Tag Archives: edreform

Test Validity & Teacher Performance

On twitter, High high stakes corrupt performacne on tests, other indicators,” which is based on a blog post, Why do good policy makers use bad indicators?

Dr. Cuban’s points are fair, obvious, well known, and perhaps best said at thus:

  • No measure has perfect validity
  • The smaller the overlap between what you are measuring, what you are rewarding, and what you want to improve, the worse your reward system will be

In other words, nothing everyone doesn’t already know anyway. I talked at some length about the importance of validity in test design earlier, and I won’t repeat myself here. I will say though that we have to create good tests because teachers as a political class have abandoned the effort to educate young people.

In America, we have established a public monopoly over basic education at the same time we lobotomized the work force, hired below-average teachers, and made it harder to fire teachers by introducing “due process” rules. We all pay the price for this through more expensive mortgages, less jobs, and more outsourcing.

If we had a professional, capable, and effective teacher work-force, where bad teachers could be fired, we might not need to measure their output. But we don’t. We have a teacher work force with a lot of dead weight (and worse, actual cancers) that is failing our country.

If we were serious about creating a professional teacher labor force, we could treat teachers like professionals and evaluate them accordingly. We don’t, though. Thus the need for reliable, standard, valid, and practical tests to measure the achievement of students and the performance of teachers, schools, districts, and states.

For the time being, teachers oppose the introduction of tests, because this would mean that some teachers will lose their jobs. Teachers are in it for the money,  for the working conditions, and for the unaccountability. Unfortunately, as a political class, teachers are also lack empathy and understanding for other stakeholders. It is possible that the hard work to turn around teachers attitudes will succeed. Unless teachers begin caring about the success of their students, reform will come from above, which means establishing measures that are reliable, standard, valid, and practical, and using those to hire, promote, and dismiss teachers.

Some Thoughts on the Education Reform Debate

On the eve of the President’s State of the Union, Dr. Wayne D. Lewis, Jr., penned these thoughts:

  1. I want to hear President Obama say that we must increase the number of high quality public school options available to parents. The president has been a supporter of increasing public school options for families in the past and I hope to hear that commitment reaffirmed tonight.
  2. I want to hear President Obama say that we do not currently have the necessary teaching and leadership capacity in our schools to prepare our children for 21st Century success; and that states must adopt a “by any means necessary” approach to getting teacher and school leader capacity to where it needs to be.
  3. I want to hear the president say that states must hold schools, teachers, and leaders individually and collectively accountable for student learning. I want him to say that schools where children do not learn are of no use to us. I want him to say when children do not learn, adults have to lose their jobs.
  4. I want to hear President Obama say that he will remain committed to the federal government providing financial supports and incentives for states that take bold steps toward implementing serious reform in their public schools; not the surface stuff that everyone likes, but really committing to going back to the drawing board to redesign systems so that all children can learn.

I was pretty happy reading this, because I believe the list represents evidence that my model of the education reform debate is accurate.

Dr. Lewis outlines the need for the Federal-Academic Complex and States, to cooperate in pushing education reform, which they are doing. He also observes that teachers are the primary obstacle to reform, which they are.

In another post, Dr. Lewis attacks several “lies” common among those who oppose education reform. His thoughts, with mine in italics, follow:

All in all, I’d have to say that Dr. Lewis is pretty smart!

Parents and the Two Income Trap

One of the dimensions of force in the education reform debate is child-care, with both parents and large employers viewing schools primarily as a way to turn children into adults with specifics skills, attitudes, and knowledge. Of the three dimensions of force (money, power, and childcare), childcare is the one with the least complex. While teachers and publishers battle each other for the chance to divert money away from children and to themselves, and while States and Districts squabble over political power, parents and large employers do not disagree about much. Both desire children to become productive members of society.

Importantly, both also suffer from a collective action problem. That is, the cost for making America’s education system world-class is high, and any individual parent or employer can opt-out by simply renting better childcare on their own. For employers this means paying slightly more for one of the competent workers, and for parents this means paying slightly more for one of the competent schools. The consequences for employers and employees of the first part of this is clear: a greater labor cost means a higher standard of living (and least in the short run) for competent workers, and greater automation and outsourcing to compensating for it, leading to a lower standard of living (at least in the short run) for those automated or outsourced out of a job.

The consequences for parents are more profound.

The K-12 education market in the United States is profoundly warped. Parents typically buy access to good schools through pay rent or mortgages in good school districts. Because the teaching profession has been lobotomized through low wages, sending children to many schools would be morally tantimount to child abuse. Bidding wars thus erupt to gain access to these good schools, in the forms of expensive mortgages and high rents. People who actually own this property (apartment managers, real estate developers, and mortgage holders) become rentiers who profit at the expense of parents trying to provide a better life for their children. (Thus, landowners are an important rentier class in the education debate, along with teachers and publishers).

This leads many parents to face what Elizabeth Warren called “the two income trap.” The bidding war for good schools, along with the breakdown of widespread sexual discrimination, encourages both men and women to work, and use the excess income to buy housing near a good school. This means that if the husband loses work for whatever reason, the wife cannot temporarily increase the family’s income by taking additional part-time work. Further, in the event of a medical emergency in the family, the wife cannot act as a “free” caregiver. In both cases, America’s two-earner encouraged by our bad schools increases the financial risks of families, and thus increases domestic violence, divorce, and economic ruin.

While the low quality of America’s teacher workforce is certainly one reason for this, others exist as well. America’s education management force is low quality as well. Further, peers matter — who a child goes to school with matters quite a lot. Parents (meaning parents who are actually engaged with and concerned for their child’s future) can reasonable expect a school to be better if fewer students from low-income households attend it. Thus, a brutal but effectve way to increase the quality of schools for many parents would be to exclude students from communities that historically are not focused on education. Brown v. Board of Education and other cases have made this policy untenable, however, leading to more low-income parents to be priced out of good schools because they now have economic competition from communities of comparative earning ability but with a broken pipeline to class mobility.

But in either case, the problems remain. And the economic stress bad schools place on parents mean that solutions that require paying teachers more — such as turning teaching into a profession — may be impractical.

Partisanship as a Strategy of the Weak

If you listen to anti-education-reform activists like Diane Ravitch, you’ll notice an odd-pattern

First, a long list of enemies, ranging from liberals such as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Barack Obama, and Andrew Cuomo; independents such a Mort Zuckerman and Michael Bloomberg; and conservatives such as George Bush, Jeb Bush, and Mitt Romney.

Second, rhetoric associated with the political left, including “Governor 1%,” “I won’t turn my back on unions,” “rightwingers,” and “Tea-Party teacher-basher.”

Why do anti-reform activists use the rhetoric of the left, when the leadership of the  left and right are united against them?

Some people will say that this is evidence of the lobotomized nature of the teaching activists. Those people will say that if you treat a political group as badly as teachers have been treated — if you pay them very little for generations until you finally run the professionals out of teaching — you should expect foolish and self-defeating rhetoric and policies from that group. After all, the teaching profession was foolish enough to lose its leadership position in the education arena, and to allow its once dominant political network to be encircled by hostile stakeholders. If teachers were so smart, so the argument would go, why would academics and bureaucrats be setting the terms of the education reform debate?

I’ve harshly criticized teachers for being politically deaf, and even opponents of education reform (such as my friend Mark Safranski) readily agree the teacher leadership is not up to the job

You are particularly right on in saying the union leadership was incapable of dealing with this challenge and in denial (minus one guy in the 90′s, Bob Chase, who saw all of this coming and tried to reform the NEA to no avail. His current successor is a fool and a potential sell-out to find a comfortable place for himself)

There is, however, another possibility. It is possible that anti-reform activists are trying to start a political battle over education reform. If a rational actor finds himself in a position with no friends, and without the capacity to express empathy to other actors, the next best thing is to gain friends through the tactic of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Activists like Diane Ravitch may be trying to incite a Republican-Democratic divide over education policy, and hope that their membership in one party’s coalition provides them protection.

There is evidence that this tactic has shown some success. For instance, the 2011 Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill Protests led to a flurry of anti-Reform anti-Republican sentiment on partisan Democratic sites, including articles like these:

Whether or not partisanship is the intention of Diane Ravitch and others, it certainly an outcome of their rhetoric. And, if partisanship is the strategy of the weak in this case, it is hardly the first time. The early Christians threw their lot into the pro-Roman faction of Imperial politics, even though the Romans were actively hostile to the Christians. If Paul could endorse Caesar, is it that surprising that Ravitch would use leftist rhetoric?

Americans who support education reform should thus be careful to avoid falling into traps set by anti-reform activists. In particular, elite-level consensus is probably a smarter strategy than political mass movements, as mass movements can more easily be hijacked by partisan rhetoric.

How to Be a Central Actor in the Education Debate

Education policy in the United States has enjoyed two central actors in the past century — first the Teachers’ Front Organizations, and more recently the Federal-Academic Complex. The Teachers Front Organizations include the American Federation of Teachers (“AFT”) labor union, the National Education Association (“NEA”) labor union, the National Parent-Teacher Association (“your school’s PTA”), school boards who membership is influenced by teacher turn-out, and so on. The Federal-Academic Complex is composed of major research universities, the Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, large charitable trusts, and so on.

The Central Actor — whether as in the past Teachers Front Organizations, or as now the Federal-Academic Complex — is a bank. Actors that are more narrowly focused will trade the resources they have to the Central Actor in order to gain more of the resource they most prize.

In the past, when Teachers Front Organizations were the Central Actor, and all dimensions of force focused on them. Publishers used their political power to flatter teacher-controlled school boards to sell their books, parents paid taxes to teacher-run schools to take care of their children, and State politicians gave control of childcare o teacher organizations to secure their own elections. Teacher Front Organizations easily converted money, power, and childcare, and used canny trades to increase their money, power, and control over children.

Now, that the Federal-Academic Complex is the Central Actor, all these processes still occur — but the Federal-Academic Complex, not the Teacher Front Organizations, benefit. It is impossible to search online or read twitter without encountering howls of pain and anguish from teachers, who correctly see that their power is being eviscerated and that bureaucrats, scientists, do-gooders, and academics are enjoying the rewards that used to be theirs. Worse, from the stand-point of teachers, teacher welfare has gone from being one of the objectives of the Central Actor to a thing that can be bargained away. It is hard to imagine publishers gaining enough leverage over the Teacher Front Organizations to divert a significant amount of money away from teachers and to themselves. It trivially easy to imagine Publishers trading that much power to the Federal-Academic Complex to divert money away from teachers and to themselves.

One reason for the current weakness of teachers is the lobotomy of low wages, but of course low wages don’t just happen — they were caused. Specifically, the rise of the Federal-Academic Complex and the fall of Teachers Front Organizations is the result of a broader trend: the dismantling of democracy in the United States that began in the 1930s under President Roosevelt.

In same ways, this was a good thing. I’ve previously written that the military-industrial complex keeps the world safe from American democracy, and in the education reform debate I am more sympathetic to the Federal-Academic Complex than to what is left of the Teachers Front Organizations. But it is undeniable that the ability of “bottom-up” teachers organizations to control education policy in the United States was eventually killed by the “top-down” tendencies of the Federal Bureaucracy. Step-by-step the Teachers Front Organizations allowed the Federal-Academic Complex to aggrandize itself, not realizing its threat as a top-down competitor and instead just treating it as another weak partner, ripe for parasitism.

In order to be a Central Actor, you need to things: the ability to act as bank for more narrow-minded actors, and the possession of a politically-feasible foundation. The Teachers Front Organizations, formerly diverse and uniquely suited to local American democracy, used to possess these attributes. The Federal-Academic Complex, diverse and unique suited to the commanding heights of the American economy, now possesses them, instead.

Education in the Context of War

People form States in order to protect their rights. The most important of these rights is the right to life. The most important reason people form governments is to protect the lives of the people. In some way, a Government forms to rule the State. A good Government is one in which the State uses its resources to protect the lives of the people, and the other rights of the people.

States have many tools available to protect human life and other rights. One of these tools is war. There are many types of war, some of such are genocidal and have a lot of unfocused violence, others of which are very careful and have so little violence that the object of the war may never realize that there was a war! When people think of wars in this way, they separate wars into gradients, with one extreme called the 0 Gradient of War or “0GW,” implying a holocaust, and the other extreme called the 5th Gradient of War or “5GW,” implying very subtle maneuvers.

Wars change different types of things, depending on their gradient. The sort of “war” we think about when we think of Napoleon Bonaparte, or Kaiser Wilhelm, or Emperor Hirohito, focus on military reality. These types of war are relatively low on the gradients of warfare, but fall short of genocide. These types of war fall between the first and third gradient of warfare. The sort of “war” we think about when we think of Algeria, or Vietnam, or Afghanistan focus on political reality. Instead of defeating armies in the field, insurgents in the 4th Gradient of Warfare or “4GW” try to collapse the political legitimacy of their enemy. Very subtle wars, or 5GWs, focus on altering the economic reality of the object. Both 5GW, by changing economics and 0Gw, by killing entire societies, also focus on changing the cultural geographic reality of the objects.

People use States to wage Wars to protect life and human rights. A short-term and inefficient way of not losing wars is to win wars. But even winning wars has costs. It is better to never have to fight wars in the first place. The short-term way not to fight wars is to be able to intimidate other States into peace. Of all the gradients of war, 5GW is the one most focused on the long-term. As 5GW is the type of war that is focused on changing economics and societies, it follows that we should wage a 5GW to create a long-term future in which other countries do not want to go to war, either.

Different thinkers call the time and place where war becomes unthinkable by different terms. Tom Barnett calls it the “Core,” and other researchers call it the Cartel of States or even globalization.” Marxists use terms like “State Monopoly Capitalism” and “Ultra-Imperialism,” and the global bourgeoisie.” Whatever you call it, extending extending this core of peace around the world has functioned as the grand strategic objective of the United States since at least 1942. While not all wars are fight wisely, to the extent there appears to be a consistent objective to United States warfare, it appears to be “shrinking the gap” that is outside our global system.

While the United States focuses on building peace around the world, it should not loose sight of single disasters that could delay things by a century or more. A Chinese invasion of Taiwan is probably the single most dangerous thing that could happen to the world. Even though it is short-term thinking to focus primarily on deterring a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, it would be foolish not to do nothing to prevent it. Other tricky spots of the world also exist.

Unfortunately, our broken education system means that our critical infrastructure is run by Chinese (and Indians, and Russians, and other foreign nationals). A globally integrated work force of course is a natural part of the peace, and is a good thing. But it is a bad thing that our educational system is so awful that foreign governments might try to take advantage of the fact that we have no choice but to have their nationals supervising our infrastructure in a time of crisis.

Education reform is important. Both teachers and publishers seek to profiteer from the need for education reform at the expense of our nation.

Our country deserves better than that.