Tuesday, March 26, 2013

California "Reformers" Seek Judicial Over-Reach Based on No Evidence

Dave Welch, Chief Strategic Officer of Infinera. and the famed attorney Theodore B. Olson believe that five education laws "are destroying California's public education system, demoralizing the teaching profession, and robbing California children of their future." They believe they know how to rid the state of "stagnant, disinterested and uninspiring teachers."  So, they have filed Vergara v California which would strip Californians of their democratic rights to a public education system consistent with their beliefs.
In their press release, Welch and Olson claim to believe, "recent research shows that teaching effectiveness is not only measurable, it is the most important determinant of a child's academic (and future) success--more important than socio-economic status, parent involvement or even per-pupil funding."  Their belief in such an outrageous statement may not be strong enough to put it in a legal brief but, then again, many "reformers" seem to believe that they can play fast and loose with research.

Welch's and Olson's lawsuit claims, "The key determinant of educational effectiveness is teacher quality."  In fact, up to 90% of the factors that determine student performance are beyond the control of teachers. I wonder whether they believe that opposing lawyers will let such a false statement go unchallenged.
I wonder if Welch and Olson really believe that their characterizations of their evidence is actually consistent with the findings of social scientists.  After all, their misstatements of facts are not much worse than the sloppiness of two of their sensationalist sources, LA Weekly and the Los Angeles Times' series which used test score growth estimates to embarrass individual teachers.  And, several of their claims were issued by "astroturf" policy groups such as the TNTP, the Center on Reinventing Education, and the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ). All of the above engage in spin that contradicts even their own evidence.

The NCTQ, for instance, acknowledges that none of California's requirements for firing teachers appears "overly onerous." But, "principals asserted that they have only enough time to dismiss one or two teachers a year." And, Vergara would strike down another law because a poll of principals says that they believe it takes three years (not the current two) to identify whether a teacher is effective. So, Welch's and Olson's constitutional argument is that they believe that due process and seniority should be struck down, and those beliefs are based on a poll of administrators' beliefs.
I am struck, however, by what they seem to believe are the findings of the legitimate researchers they cite. For instance, Vergara's strongest evidence comes from "The Long-Term Impacts of Teachers: Teacher Value-Added and Student Outcomes in Adulthood" (Working Paper 17699, Dec. 2011) by Chetty, Freidman, and Rockoff. But, the evidence of Chetty et. al says little or nothing about the policy issues involved in firing teachers. They simply found that, on the average, the performance of teachers, measured by their statistical models, was not significantly altered when teachers changed jobs. They estimate with only 80% precision that a teacher with low value-added is among the worst 15% in the system. But, Welch and Olson want to fire individual teachers, and that should take a different level of evidence.

Vergara asks the court to prohibit the enforcement of any policy that is "substantially similar to the framework" which is now the law of California. So, what would that mean for California teachers? Welch and Olson draw upon the "research" of organizations that want to micromanage schools to the point of mandating performance pay and the minimum amount of hours that teachers work at school  One would even prohibit substitute-calling systems for teachers to report absences! Welch and Olson would explicitly seek a permanent injunction prohibiting teachers from having more due process rights than they believe is necessary.

Welch and Olson want to replace democratically crafted laws with their beliefs on "teacher effectiveness" i.e. test scores.  What would that mean?  One of their featured sources, the NCTQ, suggests what many "reformers" really believe, "Economists recommend that districts should routinely dismiss at least the bottom-performing 25 percent of teachers eligible for tenure in order to build a high-quality teaching corps that is capable of making significant gains in student achievement."
I wonder who Welch and Olson believe would be willing to take those teachers' place. Why would talented professionals become teachers when they have a 20% chance per year of having their career damaged or destroyed through no fault of their own? 

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