There's a Big Problem With Time's Teacher-Bashing Cover Story

With a cover that announces "Rotten Apples: It's Nearly Impossible to Fire a Bad Teacher" alongside an image of a judge's gavel about to smash a fruit, you might suspect Time magazine (10/23/14) is doing some good old-fashioned teacher-bashing.

You'd be right.

There are a few problems with the story, but the biggest one is pretty familiar: It buries the lead. The Time piece, by Haley Sweetland Edwards, waits until the very end to tell readers that the teacher evaluation scheme central to the argument it's advancing is highly dubious.

The article is about how a small group of very wealthy Silicon Valley millionaires have decided they're the ones who can fix America's public schools–a "half-dozen tech titans who are making the repair of public education something of a second career." The movement has been joined by people like "CNN anchor turned education activist Campbell Brown."

The piece focuses on a relatively unknown figure named David Welch, an "unassuming father of three" who "clearly prefers a world of concrete facts to taking sides." Welch evidently came up with the novel legal strategy behind the Vergara case in California. A court ruling in June found that tenure provisions serve to protect failing public school teachers, and thus the civil rights of the students forced to endure these conditions have been violated.

Time tells readers that Welch arrived at this simple conclusion by asking a "big-city California superintendent" how to fix the schools. His answer "blew Welch away":

The educator didn't ask for more money or more iPads. "He said, 'Give me control over my workforce,'" Welch said. "It just made so much sense. I thought, Why isn't anyone doing something about that? Why isn't anyone fixing this?"

So someone with enormous power in a system thinks the problems is that he needs more power. Got it.

Time does admit that teacher job protections used to be important:

Before states began passing tenure laws in the early 20th century, a teacher could be fired for holding unorthodox political views or attending the wrong church, or for no reason at all if the local party boss wanted to pass on the job to someone else.

But nowadays, such protections are used to protect the bad apples, which is obvious to anyone who watches sensationalistic coverage of public schools:

But what began as a popular idea has become increasingly controversial as countless stories of schools and districts being unable to fire bad teachers have populated the news. In a story that hit headlines in 2009, the LA Unified School District was legally barred from firing a teacher who told an eighth-grade student who had recently tried to slit his own wrists to "carve deeper next time." Episodes like that help explain why even in California, where the electorate votes overwhelmingly Democratic and is often sympathetic to unions, recent polls show that voters are skeptical of tenure.

Turns out that if people are exposed to wildly unrepresentative horror stories about abusive teachers, it impacts how they feel about job protections.

But back to the main point: Time reports that Welch and his ilk were able to find "a flood of new academic research on teacher quality " to back up their hunch that bad teachers are the problem. One research team relied on a "a controversial tool called value-added measures (VAM)" to measure teacher effectiveness, and they "found that replacing a poorly performing teacher with an excellent one could increase students' lifetime earnings by $250,000 per classroom."

So there's a technique that supposedly measures teacher quality, and you can sue public schools that fail to adopt it. Does anyone have a problem with this approach? Of course. Teachers, for example, and their unions–who are, shockingly, never quoted in Time's piece.

But we do get some outside perspectives: one researcher for a "conservative education think tank," and… another analyst for a conservative think tank (Michael McShane of the American Enterprise Institute). That's where Time went when it needed to find critics.There are, of course, plenty of other analysts who could critique the Silicon Valley approach.

But then, at the end of the piece, we finally get to the heart of the matter: Do these statistical models that purport to give us objective data on teacher effectiveness actually do what they claim?

The question of how to judge a teacher's value gets to a fundamental irony in the national war over education reform today. Welch's unexpected victory in Vergara, which hinges on the necessity–and feasibility–of measuring a teacher's effectiveness, comes just as a broad range of educational experts have begun to question the validity of the tests and evaluations on which those teacher-effectiveness measures are based.

Huh. "Irony" might be the right term to describe the problem here: The wealthy interests who claim they have found a system for measuring teacher quality may in fact have no such system at all–but are nonetheless attempting to use their power to make decisions about who should remain in the classroom. This is the fundamental problem; but for Time, you explain this is in the second-to-last-paragraph of the piece, where the magazine spells out the doubts about these "value added" models:

In April, the American Statistical Association released a statement questioning whether VAM, the methodology that undergirds the Chetty study, adequately measures a teacher's total value to a student's education. In May, the American Educational Research Association found a "surprisingly weak" correlation between teachers' VAM scores and their actual skills, as evaluated by surveys and expert observations. In July, the Department of Education found that VAM scores varied wildly depending on what time of day tests were administered or whether the kids were distracted. Even the Silicon Valley reformers appear willing to dial back the emphasis on testing and evaluations, at least for a bit.

So the whole foundation of this approach to "fixing" American public schools could very well be bogus? If that's the argument–which, it should be stressed, is not new (Extra!, 4/11)–then why is this at the end of the piece? And why doesn't the cover advertise the fact that the millionaires "saving" public education could very well be relying on a highly flawed method of sorting out the "bad apples"?

When you're profiling millionaires who prefer "concrete facts" to "taking sides" in their drive to "repair" public schools, it seems like you might want to do more to emphasize what the facts are.

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