Tag Archives: teachers

Teacher Satisfaction: Education’s Failure to Retain Quality Educators

Jesse Soza, Ed.D., was a classroom teacher for twelve years but chose to leave after experiencing high levels of frustration and burnout. He now researches and consults with schools and districts about teacher satisfaction, which, as he describes in this post, is intimately related to working conditions for educators.

soza

Jesse Soza

A Conceptual Misunderstanding of Teacher Satisfaction

As the 2016 – 2017 school year gets under way, one of the goals many school districts will undoubtedly have will be the retention of quality teachers. While the objective of keeping talented and skilled employees would (and should) be a best practice of any self-respecting organization, education in particular has had a difficult time succeeding in this arena. With a standing attrition rate hovering around forty percent for teachers in the first five years of service, losing high numbers of educators has become a norm for the American system. Furthermore, as a result of an almost fatalistic acceptance of this norm, a dangerous notion has emerged that teaching can be approached as a “transient profession,” implying that sustained commitment to students, colleagues and the work itself is an unnecessary trait for teachers. As high turnover rates limit teacher quality and incur high monetary costs for districts, there is little doubt that this combination is devastating for education. Districts and schools are desperate to do whatever they can to keep quality teachers.

It is not surprising, then, that there is a lot of conversation around the idea of teacher satisfaction. Districts know that happy teachers are far more likely to remain teaching than those who are experiencing dissatisfaction. Thus, significant time, effort and expenses have been marshaled in an attempt to provide incentives that might lure teachers to the profession and, more importantly, keep them teaching. Example incentives include signing bonuses, financially supplemented graduate degrees earned during the first years of teaching and/or job security in the form of extremely quick tenure (this is merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of what districts may be willing to offer). On the surface, these common-practice incentives appear desirable. One could reasonably assume that a teacher who is able to attain them should have a noticeable increase in satisfaction and thus be more likely to stay committed to teaching.

Yet data seems clear that these and other incentives have not had the desired effect of increasing retention. No matter what teachers are being offered, overall levels of satisfaction have failed to increase and the result has been a continual hemorrhaging of young, talented teachers (not to mention the high levels of burnout experienced by veteran teachers).

After studying teacher burnout and attrition and interviewing teachers across numerous sites and systems about their feelings around what it means to be an educator in the current system, I have come to an important conclusion about teacher satisfaction: What satisfaction actually is and how it is generated is not well understood within the educational community. As long as satisfaction remains ambiguous or ethereal, attempts at building and implementing meaningful action to address satisfaction will continue to be ineffective. Therefore, the primary issue at hand becomes turning the nebulous concept of teacher satisfaction into something more accessible, and thus workable, for those who seek to engage it.

Defining Satisfaction

What makes satisfaction such an interesting phenomenon is that, while people experience it in a variety of situations on a daily basis, they often encounter difficulty in placing precise parameters around what exactly is going on. The overall concept, however, is fairly simple: Satisfaction is the resultant feeling that occurs when an internal desire or expectation is either fulfilled or denied (to a degree) by conditions of reality; the more fully reality fulfills an expectation, the greater the satisfaction one feels. When reality denies actualization of an internal expectation, dissatisfaction occurs. Levels of satisfaction are thus constantly generated as desires or expectations interplay with people’s experiences. However, what makes satisfaction difficult to analyze and measure is the sheer number of variables that influence it. Indeed, the devil is in the details. In the case of education, understanding teacher satisfaction requires insight into how the desires and expectations of teachers are interplaying with the conditions that make up their work environment.

The Desire to “Make a Difference” Versus the Reality of Teacher Work Environments

The vast majority of teachers enter the profession with the intent of “making a difference” in students’ social, emotional and academic lives. While the specific details of how that is carried out will vary from teacher to teacher, the expectation and desire to “make a difference” assuredly sits at the core of teachers’ passion and drive. Teacher satisfaction, then, must be considered a measure of how well a teacher is able to actualize those expectations and desires. The more they are allowed to work towards “making a difference,” the more likely teachers are to find satisfaction. However, if they perceive that they are unable to do so, dissatisfaction is likely to set in.

Unfortunately, teachers all too often find their expectations and desires of “making a difference” at odds with the current conditions of teacher work environments. These environments, heavily influenced by well-intentioned but deeply flawed reforms such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, emphasize prescription and rigidity to meet metrics, requiring teachers to adopt pedagogy, methods and values that are not their own. Teacher autonomy, creativity and expertise (qualities normally attributed to professionals) have been sacrificed for formulaic, teacher-proof methods that mandate curriculum, instructional delivery systems and behavior management procedures, among other things. Reform meant to improve the system has actually created an educational culture that actively works to deskill teaching, although few would describe it as such. The institution defined by teachers carrying out the act of teaching is, in fact, becoming increasingly adept at stripping its workforce of its ability to do so. Fueled by what often seems like distrust and a lack of respect for teachers and their craft, various forces within society continue to deny teachers the ability to practice their vocation and, as a result, the opportunity to fulfill the expectations and desires that constitute their passion, drive and expertise.

When working conditions strip from teachers the ability to actualize the expectations that make up their passion and drive, they become alienated from the job and, because of the personal nature of teaching, themselves. Combined with teaching’s abysmal compensation and poor social status, it should not be difficult to imagine why attrition and burnout rates remain high (and will continue to be so in the future). Instead of honoring teachers as passionate, driven experts, the current trend is to view them as high-level technicians, merely carrying out dictums that have been passed down to them. The more teachers are forced to adopt the educational values, purpose, methods and strategies set forth by others, the more separated they become from their own values, purpose, methods and strategies.

This cultural invasion within education marginalizes teachers and undermines opportunities for them to find satisfaction. In a somewhat ironic twist, the passion and drive that keeps teachers in the classroom in spite of poor compensation, long hours, lack of resources, etc. is the same passion and drive that education is actively stripping from them. Without this passion and drive, there is no reason for an individual to commit to such a maligned profession, which explains the problems our system is experiencing today.

When writing about workers laboring in conditions where they cannot find meaning and purpose, Karl Marx noted, “[the worker] does not fulfil [sic] himself in his work but denies himself, has a feeling of misery rather than well-being, does not develop freely his mental and physical energies but is physically exhausted and mentally debased.” This, unfortunately, accurately describes the current state of the American educational system and its relationship with its teachers. Education, as a human endeavor, cannot continue to operate in a way that dehumanizes those who work within it. Indeed, teacher satisfaction will only be realized in systems where teachers’ expectations, desires, passion and expertise are truly respected and honored.

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Friedrichs and Bain Explained

California public school teachers working in traditional school districts are by default members of their local teachers associations, which may be affiliates of either the California Teachers Association (CTA), which is the state branch of the National Education Association (NEA), or the California Federation of Teachers (CFT), the state branch of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).  While teachers unions, like all other organizations, certainly aren’t perfect, they fulfill several roles that benefit students and teachers alike and are important, powerful advocates for low- and middle-income populations in general.

Despite these facts (or, perhaps, because of them), teachers unions have been under attack for quite some time.  And the anti-labor movement, fueled by wealthy individuals and groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), has been alarmingly successful.  Union membership reached a historic low of 11.1 percent in 2014 (6.6 percent in the private sector and 35.7 percent in the public sector), 25 states have adopted inappropriately-named “Right to Work” laws that deprive workers of bargaining power, and an inaccurate, misleading anti-union narrative has permeated public discourse.

Unions won a major victory in California in 2012 when we (I was a CTA Election Campaign Lead at the time) beat back Proposition 32, but the news has been less stellar since, particularly for teachers unions.  In 2014, Judge Rolf Treu sided in favor of the plaintiffs in Vergara v. California, a misleading lawsuit that attacked various aspects of teacher employment law.  Though the weakness of both the plaintiffs’ argument and the decision suggests that the case may be overturned on appeal, it still represents a dangerous threat to important employee protections that could reverberate beyond education.  Two more recent California cases, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association and Bain v. California Teachers Association, present related dangers for labor more generally, especially because the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Friedrichs early next year.

As was the case with Vergara, there’s a lot of misinformation floating around about both Friedrichs and Bain.  The discussion below thus sets the record straight on how teachers-union dues and spending work in California, explains the basic arguments of both Friedrichs and Bain, debunks myths the plaintiffs have propagated, and explains why courts should rule against the plaintiffs in both cases.

How Teachers-Union Dues and Spending Work in California

Spending by teachers unions falls into two legal categories: it is either “chargeable” – that is, pertaining to collective bargaining and classified as nonpolitical – or “nonchargeable,” or classified as political.  Public school teachers in CTA-affiliated schools have three options when it comes to paying union dues:

1) If a teacher takes no action, he or she pays for both the chargeable and nonchargeable portion of CTA spending. Whether or not a teacher pays dues to their local association for nonchargeable spending may vary from local to local.

2) If a teacher marks a box on his or her membership form (shown below), that teacher can choose not to contribute towards CTA’s political activities. The teacher must still pay the nonchargeable portion of his or her dues, but that money remains in CTA’s general fund and can be used only for chargeable activities.  A teacher selecting this option remains a full-fledged member of the union.

Teachers who do not want to contribute to CTA’s political activities can check a box on a one-page form to opt out.

Teachers who do not want to contribute to CTA’s political activities can check a box on a one-page form to opt out.

3) A teacher can affirmatively opt out of paying the nonchargeable portion of his or her dues altogether. This decision must be made each year for which a teacher wishes to opt out.  A teacher who exercises this option and pays lower dues is considered an “agency fee payer.”  Agency fee payers are still represented by the union in collective bargaining and labor disputes, but they lose some advantages associated with union membership, the most significant one being the right to vote in union elections.

Each year, CTA must determine the portion of its spending that falls into the chargeable and nonchargeable categories.  It is required by law to send a “Hudson notice” showing the breakdown and the amount of the agency fee to any teacher who has chosen option 3 in a previous year.  Teachers receiving the Hudson notice also receive a letter explaining that they have at least thirty days to decide whether to opt out of the nonchargeable portion of dues again in the coming year (which they can do either by filling out a simple one-page form, shown below, or by writing a letter).

Teachers who want a rebate for the political portion of their dues can fill out this simple one-page form.

Teachers who want a rebate for the political portion of their dues can fill out this simple one-page form.

In recent years, CTA has designated about 65 percent of its dues to be “chargeable.”  If an agency fee payer disagrees with the unions’ stated breakdown between political and nonpolitical expenses, he or she can check a box on the above form to initiate an independent review of the union’s expenses.  The fee payer does not need to be present or provide evidence for that review, the costs of which are all borne by the union.

Friedrichs and Its Free Speech Arguments

The plaintiffs in Friedrichs seek to overturn Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which in 1977 established that public sector unions could charge all employees for activities related to “collective bargaining, contract administration, and grievance adjustment purposes” – that is, that public sector unions could require employees to pay the chargeable portion of union dues.  The plaintiffs in Friedrichs prefer not only to make all union dues optional, but to change the default dues setting to “not contribute,” forcing members to take affirmative action to allocate any money at all to the union.

Building on Abood’s holding that public sector unions cannot compel employees to contribute to any “ideological cause,” the plaintiffs in Friedrichs assert that the distinction between collective bargaining activity and ideological lobbying activity undertaken by a public-sector union is a meaningless one.  They make four arguments in this vein:

1) They assert that “the broad fiscal impact of bargaining about wages and benefits makes it political speech about public affairs” (emphasis theirs). In other words, they note that public schools are funded by taxes, and that teacher compensation is a large part of what is covered by that funding.  Since the allocation of tax dollars is a matter of public importance and collective bargaining influences that allocation, they argue that collective bargaining must be considered political.

2) They contend that, because collective bargaining often pertains to matters debated in the education policy world, it is inherently political.

3) They argue that because the political activity of California’s teachers unions sometimes focuses on issues that are also collectively bargained (laws related to teacher employment, for example), it is absurd to argue that collective bargaining is somehow different from lobbying.

4) They assert that recent legal precedent suggests broad acknowledgment that the reasoning in Abood was incorrect, and that Harris v. Quinn in particular implies that the time is ripe for overturning Abood.

In the plaintiffs’ view, rules about inherently political activities like collective bargaining constitute a violation of employees’ free speech rights.

Part of this argument is bizarre on its face, as evidenced by the plaintiffs’ suggestion that union negotiations about class size and teacher employment protections are analogous to “threats to ‘blow off their front porches’ during a labor dispute or protest signs declaring that ‘God Hates Fags.’”  However, the plaintiffs are correct that recent legal precedent has significantly weakened Abood – given the makeup of the current Supreme Court (which is responsible for that precedent), it wasn’t a surprise that the Court decided to hear Friedrichs.

The plaintiffs also make a legitimate point about the fuzzy distinction between political and nonpolitical activity, but they ignore the fact that we draw seemingly arbitrary lines between the two all the time.  For example, many large corporations have lobbyists who fight against unions and labor standards, charitable arms that donate to organizations that undermine unions and labor standards, and managers who discourage unionization (both legally and illegally) at their stores – each of these activities is overlapping and affects the public interest, but only the first is typically classified as political.  Or consider the artificial division between the “news” and “editorial” teams at mainstream media outlets: “news” reports contain a plethora of implicit assumptions in them, but only editorials are technically considered political.

The activities classified as nonpolitical above can have a substantial fiscal impact; corporations that offer low wages and meager benefits increase the need for government support of low-income workers, for instance, and news articles exert a major influence on public policy debates.  For this reason, the plaintiffs’ arguments, if accepted, could potentially invalidate a whole lot of rules that differentiate political from nonpolitical activity.  It would simply be incorrect to suggest that Walmart and the Wall Street Journal engage in nonpolitical activities and unions don’t.

There is a legitimate question of where to draw the line between political and nonpolitical speech.  But even if there were a coherent argument about why public sector negotiations about working conditions should be considered more political than other forms of speech mentioned above (a condition that doesn’t appear to be satisfied), such an argument would still present an intractable problem: if accepted, it would likely restrict the ability of managers to discipline employees.  As Ian Millhiser explains at ThinkProgress, even Antonin Scalia foresees this potential problem (though that certainly doesn’t mean he’d be unwilling to rule against unions in Friedrichs) – if contributions to collective bargaining can violate an employee’s free speech rights, employer rules about the discussion of compensation packages and working conditions almost certainly can as well.

Fine – The “Political Speech” Argument Doesn’t Hold Water.  But Why Shouldn’t Nonmembers Be Allowed to Opt Out of Chargeable Spending?

The Supreme Court held in Abood that unions could collect an “agency fee” (the portion of dues that funds chargeable union spending) from nonmembers for two primary reasons:

1) The promotion of “labor peace:” The government has an interest, according to the Court’s opinion in Abood, in minimizing the potential for conflict between employees. The agency fee helps ensure that an employer will negotiate with one and only one bargaining unit, thus reducing the likelihood of employee disputes.

2) The prevention of “free rides:” Teachers unions cannot exclude nonmember teachers from the contracts they negotiate – all teachers, whether they are members or not, reap the benefits of the higher wages, better benefits, improved working conditions, and employee rights that unions secure. Without the agency fee, union members would be forced to subsidize the benefits of nonmembers.

The plaintiffs in Friedrichs contend that these reasons are not compelling.  They argue that, while labor peace concerns should prevent multiple, rival unions from co-existing, “the fact that public employers have an interest in dealing with one union rather than many…does not justify the additional and quite different proposition that the state can force all employees to support that one union [unless] ‘free riding’ would cause the extinction of the exclusive union” or if it would lead to a loss of benefits for the free-riding members.  Teachers unions, the plaintiffs argue, cannot (and have not even tried to) show that the invalidation of agency fees would weaken nonmembers’ benefits or threaten the unions’ existence.

The plaintiffs in Friedrichs also argue that it is the norm for advocacy groups to secure benefits for nonmembers – because “free riding” is allowed for doctors who don’t join the American Medical Association, they contend, it should be allowed for teachers as well.  They assert that whether or not coverage under union-negotiated contracts is even a benefit for nonmember teachers is debatable, as collectively-bargained contracts may include components (like the provision of retirement benefits or certain salary structures) with which nonmembers disagree.

Mainly because they believe labor peace and free rider concerns cannot justify what they term “compelled speech,” the plaintiffs in Friedrichs insist that “Public-Sector Collective Bargaining Would be Unconstitutional Even If It Were Not Core Political Speech.”

Yet there are several gaping holes in the plaintiffs’ arguments.   First, teachers unions could actually mount a clear and compelling case that the invalidation of agency fees would cause substantial harm to their operations.  Unions in states that have restricted collective bargaining are reeling; in Wisconsin, for example, where Governor Scott Walker initiated an anti-union crusade in 2011, compensation has fallen by 10 percent for members of the Wisconsin State Employees’ Union.  NEA membership in the state has fallen by a third and AFT membership by half.  Those are probably some of the reasons why both proponents and opponents of Friedrichs assert, in most articles written about the lawsuit, that it presents an existential threat to teachers unions.  To be fair, unions that step up their organizing efforts and effectively advertise how they benefit workers may be able to remain relevant even if the lawsuit proves successful (AFSCME, the SEIU, the NEA, and AFT are already focused on doing so), but a ruling in the plaintiffs’ favor would clearly make organizing significantly harder.

Second, the plaintiffs’ claim that union-negotiated contracts might harm rather than benefit some nonmembers is a red herring (and debatable, though let’s assume it’s true for the purposes of this argument).  While some nonmembers might think they could obtain more attractive compensation packages and better working conditions by negotiating independently with their school districts, members on the whole are definitively better off (in terms of compensation and working conditions) because of the union.  And there isn’t a multi-issue advocacy organization in the world, the American Medical Association included, in which every person covered under the group’s advocacy supports every action the group takes.

This claim also misses a key point about public goods: people must sometimes contribute to things they might not want because other people depend on their contributions.  To take the most obvious example, I support very little of our government’s defense spending, but I still have to pay the portion of my taxes that fund it.  Similarly, individuals who don’t want health insurance must still buy it, as taxpayers would otherwise be forced to subsidize their care. In both of these scenarios, as in the union case, allowing people the option to decline to fund part or all of the given service would make the whole system worse for those who depend on it.  Whether an individual wants everything in a collectively-provided service is less relevant than both whether that individual’s contribution is necessary for sustaining the service and whether the service is an important one to provide.

Nor are such mandated contributions limited to the public sector.  As Gordon Lafer explains, lawyers must pay mandatory fees to practice law and condominium owners are required to pay association fees.  Lafer also observes:

[E]mployer associations themselves refuse to live by the same rules they seek to impose on unions.

In Owensboro, Kentucky, the local Building Trades Council decided to withdraw its membership in the local Chamber of Commerce, but asked if it could still receive full member benefits even though it would no longer be paying dues. Absolutely not, answered the Chamber. “It would be against Chamber by-laws and policy to consider any organization or business a member without dues being paid. The vast majority of the Chamber’s annual revenues come from member dues, and it would be unfair to the other 850+ members to allow an organization not paying dues to be included in member benefits.”

Third, the whole idea that contributions to collective bargaining constitute “compelled speech” is preposterous.  While individuals who want to work as teachers in most traditional public schools today must pay the agency fee and accept the terms of their collectively-bargained contracts, individuals who want employment in any job must accept contracts that contain a variety of demands from their employers. Whether they’re negotiated by worker representatives or mandated by employers without union input, conditions of employment are conditions of employment.

Put differently, the plaintiffs are arguing that a school district can legally require its teachers, if they want to stay employed, to teach 35-student classes, to supervise events without pay after the school day is over, to attend meetings that they don’t think will help them improve their teaching, and to accept whatever salary the district is willing to offer.  But the same district cannot legally require its teachers to allocate a portion of their salaries to a group that negotiates those terms of employment on the teachers’ behalf.  According to the plaintiffs, employers can make employees follow rules unless one of those rules ensures that employees have a say over the rules they have to follow.  Such a position plainly has nothing to do with free speech and everything to do with views about who should have power in employer-employee relationships.

In short, requiring nonmember teachers to pay the agency fee is perfectly reasonable and similar to a range of practices in both the public and private sectors.  Teachers unions fulfill a variety of very important roles, many of which would be difficult to impossible to fulfill without the agency fee requirement.

Okay, Okay!  I Get That It’s Reasonable to Require the Agency Fee.  Can’t We At Least Change the Agency Fee Payer Process?

The plaintiffs in Friedrichs conclude by arguing that, at the very least, CTA’s requirement that dissenting teachers opt out of nonchargeable (political) dues each year is unconstitutional.  They assert that teachers should ideally have to opt in to nonchargeable dues and should definitely not have to renew their objections to such dues each year.

Enter Bain v. California.  The plaintiffs in Bain do not challenge the existence of the agency fee. They write: “The categorization of expenses as “chargeable” or “non-chargeable” is not at issue in this action. Plaintiffs do not object to paying the chargeable portion of dues as a condition of union membership.”  Instead, they contest the loss of union membership associated with opting out of nonchargeable dues.  The core argument from the Bain plaintiffs’ preliminary statement reads as follows:

9. Teachers who wish to remain members of their unions must contribute to both the unions’ “chargeable” and “non-chargeable” expenditures. In other words, every teacher who is a union member is forced to fund the unions’ political and ideological activities.

10. Resigning union membership has significant adverse consequences for a teacher. By becoming a non-member, a teacher is forced to give up important employment-related benefits that are available only to union members. For example, a non-member teacher is forced to forgo the ability to participate in the unions’ disability insurance program (including insurance that is necessary for full maternity-leave compensation), legal representation in cases of employment disputes, death and dismemberment compensation, and disaster relief, among many other benefits.

11. The teachers’ unions ensure that these employment-related benefits are available only to their members, and not to non-members, despite their obligation to negotiate equally on behalf of all teachers…Indeed, the unions use their exclusive bargaining status to ensure that these benefits are not provided by the employer, and therefore not available to non-members, so that teachers are deterred from (and penalized for) exercising their First Amendment right to opt out of contributing to the unions’ political and ideological expenditures.

12. In addition, by becoming a non-member, a teacher is forced to give up her ability to vote in elections that determine the union’s leadership and its collective bargaining position, and prevented from voting on employment-related matters, such as whether to adopt the collective bargaining agreement that determines the terms of teachers’ employment.

13. Because of these substantial employment-related benefits and voting rights that are available only to members, many teachers who do not wish to contribute to the unions’ political or ideological activities are effectively compelled to abandon their First Amendment rights and join (or remain members of) the unions. By punishing teachers for—and deterring teachers from—exercising their First Amendment rights, this arrangement violates the First Amendment.

14. Plaintiffs are public school teachers who wish to retain the employment- related benefits and voting rights that come with union membership, but also wish to exercise their First Amendment right to avoid contributing to the unions’ political or ideological activities. They seek the same right to opt out of funding the unions’ political and ideological activities that non-members have. They should not be forced to make the untenable choice of either (a) abandoning their First Amendment rights or (b) abandoning the employment-related benefits and voting rights the unions secure only for their members.

This argument would be pretty convincing if key parts of it weren’t misleading and/or untrue.

First, the Bain plaintiffs’ claims about benefits available exclusively to members are deceptive.  For example, they assert that “legal representation in cases of employment disputes” falls into this category.  While that’s technically correct – nonmembers do not have access to CTA lawyers – the plaintiffs fail to mention that union representation when a teacher has a grievance, which is sufficient in most cases, is provided to members and nonmembers alike.

Another example is maternity leave, which the plaintiffs in Friedrichs also mention.  Though CTA does not provide nonmembers with the same opportunity as members to purchase a specific disability insurance package that covers maternity leave, nonmembers have the opportunity to purchase very similar plans on the individual market.  Importantly, the complaints in both lawsuits omit the fact that the basic parental leave all employers in California (with 50 or more employees) are legally obligated to provide – up to twelve weeks of leave during which an employee still has health insurance coverage and a guaranteed job when she returns – are only available because of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the California Family Rights Act (CFRA), which unions were instrumental in helping to pass in 1993 (they also played a major role in securing California’s Family Temporary Disability Insurance program, which workers can use concurrently with the leave under FMLA and CFRA, in 2002).  In addition, some local teachers associations secure additional parental leave benefits, which go beyond those guaranteed by FMLA and CFRA, from their school districts.

In other words, the maternity leave “benefits” referenced by the plaintiffs are hardly benefits at all and are significantly less important than the benefits teachers unions are fighting to strengthen all the time.  The Bain plaintiffs’’ assertion that “unions use their exclusive bargaining status to ensure that [certain employment-related] benefits are not provided by the employer” is a blatant fabrication.

The deception here actually runs even deeper: while there’s no evidence that unions try to restrict benefits available to employees, the employers the Bain legal team typically represents do engage in that kind of behavior.  Lead attorney Theodore Boutros’s bio, for instance, proudly touts his role in helping to ensure that Walmart would not be held accountable for sex discrimination (resulting in lower pay and fewer promotions) against over 1.5 million women in 2011.  And the organization behind Friedrichs, the Center for Individual Rights, has strong ties to individuals and organizations, like the Koch Brothers and ALEC, that routinely put the kibosh on paid leave initiatives (not to mention workers’ abilities to secure a decent living).

The hypocrisy aside, the plaintiffs have their seemingly most legitimate argument when it comes to agency fee payers’ loss of voting rights – in some respects, there’s an important debate to be had about this practice.  Agency fee payers contribute to the unions’ collective bargaining activities, and since most union votes have a significant impact on collective bargaining, one could argue that agency fee payers deserve the right to vote in union elections.  Though letting agency fee payers vote might exacerbate the free rider problem, forcing teachers to choose between contributing to disliked political spending or losing the ability to vote seems unfair.

The problem with that formulation, however, is that it’s based on a false choice.  As explained earlier, teachers in districts represented by CTA can opt out of contributing to nonchargeable expenditures while remaining full-blown union members – with the right to vote and the ability to purchase CTA’s preferred disability insurance package – if they check a box on a simple one-page form.  Teachers who exercise this option will still pay full union dues, but all the money they contribute will go towards the unions’ chargeable expenditures, which the Bain plaintiffs (unlike the plaintiffs in Friedrichs) admit they aren’t contesting.

This option is actually a much better solution to the plaintiffs’ manufactured problem than is agency fee payer – it lets teachers opt out of contributions to nonchargeable expenses while simultaneously addressing the free rider concern.  Its very existence should nullify the lawsuit.  In fact, it’s probably a large part of why a judge dismissed Bain in September.  Unfortunately, however, the plaintiffs plan to continue pursuing the case.

What It Boils Down To

The fact that Friedrichs and Bain rely on a variety of misleading and/or dishonest claims illustrates what’s really driving these lawsuits. They aren’t about free speech or free choice and they’re not about constructing sensible policy.  Instead, they’re about undermining organized labor and further diminishing union strength and worker bargaining power.

For wealthy interests who benefit when workers lose and those congenitally opposed to teachers unions, these lawsuits are thus welcome.  But those who truly care about workers’ rights and are interested in the facts would do well to oppose both Friedrichs and Bain.

*Unions were also instrumental in

Note: A version of this post originally appeared in The Washington Post.

Update (12/5/15): This post was revised to note that unions also helped secure California’s Family Temporary Disability Insurance program in 2002.

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The Problem with Outcome-Oriented Evaluations

Imagine I observe two poker players playing two tournaments each. During their first tournaments, Player A makes $1200 and Player B loses $800. During her second tournament, Player A pockets another $1000. Player B, on the other hand, loses $1100 more during her second tournament. Would it be a good decision for me to sit down at a table and model my play after Player A?

For many people the answer to this question – no – is counterintuitive. I watched Player A and Player B play two tournaments each and their results were very different – haven’t I seen enough to conclude that Player A is the better poker player? Yet poker involves a considerable amount of luck and there are numerous possible short- and longer-term outcomes for skilled and unskilled players. As Nate Silver writes in The Signal and the Noise, I could monitor each player’s winnings during a year of their full-time play and still not know whether either of them was any good at poker. It would be fully plausible for a “very good limit hold ‘em player” to “have lost $35,000” during that time. Instead of focusing on the desired outcome of their play – making money – I should mimic the player who uses strategies that will, over time, increase the likelihood of future winnings. As Silver writes,

When we play poker, we control our decision-making process but not how the cards come down. If you correctly detect an opponent’s bluff, but he gets a lucky card and wins the hand anyway, you should be pleased rather than angry, because you played the hand as well as you could. The irony is that by being less focused on your results, you may achieve better ones.

As Silver recommends for poker and Teach For America recommends to corps members, we should always focus on our “locus of control.” For example, I have frequently criticized Barack Obama for his approach to the Affordable Care Act. While I am unhappy that the health care bill did not include a public option, I couldn’t blame Obama if he had actually tried to pass such a bill and failed because of an obstinate Congress. My critique lies instead with the President’s deceptive work against a more progressive bill – while politicians don’t always control policy outcomes, they do control their actions. As another example, college applicants should not judge their success on whether or not colleges accept them. They should evaluate themselves on what they control – the work they put into high school and their applications. Likewise, great football coaches recognize that they should judge their teams not on their won-loss records, but on each player’s successful execution of assigned responsibilities. Smart decisions and strong performance do not always beget good results; the more factors in-between our actions and the desired outcome, the less predictive power the outcome can give us.

Most education reformers and policymakers, unfortunately, still fail to recognize this basic tenet of probabilistic reasoning, a fact underscored in recent conversations between Jack Schneider (a current professor and one of the best high school teachers I’ve ever had) and Michelle Rhee. We implement teacher and school accountability metrics that focus heavily on student outcomes without realizing that this approach is invalid. As the American Statistical Association’s (ASA’s) recent statement on value-added modeling (VAM) clearly states, “teachers account for about 1% to 14% of the variability in [student] test scores” and “[e]ffects – positive or negative – attributed to a teacher may actually be caused by other factors that are not captured in the model.” Paul Bruno astutely notes that the ASA’s statement is an indictment of the way VAM is used, not the idea of VAM itself, yet little correlation currently exists between VAM results and effective teaching. As I’ve mentioned before, research on both student and teacher incentives suggests that rewards and consequences based on outcomes don’t work. When we use student outcome data to assign credit or blame to educators, we may close good schools, demoralize and dismiss good teachers, and ultimately undermine the likelihood of achieving the student outcomes we want.

Better policy would focus on school and teacher inputs. For example, we should agree on a set of clear and specific best teaching practices (with the caveat that they’d have to be sufficiently flexible to allow for different teaching styles) on which to base teacher evaluations. Similarly, college counselors should provide college applicants with guidance about the components of good applications. Football coaches should likewise focus on their players’ decision-making and execution of blocking, tackling, route-running, and other techniques.

Input Output Graphic

When we evaluate schools on student outcomes, we reward (and punish) them for factors they don’t directly control.  A more intelligent and fair approach would evaluate the actions schools take in pursuit of better student outcomes, not the outcomes themselves.

Outcomes are incredibly important to monitor and consider when selecting effective inputs, of course. Mathematicians use outcomes in a process called Bayesian analysis to constantly update our assessments of whether or not our strategies are working. If we observe little correlation between successful implementation of our identified best teaching practices and student growth for five consecutive years, for instance, we may want to revisit our definition of best practices. A college counselor whose top students are consistently rejected from Ivy League schools should begin to reconsider the advice he gives his students on their applications. Relatedly, if a football team suffers through losing season after losing season despite players’ successful completion of their assigned responsibilities, the team should probably overhaul its strategy.

The current use of student outcome data to make high-stakes decisions in education, however, flies in the face of these principles. Until we shift our measures of school and teacher performance from student outputs to school and teacher inputs, we will unfortunately continue to make bad policy decisions that simultaneously alienate educators and undermine the very outcomes we are trying to achieve.

Update: A version of this piece appeared in Valerie Strauss’s column in The Washington Post on Sunday, May 25.

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Teachers Unions: What We Do and How Students Benefit

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) recognized the Northwestern University football team’s right to unionize in February and the players just held a unionization vote. Quarterback Kain Colter began the program’s union movement primarily to address player safety, but supporters of the team’s efforts believe unionization will improve college athletes’ experiences across the board. Northwestern management, however, opposes granting a collective voice to their underlings; the university tried to convince players not to unionize and has appealed the NLRB’s ruling. The NCAA, meanwhile, has begun a fear-mongering campaign to obfuscate the plethora of issues with the way it conducts business, issues that a union can help the players address.

If that story sounds familiar, it’s because the NCAA’s behavior in this case resembles that of wealthy interests in most other industries. Misinformation about union purpose and impact abounds in education especially; prominent education reformers have successfully hoodwinked large swaths of the intelligent public into believing that teachers unions undermine student interests. I am often taken aback by the inaccurate, negative comments about teachers unions I still hear from otherwise well-meaning members of charter school networks, education advocacy groups, and Teach For America (TFA).

I am encouraged, however, by the initial efforts taken by TFA and Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE) staff in the Bay Area to debunk member misconceptions about teachers unions. A few weeks ago, LEE invited me to speak to a group of current corps members, alumni, and LEE and TFA staff at an event called “Unions Matter.” During the event, I described the difference between social justice unionism and industrial unionism and laid out five important roles that unions play:

1) The traditional union role – Most people are familiar with this category of union activity; it covers salary, benefits, working conditions, and grievances. Anti-labor interests often denigrate teachers unions that focus on this “industrial” role, arguing that it has little to do with student interests, but they’re wrong for three primary reasons. First, there’s an extremely high correlation between good working conditions for teachers and good learning conditions for students. Unions that advocate for adequate classroom resources, a sustainable work day, and functioning air conditioning systems do so as much for their students as for their members. Second, the families of many students in low-income communities benefit significantly from the strength of the organized labor movement. The ability of unions to collectively bargain for fair wages and benefits is essential for the well-being of low-wage workers who are frequently exploited by their employers. Third, people mimic what we do more than what we say. If we want teachers to inspire their students to take collective action and advocate for themselves, district leadership needs to model that approach with teachers.

2) Collective voice – Unions provide a forum for educators to band together, prioritize action items, and communicate with management about those items. For example, the San Jose Teachers Association (SJTA) has helped teachers identify professional development and resource needs during the rollout of the Common Core State Standards, and San Jose Unified School District (SJUSD) has worked hard to respond to teachers’ collectively expressed requests. When district leadership unintentionally overlooks the impact initiatives have on students’ classroom experience, union members can use their collective voice and collaborate with administration to quickly resolve problems. Unions also foster a sense of community among members, connecting teachers across the district and thus building school and district culture.

3) Community and family outreach – SJTA helps coordinate teachers during Read Across America, sponsors little league baseball teams, works with parents from community service organizations like Sacred Heart, partners with Vision to Learn to bring eye doctors and prescription eye glasses to students who might not otherwise have them, and awards scholarships to aspiring teachers in our high schools. Unions can, should, and often do engage parents and advocate for students and public education at community events.

4) Political advocacy – School boards, other elected officials, and ballot initiatives matter significantly for students, and unions work hard to elect candidates and pass propositions that will positively impact kids’ lives. Without the efforts of the California Teachers Association and local California teachers associations in 2012, Proposition 30 would likely have failed, an outcome that would have resulted in a significantly shorter school year, increased class sizes, layoffs, a reduction in extracurricular programs, and/or a reduction in elective offerings in most California schools. SJTA also helped put two excellent SJUSD school board members in office in 2012. In addition to education-specific issues, teachers unions can advocate for a broader set of social justice policies that make a difference in our students’ lives; that purpose explains why SJTA joined the South Bay Labor Council in supporting San Jose’s minimum wage increase in 2012 and why we consider endorsements for the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors and the San Jose City Council.

5) Education reform – Though typical uses of the phrase “ed reform” conjure anti-labor images, teachers unions can and often do drive smart, ethical modifications to education policy that improve opportunities for teacher satisfaction and student learning. SJTA and SJUSD recently co-developed a new teacher evaluation system (see Article 16000 of our contract) that, though not yet fully implemented, uses multiple measures of effectiveness to help teachers of all skill levels grow professionally, requires multiple evaluators for both formal and informal observations, and grants joint control of the process to teachers and administrators. We are hoping California will grant our request to either shorten or lengthen permanent status timelines when doing so is in the joint interests of students, teachers, and the school. Our contract also allows for new teacher leadership pathways (although we currently lack the funding necessary to implement our Model Teacher and Master Teacher Leader positions). We co-developed several other teacher-empowering, student-centered policy decisions with our school district and other unions can and often try to do so as well.

The current and former teachers I talked to at the LEE event were, as most teachers I encounter from both TFA and other programs are, thoughtful, intelligent, and passionate about improving the lives of low-income kids. They astutely noted that they don’t see all of these roles pursued by their unions all the time and wondered how SJTA became so proactive. Their question is a great one, and while I haven’t been involved in SJTA long enough to see the process unfold firsthand, I believe I can lend some insight.

Throughout history, labor-management relationships have typically involved some combination of management withholding information, misappropriating money, imposing unreasonable working conditions, and lying to the media about the effects of negotiations and employee objectives (the NCAA is currently engaged in all of this behavior in its attempt to prevent the Northwestern football team’s attempt to unionize). It’s important to note that, anytime one perceives intransigence from a teachers union, that intransigence is typically in response to irresponsible and/or unethical behavior from the school district. The district and union have a joint obligation to behave responsibly, but unions are the less powerful entity in the union-district relationship and the onus is therefore more on districts to create the conditions – transparency, openness to union ideas, respect for union membership, and a willingness to work together – under which a union can adopt the social justice approach described above. SJTA can function as we do in large part because SJUSD has demonstrated its commitment to honest, collaborative negotiations and messaging. Most seemingly obstinate union positions, on the other hand, arise in response to corrupt and/or incompetent management decision-making processes.

That said, unions must also work proactively to define themselves as social justice organizations. I believe establishing a positive mission statement (SJTA’s is to “empower teachers to educate, inspire, and change lives through public education”) can go a long way. We should try to develop contract structures, like salary formulas (see Appendix A of our contract), that enable us to spend a smaller percentage of collective bargaining time on salary and benefits. We must also consider innovative ideas that have a compelling rationale and research base behind them.

It’s important to remember that members of teachers unions work directly with students every day – we are students’ most credible advocates. We care deeply about educational equity and the learning that takes place in our classrooms. Education reformers who are likewise passionate about helping students succeed will therefore stop bashing unions and start working with us to develop the intelligent, ethical policies that can benefit students most.

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Student Advocates Oppose Both Bad Teaching and Bad Lawsuit

Note: A version of this piece originally appeared in Valerie Strauss’s column in The Washington Post.

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Bad-Teacher-2011-bad-teacher-23846153-1800-1027

Vergara v. California, a lawsuit challenging three components of teacher employment law in California’s Ed Code that began on January 27, has garnered considerable media attention.  The plaintiffs’ legal team contends that due process rights for teachers, a cumbersome teacher dismissal process, and seniority-based layoffs violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  They argue that, as a result of teacher employment policies, poor and minority students learn from a disproportionately large number of “grossly ineffective” teachers.  These ineffective teachers ostensibly cause education’s observed “opportunity gap” between low-income, predominantly minority students and their higher-income, mostly-white peers.

Despite the plaintiffs’ claims, this lawsuit unfortunately does not address the needs of low-income students.  First, the anti-union and anti-social welfare backgrounds of the people behind Vergara v. California both suggest the lawsuit is primarily intended to dismantle labor laws.  Second, ethics and empirical research suggest a focus on teacher evaluation and support has more potential to improve instruction and benefit students than a focus on dismissal.  Third, while the challenged statutes should be improved, they offer important protections for both students and teachers, protections that more responsible reforms can preserve.

Most arguments against teacher employment laws either make faulty assumptions or severely mischaracterize the laws’ impact.  Yet Vergara proponents have been especially successful at conflating teacher employment law with the existence of horrible teachers when the existence of horrible teachers has no relevance to this case.

California Ed Code provides the following procedure for the immediate suspension and quick dismissal of any teacher exhibiting egregious behavior:

44939.  Upon the filing of written charges…charging a permanent employee of the district with immoral conduct, conviction of a felony or of any crime involving moral turpitude, with incompetency due to mental disability, [or] with willful refusal to perform regular assignments without reasonable cause…the governing board may…immediately suspend the employee from his duties and give notice to him of his suspension, and that 30 days after service of the notice, he will be dismissed, unless he demands a hearing.    If the permanent employee is suspended…he may within 10 days after service upon him of notice of such suspension file with the governing board a verified denial, in writing, of the charges. In such event the permanent employee who demands a hearing within the 30-day period shall continue to be paid his regular salary during the period of suspension and until the entry of the decision of the Commission on Professional Competence, if and during such time as he furnishes to the school district a suitable bond, or other security acceptable to the governing board, as a guarantee that the employee will repay to the school district the amount of salary so paid to him during the period of suspension in case the decision of the Commission on Professional Competence is that he shall be dismissed. If it is determined that the employee may not be dismissed, the school board shall reimburse the employee for the cost of the bond.

Beatriz Vergara, one of the students after whom Vergara v. California is named, testified that one of her 7th grade teachers made racist remarks about Latino students and that another 7th grade teacher routinely called female students “stick figure” and “whore.”  Such verbal abuse is deplorable, should constitute unprofessional and “immoral conduct,” and falls within Section 44939 of Ed Code.  Vergara also testified that her 6th grade math teacher slept during class, behavior that is also completely unacceptable, should constitute “willful refusal to perform regular assignments,” and also falls within Section 44939 of Ed Code.  Her testimony, while upsetting, has no relationship with the challenged statutes in this case; competent, knowledgeable administrators could and should have suspended these teachers immediately and then, if the charges were legitimate, had the teachers dismissed.  Neither permanent status nor dismissal law (nor any teachers union) condones verbal abuse, physical abuse, sleeping on the job, or any other form of gross negligence or misconduct.

Teachers who don’t commit misconduct can still be ineffective teachers.  For the plaintiffs to have an Equal Protection case, however, the challenged statutes would need to directly cause more ineffective teaching at low-income schools than high-income schools.

Yet very little evidence, if any, suggests that teacher quality at low-income schools is worse than teacher quality at high-income schools.  Most studies of teacher effectiveness rely on a statistical approach known as value added modeling, an approach that attempts to quantify a teacher’s contribution to student test scores.  Value-added models have serious limitations and are unstable, meaning they have a high margin of error.  For example, a recent study compared teacher value-added scores on two different tests taken by the exact same students and found that only about one-third of the teachers in a given quintile of performance on one value-added measure scored in the same quintile on the other test.  Even if value-added modeling could perfectly indicate teacher effectiveness, the plaintiffs’ own expert witnesses have acknowledged in their research that “the quality of teaching…does not differ substantially across schools.”  Anecdotally, I’ve observed a similar distribution of teacher quality in the low-income schools at which I currently work and the expensive private school I attended for middle and high school.

Even if evidence suggested that teacher quality in low-income schools is worse on average than teacher quality in high-income schools (it doesn’t), permanent status, dismissal, and seniority-based layoff procedures apply equally in schools that serve high-income populations.  While layoffs are probably less likely to occur in California’s basic aid (richer) districts, one could make a much stronger Equal Protection case about the reductions in staffing, resource cutbacks, and furlough days poorer districts experience as a result of budget cuts than one could build about the order in which teachers are laid off.  Permanent status and dismissal laws affect rich and poor communities in exactly the same way.  That it would even be possible for the statutes challenged in Vergara v. California to cause a difference in teacher quality between low- and high-income schools is questionable.

Since proponents of Vergara can’t legitimately tie the challenged statutes to student harm, they resort to equating defense of due process with support of incompetence.  For example, a recent opinion piece in the LA Times notes that a majority of teachers believe at least one colleague with permanent status “should be dismissed for poor performance.”  This fact is irrelevant to the effect of permanent status; ask any group of professionals in a large workplace whether someone at the workplace should be dismissed for poor performance and a high percentage will respond in the affirmative.  Articles like this one argue that permanent status causes poor performance despite a complete lack of evidence in support of this claim.

Teachers who work with poor and minority students every day are often their most credible advocates.  Teachers unions believe deeply that poor and minority students deserve access to an excellent education and abhor teacher misconduct and negligence as much as anyone else.  They also believe students benefit when teachers are treated with respect.  The defendants in Vergara v. California therefore oppose both ineffective teaching and deceptive lawsuits that erroneously link it to due process protections.

Correction (2/24/14): The opinion piece referenced in this post was written by an outside writer and published in the Times, but was originally referred to incorrectly as an editorial.

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Students Matter. Teachers Do, Too.

Imagine reading the following statement on a website:

We think it’s simple: reward…passionate, [successful students] and hold those accountable who are failing… [S]triking down the following laws…will create an opportunity for lawmakers, teachers, administrators and community leaders to design a system that’s good for teachers and students…

  • [Law 1: As long as they have attended school for at least eighteen months, this law gives students accused of wrongdoing the opportunity to hear what they did wrong and try to correct their behavior before being expelled. It] forces [teachers and] administrators to…grant [due process rights to students facing an expulsion]…before [teachers and] administrators are able to assess whether a [student] will be [successful] long-term.

  • [Law 2: Though this law allows districts to quickly expel students who commit serious offenses, it requires districts and schools to prove that other expulsions are warranted]. The process for [expelling] a single [unsuccessful student] involves a borderline infinite number of steps, requires years of documentation…and still, rarely ever works. In the past…year…in the entire state of California, only [8,562 students] have been [expelled], and the vast majority of those [expulsions] were for egregious conduct.

  • [Law 3: This law dictates the order in which schools facing economic pressure should expel students.  The] law forces [teachers] to [expel successful students] and keep [unsuccessful students] instead, just because they [are older].

The arguments for striking down these laws would disgust most of us.  Shouldn’t we assume all students want to learn and avoid expelling them if at all possible?  Law 1 doesn’t go far enough – students should have due process rights preventing unwarranted expulsion from the first time they set foot in a school, as it is our duty to provide them with a public education.  Likewise, it is perfectly reasonable for the student expulsion process in Law 2 to require well-documented proof of the reason for expulsion.  Expulsion should always be a last resort, and the burden of proof for an expulsion should fall not on the student, but on the teacher and school.  Finally, while Law 3 is ridiculous, the premise of the complaint with Law 3 misses the point entirely: isn’t the real problem with the law the idea that we would expel students for economic reasons?  Shouldn’t we only ever expel students if they create an unsafe learning environment for other students on campus?

Most of us would conclude not only that the people who wrote the arguments above had no compassion, but that they also did not believe in educational equity.  If they believed in educational equity, they would focus on supporting unsuccessful students instead of expelling them.  If they believed in educational equity, they would ask how the adults in charge could help unsuccessful students improve their performance.  If they believed in educational equity, they would divert their energy away from expelling a small minority of students and towards creating systems that address the needs of most children.  There is a small element of truth to what they say – the expulsion process described in Law 2 seems unnecessarily cumbersome, and in the terrible situation in which factors out of our control would force us to expel certain students, using age as our expulsion criterion seems like a stupid approach.  But the overarching paradigm of this critique runs counter both to our values and a logical analysis of the stated goal (“design a system that’s good for teachers and students”).

Though recent movements have increased the documentation required of a school wishing to expel a student for a nonviolent offense, the process described in Law 2 is exaggerated.  Law 3 doesn’t actually exist, and we fortunately have a better law than Law 1 (all students facing expulsion have due process rights no matter how long they’ve been in school).  An examination of these arguments is still instructive, however, because the opinions they reflect aren’t entirely hypothetical – they’re just marshaled against teachers rather than students.  Much of the text above comes directly from the website of Students Matter, the organization behind Vergara v. California.  Here’s the original:

We think it’s simple: reward and retain passionate, motivating, effective teachers and hold those accountable who are failing our children. By striking down the following laws, Vergara v. California will create an opportunity for lawmakers, teachers, administrators and community leaders to design a system that’s good for teachers and students. Because when it comes to educating our kids, there should only be winners.

  • Permanent Employment Statute: The permanent employment law forces administrators to either grant or deny permanent employment to teachers after only 18 months—before new teachers even complete their beginner teacher programs and before administrators are able to assess whether a teacher will be effective long-term.

  • Dismissal Statutes: The process for dismissing a single ineffective teacher involves a borderline infinite number of steps, requires years of documentation, costs hundreds of thousands of dollars and still, rarely ever works. In the past 10 years in the entire state of California, only 91 teachers have been dismissed, and the vast majority of those dismissals were for egregious conduct. Only 19 dismissals were based, in whole or in part, on unsatisfactory performance.

  • “Last-In, First-Out” Layoff Statute: The LIFO law reduces teachers to faceless seniority numbers. The LIFO law forces administrators to let go of passionate and motivating newer teachers and keep ineffective teachers instead, just because they have seniority.

I discussed the plethora of problems with this lawsuit in my last post, not the least of which are the inaccurate characterizations of the laws above and the plaintiffs’ clear anti-labor agenda.  Equally troubling to me, however, is the discrepancy between our vision for the classroom and the Students Matter vision for the world in which the classroom resides. Teachers and students are different – we should be more patient with kids than with adults – but they aren’t different enough to warrant such a drastic discrepancy in how we treat them.  An intense focus on teacher employment law is as unethical and unlikely to improve overall student outcomes as an intense focus on removing poorly behaved students from their classrooms.

We expect teachers to concentrate on classroom structures that support their students.  We recognize that student test scores do not necessarily reflect intelligence or effort, that poor performance on academic assessments may reflect a lack of investment in tests, a poorly designed assessment, pure chance, inadequate instruction, and/or life circumstances outside of a student’s control.  When a student is clearly underperforming or negatively impacts other students with disruptive behaviors, we assume the best about the student.  We assume the student wants to learn and behave appropriately, but that the student may lack the skills necessary to do so.  We do everything in our power to keep that student in our classroom, continuously trying new approaches to help the student improve his or her behavior and academic performance.  We still implement systems to deal with the situation when students, despite all the support they have received, continue to disrupt their peers’ learning.  When we take disciplinary action against these students, however, we stipulate that the teacher and school prove that alternative, supportive measures failed to achieve the desired results and that the disciplinary action is warranted.  We then redouble our efforts to design better student support structures that can help us avoid future expulsions.

We should adopt a similar paradigm when we consider education reform.  We should expect policies, districts, and administrators to concentrate on supporting teachers.  We should recognize that student test score data does not necessarily reflect quality of teaching or effort, that low value-added scores may reflect reasonable concerns about “teaching to the test;” assessments that may not measure what they’re supposed to and that have questionable longitudinal validity; pure chance; inadequate teacher training, evaluation, and support; and/or external factors outside of a teacher’s control.  When a teacher is clearly struggling to meet student needs, we should assume the best about the teacher.  We should assume the teacher wants to teach effectively, but that the teacher may lack the skills necessary to do so.  Especially because teacher turnover is bad for students, we should do everything in our power to help the teacher improve and keep the teacher at our school.  We must still implement systems to deal with the situation when teachers, despite all the support they have received, remain ineffective.  When we take disciplinary action against these teachers, however, we should stipulate that the district and school administration prove that alternative, supportive measures failed to achieve the desired results and that the disciplinary action is warranted.  We should then redouble our efforts to design better teacher support structures that can help us avoid future dismissals.

Students Matter and supporters of their frivolous lawsuit betrayed their true agenda, which has nothing to do with educational equity, when they took the opposite approach in Vergara v. California – they ignore support and focus their efforts primarily on dismissal.  We wouldn’t accept that approach from teachers and we shouldn’t accept it from the ed reform movement.

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Vergara v. California: The Agendas, the Facts, and Recommendations for California Law

Ted Boutros believes corporations that destroy lives with reckless policies should suffer minimal financial penalties in court.  Boutros’s partner, Marcellus McRae, proudly defends white-collar criminals.  Eli Broad pretended to support Proposition 30, a ballot initiative designed to prevent massive cuts to public education, while secretly funding the No on 30 movement.  All three of these individuals and the rest of their well-funded legal team, however, hope their deployment of nine California students as the listed plaintiffs in Vergara v. California will convince a judge that they care about the plight of low-income children.  Their narrative self-serving and convenient, they argue that the massive income inequality they actively exacerbate has nothing to do with the achievement gap, that it is instead “grossly ineffective teachers” who ruin poor kids’ lives.

The original complaint in Vergara, filed on May 14, 2012, contains a number of factual errors.  As one example, the plaintiffs contend that “schools that serve predominantly minority and economically disadvantaged populations…have a disproportionate share of grossly ineffective teachers” when their own expert for the trial, Raj Chetty, has acknowledged since that “the quality of teaching…does not differ substantially across schools.”  In addition, the research summaries and numbers the complaint presents are rife with the type of statistical misinterpretation and manipulation I’ve discussed previously.  Unfortunately, far too many people who care about low-income students have fallen for the plaintiffs’ inaccurate narrative and support their efforts in Vergara.

The case challenges three aspects of teacher employment law in California’s Ed Code: permanent status (commonly referred to as tenure), the teacher dismissal process, and seniority-based layoffs (commonly referred to as LIFO, which stands for “last in, first out”).  Elements of all these laws need improvement, but education “reformers” have frequently misled the public about their purpose and propose changes unlikely to improve teacher quality.  An analysis of each policy, the rationale behind it, and a more sensible revision proposal reveal that the agenda in this case is more about dismantling employee workplace protections than it is about improving the lives of low-income students.

Permanent Status (Tenure)

Current Law: Teachers begin their employment with a school district with probationary status.  The school district must decide, by March 15 of a teacher’s second school year, whether or not to grant the employee permanent status.  Before that point the district may non-reelect (fire) a probationary teacher without having to provide a specific reason.  “Permanent status” is actually a misnomer because teachers with permanent status aren’t permanently guaranteed a job; teachers who have been granted permanent status are only afforded due process rights when an administrator deems them unfit to teach.  Teachers with permanent status may be dismissed (fired) if they are unwilling or unable to address an administrator’s stated concerns.

Current Law’s Rationale: Tenure was originally established at the university level to ensure academic freedom – granting academics tenure enabled them to pursue research without fear of political retribution from major donors.  California’s permanent status statute was likewise adopted to safeguard teachers from arbitrary firings.  California Teachers Association (CTA) members, over the course of the organization’s history, have fallen victim to dismissals based on nepotism, political patronage, political bias, racism, sexism, personal vendettas, a desire to replace higher-salaried teachers with lower-salaried replacements, and other capricious reasons unrelated to a teacher’s ability to effectively educate students.  Teachers with permanent status can advocate for the interests of their students and teach potentially controversial topics like evolution without fear of retribution from school or district administration or parents.  Since principal turnover is also fairly common, permanent status can prevent a short-term administrator from drastically overhauling a staff, an important protection for students given the negative impact teacher turnover has on student outcomes.

How to Improve the Law: As the plaintiffs’ note, probationary teachers can sometimes secure permanent status after “a cursory performance evaluation, or sometimes none at all.”  That statement, however, is an indictment not of permanent status, but of both teacher evaluation practices and administrator incompetence.  Instead of ending permanent status, California should adopt the type of comprehensive teacher evaluation system, supported by teachers unions, that provides meaningful feedback to teachers, helps support ineffective teachers in addressing growth areas, and trains administrators on how to give productive feedback.  The legislature should then consider changing the timelines for permanent status.  When a district remains on the fence about a probationary teacher after two years, the district should be allowed to extend the probationary period an extra year.  And if a probationary teacher has a well-documented, amazing first year, that teacher should have the opportunity to earn permanent status early.

The Dismissal Process

Current Law: If a school district deems a teacher ineffective, the district must provide the employee with “written notice of the unsatisfactory performance [and 90 days] to correct his or her faults.”  Should the employee’s performance remain unsatisfactory following these 90 days, the school district must give the employee notice of its intent to dismiss the employee.  The employee may then request a hearing with the school board and, if desired afterwards, a subsequent hearing before a Commission on Professional Competence.  The Commission’s decision may be appealed to higher courts.

Current Law’s Rationale: The requirement that school districts provide employees with the opportunity to improve performance before potential hearings extends the 14th Amendment’s due process requirements.  But when someone is accused of doing something wrong, especially someone who has received at least two years of satisfactory evaluations from the same employer, that person should have the opportunity to hear the accusation, address it, and have a neutral party evaluate the accusation’s legitimacy.

How to Improve the Law: Incompetent and/or poorly-intentioned professionals exist in every profession and teaching is no exception.  All self-respecting teachers and unions believe colleagues who sleep during class or otherwise ignore students should be dismissed.  The plaintiffs surprisingly acknowledge, though, that these situations are anomalous: “the majority of teachers in California are providing students with a quality education” and even “grossly ineffective teachers [are often] well-intentioned.”  Not only is it unethical to fire well-intentioned people without giving them the opportunity to improve, teacher turnover, as mentioned above, is bad for students.  The focus of reform efforts, therefore, should be on teacher support initiatives like instructional coaching first and dismissal processes second.

That said, the dismissal process takes far too long and involves a plethora of potential appeals that can prove costly for both unions and districts.  To streamline dismissal of a teacher unable or unwilling to improve after provided with ample support, the evidence of both the teacher’s unsatisfactory performance and the support provided to help the teacher improve could be presented directly to a state oversight panel, similar to the current Commission on Professional Competence, consisting of three teachers and three administrators.  For the dismissal to move forward, a majority of both the teacher and administrator members of the panel would need to approve it.  The panel’s decision would not be subject to appeal.  Such a system would preserve due process, maintain the employer’s responsibility to help support struggling veteran employees, and reduce the timeline and cost of dismissing truly ineffective teachers.

Seniority-Based Layoffs (LIFO)

Current Law: When a district faces budget cuts and decides to reduce the number of teachers as a result, it is bound by the following section of Ed Code:

[The] services of no permanent employee may be terminated…while any…other employee with less seniority…is retained…[However,] a school district may deviate from terminating a certificated employee in order of seniority [if the] district demonstrates a specific need for personnel to teach a specific course or course of study…or to provide services [for which a] certificated employee has special training and experience…which others with more seniority do not possess.

Current Law’s Rationale: Though the exception for cases in which the district “demonstrates a specific need” is notable, the main benefits to seniority-based layoffs are the predictability and stability they provide for both employees and students.  While teacher experience correlates to some degree with effectiveness, this policy is the least sensible of those challenged in Vergara v. California.

How to Improve the Law: Most new teacher evaluation systems currently rely on unreliable and invalid student test score data and are thus inaccurate indicators of teacher effectiveness.  While seniority also fails to capture teacher effectiveness accurately, we should not replace one faulty system with another.  Instead, legislators should develop budget mechanisms that prevent teacher layoffs.  At the same time, legislators should implement the type of comprehensive, thorough teacher evaluation system discussed above and apply it when layoffs are inevitable.

The beginning of the first sentence regarding the dismissal statute in the plaintiffs’ original complaint reveals the true motive behind their opposition to these policies: “Unlike employees of private companies, public employees in California must be afforded certain due process rights.”  Since the large corporations represented by Boutros’s and McRae’s firm frequently underpay workers and illegally fire employees, these corporations view due process and other worker protections anywhere as a threat to exorbitant corporate profits everywhere.  They hope their ostensible compassion for students (some of whom were likely recruited by cold-calling TFA corps members; a 2010 TFA alum and friend of mine was called to see if he could recommend any students for the lawsuit) will provide cover for their overt attempt to undermine organized labor.

Opening arguments in the 20-day Vergara v. California trial began in downtown Los Angeles on Monday, January 27.  The plaintiffs have asked the court to act in the best interests of low-income students; Judge Rolf Treu should do so by rejecting the plaintiffs’ deceptive arguments and ruling in favor of the state of California.  Legislators should then work with teachers unions to enact evidence-based reforms that empower teachers to continue to hone their craft and improve their students’ lives.

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Approaching Education Data the Nate Silver Way

My girlfriend’s very hospitable and generous family gave me some great gifts for the holidays when I stayed with them in upstate New York.  As I rocked my new Teach For America T-shirt in the Rochester airport on Christmas Eve, my cursory overview of Nate Silver’s new book, The Signal and the Noise, inspired me to write this post.

While most people probably know Silver for his election predictions and designation in 2009 as one of the world’s 100 Most Influential People, Silver has been my baseball stat guru for considerably longer than he’s been doing political analysis.  In one of my favorite books of all time, Baseball Between the Numbers, Silver penned a brilliant examination of clutch hitting that I still quote at least four or five times a year.  I have generally found Silver’s arguments compelling not just because of his statistical brilliance, but also because of his high standards for data collection and analysis, evident in the following passage from the introduction of his book:

The numbers have no way of speaking for themselves.  We speak for them.  We imbue them with meaning…[W]e may construe them in self-serving ways that are detached from their objective reality…Before we demand more of our data, we need to demand more of ourselves.

In few fields are Silver’s words as relevant as education.  While the phrase “data-driven” has become ubiquitous in discussions of school reform and high-quality instruction, most people discussing education have very little understanding of what the statistics actually say.  As I’ve written before, many studies that reformers reference to push their policy agendas are methodologically unsound, and many more have findings very different than the summaries that make it into the news.

It’s hard to know how many reformers just don’t understand statistics, how many fall victim to confirmation bias, and how many intentionally mislead people.  But no matter the reason for their errors, those of us who care about student outcomes have a responsibility to identify statistical misinterpretation and manipulation and correct it.  Policy changes based on bad data and shoddy analyses won’t help (and will quite possibly harm) low-income students.

Fortunately, I believe one simple practice can help us identify truth in education research: read the full text of education research articles.

Yes, reading the full text of academic research papers can be time consuming and mind-numbingly dull at times, but reading articles’ full text is vitally important if you want to understand research findings.  Sound bites on education studies rarely provide accurate information.  In a Facebook comment following my most recent post about TFA, a former classmate of mine referenced a 2011 study by Raj Chetty to argue that we can’t blame the achievement gap on poverty.  “If you leave a low value-added teacher in your school for 10 years, rather than replacing him with an average teacher, you are hypothetically talking about $2.5 million in lost income,” claims one of the co-authors of the study in a New York Times article.  Sounds impressive.  Look under the hood, however, and we find that, even assuming the study’s methodology is foolproof (it isn’t), the actual evidence can at best show an average difference of $182 in the annual salaries of 28-year-olds.

As I’ve mentioned before, there’s also a poor statistical basis for linking student results on standardized test scores to teacher evaluation systems.  Otherwise useful results can give readers the wrong impression when they gloss over or omit this fact, a point underscored by a recent article describing an analysis of IMPACT (the D.C. Public Schools teacher evaluation system).  The full text of the study provides strong evidence that the success of D.C.’s system thus far has been achieved despite a lack of variation in standardized test score results among teachers in different effectiveness categories.  Instead, the successes of the D.C. evaluation system are driven by programs teachers unions frequently support, programs like robust and meaningful classroom observations that more accurately measure teacher effectiveness.

Policymakers have misled the public with PISA data as well.  In a recent interview with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, Michelle Rhee made the oft-repeated claim that U.S. schools are failing because American students, in aggregate, score lower on international tests than their peers in other countries.  Yet, as Hayes pointed out, it is abundantly clear from a more thorough analysis that poverty explains the PISA results much better than school quality, not least because poor US students have been doing better on international tests than poor students elsewhere for several years.

I would, in general, recommend skepticism when reading articles on education, but I’d recommend skepticism in particular when someone offers a statistic suggesting that school-related changes can solve the achievement gap.  Education research’s only clear conclusion right now is that poverty explains the majority of student outcomes.  The full text of Chetty’s most recent study defending value-added models acknowledges that “differences in teacher quality are not the primary reason that high SES students currently do much better than their low SES peers” and that “differences in [kinder through eighth grade] teacher quality account for only…7% of the test score differences” between low- and high-income schools.  In fact, that more recent study performs a hypothetical experiment in which the lowest-performing low-income students receive the “best” teachers and the highest-performing affluent students receive the “worst” teachers from kinder through eighth grade and concludes that the affluent students would still outperform the poor students on average (albeit by a much smaller margin).  Hayes made the same point to Rhee that I made in my last post: because student achievement is influenced significantly more by poverty than by schools, discussions about how to meet our students’ needs must address income inequality in addition to evidence-based school reforms.  We can’t be advocates for poor students and exclude policies that address poverty from our recommendations.

When deciding which school-based recommendations to make, we must remember that writers and policymakers all too often misunderstand education research.  Many reformers selectively highlight decontextualized research that supports their already-formed opinions.  Our students, on the other hand, depend on us to combat misleading claims by doing our due diligence, unveiling erroneous interpretations, and ensuring that sound data and accurate statistical analyses drive decision-making. They rely on us to adopt Nate Silver’s approach to baseball statistics: continuously ask questions, keep an open mind about potential answers, and conduct thorough statistical analyses to better understand reality.  They rely on us to distinguish statistical significance from real-world relevance.  As Silver writes about data in the information age more generally, education research “will produce progress – eventually.  How quickly it does, and whether we regress in the meantime, depends on us.”

Update: Gary Rubinstein and Bruce Baker (thanks for the heads up, Demian Godon) have similar orientations to education research – while we don’t always agree, I appreciate their approach to statistical analysis.

Update 2 (6/8/14): Matthew Di Carlo is an excellent read for anyone interested in thoughtful analysis of educational issues.

Update 3 (7/8/14): The Raj Chetty study linked above seems to have been modified – the pieces I quoted have disappeared.  Not sure when that happened, or why, but I’d love to hear an explanation from the authors and see a link to the original.

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Working Together for Educational Equity: What’s Missing from the TFA Debate

Teach For America (TFA) articles are all the rage right now.  Over the past month and a half, the four articles linked below have received particular attention:

“I Quit Teach for[sic] America” by Olivia Blanchard (The Atlantic, September 23)

“Remember the ‘I Quit Teach for[sic] America’ essay?  Here’s the counterpoint. ‘I stayed.’” by Maureen Downey and Tre Tennyson (The Atlanta-Journal Constitution, October 3)

“Why I Stopped Writing Recommendation Letters for Teach for[sic] America” by Catherine Michna (Slate, October 9)

“I Almost Quit Teach for[sic] America” by Eleanor Barkhorn (The Atlantic, October 14)

Though I generally hesitate to suggest that truth lies somewhere towards the middle of two extremes, the majority of both pro- and anti- TFA articles in this case contain inaccurate claims and arguments that unnecessarily pit people with the same goals against each other.  This post is my attempt to debunk the inaccuracies presented in these articles and identify the true benefits and drawbacks of TFA.  I also hope to identify how TFA and opponents of TFA can find common ground in their work for educational equity.

Before I make those arguments, a little bit about my educational background: I attended a traditional public school in a working class, mostly white neighborhood in southern New Jersey from first grade through sixth grade.  From seventh grade to twelfth grade, my parents sent me to Moorestown Friends School (MFS), a high-performing private Quaker school twenty-five minutes from my house.  I moved across the country to attend Stanford University for college and joined TFA right afterwards. San Jose Unified School District (SJUSD) paid TFA a few thousand dollars to hire me to teach at San Jose Community Day School (SJCDS), a school for students expelled from other schools for drug, weapon, violent, or other behavioral offenses.  I taught at SJCDS for three years, the second year of which I served as my school’s Site Representative for the San Jose Teachers Association (SJTA), the union that represents around 1,700 professional educators in SJUSD.  In my third year at SJCDS, I was appointed to the SJTA Executive Board.  I still serve as the SJTA Outreach Director in my new role as an instructional coach in SJUSD and also run professional development sessions for first and second year TFA corps members in San Jose.  I feel connected to both SJTA and TFA, though I tend to hear more compelling arguments from my colleagues at SJTA than I hear from the TFA staff members I know.  I hope you find this context valuable as I address the claims either directly made or implied in the above articles by answering the questions below:

Are TFA teachers prepared for their teaching assignments?

The short answer to this question is no.  As both Blanchard’s and Barkhorn’s articles note, TFA’s summer Institute, besides being short and often unrelated to a teacher’s upcoming teaching assignment, focuses far too much on theory and vision and far too little on tangible skills.  However, criticisms of TFA along these lines are, as another alum puts it, “a moot point” – nobody does a particularly good job preparing first-year teachers for assignments in low-income neighborhoods.  As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, nearly all the evidence suggests that there is very little, if any, difference, on average, between the standardized test results of students who have had TFA teachers and students who have had teachers with different backgrounds.  One of my friends, fellow 2010 TFA alum Connor O’Steen, summarized the problem with the “lack of preparation” critique in response to that post on Facebook:

…[W]hat does it mean when (at least) two years and 40-50,000 dollars of ed school has you performing ever so slightly worse on average than someone who’s done a six week crash course over a summer? Certainly you’d expect ed school–this long and formal educational experience which usually culminates in a Master’s degree–to add more value, more human capital? I think a lot of the criticism of TFA comes from stakeholders in the traditional ed pipeline who are made genuinely uncomfortable by the fact that all the training and apprenticeships seem to put people solely on par with beginning TFA corps members. Granted, there are more ways to measure achievement than standardized tests, but I don’t think many people would see percentile scores this low and think there’s *not* a problem here.

While I know several teachers (both within and outside of TFA) who believe their training contributed value to their teaching, I know many more, from a variety of preparation programs, who believe their training was practically useless.  Studies suggest corps members and other teachers have similar attitudes about their preparation and there’s no escaping the fact that there’s no well-established statistical correlation between time spent in a teacher preparation program and teacher effectiveness.  I proposed three possible explanations for this fact in my response to Connor’s post:

1. TFA and traditional teacher education systems are similarly ineffective at preparing teachers for placements in low-income schools.
2. TFA is less effective than traditional teacher education systems at training teachers but recruits better “talent” on average than those programs. One of the more interesting findings from the Mathematica study was the lack of correlation between a teacher’s undergraduate background and student achievement. But Dana Goldstein has an alternate theory (http://www.danagoldstein.net/…) that work ethic, a strong orientation to a mission, and intense focus on data and testing all explain the results.
3. TFA is more effective than traditional teacher education systems at training teachers but traditional teacher education systems recruit better “talent” than TFA. There are few people who make this argument.

Whichever of the above three options is most accurate, it’s hard to indict TFA for putting poorly prepared teachers in schools unless you indict every single teacher preparation program for the same fault.  I actually believe both traditional teacher preparation programs and TFA’s program (which is very similar in content to traditional programs) could improve significantly, but my point is that this critique is not valid when used to compare TFA to other programs (the only exception to this rule may be special education.  As one member of the SJTA Board pointed out to me, TFA teachers typically lack the legal knowledge necessary to succeed as special educators.  While two of the best special education teachers I know in SJUSD are TFA alums who have remained in the classroom well after their TFA commitment expired, I think that argument is valid).

Does the relatively short two-year commitment negatively impact students?

Most studies suggest that common sense is correct and teacher turnover is bad for students.  Though TFA placement regions have high turnover rates for first and second year teachers in general, attrition rates for TFA corps members are in the same ballpark during those two years and are significantly greater in subsequent years.  I personally believe TFA should not recommend corps members for positions for which there are other qualified candidates more likely to remain in education long-term.  In SJUSD, for example, TFA has placed a number of corps members at schools that are relatively low-poverty and easy-to-staff, which seems antithetical to the TFA mission.

At the same time, and contrary to Michna’s claims, extremely hard-to-staff positions with high turnover rates exist.  Also in SJUSD, which I believe to be one of the best large urban school districts in the country, we still have several open positions and are nearly three months into the school year.  TFA focuses primarily on these hard-to-staff positions and explicitly tries to select people unlikely to quit on commitments (they obviously failed in the case of Blanchard, but I think they’re pretty justified in excoriating her for her decision; TFA asks applicants outright in the final interview if they would quit under any circumstances and I find it hard to believe she answered this question honestly).  TFA in many places effectively addresses teacher shortages.

Do TFA teachers, on average, help level the playing field for children in low-income communities (do TFA teachers close the achievement gap)?

The short answer to this question is also no; as I mentioned above and discussed in an earlier post, TFA teachers seem to guide students to roughly equivalent standardized test results as all other teachers.  Those results are overwhelmingly poor compared to the results for affluent students.

Tennyson states in his article that, in his first year, “100 percent of [his] students passed the ELA exam and 90 percent were proficient or above in reading.  Down the hall, Donna Jenkins, the third corps member at [his] school, led [her] fifth graders to a 95 percent pass rate in math and 97 percent in science.”  These numbers sound great, but there are several possible explanations for them.  While it’s certainly possible that Tennyson and Jenkins were two of the best teachers in America during their first years of teaching and were able to single-handedly change the academic trajectories of their students in one year, I think it’s more likely that these statistics are misleading.  Perhaps their students weren’t all that disadvantaged before fifth grade.  Perhaps some out-of-school factors were contributing to the success of these students.  Perhaps these teacher-designed assessments don’t tell the whole story of student performance.  I’d bet a fair amount of money that Tennyson was at least a pretty good teacher based on what he wrote, but I’d bet even more money that the results he lists have a lot less to do with excellent teaching than he makes it sound.  We’d have to see his tests and get significantly more context and data about his students and classroom to know for sure, but while I’m sure he genuinely believes he can teach kids out of poverty, nearly all the externally verified data we have suggests that’s highly unlikely (again, check out my previous post here for a summary of research findings).  Even if Tennyson and Jenkins did work miracles with their students, they’d be incredibly unique within TFA.  There’s no reason to believe their success would be replicable on a large scale because, if it were, TFA would be teaching their best practices to all new teachers and getting results better than what they’re getting.

Again, none of that is to say TFA teachers (and other teachers, for that matter) can’t make a difference and change students’ lives – they definitely can and I know a number of people who were very good teachers as corps members – but many TFA teachers, like many charter networks, have a tendency to overstate their impact.  In the case of individual teachers, I’m inclined to believe the misleading information they present is unintentional, though I am less predisposed to think that misinformation coming from organizational leadership is so innocuous.

How do TFA’s leadership development, political work and alignment, and brand affect low-income students?

TFA’s mission includes developing leaders who work “to ensure that all children can receive an excellent education” outside of the classroom.  Critics sometimes forget this purpose.  The hope is that even people who join TFA solely to build their resumes will see the obstacles low-income children face during their two-year stints in the corps and will then advocate for those children long after they have left the teaching profession for their careers in law, medicine, or business.  I believe this goal is admirable.  At the same time, however, TFA’s brand often develops leaders and political outcomes that actively harm students in poverty.

Blanchard formulates a pretty accurate summary of the problem.  Pervading TFA is

…the unspoken logic that current, non-TFA teachers and schools are failing at the task of closing the achievement gap, through some combination of apathy or incompetence. Although TFA seminars and presentations never explicitly accuse educators of either, the implication is strong within the program’s very structure: recruit high-achieving college students, train them over the summer, and send them into America’s lowest-performing schools to make things right. The subtext is clear: Only you can fix what others have screwed up.

Her analysis gels with my TFA experience – most people within TFA are hesitant to explicitly blame the achievement gap on bad teachers and schools, but most also perpetuate a negative narrative about public education at least implicitly.  When Blanchard asked a TFA spokesperson about TFA’s views on traditionally trained teachers, she received the response that “[i]f anything, teachers are victims of more structural problems: inequitable funding; inadequate systems of training and supporting teachers; the absence of strong school and district leadership.”  Notice that this response still implies that teachers aren’t doing a very good job; it just blames the problem on inequitable school funding, poor training, and bad leadership instead of laying the proximate culpability at teachers’ feet.  I really like nearly everyone I know on TFA staff, but I have never gotten a single one of them to admit the well-established fact that in-school factors explain, at most, 33% of student achievement.

This mindset – that teachers and schools have nearly total control over student outcomes – has two really problematic implications.  The first implication is that schools that serve low-performing students are bad schools, that some combination of the teachers and leadership at those schools are doing a terrible job that someone else could do significantly better and mass firings and closings are warranted.  The second implication is that we can focus our political energy away from solving poverty directly; if education can fix poverty, as Teach For America suggests, poor children can succeed without a drastic overhaul of society.  School-based reforms are all we need.  The reality, though, is that education cannot solve society’s problems.  Education can make a difference, but the main reasons low-income students perform poorly compared to their affluent peers have nothing to do with school and everything to do with the gamut of obstacles they face from birth.  When you break down school performance in the US by free and reduced-price lunch rate before comparing it to school performance internationally, “low-performing” US schools with high numbers of poor students have higher test scores than schools in countries with similar concentrations of disadvantage.

The best critique of Teach For America, in my opinion, is based on political affiliations and impact.  The organization produces a large number of influential alumni who support the expansion of charter schools, changes to teacher employment law, and making student standardized test scores increasingly more important in teacher and school evaluations.  There is, unfortunately, very little evidence that these reforms help poor students.

Yet a lot of politicians who couldn’t care less about poor kids rally around TFA’s “unspoken logic.”  Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, is a prime example.  Christie uses the cover of an education “reform” agenda – he promotes closing schools, opening more charters, eliminating tenure, and introducing “merit pay” based on student test score data – to hide the fact that tax cuts for the rich are a higher priority for him than poor students eating breakfast or lunch (see this link for a more extensive list of Christie’s cuts to education).  TFA obviously doesn’t support cutting school breakfast money, but the concept that educator and school-related changes are most important for poor students enables people like Christie to further disadvantage low-income kids, bust unions, enrich the wealthy even further, and receive credit for supposedly student-oriented ideas at the same time.

How can TFA, teachers unions, and other proponents of opportunities for low-income children work together for educational equity?

In the end, most people within Teach For America and most other people working in education have very similar goals; to use the words of the San Jose Teachers Association, most of us want to “educate, inspire, and change lives through public education.”  As I recently discussed with my older sister, the biggest shame about the TFA debate is that, while people who care about kids are arguing with each other about teacher and school quality, people like Christie are exacerbating poverty and directly destroying the lives of low-income students.

So what should TFA and people like Michna and Blanchard do differently to better support their stated missions?

First, and most importantly, TFA should acknowledge that the achievement gap is caused by poverty, not by bad teachers and schools.  School-related changes alone can address only some of poverty’s symptoms.   TFA should thus publicly advocate for policies that address poverty, policies like single-payer health care, increased taxes on the wealthy, wraparound services for low-income kids, and more environmentally and socially responsible food standards.  This advocacy will lose TFA money – I highly doubt Arthur Rock and many of Teach For America’s “National Corporate Partners, Sponsors, Supporters, and Investors” will continue to support the organization if TFA begins to promote reducing income inequality – but if TFA is really “students first,” TFA will worry about that funding later and start working now for the change most likely to actually benefit poor students.  Quality teaching matters, but what matters more is the overall environment in which the student grows up and lives.

Second, everyone in education should promote further research on the link between various reform ideas and student outcomes.  Until other reform ideas are supported by strong evidence, however, we should focus on the school-related change everyone agrees about: teacher support.  Though more study and experimentation is needed, research suggests that teachers can benefit greatly from ongoing professional development in the form of one-on-one coaching.  TFA already has a structure for coaching corps members and, when it comes to TFA teachers, believes in development instead of dismissal.  Many traditional school districts, like SJUSD, have coaching models as well for the same purpose.  I believe directing energy and policy focus towards making these systems more effective and aligned with this purpose should be the primary goal of education reform.  Focusing on evidence-based support first and other evidence-based reforms second is both the ethical way to treat the teaching workforce and a way to encourage the development of strong teachers interested in remaining in the profession.

At the same time, educators must consider additional reforms pending future research.  While student test scores, for example, are not yet a valid or reliable indicator of effectiveness, we should continue to study them.  Teachers unions can get behind that idea; unions only oppose linking test scores to teacher evaluations because doing so currently provides an inaccurate picture of a teacher’s effectiveness.  Unions believe in robust evaluation systems that more accurately assess teachers’ contributions.  If empowered by a change in the education narrative and given adequate support, I also believe the vast majority of teachers would buy into respectful, evidence-based discussions about revised layoff procedures and expedited dismissal processes for the small fraction of teachers not doing their jobs.  Those discussions present a problem now mainly because reformers like Michelle Rhee continue to promote unproven reforms and focus on teacher blame and dismissal rather than substantive, constructive criticism and support.

In general, critics of TFA should stop harping on illegitimate complaints about TFA teachers’ lack of preparedness.  A lot of TFA teachers turn out to be very good teachers, even in their first years, and targeting well-intentioned, hardworking, and talented individuals for the problems of the larger organization is counterproductive.  Teachers should also remember that we do make a difference – though we can’t close the achievement gap, we can markedly improve our students’ lives.  And TFA should stop sending the sometimes explicit and frequently implicit message to its corps members and the general public that educational changes alone can fix poverty, since they can’t.

All educational stakeholders should be able to agree that we must continuously improve our schools and practices to better serve our students.  But to truly put our low-income kids first, TFA and other stakeholders must simultaneously band together with teachers unions and advocate for social justice policies that address economic inequality.

Note: Thanks to Jack Schneider, this post was updated to include the most recent data on teacher attitudes about their preparation programs.

Update 2 (2/21/14): The second-to-last paragraph of this piece originally referred to critics of TFA as “the anti-reform crowd.”  This reference has been changed because of a thoughtful comment by Serge Vartanov.

Update 3 (3/2/14): The text above originally included a parenthetical aside that referenced a flawed study on teacher preparation programs.  Thank you to Demian Godon for prompting me to reexamine it.

Update 4 (9/26/15): In reading back through this post, I realized that the text originally said the following:

“When you break down school performance in the US by poverty rate before comparing it to school performance internationally, ‘low-performing’ US schools with high poverty rates do better than schools in every other country with similar rates.”

The link, however, does not break down US schools by the official poverty rate, but by the percent of students who receive free and reduced-price lunch.  I have updated the text to more accurately reflect this fact, though it’s worth noting that the official poverty rate in the US is very low and that the percent of students receiving free and reduced-price lunches is probably a better proxy for disadvantage.

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TFA Effectiveness

Several people have sent me articles discussing Mathematica’s recent research study that examined Teach For America (TFA) math teacher effectiveness.  This study is significant because, to my knowledge, it is the first large-scale study on TFA to randomly assign students to classrooms.  Its experimental design provides fairly convincing support for the idea that TFA teachers’ students perform no worse than the students of non-TFA teachers at TFA placement schools.  But this finding is consistent with the findings of previous research and does not support the assertion that Teach For America teachers can close the achievement gap.

Anyone who continues to argue that TFA teachers yield worse educational outcomes than other teachers (generally citing pretty old research and ignoring the much larger body of research that contradicts that claim) are just plain wrong.  While there are some methodological concerns with recent studies, enough evidence exists for me to state confidently that TFA teachers, on average, do not harm student achievement.  At the same time, TFA and its proponents must also stop using misleading data and insisting that studies like this one prove more than they actually do.  Despite articles’ claims, the new Mathematica research does not suggest that TFA teachers’ students outperform non-TFA teachers’ students in a meaningful way.

The study showed a difference between TFA teachers and all comparison teachers of 7% of one standard deviation.  To put that number in context, a difference of 7% of one standard deviation in home runs between two baseball players in 2012 would be a difference of less than one home run over the course of the entire 162-game season.  Or, if you aren’t a baseball fan, a difference of 7% of one standard deviation between two students on the math section of the SAT in 2012 was equivalent to a difference of less than one correctly answered question.  The authors of the Mathematica study and just about every article quoting the study claim 7% of one standard deviation in this context is equivalent to 2.6 months of learning, using this 2007 research paper as justification, but that number is invalid and based on an inappropriately applied heuristic.  The average student in a non-TFA classroom scored in the 27th percentile on the tests administered while the average student in a TFA classroom scored in the 30th percentile; moving from the 27th percentile on a test to the 30th percentile does not represent, on average, 2.6 months of learning.  Furthermore, 40% of classrooms with TFA teachers scored lower than comparison classrooms taught by non-TFA teachers.  The study’s results were statistically significant, sure, but the advantage they show for TFA teachers is remarkably slight at best.

To me, the most important takeaway from the Mathematica study is that students at TFA placement schools, in general, perform terribly on standardized tests no matter who happens to be teaching them.  The reasons for that fact, as I alluded to in my last post, have a lot less to do with teaching and school quality than reformers would have us believe.  Most teachers, whether from TFA or any other program, want to help kids learn and are working hard towards that end most of the time.  But despite our best efforts, in-school reforms alone do little to impact the achievement gap.  The Mathematica study suggests that educators can only succeed if we simultaneously address economic inequality and other outside-of-school factors that disadvantage low-income students. I’d like to see critics and proponents of TFA alike stop quibbling about marginal improvements on standardized tests and start concentrating on the larger-scale advocacy that can really make a difference.

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