When reformy ideologies clash…

Posted on October 20, 2010

(note: lots of ideas here that I wanted to start writing about… but not yet well organized or articulated. It will come, with time, I hope.)

Summary of Reformy Ideology

Bluntly stated, the two major components of education reform ideology are as follows:

  • Reformy Ideology #1: Teacher quality is the one single factor that has the greatest effect on a child’s life chances. Get a bad teacher or two in a row, and you’re screwed for life. The “best possible” way to measure teacher quality is by estimating the teacher’s influence on student test scores (value-added). Hiring, retention and dismissal decisions must, that is, MUST be based primarily on this information. This information may be supplemented, but value-added must play the dominant single role.
  • Reformy Ideology #2: Charter schools are the answer to most of the problems of poor urban school districts. Take any poor, failing urban school district, close its dreadfully failing schools and replace them as quickly as possible with charter schools and children in the urban core will have greatly expanded high-quality educational opportunities.

Now, let me do a bit of clarification here. These are the representations of reform ideology at the extremes – but these views are not uncommon in the “reform” community. Let me also clarify that item #2 above isn’t about the broader issue of charter schooling, the origins of charter schooling, purposes of individual charter schools or research on the effectiveness of specific charter school models. Item #2 above is specifically about the argument that large urban districts can and should be replaced with an open market of charter schools – that charter schools should not just be used to try out new and interesting ideas which may be replicated in other schools – charter or not – but rather that charters should become dominant providers of urban education.

In my framing of item #1 above, I do not by any means intend to discredit the importance of high quality teachers. I’m with the “reformers” on that idea. But, it is certainly an overstatement to attribute all of student gains and life chances to teacher quality alone. And, as I have discussed previously on many occasions on this blog, it is very problematic to assume that we presently have sufficient tools for measuring precisely and accurately the true effectiveness of any single teacher.

So, this brings me to recent completely unrelated events and media on education reform issues that raise some interesting points of conflict.

Part I: Ideology Clashing with… Ideology

The first example of the clash of reformy ideologies comes from upstate New York as the state begins the process of implementing the “reforms” that got that state Race to the Top funding. In short, charter school operators really don’t seem to want to be compelled to adopt the first prong of reformy ideology. What? Charters don’t want to be compelled to use student test scores as the primary, or even a major basis for personnel decisions? Blasphemy!

In recent weeks, in casual conversations and at symposia, I’ve actually heard a number of charter school operators raise serious questions about being compelled to adopt Reform Ideology #1 above. Charter operators appreciate their autonomy, and while most do enjoy wider latitude over personnel decisions than large urban school districts that serve as their hosts, most do not necessarily base the majority of their hiring, firing and compensation decisions on student test scores and test scores alone. And most don’t seem very interested in being compelled to do so – adopting a one size fits all evaluation model. Apparently, they are also relatively uninterested in disclosing how they evaluate faculty. Here’s a quote from the Albany Times Union.

Carroll, one of the most prominent education reformers in the state, helped write the state’s original charter laws. He said if the charter schools accepted the money, they would lose their current flexibility in the firing and hiring of teachers. He also said charter schools would be forced to disclose their teacher evaluation process, which is now confidential, and that it could become harder to fire an educator deemed ineffective.


So then, if expanding charters is a major component of reform, and making sure teachers are evaluated by student test scores is a major component of reform, how can this apparent clash be reconciled? It can’t! It seems hypocritical at best to force public school districts to play by a seriously flawed set of teacher evaluation rules and then let charters off the hook? This is especially true if one of the supposed benefits of charter schools is to experiment with creative strategies that may be emulated by traditional public schools and if traditional public schools are expected to improve by competing with charters on a level playing field. I’m with the charter leaders on this one.

UPDATE: Tom Carrol has clarified his comments here: http://www.nyfera.org/?p=2827, where he attempts to explain that charters are opposed to the teacher evaluation requirements not because charters oppose the ideas behind using data to evaluate teachers, but that charters oppose having the state education department mandate how that data should be used in evaluations:

SED simply has no authority to set thresholds for the use of data in teacher evaluations in charter schools.  Nor do they have the authority to require us to group teachers by four categories, or require such annual evaluations to be “a significant factor” for “promotion, retention, tenure determination and supplemental compensation.”  Nor do they have the authority to require charters to pursue “the removal of teachers and principals receiving two consecutive annual ratings of ‘ineffective’ after receiving supports from improvement plans.”

Carrol’s clarification coupled with his unsubstantiated claim that charters are already doing these things really doesn’t change my point above – that it remains hypocritical to hoist these deeply problematic policies on traditional public schools while letting charters off the hook on the basis that charters should be given the flexibility to experiment with alternative strategies and should be exempt from full disclosure regarding those strategies.

Part II: Ideology Clashing with Research

Now, this one is really not an obvious major clash, but rather a more subtle clash between ideology and research embedded in Eric Hanushek’s WSJ editorial the other day.  Embedded in the editorial were comments/claims that I found at least a little disingenuous.

The point of Hanushek’s OpEd was to explain that there is no war on teachers, and that this is really about getting teacher’s unions to negotiate for reasonable changes in contracts that would allow for more expeditious dismissal of the worst teachers – the bottom 5% or so. I’ll admit that I really haven’t seen Hanushek himself outright attacking teachers in his work of late, especially in his actual research on teacher labor markets. Much of it is very good and very useful stuff. That said, it’s hard to deny that many major public figures – talking head tweeters and bloggers for think tanks, etc. – have actually engaged in an all out attack on teachers, the teaching profession and teachers unions.

Setting that broader issue aside, Hanushek’s Op Ed rubbed me the wrong way because of examples he chose to advance his argument, and the extent to which his examples in the Op Ed clash – and clash quite significantly – with his own best recent research. Hanushek summarized his arguments about the non-war on teachers as follows:

What’s really going on is different. President Obama states that we can’t tolerate bad teachers in classrooms, and he has promoted rewarding the most effective teachers so they stay in the classroom. The Los Angeles Times published data identifying both effective and ineffective teachers. And “Waiting for ‘Superman'” (in which I provide commentary) highlighted exceptional teachers and pointed out that teachers unions don’t focus enough on teacher quality.

This is not a war on teachers en masse. It is recognition of what every parent knows: Some teachers are exceptional, but a small number are dreadful. And if that is the case, we should think of ways to change the balance.


So, part of his claim is that it was unjustified for teachers unions – not teachers mind you – but their unions to object so loudly when the LA Times merely – in the public interest – revealed data which validly (implied above, by absence of disclaimers) identified, labeled and named effective and ineffective teachers.

Wait… isn’t it Eric Hanushek’s own research and writing that highlights problems with using value-added measurement to evaluate teachers where non-random student assignment occurs (which is pretty much anywhere)? For me, it was my familiarity with his work that led me to explore the biases in the LAT model that I’ve written about previously on this blog.  In that same post, I explain why I am more inclined to accept Jesse Rothstein’s concerns over the problems of non-random assignment of students than to brush those concerns aside based on the findings of Kane and Staiger.  Hanushek provides a compelling explanation for why he too places more weight on Rothstein’s findings.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t it possible that teachers and their union were in an uproar at least partly because the LA Times released highly suspect, potentially error ridden and extremely biased estimates of teacher quality? And that the LA Times misrepresented those estimates to the general public as good, real estimates of actual teacher effectiveness?

Yes, much of Eric Hanushek’s recent writing does advocate for some reasonable use of value-added estimates for determining teacher effectiveness, but he usually does so while giving appropriate attention to the various caveats and while emphasizing that value-added estimates should likely not be a single determining factor. He notes:

Potential problems certainly suggest that statistical estimates of quality based on student achievement in reading and mathematics should not constitute the sole component of any evaluation system.


Yet, that’s just what the LA Times did, and without even mentioning the caveats!

Isn’t it a bit of an unfair assertion, given Hanushek’s own research and writing on value-added estimates, to claim that LA teachers and their union were completely unjustified in their response to the LA Times?

Part III: Ideology Clashing with Reality

There exists at least one segment of the truly reformy crowd that believes deeply in second major ideology laid out at the beginning of this post – that if we can simply close failing urban schools (the whole district if we have to!) and let charters proliferate, children in the urban core will have many more opportunities to attend truly good schools. Yes, these reformers throw in the caveat that we must let only “good” charters, “high performing” charters start-up in place of the failing urban schools. And when viewing the situation retrospectively, these same reformy types will point out that if we look only at the upper half of the charters, they are doing better than average. Yeah… Yeah… whatever.

One long-term research project that has interested me of late is to look in-depth at those “failing” urban school districts that over the past decade have had the largest shares of their student population shift to charter schools – that is, the largest charter market share districts. Here is link to the Charter Market share report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools: http://www.publiccharters.org/Market_Share_09

It would seem that if we adopt the reformy ideology above, that if we identify those districts with the largest charter market shares, those districts should now be models for high quality, equitably distributed educational opportunities. We should eventually see sizeable effects in the achievement and attainment of children growing up in these cities, we should see quality of life increasing dramatically, housing values improving with an influx of families with school-aged children – a variety of interesting, empirically testable hypotheses, which I hope to explore in the future.

In the mean-time, however, we have new and interesting descriptive information from a report from the Ewing and Marion Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City, focused on educational opportunities in Kansas City. Kansas City is #4 on charter market share, according to the National Alliance report, and rose to that position much earlier in the charter proliferation era than other cities. As a result, by reformy logic, Kansas City should be a hotbed for educational opportunity for school-aged children – after years of previously throwing money down the drain in the Kansas City Missouri Public School District (many of these claims actually being Urban Legend).

In Kansas City, the reality of charter expansion has clashed substantially with the reformy ideology. Arthur Benson in a recent Kansas City Star Op Ed, noted:

Charters have subtle means for selecting or de-selecting students to fit their school’s model. The Kansas City School District keeps its doors open to non-English speakers and all those kids sent back from the charter schools. In spite of those hurdles, Kansas City district schools across the board out-perform charter schools. That is not saying much. We have until recently failed 80 percent of our kids, but most charters fail more.

I was initially curious about Benson’s (a district board member and attorney) claims that charters have done so poorly in Kansas City. Could it really be that the massive expansion of charter schools in Kansas City has done little to improve and may have aided in the erosion of high quality educational opportunities for Kansas City children?

The recent Kauffman Foundation report draws some similar conclusions, and Kauffman Foundation has generally been an advocate for charter schools. The report classifies district and charter schools into groups by performance, with level 4 being the lowest, and level 1 being the only acceptable group.

  • Level I- A school that met or exceeded the state standard on the MAP Communication Arts and Mathematics exams in 2008-2009.
  • Level II- A school that scored between 75 and 99 percent of the state standard on the MAP Communication Arts and Mathematics exams in 2008-2009.
  • Level III– A school that scored between 50 and 74 percent of the state standard on the MAP Communication Arts and Mathematics exams in 2008-2009.
  • Level IV– A school that scored below 50 percent of the state standard on the MAP Communication

Among other things, the report found that charter operators had avoided opening schools in the neediest neighborhoods. Rather, they set up shop in lower need neighborhoods, potentially exacerbating disparities in opportunities across the city’s zip codes. The report recommended:

A strategy for charter school growth should be developed by Kansas City education leaders. Charter schools should only be approved by DESE if they can demonstrate how they intend to fill a geographic need or a specific void in the communities they intend to serve.

Regarding charter performance more generally, the report noted:

In many communities charter schools are a model that increases students’ access to better public schools, but the majority of charter school students (5,490 or 64.7 percent) are in a Level IV school. Many of Kansas City’s charters have existed for 10 years and are still not able to reach even half of state standard.

Now, I’m not sure I accept their premise that in many communities this actually works – and that it just went awry for some strange reason in Kansas City. That said, the reality in Kansas City, by the authors own acknowledgment is in sharp contrast with the reality the authors believe exists in other cities.

One implication (not tested directly) of this report is that the massive charter school expansion that occurred in Kansas City may have done little or nothing to improve the overall availability or distribution of educational opportunities for children in that city and may have actually made things worse.

Isn’t it strange how we hear so little about these things as we look to replicate these models of great reformy success in other cities of comparable scale such as Newark, NJ?