. I am one of eight children. My father was a high-school dropout. My mother immigrated from Bessarabia and was very proud of her high school diploma from the Houston public schools. She was proud that she learned to speak English “like a real American.” My parents were grateful for the free public schools of Houston, where I too graduated from high school. We had our share of problems and setbacks but I won’t go on about myself or my siblings because my story and yours are really beside the point. What troubles me is what you are doing with the millions you raise. You use it to sow dissension, to set parents against parents, parents against teachers, parents against principals. I don’t see this as productive or helpful. Schools function best when there is collaboration among teachers, parents, administrators, and students. Schools have a better chance of success for the children when they have a strong community and culture of respect.

Your “parent trigger” destroys school communities. True to its name, the “trigger” blasts them apart. It causes deep wounds. It decimates the spirit of respect and comity that is necessary to build a strong community. Frankly, after the school shootings of recent years, your use of the metaphor of a “parent trigger” is itself offensive. We need fewer triggers pointed at schools and educators. Please find a different metaphor, one that does not suggest violence and bloodshed.

It must be very frustrating to you and your funders that–three years after passage of the “parent trigger” law– you can’t point to a single success story. I am aware that you persuaded the parents at the Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto, California, to turn their public school over to a privately operated charter. I recall that when parents at the school tried to remove their signatures from your petition, your organization went to court and won a ruling that they were not allowed to rescind their signatures. Ultimately only 53 parents in a school of more than 600 children chose the charter operator. Since the charter has not yet opened, it is too soon to call that battle a success for Parent Revolution. Only the year before, the Adelanto Charter Academy lost its charter because the operators were accused of financial self-dealing.

But, Ben, let me assure you that I bear you no personal ill will. I just don’t approve of what you are doing. I think it is wrong to organize parents to seize control of their public school so they can fire the staff or privatize it. If the principal is doing a bad job, it is Dr. Deasy’s job to remove her or him. I assume that veteran principals and teachers get some kind of due process, where charges are filed and there is a hearing. If Cobain was as incompetent as you say, why didn’t Dr. Deasy bring her up on charges and replace her?

I also have a problem with the idea that parents can sign a petition and hand their public school off to a private charter corporation. The school doesn’t belong to the parents whose children are enrolled this year. It belongs to the public whose taxes built it and maintains it. As the L.A. Times story pointed out, one-quarter of the children at Weigand Avenue Elementary School are gone every year. The parents who sign a petition this year may not even be parents in the school next year. Why should they have the power to privatize the school? Should the patrons of a public library have the power to sign a petition and privatize the management? Should the people using a public park have the right to take a vote and turn the park over to private management?

We both care about children. I care passionately about improving education for all children. I assume you do as well. You think that your organized raids on public schools and professionals will lead to improvement. I disagree. Schools need adequate resources to succeed. They also need experienced professionals, a climate of caring, and stability. I don’t see anything in the “trigger” concept that creates the conditions necessary for improvement. Our teachers and principals are already working under too much stress, given that schools have become targets for federal mandates and endless reforms.

I suggest that educators need respect and thanks for their daily work on behalf of children. If they do a bad job, the leadership of the school system is responsible to take action. What educators don’t need is to have a super-rich, super-powerful organization threatening to pull the trigger on their career and their good name.

Ben, thanks for the open letter and the chance to engage in dialogue. If you don’t mind, I want to apologize to Irma Cobain on your behalf. She was doing her best. She built a strong staff that believes in her. She wrote a turnaround plan that Dr. Deasy liked and the parents approved. Ms. Cobain, if you read this, I hope you can forgive Ben. Maybe next time, he will think twice, get better information, and consider the consequences before he decides to take down another principal.

Diane Ravitch

If Dr. Ravitch is correct in her claims, and her fears for future results, the biggest problem with this parent-trigger farce is that it costs a lot of money, and does only damage to schools, and to students, therefore.

Please continue to Part 4.

This series, on the dustup between Prof. Diane Ravitch and Ben Austin in California:

More:


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