Thursday, March 31, 2011

Off Topic On Current Events - The Libya Edition

I don’t know enough about what’s going on in Libya to know whether or not Obama made the right move in starting a war we won’t call a war there. If indeed we saved tens of thousands of civilians from massacre then I think we probably did what we had to do. Extra props for finally intervening in an African country before it was too late. But let’s be honest, does anyone trust anything after the Iraq/WMD fiasco?

What I do feel qualified to weigh in on is some of the criticism Obama has received in the wake of the intervention. Much of the criticism coming from the right centers around Obama entering into a war reluctantly (I guess as opposed to enthusiastically) and Obama letting other nations take some of the lead. The criticism related to the constitutionality of what we are doing in Libya I think is a conversation worth having. Reluctance and leadership though? I think not.

First, reluctance. It is true, Obama didn’t seem too enthusiastic about bombing the shit out of another country that is not attacking us. He did allow the Libyan uprising to play out for a little while before making a decision. His goal is not full invasion with regime change. He has not declared that Libyan democracy will introduce a new era of peace and prosperity for the Arab world, that our intervention will bring our superior culture to a backward region of the world. Good for him. I’m glad killing a bunch of people took some thought. I’m glad he expressed some reluctance to intervene in another country’s internal struggle. I’m glad he didn’t gleefully throw the muslim world under the boss announcing that he would save them from themselves. Reluctance is a positive both on moral grounds and pragmatically. By showing reluctance, by showing patience and deliberation, by not wanting to be there Obama is signaling not only that he is reasonable and probably not an imperialist but that his intentions are somewhere in the area of face-value. In the Arab world that is priceless. After so many decades of the West not showing reluctance before violating the sovereignty of the region’s nations we were in need of at least a smidge of credibility before diving in to yet another incursion.

Closely related to reluctance is the focus on letting other countries take the lead even if that lead is more in letter than spirit. After all, we are still providing the vast majority of the muscle in this war. But this time we actually have a real coalition, where the rhetoric and passion of other countries are further out in front than our own. And even more importantly, there is some Arab backing for this particular intervention into the Arab world. I’m having a hard time seeing how this could be a bad thing. War isn’t about glory. War is about fulfilling the mission, improving the world, preventing evil from vanquishing good and protecting our interests to the best of our abilities. Let the French and the Brits have their day. Let the rest of the region be our partners rather than our adversaries. If that means we have to show a little humility then so be it. We also get to share some of the responsibility and some of the cost both human and financial. This doesn’t make us weak. It makes us strong. After all, we are still accomplishing what we want to accomplish.

There are valuable lessons here for the education reform movement. To date much has been made of the ed reformers refusing to compromise, refusing to collaborate, using rhetoric that casts any opposition as evil. In many cases there are good reasons that the ed reformers act the way they do. In many cases there are good reasons everyone else is pissed off at them. I’m unapologetic about supporting the current wave of reformers but I’m also sympathetic to the feelings of those who are being run over. If the ed reformers could take half a step back, not to compromise their values but to share the glory. If they could show a little humility, not because they are wrong but because they need to give people room to be persuaded. If they could show a little reluctance, not to stop pushing ahead in an effort to improve the lives of students who aren’t getting a fair shot but to signal that the difficult decisions they make are in fact difficult. By showing flexibility, understanding and humanity while still standing by your values it show strength, not weakness. Taking no prisoners, coloring all dissent as damaging, evil opposition is a hallmark of insecurity. Because education reform is not about glory. It is about saving lives, creating a future where all kids have a chance at success even if they aren’t the type of heroes who get books written about them.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Distracting Everyone With Myths That Distract Policymakers: Part II

Alright, no more detours from the myths that are distracting policymakers. Well, that might not be true, but at the very least I will make some progress on responding to these myths.

Myth number one is that “teacher preparation matters little for student achievement.” This myth…makes sense. The money sentence is: “The National Bureau of Economic Research found that beginning teachers with more extensive clinical training (including a full-year internship – like doctors get) actually produce higher student achievement gains than those from either traditional university programs or alternative pathways.” Well, that is interesting. So the real answer is teacher preparation matters a lot for student achievement if we actually decide to do it right. Because let’s be honest, if TFA’s strong recruiting and boot camp approach can perform similarly to traditional ed schools then that says more about the weakness of traditional ed schools than anything else. And every teacher I’ve ever talked to said that no matter what type of training they got, they had no clue what they were doing their first year. It is just an incredibly difficult thing to prepare for. So you would think that if we took an approach more similar to the on-the-job training doctors get it would cushion the first year disaster, weed out some of the people who would realize teaching isn’t for them and raise the prestige of the job itself just by raising the effort required to enter the profession. Victories all around.

So the easy part was establishing that actual, real, worthwhile training would do a lot of good. I feel a similar argument could be made for professional development, the red herring of all teacher improvement conversations. The hard part is actually creating an environment where better training happens. It would require dismantling the current traditional system which focuses heavily on credentials. And those credentials mean more money in most school district pay schemes. So there are some entrenched interests in place to keep the traditional credential pipeline alive. More on-the-job training would take more time, money and effort. People who participated would have to be compensated accordingly. This would mean changing a lot of union contracts in a way that would challenge the supremacy of the union leaders, and the veteran teachers who are most often their base, who ascended their profession through the very traditional credentialing system that they would be dismantling. That would take true vision and bravery. For gun shy politicians and beat-up school district leaders, we would need to provide some data cover in exchange for some patience and professional nurturing. There is no worthwhile on-the-job training without serious investment from the districts.

That’s a lot of paradigm shifting. And it would require an unprecedented amount of honest and open conversation about how to measure good teaching, how to help people become good teachers and how to have enough patience to let a new system grow and succeed. The alternative would be to continue dropping in novices, whether from traditional or alternative credentialing systems, and trying to get rid of the ones who don’t magically work out whether through evaluation or attrition. The alternative would be to continue rewarding teachers for credentials that might not mean anything in terms of educating kids. The alternative would be to continue hoping that putting big time talent into tough situations will lead to solutions. We can continue these things but I think all of us know that even if we make incremental improvements while continuing the status quo there are ceilings we will never break through.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Distracting Everyone With Myths That Distract Policymakers

Check out the Answer Sheet post about the five myths that are distracting policy makers from making good decisions. The crux of the post appears to be that everyone disagrees about what good teaching looks like. I think that’s probably true. Possibly because there’s more than one way to skin a cat. What this leads to, apparently, is political leaders who demand pay for performance based on test scores and value added statistical formulas.

First, I would like to take a little detour into the weird vilification of value added. The phrases “statistical formula” and “value-added” seem to always freak people out. I think it is because most people aren’t that comfortable with numbers (hey education system, fix this please), and certainly fear statistics, thinking it is a medium through which powerful people manipulate the truth. Nonetheless, statistics and numbers and value-added are part of our reality. We are constantly assessing how much value something is adding throughout our daily lives, whether in personal relationships, when buying bread, and when debating whether the Washington Redskins should blow $100m on another head-case free agent.

What people are trying to accomplish through value added models is to figure out how much a teacher is really helping a student while taking into account all the things that teachers can’t control and don’t want to be held accountable for. Basically, value-added is intended to protect teachers from being punished for teaching poor kids, with limited English skills and little parental involvement and prevent teachers from being rewarded just because their students are rich, learned a million vocabulary words in kindergarten and already speak five languages. This effort does not sound so nefarious to me. The intention is to even the playing field and minimize perverse incentives that push good teachers towards the schools that need them the least. Is it perfect? Like all statistical models, hell no. But discounting it as a tool in favor of the “I have no idea so I’ll just stick with the one-size fits all, lock step approach, that over rewards my worst employees” seems a little ridiculous. Maybe our time would be better spent learning more about how to use these models to ensure that they are fair and well connected to reality rather than dismissing them out of hand as voodoo magic. Because what we do right now is voodoo magic.

Secondly, I’ll break this into multiple posts because I’m feeling a little outraged right now and I haven’t even gotten to any of the five myths referenced in the actual blog post.

Continuing the Meaningless Conversation: Budget Rage

Valerie Strauss’ 3/24/11 blog post tells the story of a fifth grader, Jocelyn Lam, who donates her $300 life savings to help protect the jobs of teachers at her school. A noble effort, no doubt. Jocelyn Lam’s heart is in the right place and I’m glad there are kids like her in this country. Her parents should be proud. She even inspired a grassroots community movement to raise money to protect teacher jobs. I like it. I love the community getting involved, rallying to support and protect their public education system. They’ve raised $20,000 so far. Well done, that’s a lot.

This is undoubtedly a nice story. It tugs the heart strings, has some inspiration in it and rallies some hope for the common people in their eternal fight against the evil adults who make all the decisions, those faceless bureaucrats and publicity hound politicians elected by the very people getting screwed.

I have some bad news though. $20,000 makes no difference. $300 makes no difference. In fact, this story makes no difference. It adds nothing to the conversation that will save teacher jobs, improve education or fix budgets. It tells a nice story about a nice gesture by a fifth grader who I hope will grow up to be a powerful education activist. I like her boldness. But unless her gesture goes viral and those thousands turn into millions, she currently lacks the resources to meaningfully accomplish her goal.

The money quote is “if only adults making education policy and budget decisions understood the value of teachers as well as Jocelyn Lam.” As if the people in charge of the school district policy decisions think teachers are worthless. As if caring more about teachers will solve multimillion dollar budget deficits. Priorities can absolutely be called into question in some cases, like in Florida. Funding tax breaks with public employee, especially teacher, layoffs is reprehensible. But that doesn’t change the fact that there is massive budget crunch nationwide, difficult decisions have to be made and no solutions are easy.

It is this lack of nuance in the reporting of municipal budget troubles and their terrible consequences that feeds the unrealistic expectations, the purposeful ignorance and the misguided rage of the electorate. If we took the time to properly and honestly explain the trade-offs involved in budgeting, the decisions faced by mayors, school boards and legislatures around the country, then maybe we could have a real discussion about what is important in this country. No matter where cuts come from it is going to hurt and someone is going to be mad. Throwing the gasoline of human interest stories that don’t provide any solutions onto the fire of budget crisis doesn’t take us forward in any meaningful way. We are doomed to continue the course and the same dishonest conversations will continue after recovery and during the next downturn.