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Gary Rubinstein’s Blog: Open Letters To Reformers I DON’T Know. Part I: Joel Klein

Opening Plenary – Reflecting on the Past, Present, and Future: What will it take to achieve educational equity? from Teach For America Events on Vimeo.

I haven’t been blogging a lot lately.  The truth is that after four years of this, I’m getting tired.  I’m so thankful that there are so many other bloggers out there picking up the slack for me.  Maybe 2015 will be a year I get my second wind.  My mini discussions with Joel Klein have motivated me to write this thirteenth ‘open letter.’

1/3/15

Dear Mr. Klein,

I started teaching in New York City at Stuyvesant High School in 2002, just before you became chancellor.  Before that, I taught in Denver and also Houston.  Though being a teacher, I know, gives me no ‘seat at the table’ in today’s education climate where the less you’ve taught the more power you have.  (Duncan taught less than you, you taught less than Rhee, White, and Huffman, who each taught for only three years.)

But I do have some things that give me some credibility, even within the reform community.  I was a Teach For America corps member from the second TFA cohort, 1991.  My first year did not go well, but I was not part of the 10% or so TFAers who quit during their first year.  I stuck it out and had a very successful run for the next three years in Houston, even winning Teacher of the Year at my school during my fourth year of teaching.  I worked for TFA in the summer of 1996.  I also worked for the New York City Teaching Fellows when they began in 2001.  I have been teaching at Stuyvesant High School for the past thirteen years.  I’m also a recipient of the Math For America master teacher fellowship.  I’ve written five books, two are about teaching in general, two are math review books, and one is a children’s book I co-wrote.

I mention all this stuff, not to brag, but to establish that I’m probably not the person that you are referring to when you speak and write about ‘ineffective teachers.’  I’m not the best teacher in the country, or the city, or my school, or even in the math department in my school.  But I can confidently say that I’m an ‘effective’ teacher by most common sense standards.

Yet, I’m opposed to what is currently called education ‘reform.’  I wanted to take this space to explain some of my issues with it with the hope that you’re willing to respond.  This is my thirteenth letter of this type, though only three have responded (Wendy Kopp, Michael Johnston, and Mike Petrilli).

You are a professional arguer who has gotten involved in education.  I’m a professional educator who had gotten involved in arguing.  Surely you’re a better arguer than me and I a better educator than you.  That’s why this should be an interesting exchange that will be interesting for people on all sides of the education reform discussion to read.

I’ve come up with eight sub-topics below:

The language in the reform debate

I resent that someone like hedge fund manager Whitney Tilson is known as a first rate education ‘reformer’ while I’m merely an ‘anti-reformer,’ a ‘doubter’ or a ‘status quo defender.’  I am not ‘entrenched’ in the ‘status quo.’  I think that US education is somewhat underachieving.  One issue is that districts have not done a great job of sharing best practices.  Another issue, at least with Math, is that the curriculum has gotten too bloated and uninspiring (Common core was supposed to address this, but I think they blew the opportunity to improve it.  They just trusted the wrong group of people to be on the team.)  Also, school systems are not efficient with their resources.  I see a lot of this going on right now with spending on technology.  So I feel like I deserve to be called a ‘reformer’ too.  I’m not against reform.  I think that the style of reform favored by you, Rhee, Gates, Tilson, and others is going to, in the long run, make education (and test scores, too!) worse in this country.  There just won’t be any people both smart enough to teach yet stupid enough to become a teacher in this environment.

Another phrase that bothers me is ‘always putting students first.’  If you believe that every policy needs to be made with the short term goal of improving test scores than you’d surely support a rule that teachers have to come to school and work seven days a week.  On Saturday and Sunday they could work on planning more efficient lessons and on collaborating or otherwise developing professionally.  This extra time working would benefit students.  Maybe the students can come in for individual tutoring on these extra work days.  What do you think?  See, even though this would be an example of ‘putting students first’ above the ‘adult interests’ (another phrase that annoys me) it isn’t a good long term policy since it would make teaching so unpleasant that it would scare away many teachers.

Transparency

I’ve seen you paraphrase Daniel Moynihan “Critics are entitled to their opinions. But they are not entitled to their own facts.”  I have the same feeling about reformers.  I’ve fact-checked statements by various reformers — Duncan, you, Rhee, White, Barbic.  It’s not easy, sometimes, to track down the facts since some states aren’t so transparent with their data.  I think the worst offenders are Louisiana where new charter schools don’t have their scores published for a few years.  With all the schools closing and opening there, this can be a lot of missing data.  I don’t see how a lack of transparency could in any way put students first.

There is too much secrecy in the reform movement.  This is most pronounced in the attempts to crack the code of Success Academy charter schools.  Some say they have large attrition.  They say they don’t.  When I see that their only 9th grade class has 22 students and they were 71 1st graders when they started, it does seem like a big drop off.  I also understand that over 8 years, this is just 10% a year.  And maybe 10% a year is good.  But of course Success Academy doesn’t backfill while non-charters don’t have that option.  Could you imagine a school system where NO school has to backfill?

Success Academy has posted some incredible math and reading test scores.  They say they do it with the ‘same kids’ as the struggling nearby neighborhood schools.  They also say they do it for the same, if not less, money.  Unfortunately they resist audits of their financial records.  If they have really figured out how schools can single-handedly overcome all the different out-of-school factors that prevent kids from reaching their potential, this would truly be something.  It would go against everything I’ve experienced as a teacher with 18 years of experience at four different schools in three different states.  And Success Academy is not just beating the regular public schools, but also beating the other well known charters, the KIPPs for example, who are getting results not much different than the regular public schools.

Proving, as they claim to, that they have cracked the code that has eluded everyone including the other charters, is something worthy of scrutiny.  It is as if someone claimed to invent a pill that cures Cancer.  For sure all medical researchers would want to investigate this claim.  Some would be ‘doubters’ of course and others would be ‘believers.’  To either side, though, the scrutiny would be useful.  The doubters could use the data to prove that it was a hoax.  The believers could use the data to figure out how to mass produce the cancer drug.

What is the secret?  Is it small class size?  I understand that they have two teachers in each room, one lead teacher and one co-teacher.  The lead teacher is never a first year teacher.  Is that part of what works?  A first year teacher does a year of apprenticeship?  They have extended hours most days.  But then I understand that once a week they have half days for professional development.  So parents have to pick up their kids every Wednesday at noon.  Can all families do this?  They have 15 schools and will soon have 30.  How are we so sure they can scale up?

I’d think that reformers would be begging Success Academy to allow educational researchers to put them under a microscope.  For all the money and effort that this country has put into education, what would ten or twenty million more be to put Las Vegas casino style cameras and microphones into every room?  This kind of scrutiny would result in either Success Academy being debunked by doubters or with a set of best practices that could elevate this country to the top of the international rankings.  So why don’t we do it?  I think it is because you and the reformers are not willing to risk Success Academy being debunked.

Teacher quality in this country

If I were to summarize my sense of the ideas behind the modern ed reform movement, I’d say it is:  Since the quality of the teacher is the most important in-school factor driving student test scores, improving teacher quality is the most efficient way to improve student test scores.  There are too many ineffective teachers in this country.  Some are ineffective because they are not trying hard enough and others will be ineffective no matter how much they try.  By making more accurate teacher evaluations, the ineffective teachers who can be better by working harder will start working harder since the more accurate teacher evaluations will expose them.  The incompetent teachers will not be able to improve much so these evaluations will help identify those so they can be fired.

You have often said that improving the quality of the teacher in front of the room is the best way to improving education.  You also have written on cnn.com “It is not hyperbole to say that the state of education in our country is a challenge to our national security.”  So I think I can infer that you don’t think that the average teacher in this country is doing a very good job.

Reformers claim to be driven by data, yet I’ve never met one who can answer two simple questions that are vital to the foundation of the reform arguments.  The questions are:  1)  What percent of teachers do you think are truly ineffective, average, and highly effective?  2) What grade, on a scale of 0 to 100 would you give to ineffective, average, and highly effective teachers?  The reason the first question is important is that if there are really not so many ineffective teachers, how can this plan to invest billions of dollars in testing and evaluation systems based on the results of those tests in order to identify and target these ineffective teachers really result in much of a bump in achievement?  The second question is important since a reform strategy based on getting teachers to work harder is only viable if we know how good the current average teacher is and then make an estimate of how good the average teacher can be with reforms based on mostly getting them to work harder and not much else.

I think that the average teacher in this country is doing a pretty good job.  I don’t think you would agree with this.  Now there is nobody out there who thinks that teacher quality doesn’t make any difference, certainly not me.  And, on the other side, there is nobody, not even you, who think that teachers are all-powerful and that you can give a ‘great’ teacher a class full of students who are chronically truant and by virtue of that teacher’s greatness, all the students will suddenly come to that class every day and every student will pass the class and the standardized final at the end of the course.

To quantify, suppose an ‘average’ teacher ‘gets through’ to 60 percent of her students.  What does the ‘great’ teacher accomplish?  And what percent of teachers are so ‘great’?  These are such important questions to assess before embarking on a strategy based on raising the quality of the average teacher significantly.

Value-added

I think the idea of identifying the best teachers so we can try to replicate their best practices is a good idea.  But in the rush to find an objective way to rate teachers, the reformers have latched on to somewhat of a Golden Calf — the Sander’s value-added formulas.  If I were a reformer, I’d be irate about quality of this measure.  It is a complete mess.  Would you believe that middle school teachers who teach two different grades often are rated as great teachers in one grade and poor teachers in another?  I blogged about it here.  Thomas Kane can try to defend it all he wants, but there are so many examples of great teachers getting low value-added ratings that it is laughable.  On the flip side, and this isn’t talked about so much, there are surely as many examples of weak teachers getting very good value-added scores.  So the intent to weed out the poor performers is not being accomplished here.  Statistics people call it, I think, ‘noise.’  Yes, if you make it a high enough percent — New York wants to make it 40% — you can get 10% of teachers or whatever to be evaluated as ‘ineffective’ but it is unlikely that these are truly the bottom 10% of teachers.

Merit pay

The main problem with merit pay is that it isn’t just bonuses for the teachers who are judged to be the best by the value-added algorithm.  If that’s all it was, and considering that the value-added is so inaccurate, teachers wouldn’t mind it so much.  It would be like a little random lottery that we are automatically enrolled in.  The issue, I think, is the possibility of getting fired over the same inaccurate calculations that determine who gets merit pay.  In practice I’ve seen plans that give very few people a bonus while many more people get de-merit pay, something like the withholding of a longevity step increase.  There’s only so much money.  The money for the merit pay bonuses have to come from somewhere.  I don’t think this country will be able to recruit very many teachers this way.  Who would want to gamble the possibility of not being able to send his or her kids to college because a computer has judged you ineffective?  For myself, I would not feel so good about getting a bonus based on shoddy math which also got a peer of mine to not get a raise or even to get fired.  Merit pay as most districts who are trying to devise it because of Race To The Top is a Trojan horse.  It looks good at a first glance.  It benefits a few people, maybe not even the most deserving people, while punishing many more people, also maybe not even the least deserving people.

The best teachers already do get opportunities to get rewarded financially and also other ways.  I generally work at City College over the summer teaching math teachers how to use technology in the classroom.  In order to get that job, I had to present myself at an interview and answer their questions about my knowledge about teaching.  I’ve also made some money from book royalties.  Again, being an effective teacher helped me get book contracts.  Within my school I’ve volunteered to do a lot of extra things, presenting at faculty meetings, for example.  So when I asked if I could teach a math elective — my dream course, math research, I was given that opportunity, which has definitely made my job even more satisfying.  I’ve also been awarded the Math For America master teacher fellowship for which I receive a $15,000 annual stipend.  I’m sure my students’ standardized test scores weren’t factored into the decision to award me one of the fellowships since I was never asked to provide them.  The president of Math For America, John Ewing, is actually an outspoken critic of the misuse of math in value-added ratings.  By being part of Math For America, I have some extra responsibilities.  I attend professional development sessions and also lead sessions for other members.  Something else that I’ve done for the past few years is submit a proposal to present at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) national conference.  My proposals have been accepted and Math For America has provided money for the expenses.  I’m very proud of these presentations (rehearsals of them are up on YouTube).  They have been an opportunity for me to share creative teaching ideas with thousands of teachers throughout the country.

I guess what I’m getting at is that by being a good teacher I’ve had these opportunities to get some extra benefits at school and also to make some extra money without it unfairly coming out of the pockets of other teachers or getting them fired.

Effective teachers who need to make more money also have the option of getting their administrative certificate and becoming APs or Principals.  Being an effective teacher will be something that helps them get into an administrative program and that will also help them get a job.

I’m also actually not opposed to teachers who teach at high needs schools making more money than teachers who don’t.  I know they are trying this in Tennessee, but since it is all based on their value-added model which is so flawed, I’m doubtful that it will have much impact.  It would certainly be interesting from a research perspective to see if a teacher who does well at one school will necessarily do well at another school.  Also it would be interesting to know exactly how much money it would require to generate a lot of interest in people transferring and to see what other things might make people want to teach at schools that are labelled as ‘failing.’  Maybe a guarantee of small class size?  Maybe some kind of leadership role?  These are interesting questions to me that are worth thinking about.

Ed Tech

I love good education technology.  Most ed tech is a waste of money, however.  The Geometer’s Sketchpad is my favorite program.  It is great for virtual hands-on discovery learning in Geometry.  There’s a free version too called Geogebra.  It’s a little less user friendly, but still very good.  Having a class website with all the handouts scanned in has been something that has truly benefited my students when they have been absent.  I’ve also made use of cheap screencasting software to do demonstrations for my YouTube channel.  New York City still doesn’t allow cell phones in school, but when the ban is lifted I do plan to use the many free or cheap platforms to allow students to send answers to my computer so I can have more accurate instant assessment.  I’m not sure what the Amplify tablet will cost, but if the price comes down to twenty or thirty dollars a tablet, I could see myself asking my school to invest in them.  If you want to comp me a class set, I’d need at least 34.

Teach For America

What percent of teachers in this country do you believe are ineffective?  5%?  10%?  Something like that?  Now if you take all the Teach For America teachers currently teaching — this includes the 6,000 first years the 5,500 second years, and the maybe 10,000 who are still teaching beyond their two years — what percent of the TFA teachers are ineffective?  Remember that 10% of those 6,000 first year TFAers will quit so they are likely ineffective.  I’d say the percent of ineffective TFAers is not much different than the percent of ineffective teachers in general.  So what purpose does TFA serve?  Well some TFAers will stay in the classroom for ten years and then decide to go into administration and maybe work their way up through the ranks.  Those people will likely not be big followers of the modern reform movement.  No, the only use for TFA it seems is that some TFAers will teach for two or three years and then, before they have a chance to gain wisdom, they get fast tracked to some major leadership role where they can promote the modern reform agenda.  It seems that only a TFAer can rise to this level after two or three years.  This is what we’ve seen with many of the people you’ve mentored — Rhee, White, Huffman, and Anderson — and predictably they don’t last.  I can’t be sure, but I get the sense that it will be a while before a TFAer with just two or three teaching experience gets another opportunity to lead a big school district or be a state commissioner.

I’m actually not opposed to alternative certification.  Some of the best teachers I know started with TFA or with the New York City Teaching Fellows.  But let’s be realistic.  TFAers, as a whole, are not much better than average teachers which, my sense is, you do not think are very good.

Protecting the movement at all costs

I appreciate that you’ve been engaging with me on Twitter.  Many reformers, I believe, are afraid of me.  I’ve actually written thirteen of these open letters and only three people have responded to them.  But you have been willing to defend your positions, and I appreciate that.

But I’ve ‘won’ some of these mini Twitter debates and you’re never willing to concede on any of my clear victories.

The one that I really got you on was P-Tech.  I wrote about how they only had a school average of about 30% on those tests.  You thought this number was skewed by the fact that they require so many of their students to take the test so it is unfair to compare to a school where not so many kids take it.  But when I dug deeper into the public data I learned that only 1.8% of the P-Tech students passed Geometry and 1.6% passed Algebra II.  Even if every student in the school took those tests, that would be only about 5 kids passing for each test.  That is really bad.  P-Tech is a test score disaster.  I know that you used it in the introduction to your book about how the choice to shut down a school and open another can lead to great improvement.  In this case, this particular school hasn’t accomplished much.  Yet, you defend this school so vigorously.  Why?  I think you would have more credibility if you were to admit that P-Tech is a disaster, at least when it comes to math Regents.  When you give free passes to people you have relationships with — whether it is P-Tech or AP scores in Louisiana or KIPP schools in New Orleans that have low test scores — aren’t reformers supposed to be all about ‘increased autonomy for increased accountability’?  When you selectively hold people and schools that you don’t have a connection to more strict accountability than the ones you do, I don’t respect that.

One of your friends and now a co-worker at Amplify is education reform celebrity Geoffrey Canada.  I actually am very much in favor of wrap-around services as a way of helping kids overcome some of the out-of-school factors that serve as obstacles to their learning.  Unfortunately when you look at the test scores at Harlem Children’s Zone, they are horrible.  I know this may make it seem like wrap-around services are underrated, but in this case the poor test results are an example of a very badly run school, despite the wrap-arounds.  I know this because a former student of mine who is now a very happy teacher at Success Academy spent her first miserable year of teaching at Harlem Children’s Zone.  She said it was a very toxic environment where nobody in charge knew what they were doing.  You surely know that Canada ‘fired’ two different cohorts of students since their bad test scores were, I suspect, dragging down his reputation.  To throw away two groups of struggling kids is completely at odds with the sorts of things you write in your book about how all kids can thrive if permitted to learn in the right environment.

Finally, I’ve noticed many inconsistencies in many of your arguments.  When critics say that graduation rate is up to back up their point that schools are not in crisis, you point to the flat long term NAEP scores to refute them.  Then when critics say that New York City has not made great improvements during your tenure and use the lack of NAEP gains (that first test that was administered before you got there doesn’t count, you know!) you point to the increased graduation rate.  I think you need to pick what metrics you think are valid and stick to them.

Well, that’s all I have for you today.  What the people who have responded to me have done is first just get back to me and say ‘yes’ I’m going to write back, but I need a bit of time.  Those who didn’t respond generally didn’t even give the courtesy of saying that they received the letter.  A few told me that they got the letter but they didn’t have the time to write back.  Either way, the point of these letters is not so much to get the response, but to give a long form presentation of my views on different topics to the readers of my blog.

Sincerely,

Gary Rubinstein

Math Teacher

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Gary Rubinstein

Gary Rubinstein is a high school math teacher. He is the recipient of the 2005 Math for America Master Teacher Fellowship. ...