Federal Opinion

John Thompson: Time to Fact-Check the Reformers

By Anthony Cody — December 03, 2013 4 min read
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Guest post by John Thompson.

When Diane Ravitch spoke in Rhode Island, she explained that test scores were at their highest point in the past 40 years but that they “slowed after the passage of NCLB and Race to the Top. The largest recent gains occurred from 2000-2003, before the implementation of NCLB.”

PolitiFact Rhode Island determined that Ravitch’s statement was “Mostly False.” Now, it provides the next best thing to an apology - the publishing of the truth. PolitiFact now reports that “we believe her statement implied” that scores dropped after NCLB and RttT. They also say that numerous readers complained about their judgment, adding:

John Thompson, of Oklahoma City, had a similar complaint. "You wrote that the word 'until' implies that progress stopped with NCLB and [Race to the Top]. Where did you get that from? How is that the implication? The reality was that decades of growth 'slowed' after those reforms. Ravitch's statement is also consistent with her carefully worded explanations that the education system, as a whole, has improved while failing poor children. We've had forty years of growth, but progress stagnated after NCLB.

That raises a question. What if school reformers were open about their errors in fact and their misleading use of language? How would reformers fare if their facts were truly held up to scrutiny?

Here are some of their claims:

Arne Duncan: KIPP Schools produce better reults with “the same students, in the same building.”

I heard Duncan make that misstatement in Oklahoma City, claiming that the 123 students retained by the KIPP Moon Academy were the same students in the same building as the 501 students in the old Moon Middle School that was featured in Harper’s Index after 80 percent of the sixth-grade class was suspended due to a lunchroom food fight. The old Moon had a poverty rate that ranged between 90 to 100 percent, and its special education population ranged between 24 to 33 percent. It took seven years for the new KIPP school, with a poverty rate of 85 percent and with 7 percent of students on special education IEPs to reach an average daily attendance of 236.

Roland Fryer: His Apollo 20 experiment in Houston shows that the “No Excuses” structure of high-performing charters would work in traditional public schools who take everyone who walks in the door.

In fact, Fryer’s Apollo 20 high schools started with a population that was 86% low-income, but the students who persisted until testing were 61% low income. In other words, Fryer’s finding argues against the feasibility of scaling up the “No Excuses” approach.

The TNTP: In their 2009 report, The Widget Effect, TNTP claimed Toledo peer review (PAR) only removed .7% of the teachers evaluated by the American Federation of Teachers. It also misrepresented the number of teachers in the New York City Absent Teacher Reserve (ATR) who were actually teaching, thus implying that they were ineffective teachers.

The facts are that under the Toledo Plan, 9.2% of the teachers evaluated by the union were “nonrenewed or resigned” after the 2007-08 school year. In the Rochester PAR program 7% of the new teachers exited, as did 9.7% in Syracuse, while 10.5% of novices resigned in Montgomery County or had their peer review process extended for another year. Those are all higher that the percentages of teachers dismissed in top down systems like the Washington D.C. IMPACT.

Regarding the ATR, I could further recount the TNTP’s misuse of statistics, but the key issue is its anti-union spin. The United Federation of Teachers warned the TNTP and NYC that their reforms would create a problem. In fact, it was the TNTP’s misguided policy that created the ATR problem.

And, that leads to a final truth in advertising question. Arne Duncan leveraged his power to “incentivize” states to adopt dubious value-added evaluations. He pressured districts to use a statistical model to fire teachers even though the best of the algorithms produce false positives or false negatives around 26% of the time, and seem to systemically discriminate against teachers with large numbers of low-income students, English Language Learners, and special education students, or high-performing students.

This has led to egregious misidentification of many good teachers as “ineffective.” The New York Post last year labeled Pascale Mauclair “the city’s worst teacher” based on her value-added scores. It turned out, however, that she was considered an excellent teacher, and her scores were a reflection of the population of English learners concentrated in her classes.

What if Duncan used his power of NCLB waivers to promote transparency?

What if Duncan incentivized the attachment of a factually accurate disclaimer to every teacher evaluation, and required that it be signed by all parties?

Teacher Evaluation Rubric, formerly known as Teacher Evaluation

The use of the word “Ineffective” does not imply that the teacher being evaluated is ineffective in instruction or other duties that the teacher performed. Any determination of “Ineffective” merely indicates that the metrics used in the rubric result in a number that is lower than the number which defines “Effective.” The ______ Public School System’s termination of any teacher does not imply that evaluators believe that the teacher is ineffective. This determination merely complies with the law of the state of _____, which was passed under pressure from the United States Department of Education. In obeying the law and terminating ______, the school system does not assert that the metrics used to dismiss teacher reflect actual ineffectiveness.

What do you think? Do we need a truth in labeling system for education reform? Or would reformers ignore it like they have ignored the facts that are inconvenient for them?

John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.

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