Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Talking Points Memo misrepresents the Washington Post's Answer Sheet

As mentioned before, this is the busy season here at West Coast Stat Views so a full discussion of the problems with Conor P. Williams' recent TPM post on charter schools but this one point is worth addressing separately.
The upshot: it’s unproductive to treat charters as the source of public education’s problems or as the answer to its prayers. Instead of asking “Are Charter Schools Making a Difference?” we should be asking what charters’ heterogeneity tells us about improving schools’ effectiveness. If charters in some states work much better than others, we should be looking to scale the policies that support this success.

And there’s no reason to limit this reflection to the sector itself. Ask teachers and administrators in traditional public schools what they think about a new district oversight program and you’ll hear plenty of hunger for more professional freedom. Ask them about charters, and you’ll often hear that traditional public schools are often hamstrung by needless conformity, that so much of its problems would be solved if we got out of the way and “let teachers teach.”
There's something really odd about that last sentence. Given that the biggest and best known charter chains are known for requiring both students and teachers to conform to extremely specific standards, why would teachers single out the "needless conformity" of public schools when asked about charters?

When a quote seems to be a non sequitur, it's usually a good idea to click on the link. In this case, that click takes us to a rather surprising place, Valerie Strauss's Washington Post blog, The Answer Sheet. Strauss is one of the best reporters working the education beat but she's a bit of a muckraker and a considerable amount of her time is spent uncovering questionable practices in the education reform movement.

So is this Answer Sheet article, a guest post by LouAnne Johnson, a teacher's response to being asked about charter schools? No.

Does the post suggest that we should be looking for ways to "scale the policies" of successful charter schools (particularly, as Williams suggests earlier, of making those schools more accountable)? Hell, no.

Here's the opening of Johnson's piece:

We don’t have to wait for Superman to save our public schools. We can save our schools ourselves. Right now. Without firing the teachers or disbanding their unions. Without creating more standardized tests. Without pitting schools against each other in a race for dollars which should rightfully be divided equally among the school-age children of this country.

As with many complex problems, the answer is a simple one -- so simple that it is overlooked.

The answer can be stated in seven words that even a child could understand: Train teachers well -- then let them teach.

The problem with public schools isn’t lack of parental support or computers or equipment. It isn’t an overabundance of television or junk food or violence. Those things contribute to the problem. No argument. And money is helpful. But throughout the world, there always have been students who learned to think and read and write with very limited supplies, sometimes without a classroom or textbooks, without standardized tests, without merit pay for their teachers. Those students learned because their teachers were permitted to teach.

Most American teachers are good at their jobs -- when they are allowed to do their jobs. And that is the primary problem with our public schools. Teachers are not allowed to teach.

Or rather, they are told how to teach in such great detail and required to document what they are teaching in such great detail and expected to spend so much time teaching students to pass the tests that will prove the teachers have paid such great attention to detail that the teachers don’t have time to teach the information and skills their students need.
First, you'll notice that charters are only alluded to tangentially in the 'Superman' reference. In no real sense is this what a teacher said when asked about charters. More importantly, though, Johnson pretty much says the opposite of what Williams implies. She proposes fewer tests, less standardization, less focus on accountability for schools and carrot/stick approaches to motivating teachers, in other words, moving 180 degrees from the standard charter school model.

There are numerous other problems with Williams' piece, some more substantial than this from a policy and statistics standpoint, but for a piece that decries the lack of "productive conversations." this sort of misrepresentation deserves special mention.

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