Brian Ford, teacher and author, wrote this letter to the editor of TIME magazine, in response to the demeaning cover about teachers as “Rotten Apples” who cannot be fired. The cover said that “tech millionaires” had figured out how to deal with those teachers.
To the Editors of Time Magazine:
“The media’s the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power. Because they control the minds of the masses.” – Malcolm X
I hope Malcolm X was wrong about media controlling ‘the minds of the masses,’ but the Time cover on teacher tenure with the phrase ‘Rotten Apples’ emblazoned across it shows that his other points were spot on. Irresponsible media can accuse with impunity, they can treat as hereos tech millionaires who lambast teachers by not only encouraging the use of, but use the courts to compel the use of techniques such as ‘Value-added measurement.’
Having written extensively on VAMs, I am aware of what a troubled and inaccurate method it is. I am not going to enter into all the reasons –I have a book about that–, but the “flood of new academic research on teacher quality” is dubious at best, deliberately misleading at times, often relying on a single study of a single school in a single year and then generalizing that to all schools everywhere in all years. Furthermore, this research is often miscategorized and misrepresented by advocates for a quick fix. But there is no quick fix – the problems of our schools are rooted in social pathologies, not teacher quality.
It is concentrated poverty, not teacher quality that plagues our system – or, more accurately, those parts of the system which serve the poorest quarter of our population. Even Eric Hanushek of Stanford, who is known for saying we need to “replace the bottom five to eight percent of our teachers in terms of effectiveness,” stresses that “an average teacher is quite good in our schools” and would rate well against teachers anywhere in the world. And almost no one suggests what seems obvious – that tenure draws people into the teaching pool who might go elsewhere, thus very likely making the average teacher significantly better.
On the other side, the so-called fixes would make things worse, much worse. What none of the advocates admit is this: it narrows the curriculum. The ‘value’ measured is not that that of character or creativity, but is based on standardized tests and how students perform on them. It has nothing to do with their dreams or aspirations, on their unique gifts or their personal histories and, as one might expect, since the advent of high stakes tests in the early 1990s, young people have had documented declines in creativity. Administrators and teachers are pressured to teach students to do well on the short list of skills the tests measure, not on how to have a meaningful life.
Those tests are themselves narrow in many ways, but in one way they are not: they are sweeping in their ability to make money. Pearson education has a nearly half a billion dollar contract to provide testing services in Texas. As for venture capitalists, the money has gone up 30-fold, from $13 million in 2005 to $389 million in 2011. As former Massachusetts Governor William Weld said some years ago, the “fundamentals are all aligned for a great number of people to make a whole lot of money in this sector.”
Weld finished his statement, “and do well by doing good.” That is always the claim. Dismantle the public system to serve the students. This is done in the strangest way — teacher autonomy declines and long term professionals are pushed out not because they are ‘bad,’ but because they have higher salaries. The problem is that far too many advocates of this position are trying to make room in the budget for their own payments; ranging from Rupert Murdoch to purveyors of virtual education to TFA to Pearson to the Gates-funded, Michelle Rhee-founded organizations the New Teacher Project, have an interest, financial and professional, in labeling the system as failing.
Add to this those with political interests to do the same, from the Bushes to Chris Christie to Scott Walker to Kevin Johnson, and you have a potent force able to craft messages that are in their own interests, but not those of a democratic nation the most important foundation of which is its public education system.
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First, my own book, Brian Ford, Respect For Teachers or The Rhetoric Gap and How Research on Schools is Laying the Ground for New Business Models in Education, Rowman and Littlefield, 2012. https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781475802078
Eric Hanushek speaking, “Class Size and Student Achievement,” Diane Rehm Show, 8 March 2011; accessed June 2011 at http://thedianerehmshow.org/shows/2011-03-08/class-size-and-student-achievement.
Luke Quinton & Kate Mcgee, “What’s in Texas’ $500 Million Testing Contract with Pearson?” KUT.ORG News, Austin, Texas, July 16, 2013; accessed October 2014 at http://kut.org/post/what-s-texas-500-million-testing-contract-pearson.
Stephanie Simon,”Private firms eyeing profits from U.S. public schools,” Reuters, New York, 2 August 2012; accessed October 2014 at http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/08/02/usa-education-investment-idUSL2E8J15FR20120802
Kyung Hee Kim, “The Creativity Crisis: The Decrease in Creative Thinking Scores on the Torrance
Tests of Creative Thinking,” Creativity Research Journal, 2011, Vol. 23:4, pp. 285-295.
Weld quote was from Walsh, Ed Week, 19 Jan 2000, p. 13