Another Silly Education Fad

I am a conservative and a public school teacher. There are a few of us. I became a teacher after a stint in the Army JAG Corps and eleven years of private practice as an attorney. When I switched careers, I was a partner in a well-regarded Maryland law firm. I made good money, and like any partner in a law firm, my performance (and those of my partners) dictated success and income. 

As a teacher, I've been evaluated much like I was in the Army, by a supervisor who observes my work and provides a mostly boilerplate rating at the end of the year. In the Army, almost all officers are rated highly (an officer with even an "average" rating is a complete flop.) In my school system, teachers are rated as "satisfactory," "in need of improvement," or "unsatisfactory." Needless to say, an overwhelming number of teachers earn a satisfactory rating, even though, as in any such system, some should not. In the view of many, those teachers who slip through the system are the prime culprits for the ills of public education.

As P.J. O'Rourke points out, public education in this country has a rather long and sad history, marked by underperforming students, increasing costs, fads, and almost endless bouts of reform that seem to get nowhere. The education scholar and historian Diane Ravitch, once one of the country's most prominent education "reformers," recently threw in the towel, too, though coming to the opposite conclusion of O'Rourke, accepting that the current system, however dysfunctional, is probably the best we can do. 

But while O'Rourke and Ravitch have in their own way given up, the public education system is once again being assailed by reformers, led by President Obama and Arne Duncan, first basketball bud and new Secretary of Education. They are assisted in this challenge by a legion of do-gooder Ivy-Leaguers, many of them veterans of Teach for America, and their focus is on teaching. 

Teach for America has become something of the Peace Corps of the new millennium, with better pay and nicer toilets. After a couple of years teaching in an urban school, 40% of these dedicated educators high-tail it for still better pay and yet nicer toilets. After five years, 80% abandon the classroom -- those that remain in education trend towards leadership and policy positions, where their zeal for reform earns even bigger bucks, publicity, and in some cases, hero-worship. They are, of course, exemplified by D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee.

Rhee's recent firing of hundreds of D.C. teachers may cheer some conservatives. It certainly warms the hearts of the Washington Post's editorial board, which has supported Rhee through thick and thin. Perhaps education reform makes for strange bedfellows. At any rate, much of the underlying rationale for the firings appears to rest on conservative principles of accountability in that the evaluation system, dubbed IMPACT, is based on so-called value-added statistical models, in which teacher evaluations are tied to student performance on standardized tests. 

The problem with rating performance among educators, the military, or for pretty much any governmental job is that unlike in the private economy, there is no bottom line. The market cannot tell us how well a teacher, officer, or bureaucrat is performing, and so we rely on supervisory opinions, which can be marred by favoritism, politics, policy, or downright incompetence.  

Value-added systems are attractive to some conservatives because they seem to mimic "the market." That is, they supposedly provide a bottom line, a kind of profit/loss balance sheet against which teachers can be fairly judged. 

But this is a chimera. It's like rating a salesman not on how many cars he sells, but on how well the purchasers drive them. In reality, value-added systems have more in common with Marxist-Leninist economic hocus-pocus than the invisible hand. Faceless statisticians produce a product that is complex, opaque, and too eccentric for ordinary mortals to understand -- and on top of that, just plain wrong much of the time. 

A recent study prepared for the Department of Education shows that these systems tend to be wrong 35% of the time evaluating a teacher after one year, and still wrong 25% of the time after three years. Think what you will about teachers, but it's fundamentally wrong to end someone's career based on a complex statistical model that's wrong anywhere from one-quarter to one-third of the time. And if it's good enough for teachers, one day it might be good enough for you.

From a conservative perspective, this sort of complex, incomprehensible "evaluation" is just the kind of charlatanism that underlies leftist-liberal cant about global warming and 2,000-page legislative solutions to various other crises like health care, energy policy, and financial regulation. The fact that a lot of public-school teachers and their unions support these very policies doesn't mean that equally wrongheaded ideas as applied to them are right, even if it seems just desserts.

So what is the solution to our pubic education "crisis"? I don't know. Bad teachers are certainly a part of the problem, but I think a relatively small one in the entire universe of the mess. Detecting these underperformers is never going to be easy, but it can be done without resort to faddish reliance on bad science. And let's be honest: Unions are there to protect teachers, not students, and it would be absurd if it were otherwise. Students have plenty of advocates, beginning with mom and dad. Come to think of it, from a conservative perspective, that really is the heart of the matter.      
I am a conservative and a public school teacher. There are a few of us. I became a teacher after a stint in the Army JAG Corps and eleven years of private practice as an attorney. When I switched careers, I was a partner in a well-regarded Maryland law firm. I made good money, and like any partner in a law firm, my performance (and those of my partners) dictated success and income. 

As a teacher, I've been evaluated much like I was in the Army, by a supervisor who observes my work and provides a mostly boilerplate rating at the end of the year. In the Army, almost all officers are rated highly (an officer with even an "average" rating is a complete flop.) In my school system, teachers are rated as "satisfactory," "in need of improvement," or "unsatisfactory." Needless to say, an overwhelming number of teachers earn a satisfactory rating, even though, as in any such system, some should not. In the view of many, those teachers who slip through the system are the prime culprits for the ills of public education.

As P.J. O'Rourke points out, public education in this country has a rather long and sad history, marked by underperforming students, increasing costs, fads, and almost endless bouts of reform that seem to get nowhere. The education scholar and historian Diane Ravitch, once one of the country's most prominent education "reformers," recently threw in the towel, too, though coming to the opposite conclusion of O'Rourke, accepting that the current system, however dysfunctional, is probably the best we can do. 

But while O'Rourke and Ravitch have in their own way given up, the public education system is once again being assailed by reformers, led by President Obama and Arne Duncan, first basketball bud and new Secretary of Education. They are assisted in this challenge by a legion of do-gooder Ivy-Leaguers, many of them veterans of Teach for America, and their focus is on teaching. 

Teach for America has become something of the Peace Corps of the new millennium, with better pay and nicer toilets. After a couple of years teaching in an urban school, 40% of these dedicated educators high-tail it for still better pay and yet nicer toilets. After five years, 80% abandon the classroom -- those that remain in education trend towards leadership and policy positions, where their zeal for reform earns even bigger bucks, publicity, and in some cases, hero-worship. They are, of course, exemplified by D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee.

Rhee's recent firing of hundreds of D.C. teachers may cheer some conservatives. It certainly warms the hearts of the Washington Post's editorial board, which has supported Rhee through thick and thin. Perhaps education reform makes for strange bedfellows. At any rate, much of the underlying rationale for the firings appears to rest on conservative principles of accountability in that the evaluation system, dubbed IMPACT, is based on so-called value-added statistical models, in which teacher evaluations are tied to student performance on standardized tests. 

The problem with rating performance among educators, the military, or for pretty much any governmental job is that unlike in the private economy, there is no bottom line. The market cannot tell us how well a teacher, officer, or bureaucrat is performing, and so we rely on supervisory opinions, which can be marred by favoritism, politics, policy, or downright incompetence.  

Value-added systems are attractive to some conservatives because they seem to mimic "the market." That is, they supposedly provide a bottom line, a kind of profit/loss balance sheet against which teachers can be fairly judged. 

But this is a chimera. It's like rating a salesman not on how many cars he sells, but on how well the purchasers drive them. In reality, value-added systems have more in common with Marxist-Leninist economic hocus-pocus than the invisible hand. Faceless statisticians produce a product that is complex, opaque, and too eccentric for ordinary mortals to understand -- and on top of that, just plain wrong much of the time. 

A recent study prepared for the Department of Education shows that these systems tend to be wrong 35% of the time evaluating a teacher after one year, and still wrong 25% of the time after three years. Think what you will about teachers, but it's fundamentally wrong to end someone's career based on a complex statistical model that's wrong anywhere from one-quarter to one-third of the time. And if it's good enough for teachers, one day it might be good enough for you.

From a conservative perspective, this sort of complex, incomprehensible "evaluation" is just the kind of charlatanism that underlies leftist-liberal cant about global warming and 2,000-page legislative solutions to various other crises like health care, energy policy, and financial regulation. The fact that a lot of public-school teachers and their unions support these very policies doesn't mean that equally wrongheaded ideas as applied to them are right, even if it seems just desserts.

So what is the solution to our pubic education "crisis"? I don't know. Bad teachers are certainly a part of the problem, but I think a relatively small one in the entire universe of the mess. Detecting these underperformers is never going to be easy, but it can be done without resort to faddish reliance on bad science. And let's be honest: Unions are there to protect teachers, not students, and it would be absurd if it were otherwise. Students have plenty of advocates, beginning with mom and dad. Come to think of it, from a conservative perspective, that really is the heart of the matter.