Doctored Education

Using testing as a backdrop, NEA president promotes 1950s industrial-style education.

The American Enterprise Institute’s education policy maven Rick Hess has been traveling around the country promoting his new book The Cage-Busting Teacher. So last week he left his Education Week blog in the hands of National Education Association president Lily Eskelsen García.

Interesting choice, to say the least.

The main point of her May 18th entry, “Is There a Doctor in the Education House?,” is that testing is a bad thing. She makes a few points here that I can agree with. In brief, testing is like food. Basically it’s a good thing. But too much or the wrong kind can be damaging. As such, states and individual school districts need to reevaluate their programs to ensure that their tests are benefiting students and teachers, not bureaucrats, politicians and testing companies.

But Eskelsen García uses the forum to blast various kinds of education reform and makes some comments that strain the life out of credulity.

First, she laments “No Child Left Untested.” Okay, we’ll excuse the old joke, but she refers to the Bush/Kennedy/Clinton law as the “factory model of school reform.” Now coming from the leader of a union that has made the one-size-fits-every-teacher-and-student collective bargaining agreement the Bible of every school district unfortunate enough to be organized with an industrial-style union, that is hubris of the highest order.

Stanford professor and researcher Terry Moe has done extensive work on the subject and found that, bottom line, collective bargaining hurts students in large school districts. Moreover, he found that the negative effects of collective bargaining are much greater for high minority schools than for other schools. He explains,

… the best evidence indicates that the impact of collective bargaining is especially negative for schools that are ‘relatively’ high minority within a given (larger) district. This supports the argument that restrictive contracts put high minority schools at a disadvantage in the competition for teachers and resources within districts.

… collective bargaining does have negative consequences for student achievement, and that the effects are concentrated on precisely those districts and schools—large districts, high-minority schools—that, over the years, have been the lowest performers and the most difficult to improve.

In short the industrialization model of education in the U.S. is bad for kids, but cannot be blamed on NCLB. Fact is, the “factory model” comes with a shiny union label.

Eskelsen García then hits the privatization button, lumping charters and vouchers together in the same pot. The fact that most studies show charters do a better job than traditional public schools – especially with minorities – never makes it to her radar screen. Nor does the fact that vouchers have not only improved education for the kids who have taken advantage of them, but also help those kids who remain in nearby public schools. As I wrote recently, Friedman Foundation senior fellow Greg Forster looked at 23 empirical studies that have examined school choice’s impact on academic outcomes in public schools. Of these, he reports “22 find that choice improves public schools and one finds no visible impact. No empirical study has found that choice harms public schools.”

The union leader’s next bugaboo isfast-track teacher prep, short-term, disposable labor.” This is an obvious swipe at Teach for America, the program that turns out effective teachers despite the fact they go through an initial training for just five to seven weeks and avoid years of useless education school blather. (Actually, one reason TFA teachers do well is because they avoid our traditional schools of education which are in large part free of rigor and loaded with edu-fads-du-jour.) A recent study by Mathematica, an independent policy research group, finds that,

TFA’s first- and second-year elementary school teachers, who average just over a year and a half of teaching experience, were as effective as their counterparts in the same schools, who averaged 13.6 years of teaching experience, as measured by their students’ test scores in reading and math. A small subset of those TFA teachers — ones in pre-K through second-grade classrooms — were found to be slightly more effective in teaching reading than the national average in those grades.

Eskelsen García’s “short term” rap against TFA is also untrue. An extensive PDK study shows that nearly two-thirds of TFA teachers continue as public school teachers beyond their two-year commitment. Also, many who leave their teaching positions stay in the field as administrators, school board members, school district employees, etc.

The union leader ends her piece with “Maybe it’s time to change from the Factory Model of school reform to the Good Doctor Model.” Right, but the “Good Doctor” would of course come with seniority and tenure protections that would guarantee an ongoing practice irrespective of how many patients were buried in the process. And no matter what, her practice would continue to thrive because those who lived in her zip-code would be forced to use her services.

For unionistas, Eskelsen García’s ideas are just what the doctor ordered. But for the patients and those who get stuck with the bill, it’s toxic snake oil.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.