Barack Obama And The Stubborn Defenders Of The Status Quo

Of Inconvenient Truths And Hot Water

By Pejman Yousefzadeh Posted in | Comments (18) / Email this page » / Leave a comment »

After speaking the teensiest of inconvenient truths, Barack Obama encounters a glacier:

Barack Obama has the teachers cheering. The National Education Association is meeting here, and Obama-- like the Democratic candidates who have spoken before him -- is telling the crowd everything it wants to hear.

He's "committed to fixing and improving our public schools instead of abandoning them and passing out vouchers." Washington "left common sense behind when they passed No Child Left Behind." Teacher pay must be raised "across the board."

But then Obama tiptoes into the minefield of merit pay for teachers, so delicately that he does not actually utter the words "merit pay" until the question and answer session.

"If you excel at helping your students achieve success, your success will be valued and rewarded as well," he says -- but he hastens to add that this must be done "with teachers, not imposed on them, and not based on some arbitrary test score."

This is whispering truth to power. But for the teachers, Obama's words are fingernails on a chalkboard. They fall silent, except for scattered boos, as he mentions a modest new program in Minnesota.

"If you look between the lines on the answer, it wouldn't be the answer we were looking for," says Rhonda Wesolowski, president of New Hampshire's NEA affiliate. "He's going to have to come a long way off of that position with us," says California Teachers Association Vice President Dean Vogel.

And those were the polite ones, who were otherwise impressed with Obama. "I can't imagine if he were informed he would come before 10,000 people and say what he said," says New Jersey Education Association President Joyce Powell.

The teachers' unions will brook no opposition. Their power comes before needed school reforms. Kudos to Obama for whispering truth to power, but I guess that means a mere whisper is enough to send the NEA and likeminded organizations running to endorse Hillary Clinton.

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The teachers are risking a lot if they wholly abandon Obama over this point. If he goes ahead with an idea for merit pay, and does seek to work "with teachers" in setting up the standards, that will look pretty reasonable to most people. It will highlight exactly how ridiculous the unions are being on this issue.

I'd be thrilled to see the Democrats go at it on merit pay and watch the teachers throw their weight around. They will just help to discredit themselves and open up the door for Republicans on education proposals.

Johnnie Blow-dry or CRC (Caligula Rodham CLinton) panders to them and promises them exactly what they want. Oprahbama will have to get back on the liberal plantation. He will learn quickly that he isn't the one in charge, even if he one day lives in the WHite House.

I'd rather see Gore get oxed than my ox get gored.

who care nothing about the children in the schools just about the money they are going to get. There was a time when the majority of teachers truly cared about the students, I would say those teachers are now a minority, power corrupts.

Marxist organization in the wprld.

Envisioning when all that is Left is the Right.

Marxist organization in the world.

Envisioning when all that is Left is the Right.

with teachers under the current organizational structures in schools - period, full stop; you can't do it! And it is only partly a union problem. Actually, I think Obama is being subtle with this and using an NEA forum to appeal to AFT. He knows that he will NEVER get the NEA's support, but has some hope of getting AFT's. AFT, cynically, I believe, has come out in support of merit pay systems. I think it is because they know one could never be implemented in a unionized environment, so they have nothing to lose by endorsing it.

Teachers are unique among public employees, especially unionized public employees, in being essentially unsupervised, and effective supervision is the essential predicate of any merit pay system. Teachers get some ongoing supervision during their probationary period, depending on the law the one to three year period before they achieve permanent status or tenure. After tenure, they see a pricipal, ass't. principal, or teacher in charge at most a few times a year. Very few school systems have anything resembling objective missions and measures to which a teacher's performance could even be compared. Essentially, if an untenured teacher proves that he/she can "fit it" to the school, he becomes tenured and absent something scandalous is employed for as long as he wants to be without regard to what actually happens in the classroom.

Unionized teachers insist on being regard as and supervised as "professionals," yet they also insist on work rules and disciplinary protections like the trades and crafts guys have. The trades and crafts guys may have featherbedding rules, but they will work in all but the most corrupt Blue places and the pure patronage places. A laborer is going to have a leadman looking over every work crew and a foreman looking over every work crew of any size. The union leadman or even a union foreman won't usually put up with a guy who isn't pulling his weight. They might insist that the employer let them take him to the woodshed before the employer disciplines or dismisses him, but if that fails to correct him, they'll usually acquiese to employer discipline, though the duty of fair representation standards will usually cause them to at least half-heartedly grieve it.

With teachers, there is first no objective standard of what they should be doing, the essential predicate of disciplining or rewarding them. Even if there were objective standards, there is no ongoing observation of the teachers' performance in comparison to that standard; that's the real reason they're so damnably hard to discipline for anything other than sex, drugs, booze, and the like; you can't prove what they were supposed to be doing, so you can't prove they didn't do it.

Absent ongoing and consistent supervision to objective standards, every action to confer or deny merit pay is subject to challenge on just cause grounds as well as on protected class grounds and if the employer cannot show consistent enforcement of an objective standard or if the union can show any sort of disparate treatment, the employer loses.

To implement a merit pay system, you would have to change the supervision structure, no small job and expensive, and set up objective missions and measures, then consistently adhere to them. OK, that is theoretically possible if expensive. Then you have to accept the difficulty of supervision in the public sector; if a supervisor carries out the will of one set of political masters, they have a laser dot on their forehead at any change of administration. Most take that fact to heart and don't go out of their way to agressively supervise, since the union can buy your head in the next election. Suffice it to say that implementing either real merit pay or effective supervision in the public sector, and especially in schools, is a long, hard road with an uncertain destination.
In Vino Veritas

Let parents, principals, politicians and the public see what's going on inside our classrooms. That'd be real supervision.
Halls of Justice Painted Green, Money Talking.
Power Wolves Beset Your Door, Hear Them Stalking.

to make that happen in any general way, let me know.

In Vino Veritas

“With teachers, there is first no objective standard of what they should be doing, the essential predicate of disciplining or rewarding them. Even if there were objective standards, there is no ongoing observation of the teachers' performance in comparison to that standard.”

 In states that utilize “high-high stakes*” End of Course standardized assessments, such as the Virginia SOL system there is an objective set of standards, for teachers, students, and schools. Moreover, there is also an objective system of measuring student learning, teacher instruction, and even to a lesser degree school system administration. In the SOL System we know what students are supposed to be taught in each course, and have a mechanism for evaluating how well students have learned that specific set of course material. In consequence, the performance of individual teachers can be** evaluated based upon the individual teacher’s student pass rates*** on the relevant SOL End of Course Exam. Merit pay can be (and occasionally is) awarded based upon objective measurement of student learning in comparison to the required minimum standards of learning. 

 *”High-high stakes” assessment is education babble (jargon) for standardized tests that are required for both students to graduate, and schools to maintain their accreditation with their respective state department of education. 

**The school system that I work for evaluates academic personal almost exclusively through SOL results. I cannot speak for the policies of every school division (that is what school systems in VA are called), but those systems that have refused to take the SOLs seriously have lost their accreditation.

 ***The SOL system has four practical levels of scores: 0-399 failing, 400-499 pass proficient, 500-599 pass advanced proficient, 600 pass “perfect scaled score.” Percentage student pass rates are calculated based on the percentage of students in a given teacher's classes that pass the relevant End of Course SOL Exam, and by the percentages of a given teacher's students that achieved different levels of passing scores (they are also calculated this way at the department level, school level, division level, and state level). For Example, a given teacher might have an 85% student pass rate, which means that 85% of that teacher's students passed the relevant SOL exam in a given year or semester. The very same teacher might also have a 20% student advanced pass rate, which means that 20% of that teachers students earned advanced scores on the last relevant SOL Exam. 

Quick SOL Links

P.S. I would really, really, really, like merit pay. I consistently have 100% of my students pass their respective SOL End of Course Exams. Usually 75%+ of my students earn scores in the advanced range (many for the first time in their lives), and I would really like something more than the respect/envy of my colleagues, and my principals annual congratulations/good job speech.

...a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right...

---Thomas Paine---

Does it really work? Or have they just dumbed down the measure so that any warm body will meet it? I did enough missions and measures exercises to know that if you let me write the mission and measure, I'll meet them.

In Vino Veritas

"Does it really work? Or have they just dumbed down the measure so that any warm body will meet it? I did enough missions and measures exercises to know that if you let me write the mission and measure, I'll meet them."

The SOLs are not as hard as I would like, and it is the rare student who is incapable of passing the appropriate exam, yet something like 25% of students that take an SOL exam will fail it. That said, just about every student (even EMRs) that maintain good attendance, pay attention, complete their assignments, and studies some are going to pass their end of course exams. Additionally, instructors that shows up regularly, knows their subject, and teaches/enforces discipline will have 80%+ pass rates. Teachers that waste lots of instructional time, are ignorant of their subject matter, or refuse to maintain discipline will have poor student pass rates. Moreover, in my school system new teachers that do not achieve 80%+ pass rates in their first year are not invited back for a second, and established teacher that do not maintain 80%+ pass rates are put under a great deal of pressure to improve.

...a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right...

---Thomas Paine---

The SOL system is not perfect it does have flaws*.  The cut scores** are too low (50% to 60%), and some cut scores have recently been lowered.  Not, every course has an SOL exam.  The state only requires student pass rates in the 70% to 75% range for accreditation***.  

That said, the SOL system does provide an objective means to evaluate student learning and teacher performance a classroom.  The SOL system creates consequences for both students and schools, for poor levels of student
learning.  The system creates incentives for achieving a minimum level of student learning.  The old "circus environment" has disappeared from many school systems in VA.  I believe that systems such as the VA SOLs are the only shot we have to arrest a nearly nine decades long decline in the quality of our high school graduates****(

* Several of these flaws have been fixed.  For example The Eiffel Tower used to be in the World History I (World History before 1500 AD) SOLs

** Minimum number of correct answers needed to achieve a given proficiency

***Even with such a low requirement about 9% of the states schools are not fully accredited.  

****  In the 1980's and 1990's there were numerous reports commissioned by the USDE and other organizations, which document that the average high school graduate functioned at the level of the average 10th grader in the late 1950's early 1960's.  In the late 1950's and early 1960's there were several similar reports that showed that the average high school graduate in the late 1950's and
early 1960's only functioned at the level of the average 10th grader in the early 1920's (I think that Richard Hofstadter commented on this).

...a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right...

---Thomas Paine---

The typical college grad today would struggle with the last couple of them! Hell, I struggle with the last one. Taught all my kids to read with it and all of them always read well above grade level, even the younger one who had some serious vision and communication challenges.

In Vino Veritas

I used to work for a company that graded the standardized achievement tests of many states. You can design tests so that a desirable number will pass. A good gimmick is to have more essay questions so that they can be graded subjectively. The grading company doesn't want to fail too many students, or the state will contract with somebody else.

In the 90s, the proficiency tests that determined whether or not a person qualfied for a high school diploma, were written at the 8th grade level, in math, reading and language. You could take this test anytime between 8th and 12th grade, and re-take it every year, until you passed it. Most above average students could pass all three tests, the first time BEFORE high school.

CA adopted a more rigorous graduation test to be taken a year prior to graduation, but it underwent a series of lawsuits, and I don't know if it is now mandatory. One of the problems was that persons could complain that there were things on the test which they never covered in their high school classes. For example, Algebra was on the test when the state had no requirement that you take Algebra to graduate. It seemed a little unfair to test somebody on material that they never had to learn in high school.

The CA high school graduation test was so controversial and political that it was being revamped by the legislature and courts, not the school districts. I don't know what happened.

I am aware that their has been a trend towards dumbing down standardized tests in many states (it is one of many ways to cheat on NCLB), but we are talking about the Virginia SOL system, which does not use essays, or any other subjective form of assessment on History, Geography, Math, Reading or Science SOL tests. The only SOL tests that use essays are the English Writing Exams.

P.S. If anything the quality of the SOL questions has improved over the last few years.

...a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right...

---Thomas Paine---

Additionally, the SOLs are written/revised by statewide committees every few years. Individual classroom teachers (except for those few who are on the appropriate committee) do not get to write their own standards. The standardize tests questions are written by a neutral textbook publisher. Individual classroom teachers do not have control of what questions will appear on their students' SOL Exams. The link below includes the state standards for various courses and collections of released test items (old test items no longer in use) check it out and evaluate the SOLs for yourself.

...a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right...

---Thomas Paine---

Don't get me wrong, I would really, really like some sort of merit pay system. I was just pointing out the institutional issues with one.

Governor Murkowski's Commissioner of Ed was a real proponent and even got the Legislature to pass a bill for a merit pay system. They wanted me to negotiate it into the agreements and I just said until they could show me how they could supervise and measure without drowning me in grievances and Law in suits, I wouldn't even put a proposal across the table. That was pretty much the end of it.
In Vino Veritas

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