Teaching Profession Opinion

John Thompson: Vergara Show Trial Highlights Gates Foundation Snake Oil

By Anthony Cody — February 13, 2014 5 min read
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Guest post by John Thompson.

I hope the judge in Vergara v. California understands that the plaintiffs want to do more than strike down five laws that protect the rights of the state’s teachers. It is a part of a corporate assault on unions, collective bargaining and, perhaps, even on public education. The trial is a venue for market-driven reformers’ high-dollar publicity campaign, for presenting adorable images of students who they claim are victims of the due process rights of teachers. That is why expert witnesses, like the Gates Foundation’s Tom Kane, present so many beautiful multi-colored graphics bolstered by misleading numbers.

Ed Source’s Louis Freedberg is particularly good at following the money behind Vergara. Freedberg explains that Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch founded Students Matter, apparently for the purpose of filing the lawsuit. He filled the organization’s board with venture capitalist luminaries and longtime advocates for market-driven school reform. Vergara’s media blitz was choreographed by the communications firm of Griffin/Schein. Freedberg described the kickoff of the media campaign:

Within minutes of the trial's opening at 10 a.m., reporters received an email "live from the courtroom" with a 54-slide Power Point outlining the plaintiffs' case, as well as a"Trial Tracker" that promised daily highlights and quotes, as well as footage from the trial. Before 6 p.m., at the end of the day, another email blast declared that "California Students Get Their Day in Court."

I previously explained the ways that two of Tom Kane’s Powerpoint slides actually are based on evidence that argues against Vergara. Kane uses value-added modeling to argue that the legal rights of teachers reduces the effectiveness of inner city schools. A more fair-minded look at Kane’s evidence indicates that it is poverty that undermines urban teaching.

Gary Rubenstein reviewed the math behind Kane’s closing graphic. Kane argues that the bottom 5% of teachers taught 3.2% of white students and 5.4% of Hispanic students. This statistic was the basis of bar graph presenting the accurate but misleading fact that Hispanics are 68% more likely to be taught by a teacher that Kane believes to be “ineffective.” This point is driven home with a slide utilizing two shades of green, a pinkish color, three shades of brown, and three shades of blue, and displaying images of students.

At the bottom is the note that the data is based on the statistical model used by Raj Chetty, another witness for Vergara. This illustrates the key to the plaintiff’s evidence. Their case is based on the opinions of true believers in corporate reform, bolstered by the same cadre of like-minded economists whose work is funded and promoted by corporate reformers.

Math whiz Rubenstein explains that Kane and the plaintiffs argue that state laws must be stricken because they create an imbalance in teacher quality. Their Power Point supposedly shows that Los Angeles Hispanics are being taught by a disproportionate number of ineffective teachers. Actually, Kane’s chart shows that, “in a system of 45,000 teachers, 100 teachers, or two-tenths of one percent of the teachers there comprises the entire ‘imbalance’ where Latino students are burdened with their unfair share of ‘ineffective’ teachers.”

Worse, the plaintiffs claim is based on an algorithm which the model makers admit produces an average of 20% false positives, meaning that 20 of those teachers are inaccurately classified an ineffective. Most scholars estimate that such models are more likely to misclassify 25% of teachers. Since those models are systematically biased against teachers with large numbers of low-income students, as well as those classified as special education students and English Language Learners, Kane’s estimate is even more questionable.

An unknown number of teachers identified by Kane are actually ineffective. An unknown number are merely categorized as “ineffective” because they teach in ineffective schools. We should always work to hold bad teachers and bad schools accountable, but these corporate reformers are pushing a scheme that would drive good teachers out of urban schools where it is harder to meet targets as measured by Kane’s metrics.

The plaintiffs are silent about the solutions they would impose but, almost certainly, they seek value-added teacher evaluations. In other words, they would deny 45,000 Los Angeles teachers their democratic and due process rights to oppose the imposition of the inaccurate evaluation system which is so beloved by Bill Gates.

Kane’s value-added teacher evaluation model would wrongly indict thousands of Los Angeles teachers as “ineffective.” This would be justified, he claims, because most would be cleared of that charge by the use of “multiple measures.” His other metrics would supposedly reduce the number of unfair terminations to an acceptable level. In other words, teachers should trust that the other components of his system, as implemented in a district run by corporate reformer John Deasy, would prevent their careers from being ruined. Kane does not ask, however, whether he would commit to a career teaching in the inner city if there was a 5%, or a 15%, or a 10%, or whatever chance PER YEAR of having his career damaged or destroyed through no fault of his own.

Vergara is a tragic distraction from the real problems facing our high-challenge schools, as well as the real reasons why it is difficult to staff high-poverty schools. The horrific conditions that undermine the performance of poor children of color also wear down teachers, making it difficult for low-performing schools to retain their top teachers, and replace their low-performing ones.

I’m dismayed that the judge has allowed so much of the trappings of a public relations blitz to be entered into evidence. I’m more saddened by the lost opportunity. What if the immense marketing skills that have been selling the Vergara snake oil had been used to promote win-win solutions? What if this anti-teacher advertising campaign had been used to raise consciousness about science-based methods of improving urban education?

What do you think? Should the court be offended by the introduction of so much public relations spin into the legal system? Why won’t Vergara’s plaintiffs trust in their evidence and legal logic of their high-dollar lawyers and not the marketing skills of their advertising firm? If their merchandizing talents had been directed to solutions, not attacking teachers, would that have been a better way of helping students?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.