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A teacher’s thoughts on the NCTQ report

June 19, 2011

The Teacher is In

With 10 days left of school, 8th grade culmination on the horizon, final marks, writing a reform plan to address district sanctions due to low test scores, and fundraising for a 2012 student trip to Washington, the education reform debate has to take a back seat to daily life at my vibrant public middle school.

Last week, in between three 13 hour workdays, I would arrive home, soak my feet, and pull out the ol’ laptop and try to make sense of the developments in the debate, and the National Council on Teacher Quality report came across my feed. I skimmed the report, and surmised that by now, no one would be surprised at the findings considering who the funders were, the fact that the report was not peer-reviewed, and who the main cheerleaders were for its conclusions: Antonio Villaraigosa, charter CEO’s, and die-hard ed reformers.

I hoped some bloggers in the field would respond, because honestly, I had about a one hour window of time before sleep would overcome me. And respond they did, both in the blogosphere, Twitter, and comment sections in newspapers.

But today, Sunday, I came across a curious comment from John Fensterwald on my Twitter feed:

jfenster John Fensterwald – I defend Nat. Council on Teacher Quality report on LAUSD from attack by guest writer for Anthony Cody’s blog in EdWeek. bit.ly/k10dXA  (The guest writer he is referring to is John Thompson.)

Now I know Mr. Fensterwald to be a journalist through the Educated Guess blog, affiliated with the TOP-Ed forum which is funded by the Silicon Valley Education Foundation. I’m just a public school teacher who writes for the Interact blog, and is funded by my furlough-reduced LAUSD salary. As his blog describes, the purpose of the blog is to generate lively discussions, and with Mr. Fensterwald’s comments on Anthony Cody’s blog (please read them first to understand this response), he has surely accomplished that goal.

First, I went back and re-read the whole NCTQ report. No surprises there. As always, I am left wondering whether any of these think tanks actually bother to sit down with real teacher leaders, not via a survey monkey interface, but perhaps at a coffee shop or even a wine bar, and actually get real feedback on what the preliminary findings of their “research.” Because although some of the data produced rings true, the interpretation of it and the conclusions reached are many times off mark. Below is my analysis.

STAFFING

On the issue of staffing, much attention was given to the priority placement list, and the Principals’ complaints that teachers on this list were not a good fit for their schools. In Los Angeles, this list is sometimes called the “must-place” list and is inhabited by a wide range of teachers who have lost their placements at their school of choice. While certainly, there are underperforming teachers on that list who would be a poor fit for any school, my thoughts are why are those teachers still employed in the first place?

My twenty years of experience in public schools has taught me that many times, administrators are reluctant to make the tough calls on writing up ineffective teachers. They would rather pass the buck to the next administrator. Or, they realize they have not met the requirements for issuing a below standard evaluation, namely visiting the teacher’s classroom on a regular basis, providing assistance, and monitoring the implementation of the strategies given. Which leads me to my first finding:

Teacher in the Trenches Finding 1.0-Administrators must gather the strength and resolve to do the right thing, and follow due process to fire ineffective teachers, thereby eliminating the need for a Priority Placement List.

TEACHER EVALUATION

The evaluation section of the NCTQ report had some relevant findings, such as the pressure (mentioned above) that the Principal receives to pass the buck instead of following the dismissal process of low-performing teachers all the way through. But examples of recommended models strike me as ludicrous. NCTQ cites the Washington D.C. Public Schools as an example of superior evaluation procedures:

Washington, D.C., provides one of the strongest examples of a district requiring that student achievement be the preponderant criterion of evaluations. For teachers in viable grades and subject areas, 50 percent of their rating is determined by value-added data. Those teaching in other grade levels and subjects set goals to capture students’ growth or mastery of academic content. It is important to note that the teacher evaluation policies in the District of Columbia are not subject to negotiation with the local union, but are a management right.

Wasn’t there a cheating scandal in that very district that may have been a result of this increased reliance on test scores for evaluation purposes?  Leaders have ceased to listen to the real world concerns of teachers who foresee an increased teaching to the test if value added measures become the norm for measuring teacher effectiveness, for maintaining employment. Few seem to care that the arts, social studies, science, and physical education are already getting the short shrift in the era of NCLB and RTTT. But if teachers had our druthers then…

Teacher in the Trenches Finding 2.0 would be- Invest all the Wasserman, Broad, Zuckerman, and Gates donations in improving the teacher evaluation system and model it after the National Board Certification Process (a process that costs $2,000 per teacher to complete).

TENURE

On tenure, the NCTQ report….wait, stop right there. A finding has already been reached.

Teacher in the Trenches Finding 3.0 Stop calling teacher due process tenure, since there is no such thing (see TOT Finding 1.0)

However, on the issue of the issuing of satisfactory evaluations to the majority of teachers (as evidence of the flawed system), no mention is made to the hundreds, if not thousands of teachers who voluntarily leave the profession each year.

Is NCTQ not aware that 50% of teachers leave the profession in their first 5 years of teaching? Might this have an effect on the data analysis?

How do we know that the least effective teachers didn’t already leave the profession in the first place?

Teacher in the Trenches Finding 3.1 Find out how many teachers leave the profession in their first 5 years of teaching, and then factor in these numbers in your analysis of satisfactory teacher evaluation numbers.

TEACHER COMPENSATION

The NCTQ report extensively analyzed the teacher compensation system, and in its non-peer reviewed findings concluded that graduate school credits were simply put, a waste of money that showed no correlation to student learning. They recommend eliminating credit-based compensation and replacing it with incentive-based compensation for teachers who produce…the highest test scores.

The premise here, let me repeat, the premise here, is that test scores are an accurate indicator of teacher performance. That is a huge, unproven premise.

As a social studies teacher, my students do not test each year in this subject. And when they do, in 8th grade, it is a cumulative exam that covers three years of material. Thoughts running through my head…what about little Johnny who can’t remember where his classroom is on a daily basis, or little Gigi who struggles to bring the right materials to class each day? They’re supposed to remember what happened three years ago, and my compensation will be based on these variables?

Of course, federal policy is moving in the direction of an increase in testing, as a remedy to the problem of inconsistent testing schedules. But I thought we had a money shortage…

Teacher in the Trenches Finding 4.0 Find the missing billions in Iraq, find the missing capital that disappeared in Wall Street, order corporations making billions in profits to pay taxes, and redirect those funds to education so that teachers and all American workers can earn a decent living and provide for their families.

Teacher in the Trenches Finding 4.1 Direct Bill Gates to use his massive wealth and influence to solve this mystery, and live up to the true meaning of the word philanthropist.

Teacher in the Trenches Finding 4.2 The little extra funds teachers have are usually re-directed right back into the classroom so stop trying to nickel and dime them.

Teacher in the Trenches Finding 4.3  Ask one of the world’s richest men why he is so keen on reducing teacher salaries.

WORK SCHEDULE

Not surprisingly, the finding by NCTQ in this area was that teachers do not work enough and take too much time off. I wish someone would tell that to my feet. But if the absenteeism numbers are correct, I wonder if there is a correlation between the battering teachers are getting in society with a lowering of their morale? I wonder if the rise of charters is leaving public schools with the most challenging of students and is having an effect on the health of the teachers?

I wonder if the reduced compensation via 7 furlough days in LAUSD has caused problems in the families of teachers who are rewarded by opening up to the front page of the LA Times and find a label beside their names saying “least effective” after choosing to teach the students with the least resources. Could that be why teachers miss work?

I sure would like to put one of the authors of the NCTQ report in Ms. Fruchter’s third period class which I covered last month when she was sick. The amount of need demonstrated by those students left me stunned, exhausted, and stupefied after only 88 minutes. There are no words to describe the admiration I feel for teachers who are left to solve the problems society has created for the most marginalized of students.

And for the record, my principal governs absenteeism with an iron fist. Memos are issued before any holiday warning teachers not to even consider making a three-day weekend into a four-day one. One can expect a disciplinary conference if you miss work during testing week. The policies are there. You just need a strong, ethical leader to follow them.

Teacher in the Trenches Finding 5.0 The National Council of Teacher Quality should redefine its mission to solving the problems of poverty, family fragmentation, drug and alcohol abuse, gang violence, and wealth inequality. It can then be renamed the National Council on Societal Quality.

Before I get accused of being a relentless defender of the status quo using crappy excuses to defend dropout factories, let me state that I am a defender of the children and parents of the community in which I teach. I have earned the ire of both union and management in my tenure as a public school teacher (note the correct usage of the word tenure.) For example, I do not believe teachers should have a choice in school site preference. However, I share their concerns about this right being taken away and used as punishment to silence those who speak out against poor management practices. I have seen this happen. But as a critical thinker I see the serious flaws of the new corporate-based education policies, and so do others.

If new policies are to be successful, they must be developed with the input of teacher leaders. While some data in the NCTQ report could be considered useful, it cannot replace the old-fashioned value of face to face conversations by all stakeholders, leading to serious, viable, and quality reform practices.

Ms. Infante is available for such conversations at any time at the local Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf café on La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 19, 2011 4:29 pm

    Intellectually dishonest is a euphemism for the propaganda piece published by the so-called NCTQ. How anyone could defend a report that had all of its “conclusions” developed a priori in order to satisfy the political needs of the privatization junta of LAUSD and their billionaire backers is beyond my comprehension. From top to bottom, the NCTQ, and all the documents it produces, are steeped in neoliberal logic.

    Mr. Fensterwald encourages us to read the document. I did three times, and was astonished at how vapid and vacuous it was. Quoting other non-peer reviewed papers funded by the selfsame plutocrats? Any self respecting academic would be ashamed to publish such rubbish. Other than demonstrating that there’s jobs for people that can dress up propaganda as scholarly, I found little of the report to be based in fact, and most of it sounding like it was written by the libertarian hacks at Reason magazine, or by Heartland’s arch-reactionary Ben Boychuk.

    Of course, I didn’t just read it, I wrote about it just as Dr. John Thompson and Martha Infante have. Although my article is linked at the top of the Thompson piece, let me provide the link again.

    http://www.schoolsmatter.info/2011/06/nctqs-lausd-reports-highly-questionable.html

    In the end the NTCQ and all of its so-called research is nothing more than a me-too right wing think tank with the acumen to present itself as moderate right of center “reformers” as to provide DFER types dubious “research” for use a bludgeon against our communities and against the hard working women and men that teach in our public schools.

  2. June 19, 2011 5:04 pm

    Thanks for your thorough debunk of Fensterwald. This kind of point-by-point presentation of how it looks from the classroom won’t change Fensterwald and his ilk, but it might move the needle (repeated endlessly) with parents and communities. We need to hear stories from real people. Data wars just entrench beliefs–so excellent teachers, whose points are pragmatic, are the best witnesses to what’s really going down in the LA schools right now.

    There is a wonderful set of short videos from D.C. teachers on the IMPACT teacher evaluation system that explains how the checklist / behavioral thrust of the system is designed for mediocre teachers, but de-professionalizes Fully realized and autonomous teachers. A system that attempts to shape teaching through cookie-cutter behavioralism.

    National Board Certification now costs $2500, by the way–but going through NBC is not essential. Use of the standards and assessment tools and lenses could be accessed by every district, however.

  3. RSA@PHS permalink
    July 28, 2011 11:00 am

    Agreed, Martha – and love the humor!

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