I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Friday, August 28, 2015

Karen Lewis on Carly Fiorina: "That's a Lie"

Carly Fiorina was one of the six Republicans to participate in Campbell Brown's education summit (which was really nothing more than a teachers union-bashing fest). As I pointed out, Fiorina was stunningly ill-informed and incoherent on education policy.

But that flies in the face of the conventional wisdom about her recent surge in the polls. Ostensibly, she showed she was a serious candidate in the first Republican debate, demonstrating a command of policy that impressed voters. But her appearance with Brown actually displayed the opposite: Fiorina doesn't much care if she can back up her facts of not, so long as they help her score political points.

For example:
"It’s why the head of the teachers union in Chicago, when they struck, against Mayor Rahm Emanuel, it’s why she could say: 'We can’t be held accountable for the performance of students in our classrooms because too many of them are poor and come from broken families.' So what was she saying? If you’re poor and come from a broken family we can’t teach you because you can’t learn. That is not the American way."
That's from her interview with Brown; Karen Lewis is the union leader Fiorina is referring to. It's a damning accusation, especially considering Lewis is a teacher herself, with many years of experience in the Chicago Public Schools chemistry labs.

I thought it was worth asking Lewis what she thought of this attack. As usual, she minced no words:
"It's a lie. I never said that, but Fiorina has used that tired trope repeatedly. What I said was the VAM portion did not take into consideration the condition of our students' lives.”
VAM stands for Value-Added Modeling, the test-based component of the Chicago teacher evaluation system. Lewis has good company: the American Statistical Association has strongly questioned the use of VAM, stating: "Ranking teachers by their VAM scores can have unintended consequences that reduce quality.

Maybe Fiorina thinks the ASA also doesn't believe in "the American way."

I have searched for any primary source that documents Lewis saying that Chicago's teachers shouldn't be held accountable for their students' learning. So far, I've found nothing. Here's CTU's official position on test-based evaluation:
What is CTU’s position on the inclusion of student growth measures for teacher evaluation?
Student growth is supposed to be fairer than just comparing where students are at the end of the year without looking at where they started.  However, the student growth measure says much more about student factors like health, poverty, and neighborhood than it does about the teacher.  Student growth is actually a measure of growth on the tests--leaving out social, emotional, and non-tested academic growth.  CTU is not in favor of the use of these student growth measures, especially the “value-added measure” used for elementary student growth, as it is statistically unreliable and cannot account for all factors that impact student achievement on tests.
What's funny is that Fiorina herself thinks testing companies have too much influence over American education. So, does she agree with Lewis that VAM is a pernicious influence, or doesn't she?

I've contacted Fiorina's campaign to ask for a link to a source that backs up her attack on Lewis. So far, no response. I guess that's "the American way" these days...

If and when I hear from Fiorina's people, I'll update this post.

Is misquoting teachers "the American way"?

Monday, August 24, 2015

The American Public Understands: Our Schools Are Underfunded

The evidence has been accumulating for a while: America's schools do not have the funds they need to achieve the results that we expect. Most states have flat funding systems that do not move resources into high-poverty districts where it is needed. School funding is, in most states, still suffering from the effects of the Great Recession. Yet we know that money matters in education.

It appears that the American public understands this (click to enlarge):


72 percent of Republicans say funding is at least "somewhat important" for the schools. Perhaps more interesting, the view of the public at large on the importance of school funding tracks very closely to the view of public school parents.

You'll also notice blacks are more likely to say funding is "very important" than whites. Perhaps because too many black children are attending schools with inadequate funding?

This attitude toward school funding is not an anomaly:
Lack of financial support is the biggest problem facing American schools, according to respondents to the PDK/Gallup poll. That’s been a consistent message from the public for the past 10 years. Having sufficient money to spend would improve the quality of the public schools, according to a sizable portion of American adults. Nearly half of public school parents said having sufficient money was key to improving the quality of the public schools. [emphasis mine]
The message from the public is quite clear. And yet, according to the Republican presidential candidates and what I perceive to be the majority of the education "reform" industry, funding reform isn't nearly as important as implementing test-based accountability systems, expanding "choice," and gutting teacher workplace protections.

Yes, it appears the public likes some forms of school choice... but why is that? Could it be that no one wants to "choose" an inadequately funded school for their child? Those who point to allegedly long waiting lists for charter schools neglect to mention that those waiting lists are only for a few, select, high-performing schools. Most of those charters enjoy a resource advantage over both their fellow less-affluent charters ("research" by the charter industry that shows otherwise is deeply flawed) often thanks to large philanthropic grants. These charters also have smaller expenses due to the fact that they tend to serve those students who cost less to educate.


The reformsters pretend that urban parents are "choosing" schools that have non-unionized staffs which allow them to "innovate." But I've seen little evidence these high-flying charters do anything with their curricula or teaching methods that's truly innovative.

Here's a much more plausible explanation: When urban parents "choose" high-profile charter schools, they are really "choosing" schools with resource advantages. It just makes sense: if the public believes that school funding matters, and public schools are underfunded, why wouldn't they move their children to better-funded, high-profile charter schools -- even if they don't agree with many of the policies and practices of those schools?

If your choice is between a filthy, dangerous, underfunded school and a charter that gets significant philanthropic support -- well, there's really no choice at all, is there? Even if that charter does not afford you the same rights as a parent as a traditional public school. Because, as the public has said for ten years, inadequate school funding is a real problem in many of our districts.

Those who spend their time focusing on teacher tenure and union-bashing while brushing aside school funding reform have interests that are not aligned with the American public's. Golly, I wonder why...

OUR kids' schools have plenty of money!

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Clown Car World of Republican Education Policy

I tried to get through all six of the candidate interviews at Campbell's Brown's little union-bashing festival, but I honestly couldn't take any more and skipped John Kasich. As Peter Greene said, it's easy to get sucked in at first... but after a while, the sheer tonnage of BS just gets to be too much.

Peter did a nice job cataloging the memes the Republican candidates spewed throughout the day. I'd like to follow up and present some actual evidence that refutes just about all of their reformy talking points:

- "Teachers unions protect bad teachers and protect the status quo, which has kept students from achieving." There is no evidence that teachers unions have a negative effect on student learning.

- "Vouchers! Vouchers! Vouchers! Vouchers!" No! No! No! No!

- "Charter schools succeed because they are free of bureaucracy." Everyone agrees that charter schools vary substantially in effectiveness. The overall effect of the entire charter sector on student outcomes, however, is very small. High-profile, "successful" charter operators are only a small portion of the overall sector, which includes many for-profit operators running schools that have demonstrated problems with waste, fraud, and abuse.

As to the small number of "successful" charter operators: evidence continues to show much of their "success" is due to serving different student populations than their hosting school districts. Often attrition rates are very high at these charters, and they don't "backfill" open seats. Many also enjoy significant advantages in resources over their hosts.

- "Competition increases pressure on public schools to perform." While there is some evidence accountability pressures can raise test scores, the effects of private voucher schools on public schools are practically quite small. There is certainly no evidence that voucher accountability pressures are better than other types of reforms.

- "We need to reward good teachers and get rid of the bad ones, just like the 'real world.'" There is little evidence that merit pay systems improve student test scores. And merit pay, as envisioned by "reformers," is actually quite rare in the private sector.

- "Tenure and seniority are drags on student learning." There is no evidence this is true. Teachers show returns in effectiveness from experience late into their careers. The notion of widespread teacher "burn-out" is contradicted by what we know about experience and results. Tenure has never stopped a school district from firing an incompetent teacher, and protects the interests of students and taxpayers as well as teachers.

- "Poor children can learn." Of course they can -- teachers will be the first to tell you so. But poverty has a profound effect on student learning; it's insane to pretend otherwise.

- "More money doesn't lead to better results." This drivel can be traced back to one economist whose work on school finance has been repeatedly debunked. Money, in fact, has a profound effect on school effectiveness.

- "Technology! Technology! Technology!" It's great -- but all attempts to use it to replace traditional schools have failed.

To be fair: this garbage gets repeated by plenty of Democrats. The aversion to evidence found in the reformster world is, sadly, a bipartisan affliction.

But these six Republicans took reform-style truthiness to new depths. Among the individual moments that stood out:

- Jeb! Bush bragging on Florida's 4th grade reading scores, and ignoring every other result on the NAEP that might call into question the awesomeness of his policies.

- Carly Fiorina's claim that California spends more than 48 other states per pupil on K-12 education, which is so completely wrong it's embarrassing. Fiorina also grossly misquoted Karen Lewis, head of the Chicago Teachers Union (more on this later, I hope).

- John Kasich -- again, I didn't watch, but the media jumped on this -- saying he'd close all teachers lounges if he could, a comment so stupid I need say no more.

- Scott Walker claiming he gets education advice from Howard Fuller, who promptly turned around and distanced himself from Walker and many of his anti-teacher, anti-public school policies. Walker also spun a tall tale of a teacher who allegedly lost her job to seniority, despite the fact this same teacher has asked him repeatedly to stop telling her story.

- Bobby Jindal predictably bragged on the alleged success of the charterization of New Orleans' schools. The evidence is slowly dripping in (I am waiting for the real research, not reports about the research that can't be properly examined), but the costs of "reform" in New Orleans, even if they lead to some test score gains, seems unacceptably high.

- Chris Christie -- you can imagine my reaction to this one. So much nonsense to debunk, but perhaps the lowest point was hearing him talk about his own children's education without mentioning how their schools reflect his screaming hypocrisy on education funding.

I don't know about you, but this entire exercise left me wanting a long, hot shower and a strong drink. And, again, the Democrats will be a bit better -- but not by much. The best we can hope for in this election, I think, is a candidate who doesn't treat the teachers unions like the American Nazi Party.

In other words: get ready to set a very low bar in the general election.


Thursday, August 20, 2015

Jeb!'s Florida Education Meh-racle

After watching Jeb! Bush talk about his Florida education "miracle" at Campbell's Brown's little union-bashing festival, I thought it would be instructive to make a quick graph:


I've standardized Florida's scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress over time as a way of comparing the state to the other 49 plus DC. The NAEP tests reading and math in Grades 4 and 8. Upward bars are above average scores; downward bars are below average.

You'll notice that Jeb! is always bragging on Florida's Grade 4 Reading scores. What he rarely mentions, however, is how his state does on Grade 8 tests, or on math tests. This graph makes clear why: Florida has been either at or below the (weighted) average on Grade 4 math and on Grade 8 reading and math for the last two administrations of the test. Yes, there was a bit of a bump on Grade 4 math in the 2000s, but the scores came back to Earth.

Does this look like a miracle to you?

Normally, I think any politician who gets up in front of people and brags on how his policies turned around his state's schools practically overnight is being ridiculous. There are just too many factors other than policy changes involved in affecting test scores: economic changes, demographic changes, cohort effects of other sorts, measurement errors, and so on.

In this case, however, I do think we have to give Jeb! some "credit" for those Grade 4 reading scores. Because, according to this analysis by Walter Haney, Florida did, in fact, implement a policy that changed the trajectory of Grade 4 scores (p.6):
But particularly notable regarding how Florida boosted NAEP grade 4 results in 2005 are the grade 3 and 4 results for 200-3-04. What these results indicate is that in the 2003-04 school year Florida started flunking far more children – on the order of 10-12% overall – to repeat grade 3. Hence it is clear what caused the dramatic jump in grade 4 NAEP results for 2005. Florida had started flunking more children before they reached grade 4.

What caused the dramatic decrease in the race gap in NAEP results in Florida? Grade transition analyses of enrollment data make the answer abundantly clear. I will not present detailed results in the short time available here. But what I can say by way of summary is that analyses of grade enrollments in Florida by race (Black, Hispanic and White) make it clear that when Florida started in 2003-04 to flunk more children to repeat grade 3, these were disproportionately more Black and Hispanic children (15-20% of whom were flunked) than White ones (about 4-6%% of whom were flunked in grade 3). Thus it is clear that the NAEP grade 4 results for 2005 reflected not any dramatic improvements in elementary education in the state. Rather they were an indirect reflection of Florida policy that resulted in two to three times larger percentages of minority than White children being flunked to repeat grade 3.

This is, regrettably, a tragedy in the making. Research now makes it abundantly clearly that flunking children to repeat grades in school is not only ineffective in boosting their achievement, but also dramatically increases the probability that they will leave school before high school graduation (see, for example, Shepard & Smith, 1989; Heubert & Hauser, 1999; Jimerson, 2001; Jimerson, Anderson & Whipple, 2002). I will not try to summarize here the abundant evidence on these two points, save to note that considerable research has found that among children who are overage for grade in grade 9 (regardless of whether they were flunked in grade 9 or earlier grades), 65-90% will not persist in high school to graduation. [emphasis mine]
Florida has since rethought its policy of mandatory Grade 3 retention. Good for them.

Much as I don't want to, I do have to agree with Matt DiCarlo: there is some evidence that some of Jeb! Bush's policies, particularly the use of accountability pressures, did indeed raise test scores modestly. Those of us who have serious reservations about the overuse of standardized tests should acknowledge that there may, in fact, be benefits to their use in accountability systems (although I would say the way Bush used them probably caused more harm than good - more later).

But Jeb! and his acolytes have so oversold his education "successes" that it's nearly impossible to have a serious conversation about what may have gone right in Florida -- let alone what has definitely gone wrong.

There was no Florida education "miracle." Anyone who says otherwise is selling a bag of magic beans.
But if I can't own the Florida "miracle," what do I have left?

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Blog Comment Spammers Making Me Nuts

I've been trying to block my comment spammers, but it's getting increasingly hard. I just called one particularly awful abuser -- a small company right here in NJ that apparently hired a hack to do their social media -- and told them I'd consider legal action if they don't knock it off.

I'm turning on comment moderation for a while. And I'm considering migrating over to Wordpress, which will likely cause a big drop in my traffic for a while. But it may be worth it just to stop the spam, and to have some better control over the design of the blog.

I've noticed that most of the commenting about my posts takes place on Facebook or Twitter anyway. That's fine; both seem to have much better control over spammers attaching themselves to my accounts than Blogspot.

For those who write real comments here regularly, thank you - I really do appreciate it.

School "Turnaround": A Fool's Errand

Bob Braun tells us the Newark Public Schools are plowing ahead with their school "turnaround" plans as part of One Newark, all evidence to the contrary be damned:
The latest round of state-mandated school “reforms” imposed on the children, parents, and employees in the Newark public schools has created a bizarre situation in which virtually the entire staffs of so-called “turnaround” schools will be new and unknown to both neighborhood residents and to each other, many of these new teachers already have signaled their opposition to the changes mandated by the reform, and  faculty will be working two different schedules in the same schools.
That could hardly be a recipe for success. So, maybe it is a deliberate plan for failure.
[...]
The absurd set of circumstances was created when then state-imposed superintendent Cami Anderson announced that nine more schools would be added to the list of so-called “turnaround” schools that would–theoretically–operate on an extended day schedule with a staff of committed volunteers who had bought into the reform.
But it hasn’t turned out that way. Teachers had the right to opt out of the reform although they were warned they would be transferred to other schools, no matter how long they had worked at their home school. Many–if not most–teachers refused and they were transferred.
But here’s the kicker: Many were transferred from their home “turnaround” school to a different “turnaround” school, thereby defeating the whole point of the turnaround.
“Think about it. A teacher gets punished for refusing to sign a waiver agreeing to work extended hours in her current school because it will become a turnaround school. That punishment is transfer to another school that has been designated a turnaround school because there haven’t been enough teachers willing to volunteer.”
Turnaround schools are, in effect, swapping teachers–something that might almost be considered funny except for the devastating impact on the children and parents in neighborhood schools.
Read the whole thing if you can stomach it, then ask yourself this: what educator would ever sign off on such a transparently idiotic scheme? The answer, of course, is that no experienced educator ever would -- which is why the plan has been OK'd by State Superintendent Chris Cerf, who has never run a school building in his life, let alone a public school district.

As in Chicago, the district, populated at its top ranks by bunches of non-educators, wants Newark's teachers to accept a host of reforms that have no evidence to back them up: school "renewals," test-based merit pay, large-scale charter school expansion, "choice," and so on. The district also, like Chicago, wants its teachers to work longer hours for small increases in pay.

Newark's teachers have dared to point out that they are professionals and should be paid more at a professional wage if they are expected to take on additional work. For their troubles, many who have refused to go along with this have been placed into an "educators without placement" pool. The media has swallowed whole the idea that many of these teachers are ineffective, but I've seen no evidence that this is the case.

This constant disruption -- which is occurring at all levels of the district -- is premised on the idea that schools can be improved by bringing in the right "talent." This is the argument I hear from the charter sector of the city: they recruit the "best" teachers, which leads to the "best" results (of course, there's never any acknowledgement they somehow manage to wind up with the "best" students as well, or that they have different levels of resources available).

The problem with this argument is that it doesn't acknowledge the importance of building schools as social organizations that allow everyone to achieve good results, regardless of their "talent." Obviously, churning and burning staff is not the way to create these sorts of schools.

I'm not saying talent and experience don't matter -- they do. I'm also, once again, not saying poorly performing teachers don't exist -- they do. And I'm not saying those poor performers shouldn't be identified and given help or even removed from their schools -- they should be.

But there's no point in recruiting good people and holding them accountable if the system in which they work is fundamentally flawed. Which is why merely shuffling teachers around in a school reconstitution scheme does not work, particularly in the absence of any examination of whether schools have adequate resources.

My own work on Newark's school "renewal" efforts confirms this:



Growth measures cratered in the year after "renewal." The only they bounced back is undoubtedly because SGPs measure schools against peers with similar academic records; the "renew" schools were now being compared to a lower-growing group of schools.

Len Pugliese found similar evidence when he looked at proficiency rates:


To make matters worse, it looks like the "renewals" disproportionately affected teachers of color:




Does Cerf know this? Do his lieutenants in NPS? If they don't, they should. If they do, why are they going ahead with this madness? What is the point?

Can you tell I'm getting more than a little frustrated here? How much longer do I and others have to keep beating the drum before someone in charge finally listens to what we're saying? How much more evidence do we need to present before the decision makers (and their allies in the media) acknowledge that One Newark is not working? How much longer will these people value their ideological predilections over the best interests of the children and families of Newark?

School "turnaround" in Newark, as everywhere, is a fool's errand. If we're ever going to improve our schools, let's at least start by acknowledging this basic truth.

Accountability begins at home.

ADDING: Happy anniversary.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

How Economists Hired By Hedge Fund Maniacs Justify Shafting Puerto Rico's Students

Diane Ravitch points us to yet another example of how the very wealthiest in this country are pushing the idea that their having to take a haircut on their investments is a greater threat to our American way of life than schools having enough money to educate poor kids:
The New York Times reported in June that hedge funds invested heavily in Puerto Rico, feeling sure that the Puerto Rican government could turn the economic crisis around. 
Now that the debt crisis has worsened, hedge funds are advising the government of Puerto Rico to save money by closing some schools, laying off teachers, and cutting university budgets. Most people think of education as the seed corn of future growth, but not the hedge funds. They want their debts repaid. Maybe they will propose bringing the African model of cheap, for-profit schools to Puerto Rico, which will cut costs considerably while opening new investment opportunities. (See here.)
A side note: as Diane points out, the Times reported that one of the hedge funds with an interest in Puerto Rico has a special place in the annals of New Jersey education "reform":
Hedge funds like Appaloosa Management, Paulson & Company and Blue Mountain Capital gathered in a conference room at the Barclays offices in Midtown Manhattan last September to talk about what was then the hottest trade: Puerto Rico. 
An hour into the conversation, however, it became clear that if things started going bad, not everyone in the room was going to get along. Some had wagered on real estate, while others had bought up the debts of the central government and its troubled electric utility. [emphasis mine]
Appaloosa was, of course, founded by David Tepper, one of the two sugar daddies funding the reformy exploits of B4K. As the Star-Ledger's Tom Moran loves to tell us, Tepper can be trusted on education policy, because only conspiracy theorists would ever believe he has a personal stake in the outcome. I admit I don't know what Appaloosa's position is related to Puerto Rico, but no matter what, try to reconcile Moran's contention with the rest of this post.

Diane points us to a CNN Money piece about how these hedge fundies are prescribing some awfully bitter medicine for Puerto Rico:
Puerto Rico went into default Monday for the first time in its history. The island's governor, Alejandro Garcia Padilla, has announced a "working group" to figure out a plan by the end of the summer. 
But a group of 34 hedge funds, led by Fir Tree Partners, already have a recommendation. They funded a report by three economists that calls for Puerto Rico to close some schools, reduce university subsidies and fire teachers so it can pay back its debt.  
It might sound cruel, but the hedge funds have a point. One of the central criticisms of Puerto Rico's debt crisis has been the government's tendency to spend and borrow way beyond its limits. 
It's the default position of the media when reporting on economic policy, folks: it's always the fault of the leeches who force the government to grow, and never the people who are accumulating insane piles of capital. Greece, Iceland, Argentina, America... always blame that voracious, socialist, government juggernaut. And the head of the beast, naturally, is those horrible, overspending schools:
Consider this: Puerto Rico's student population has declined 25% -- or almost 200,000 students -- between 2004 and 2013. But government spending on schools rose 39% -- or $1.4 billion -- during that time, according to the report sponsored by the hedge funds and authored by three former International Monetary Fund economists.  
That math doesn't work out. Neither does this: between 2004 and 2013, the island's population declined by 212,000 people. But total government spending jumped up 29% over the same time, according to the report.
In Douglas Adams's So Long, and Thanks For All the Fish, Ford Prefect encounters a "working girl" on a planet with a degree in social economics. She makes her living salving the guilty consciences of the rich: "It's OK, honey, it's really OK, you got to learn to feel good about it. Look at the way the whole economy is structured..." Quite an apt description of that group of economists who make their daily bread by justifying the shafting of poor children in the service of "efficiency."

This report, written by a trio of economists with impressive freshwater degrees and ties to the IMF, does call for more revenue collection, but mostly through increased compliance. Of course, they also want to move income taxes to a flat rate. But their main recommendation for cleaning up Puerto Rico's debt mess is to drastically cut social service spending, starting with education. They helpfully include this graph to justify the carnage:


Nothing like double y-axes to make a case for the "failure" of education spending efficiencies, huh? This one (so far as I can tell given the incredibly poor documentation of methods found in this report) doesn't even report spending figures in constant dollars -- but that's a minor concern. What's missing is any context for us to determine whether Puerto Rico is so profligate in its education spending that we should buy into the argument of these hedge-funded economists that it's well past time to cull funds from those overfed schools and send the savings back to Wall Street.

Well, let me present a few graphs of my own. Fair warning: these will come with many caveats attached to them. Comparing Puerto Rico to the 50 states isn't like comparing New Jersey to California, for many obvious (and not so obvious) reasons. Still, I think we'll find this issue isn't nearly as simple as our slash-and-burn friends imply it is.

Let's start by looking at how much Puerto Rico actually has spent to educate its students:


I've seen some try to make the case Puerto Rico is spending upwards of $11,000 per student, but I have no idea where those figures come from. NCES, the research arm of the USDOE, gives the historical figures above, adjusted so they are in 2011 dollars. Clearly, Puerto Rico is far behind the rest of the US in the amount its spends to educate its children. Yes, things have improved over the last couple of decades or so: a difference of $4188 in 1996 shrank to $3228 in 2011 (in 2011 dollars).

That said, the amount spent per pupil in Puerto Rico is still way behind the mainland. Of course, it's hard to make a direct comparison here, given the difference in the purchasing power of the dollar in the continental US (let alone the variation between the states). Before we get to that, however, let's consider another big difference:


Here's a quick-and-dirty graph showing the differences in school-aged poverty rates between the 50 states, DC, and Puerto Rico. Not even Mississippi or DC come close to matching Puerto Rico's 55 percent student poverty rate. It's extraordinary, and it's probably underreported. The entire island's child poverty rate is as high as Camden, NJ, America's poorest city.

But these guys want to cut funds to Puerto Rico's schools. Think about that.

As regular readers know, money does matter in schools, especially when it comes to poor children. So let's plot some slightly different spending figures against our poverty measures and see what we get.


Per pupil spending here is for 2011-12 from NCES (Table 236.75). In the US, the trend is actually opposite of what the research suggests we should do: lower-poverty states spend more per pupil. But that aside, Puerto Rico is near the bottom of the list in terms of governmental bodies' spending on education -- yet its poverty rate is much, much higher than any state's. Only Idaho, with a fraction of Puerto Rico's poverty rate, spends less per pupil on schooling.

Again, this comparison, no matter how instructive, is still inadequate. One issue is the difference in labor costs between states. Lori Taylor at Texas A&M has a Comparable Wage Index that many of us use when doing research; unfortunately, Puerto Rico is not included. But even if it were, we'd have to approach using it very cautiously.

The fact is that Puerto Rico isn't just another state: its language, its culture, its economics, and many other factors make comparing it to the rest of the US quite difficult. It is possible that the cost of obtaining comparable results to the states is significantly different in a way that can't be captured well by something like the CWI. But that doesn't mean we don't have some clues -- here's one:


This isn't precisely the staffing costs for schools, but it's a decent proxy for an initial investigation. Puerto Rico's education and heath workers are way less expensive than those in the states. But that doesn't mean they are living lives that are equivalent to the lives of middle-class teachers on the mainland. In fact, the dollar does not go very far in Puerto Rico:
Puerto Ricans in the United States bring home less money than the general population as a whole, but they also have to pay more for their housing. Out of 449,377 Puerto Rican homeowners with a mortgage, 48.5 percent spend more than 30 percent of their income on mortgage costs while 38 percent of the population as a whole pay more than 30 percent.
Puerto Ricans nationally have to do more with less,” said Carlos Vargas-Ramos, research associate at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies. “Their burden is higher than for the population as a whole.” 
Puerto Ricans have the lowest rate of homeownership when compared to other groups.
For those who own homes, the median monthly costs of owning their homes are also higher: $1,651 for Puerto Ricans and $1,496 for the population as a whole.
They also spend more for rentals, which is the primary housing market for Puerto Ricans. Costs are higher for Puerto Ricans who rent, $890, than for the total population, which is $855. [emphasis mine]
If you have the talent and the training to teach and you live in Puerto Rico, you'll make more money in the states, and your pay will go further. Why, then, would you ever stay? This is a critical question, because Puerto Rico really needs a strong teaching force:
As far as education, Puerto Ricans are notably overrepresented among those who have less than a high school education, 25 percent, and those underrepresented among those who have a college degree or higher level, 16 percent.
On a positive note, Puerto Ricans who graduate high school or have earned an associate’s degree have earnings almost as much to the population as a whole
I'm always hearing from reformy types that education is the pathway to the middle class (all others doing necessary work that doesn't require college are left hanging, however). Why, then, would hedge-fundies, who subsidize charter schools on this very premise, think it was a good idea to slash education in Puerto Rico when it really does return higher wages for the island's citizens? If you want to grow Puerto Rico out of its debt, why slash the one thing -- education -- that we know will grow the island's wages?

I know next to nothing about macroeconomics, but I understand that governments should not borrow with abandon without a clear plan for repayment, and without using their borrowings for investments that will generate economic growth. I actually don't think it's fair to shift the entire blame for Puerto Rico's woes on Wall Street, although they certainly deserve some of it.

It's clear to me, however, that forcing Puerto Rico to fully repay the hedge funds while cutting school spending is both stupid and immoral. This is an island that desperately needs a high-quality education system as part of a program of social rebuilding. From all early indications, Puerto Rico has been inexcusably stingy in funding its schools and paying its teachers.

There's much work to do to uncover the full story of education spending in Puerto Rico; I hope I'll get a chance to work on this some more. But there's more than enough evidence right now to put a halt to any notion that the island's schools are stuffed with cash and ready for a good slashing. Puerto Rico's poor and deserving students deserve far better than that.

You want to cut funding to their schools? Seriously?

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Anti-Union, Freeloading Teachers Sound Off

If you're a teacher, get ready to hear this name a lot this year: Rebecca Friedrichs. She's the lead petitioner in a case that will go before the Supreme Court in its next term; if she wins, the unions that represent teachers will face an enormous threat.

Friedrichs v. California Teacher Association hinges on a central question: can a public employee union compel all of the employees its represents in collective bargaining to pay for representing them in negotiations? Understand that no one is ever forced to join a union, as doing so would violate the First Amendment. But governments can and do designate in law that unions are the representatives of public employees in collective bargaining agreements.

Because these unions must represent all workers, whether they are members or not, they have a problem: free riders can benefit from negotiations yet not have to pay the costs for having unions represent them at the bargaining table. So unions charge "agency fees" to all of the employees they represent. These fees are a fraction of the total costs of membership dues, albeit a large fraction. If any public employee chooses to opt out of membership, they are refunded a part of those dues.

Ostensibly, this keeps public employees from subsidizing political activities, like lobbying, that members may disagree with. Of course, the workers who opt out can still benefit from those political activities, which means there is plenty of potential for free-riding already baked into the system.

A 1977 case called Abood v. Detroit Board of Education upheld the constitutionality of this agreement. I'm not a Supreme Court expert by any means, but it's been fairly well known that Samuel Alito, one of the court's most politically conservative justices, has wanted to overturn Abood for some time. Given the current make up of the court, he may well get his wish this year.

Friedrichs is being argued by a cabal of anti-unionists, hoping to smash the union movement once and for all by attacking it in the public sector where it is currently at its strongest. Nearly everyone agrees that overturning Abood would be both a radical rejection of precedent and an enormous blow to the power of all public employee unions, especially those representing teachers.

In fact, the only people who don't seem to see it this way are Rebecca Friedrichs and her fellow teacher-petitioners.

The Washington Post recently interviewed Friedrichs and Harlan Elrich, another one of the plaintiffs. Friedrichs is clearly comfortable in the spotlight (take a look at her posed photo) and will undoubtedly be trotted out in front of the media this fall by the anti-union forces backing the case's prosecution.

But if she wants to garner any sympathy from her fellow teachers, she really should work out her talking points a little more:
What have your experiences been with your union? 
Friedrichs: When I was a student teacher in 1987, I was being trained by an outstanding master teacher, but next door to us was a teacher who had become, in my opinion, abusive to her little first graders. I would witness every day as she would be lining them up outside the classroom. She’d grab them by the arms, she’d yank them over, she’d yell right in their faces. I asked my master teacher, “What can we do about this awful situation?” She sat me down and she said, “Today is your lesson on the teachers union.” She told me about tenure and that districts really struggle to rid themselves of these teachers. And I was shocked.
At that point I was really soured on union representation.
These are the sorts of stories I hear all the time from teachers who hold contrarian views -- and you know what? They always ring false. A first grade teacher was man-handing students and yelling in their faces, and Friedrich's "outstanding" mentor just shrugged her shoulders? In my experience, that teacher would have been dressed down immediately by her principal and her colleagues and put on warning to get her act together.

In any case, these are the sort of anecdotes that are impossible to verify. Certainly, there are bad teachers out there; no one thinks otherwise. All any of us who advocate for tenure have said, however, is that after a teacher demonstrates over a period of years that she is competent, there should be a hearing before that teacher is dismissed for incompetence. And if we don't get to retain this basic protection, we run the great risk of turning our schools into political patronage factories.

Friedrichs goes on to complain that she has been shunned by her fellow teachers for having anti-union views. She says she was "abused" for her pro-voucher stance (seems to me this sort of hyperbole is fair ground to question whether those first graders she saw as a student teacher really were "abused" as well).

Well, boo-freakin'-hoo: believe it or not, holding unpopular views can tend to make you unpopular, especially when you are actively undermining the workplace protections and rights to collective bargaining teachers have fought to retain for decades.

Elrich also appears to revel in his contrarian ways:
Recently in California they had the vote on same-sex marriages. I am against same-sex marriages, and from my understanding the union put a lot of money into supporting them. And they have put money into many Democratic candidates, all the way up to presidential elections — candidates I do not support. 
I never knew I could opt out until a few years ago.
Well, whose fault is that? Were you deceived or simply ignorant? Does the union have an obligation to hold your hand, or are you an adult who can figure these things out for yourself?

According to the CTA's brief, all employees are provided with a "Hudson notice," which allows them simply check a box to receive the rebate of their dues that go toward non-negotiating activities. Furthermore, by simply checking another box, that employee triggers a process, entirely at the union's expense, where they can challenge whether the agency fee is properly set. It's absurd to think Elrich was in the dark for years except for his own indifference.

As to Elrich's objection to same-sex marriages: hey, this is America, and everyone is entitled to be as bigoted as they want. Abood made certain that Elrich doesn't have to have his dues go toward supporting to right of two people who love each other to get married: that's the whole point of the ruling. He only has to pay for the union's activities as related to representing him in bargaining. Does Elrich even understand what this case is actually about?

Apparently not:
You have opted out of the portion of union dues that goes to political activities. You’re just paying for the union’s collective bargaining activities, which directly benefits you. But you say that you’re still subsidizing the union’s political speech. Explain that. 
[...] 
Elrich: I believe they’re using my money for politics, whether they say they are or not. I just think they’re putting my money into other things besides the negotiations and they call it collective bargaining. I don’t feel good about it. Pretty much everything the union does is political.
If Elrich thinks his agency fees are being used to advance other sorts of political activities, he's making a different argument than the one found in the petition that bears his name. Because the central argument there is not that the unions are calling other sorts of political activity negotiating -- it's that negotiating, in and of itself, is an inherently political activity. Again, does Elrich even know this?

I'll give Friedrichs a little credit; she does seem to at least partially get this point, even if her thinking is rather muddled:
Friedrichs: Here in California, most public officials have been put into office by union dollars. So you’ve put them into office and now you come to the bargaining table. The official you put into office is one side and the union is on the other side and you’re bargaining for taxpayer money, only the taxpayer doesn’t get invited to the table. That’s political, in my opinion.
Collective bargaining is being used to push for things that I would never agree to.
Funny thing: if teachers unions are so damn powerful, why are they suffering a wage penalty? Why do even the reformiest reformsters like Frank Bruni understand that teachers are underpaid relative to their education and the importance of their work? Why is teacher pay in the US so lousy compared to other industrialized countries?

The idea that teachers unions have stacked school boards with their favored candidates and are now rolling in dough is laughable on its face. And, of course, teachers are taxpayers, too.

Again, the central argument put forward in these teachers' own petition is that negotiating is inherently political speech. Teachers, therefore, can't be compelled to subsidize bargaining, as their First Amendment rights would be violated.

I'm no lawyer, but this strikes me as wrong for two reasons. First, California law says that the union must negotiate on behalf of all employees; more specifically, it says the union can't make deals for its members that are better than the deals made for non-members. But if the union must negotiate, how can it possibly do so without the necessary resources? How can the law force the union to do something without creating a revenue stream for it?

Second, nothing is stopping any teacher from exercising his or her First Amendment rights to speak out about a negotiation -- even if they want to engage in speech antithetical to their own interests. I mean, no one is stopping Friedrichs from saying, for example, this:
We have this huge pension crisis in our country and they keep pushing for these defined-benefit plans. I’d be happy with a defined contribution plan. We’re being asked to fund collective bargaining that’s highly political using taxpayer money and I don’t have a choice.
That's wrong; you do have a choice. You can choose to teach in a non-unionized private school. You can choose to teach in a non-unionized charter school. You can choose to lead a movement in your district to de-certify your union. You can run for union office on a platform of gutting pensions, gain support from your fellow teachers who are just going to love the idea of giving them up, and then surrender your retirement.

In fact, if you two think you're so overpaid, why don't you exercise your First Amendment rights and give back the money that you think you don't deserve? I'm sure your district's business manager will happily take your check.

The idea that anyone has unrestricted rights to free speech is, of course, silly -- but it's particularly true for teachers. You can't publicly discuss a child's IEP. You can't indoctrinate students with your personal views -- an act of speech, in my view, that is far more political and, consequently, far more entitled to First Amendment protections that merely engaging in collective bargaining.

The notion, then, that Friedrichs' and Elrich's rights are being grossly violated because they are being forced to pay for a service they are benefitting from is, in my view, absurd. They have a plethora of ways to express their dissatisfaction with the union's bargaining positions; moreover, they have the ability to take action and change how their union operates.

But that would require work on their part. It's much easier to grouse about how unfairly you're being treated while freeloading off of others:
Getting the benefits of the union’s collective bargaining efforts without paying anything to support the union — some people call that freeloading.
Friedrichs: I’ve never asked the union to represent me in the first place. They’re the ones who asked for laws to give them this authority to negotiate on behalf of everybody.
Elrich: There are enough people who believe in the union that it will stay strong. Does that make me a freeloader? I don’t believe so.
Pal, you're free to also believe the moon is made of cheese -- but that don't make it so. You are a freeloader, and you're going to hurt a lot of families, including your own, with your flippant disregard for your colleagues' hard-earned collective bargaining rights.

Sorry if that hurts your feelings.


Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Embarrassingly Bad Reformy Metaphors: Charter Schools & Uber

Derrell Bradford, a professional reformster whose incoherence I have long chronicled on this blog, has an uncanny gift: every time he makes an argument for a reformy policy, he seems to wind up undermining the very ideas he's trying to promote:
I am a fan of Uber. I stump for the service to just about anyone. And why not? The experience is near seamless—you might call it magical. I get picked up when I want, no questions. They come to get me wherever I want, and they take me wherever I want to go. No driver asks me where I live, how much money I make, or where I am going before grabbing me. And maybe most importantly, if I don’t like something Uber does—or don’t want to pay during surge times—I don’t have to. 
It’s as easy to use Uber as it is not to. This is a priceless taste of transportation freedom formerly reserved for the oligarchs. As a non-driver, it’s almost enough to make me even like cars. 
I’m also a fan of charter schools for many of the same reasons I like Uber. 
The chartering power, like the awesome functionality folks now command from their cell phones, enables the creation of new schools that are nimble, creative, and customized to the needs of students. And with a mission that isn’t bound by location and that doesn’t bow to the notion that some kids who live in the wrong borough or who have the wrong parents just won’t get a great education, they bring the same sort of “freedom” to the people that Uber does. In New York in particular, Uber and charter schools are opposite sides of the same disruptive, empowering coin.
Oh, my lord. My sweet, sweet lord. Derrell, do you actually know how Uber works? Let me explain it to you:

When you pick up your smartphone (yes, you need a smartphone -- does everyone have a smartphone, Derrell?) and put in a request for a ride, Uber's drivers look at your rating as a customer. That's right: the "choice" to use Uber isn't merely on the consumer's side -- it's also on the provider's.

If you don't have a high enough rating, none of Uber's drivers are going to come get you. So you'd better be polite, and not request rides to inconvenient destinations, and make sure you tip well. Maureen Dowd learned the hard way that getting on the bad side of the Uber workforce can limit your ability to access the system.

Golly, what does this remind me of in education policy? Thinking...
Charter advocates say it's a fair fight because both types of schools are free and open to all. "That's a bedrock principle of our movement," said Jed Wallace, president of the California Charter Schools Association. And indeed, many states require charter schools to award seats by random lottery.
But as Reuters has found, it's not that simple. Thousands of charter schools don't provide subsidized lunches, putting them out of reach for families in poverty. Hundreds mandate that parents spend hours doing "volunteer" work for the school or risk losing their child's seat. In one extreme example the Cambridge Lakes Charter School in Pingree Grove, Illinois, mandates that each student's family invest in the company that built the school - a practice the state said it would investigate after inquiries from Reuters.
ARRAY OF BARRIERS
And from New Hampshire to California, charter schools large and small, honored and obscure, have developed complex application processes that can make it tough for students who struggle with disability, limited English skills, academic deficits or chaotic family lives to even get into the lottery.
Among the barriers that Reuters documented:
* Applications that are made available just a few hours a year.
* Lengthy application forms, often printed only in English, that require student and parent essays, report cards, test scores, disciplinary records, teacher recommendations and medical records.
* Demands that students present Social Security cards and birth certificates for their applications to be considered, even though such documents cannot be required under federal law.
* Mandatory family interviews.
* Assessment exams.
* Academic prerequisites.
* Requirements that applicants document any disabilities or special needs. The U.S. Department of Education considers this practice illegal on the college level but has not addressed the issue for K-12 schools.
Many charters, backed by state law, specialize in serving low-income and minority children. Some of the best-known charter networks, such as KIPP, Yes Prep, Green Dot and Success Academy, use simple application forms that ask little more than name, grade and contact information, and actively seek out disadvantaged families. Most for-profit charter school chains also keep applications brief.
But stand-alone charters, which account for more than half the total in the United States, make up their own admissions policies. Regulations are often vague, oversight is often lax - and principals can get quite creative. [emphasis mine]
As Bruce Baker pointed out the other day when describing research we've been doing, these "second tier" charters, which enroll large numbers of students, appear to engage in practices quite different from high-profile networks like KIPP and Success. Yet those are usually the only networks reformsters like Bradford tout when making claims of charter school "successes."

But even if we set aside the admissions practices above, it's become increasingly clear that "choice" systems, by their very nature, segregate students by observable characteristics -- economic disadvantage, race, special education need, etc. -- and by characteristics we can't observe in the data -- family involvement, academic talent, "grit," and so on.

I've talked quite a bit lately about Molly Makris's work, and how her research lines up with others' that have shown that charter schools, perhaps unintentionally, do attract a different type of student than neighboring public schools.

In that sense, Bradford's analogy is actually quite apt: "undesirable customers" are not served well by either Uber or charter schools. Students at Eva Moskowitz's Success Academies, for example, are not admitted into free seats after Grade 4; they're like the Uber users who've racked up poor ratings and are left waiting on the curb for medallion cabs/district schools.

Over the years, Bradford's excuse for this behavior is that we can't wait to "save" everyone; we should offer "choice" to those few the system deems are worthy of it, and everyone else can go fend for themselves.

As I've acknowledged many times: you can't blame parents for wanting to endow their children with the positive peer effects and increased funding that some charters offer when affluent (and largely white) parents move to the suburbs and buy expansive houses to gain those same advantages.

But it's utterly disingenuous to pretend that these advantages are due to "charteriness": peer effects and funding advantages could just as easily be offered by public schools without the harmful side effects of too many charters. And it's even more mendacious to pretend these advantages don't come at a steep price for students who remain in the public district schools -- students who are more likely to have special education needs, or who don't speak English at home, or who are in greater economic disadvantage.

Derrell Bradford's flippant analogy ignores the plight of those who can't access his beloved system of "choice." Until he's willing to have a serious talk about increasing taxes on those who pay his salary so we can fully fund all schools and provide the "bells and whistles" he enjoyed, his goofy little metaphors just aren't worth pondering.

Sorry, kid: Eva's not going to pick you up.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Marylin Zuniga and the Plight of Teachers of Color

As we approach the beginning of the new school year, I think it's important to go back and recount the story of Marylin Zuniga.*

You'll recall that Zuniga was a third grade teacher in Orange, NJ, a district that is almost entirely comprised of black and Hispanic students, 81 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Zuniga had exactly the sort of training any district would look for in a novice teacher, including degrees from Montclair State and Columbia (!), and was hired last year to teach at a school where she had already worked as a substitute.

Zuniga self-identifies as a Peruvian-American. I don't have precise data to say how many Ivy League-educated candidates send their resumes to districts like Orange, but my guess is it isn't many. I've not met Zuniga, but on paper, she is the ideal candidate for a career in urban education. And the fact that she's a first-generation immigrant from a Spanish-speaking country makes her even more desirable as a potential staff member.

By all accounts, Zuniga was a fine first-year teacher; certainly, there were no reports of problems with her work prior to the incident in question. Zuniga was apparently committed to social justice education, and gave assignments to her students that were designed to get them to think about issues of racial and other forms of equality.

For one of those assignments, she used a quote from Mumia Abu-Jamal as a writing prompt: "So long as one just person is silenced, there is no justice." Let me add here that I have no better than a layman's understanding of the Abu-Jamal case. I was a high school student living in the Philadelphia suburbs at the time of Daniel Faulkner's death, but even my politically naive mind could tell that the trial and subsequent appeals were about far more than the particulars of the case. Abu-Jamal's story, like the stories of the MOVE bombings or Rodney King or OJ Simpson or Trayvon Martin, created spaces where America conducted its stilted discussions of race in the post-Martin/post-Malcolm world.

According to Zuniga, her students came to her sometime last spring with the news that Abu-Jamal was ill. In fact, just this month, Abu-Jamal filed a lawsuit alleging that he has gone untreated for Hepatitis C, which is not a surprise as the disease has reached epidemic proportions in America's prisons. I point this out because, as Jose Luis Vilson notes, the realities of incarceration are not merely theoretical for many of the people who live in communities like Orange:
After ?#?ISupportMarylin? made national news, I reflected on what all of this advocacy meant while we wait for Ms. Zuniga to get due process. Many of us weather online threats accompanied by American flags, naval crests, and reasonable racists just to assure that social justice education could breathe for another school year in Orange and perhaps across the country. Similar avatars lined my messages when I advocated for boys and girls of color whether they were victims of police brutality, outdated immigration policies, or victims of educational inequity. Imperfect as the circumstances may be, we have to believe that our hearts and minds are in the right place. With so many of our youth knowing prison second-hand through their parents, their older cousins, their extended families, writing letters to prison is the catharsis that allows our children to hang on. [emphasis mine]
I don't teach many students of color, but I do teach third graders. And I will tell you that nine-year-olds see the world in very personal terms: if they have a relative or family friend in jail, the story of anyone's incarceration is going to speak to them in a very personal way. So it's not surprising to me that Zuniga's students would talk about Abu-Jamal with their parents, nor that they would know about his health problems and react to them.

Zuniga had her students write get-well cards to Abu-Jamal, and subsequently delivered them. She then did something she now admits was a mistake: she tweeted about it. From my perspective, posting about this assignment on social media was wrong, and Zuniga was correct to apologize. Whatever you may think about Abu-Jamal, we all know his is a highly controversial case, and children and their families should not be caught in the crossfire of a larger political war.

I know I'm going to sound like an old fart here, but I often think that younger adults like Zuniga (or my own sons) who grew up with constant access to social media don't fully understand the consequences of leaving indelible digital trails wherever they go.

We live in a world where professional hell-raisers scour the internet in the hopes of finding isolated incidents of alleged perfidy to "prove" that America is tailspinning out of control. Fox News, for example, is built on a foundation of rage, constructed of tales (usually myths) of Christmas bashing and Obama indoctrination and hordes of murdering immigrants and other such artificially manufactured red meat.

Millennials often see no problems with living their lives openly in social media. But when Zuniga posted about her assignment, she was generating material that the outrage machine is designed to turn into pink slime instantaneously. There wasn't going to be a rational, serious discussion about the merits of her teaching methods; all that would follow was grist for the right-wing media mill.

Which brings us to the assignment itself. Was writing get-well cards to Abu-Jamal a good idea? Vilson, as usual, has a thoughtful take:
The first honest question I get is, “If your son was in that class, would you want your son’s teacher delivering letters to a killer in jail?” The answer depends on how we phrase the question. I would have wanted Ms. Zuniga to request permission from me and the other parents in the class before hand-delivering the letters, even if my son requested that she send his letter to Abu Jamal. I would also want assurances that names and addresses were scrubbed from the letter. I would also hope it was in the context of a lesson in restoration and rehabilitation for those in dire straits. But ultimately, yes, this is a fine activity. The second honest question I get is, “If this was a KKK member who had killed a Black kid, would you have the same feeling about this?” In my disposition, the answer is a complicated yet. If I believe in social justice, and I do, and the context of the lesson was compassion and rehabilitation, then I would want that letter sent. 
My activism is predicated on what is necessary at the time I activate. Thus, I, like so many others, including the parents of her students, demand complete reinstatement for Ms. Zuniga. Looking at the breadth of vitriol thrown in Ms. Zuniga’s direction, one must realize that negotiating from the middle (“give her a suspension until the next school year and have her under a two-year probationary period with mentors”) is a losing strategy for what people close to the situation would call an honest rookie mistake.
I'm a long way removed from my own sons being in third grade, but I'm going to disagree with Jose's answer to his second question. I certainly see the value of actively engaging students that young in acts of compassion, and I don't have a problem with students appropriately writing letters to prisoners. But a Klan member would be immediately off the table for me, especially if he had killed a Black child.

I just got back from a family trip to Poland; our last stop before returning to Germany was at Auschwitz and Birkenau. I have great respect for anyone who can find it in the hearts to forgive the monsters who perpetuated such terrible crimes, but I would never put anyone in the position of being forced to express such forgiveness. A teacher is an authority figure, particularly for children of such a young age. It isn't reasonable to give them an assignment and then expect them to express their reservations to the authority in their classroom.

For that reason, I also disagree with Zuniga's original assignment. Again, whatever you may think about the Abu-Jamal case, people have very strong feelings about it one way or another. You don't have to agree with those feelings; you don't even have to respect them. But I believe, as an educator of young children, that we should be very, very cognizant of the positions of authority we hold with our students. This assignment, to me, is just too fraught with political subtext to be appropriate in an elementary classroom.

But here's the thing: I don't live in Orange, and these aren't my children. Again, as Vilson points out, the reality of the systemic incarceration of black men in America is not an abstraction in a community like Orange: it is a reality. Are the outsiders who descended upon this case suggesting that this reality should be ignored? Are they prepared to override the values of the parents of Orange -- many of whom supported Zuniga -- and impose their own? Would they be happy if the same happened in their communities?

And was writing a get-well card such a grievous action that a gifted, committed, burgeoning young educator should be thrown out of the profession forever?

Here's where Vilson, I think, gets it exactly right: this was, at worst, a rookie mistake. However, the response to this mistake was disproportionate, partly because Marylin Zuniga became a pawn in a much larger game. But let's be blunt: there are other forces at play here.


This is from my testimony before the Joint Committee on the Public Schools of the NJ Legislature this past spring. When the Newark Public Schools "renewed" eight schools back in 2012 under then-State Superintendent Cami Anderson, one of the consequences was a significant drop in the number of black teachers working in those schools.

The same thing happened last year in Camden:



Black teachers were 1.64 times more likely than white teachers to face an employment consequence under State Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard's school "transformation" plan, even though many of the "transformed" schools were arguably some of the strongest performers in the district.

I'm not saying that Marylin Zuniga was the victim of exactly the same policies that are in play in Newark and Camden. I also don't want to conflate the issues facing black and Hispanic teachers (and further note that "black" and "Hispanic" are hardly homogeneous classifications). 

I am saying, however, that we appear to be in a time where the wholesale dismissal of educators of color is being tolerated, if not actively encouraged. And I am left to wonder: were Marylin Zuniga a young white teacher who had committed a similar transgression, would she have been hounded out of her school by outsiders in the same way?

The current state of affairs for educators of color ought to concern all of us, for several reasons. First, as I've pointed out repeatedly, we have some very strong evidence that students of color benefit from having teachers of color. I am, of course, not saying that children should only ever have race-aligned teachers. But it's important that we bring more young people like Zuniga into the profession, and allow them some space to stumble, if only because that will be a natural part of their growth.

Again, it seems to me that Zuniga's actions were not tolerated because she was dealing with issues of racial justice in her classroom. But the very fact she was willing to broach the subject ought to be reason enough to give her a wider berth. And isn't it reasonable to think having more teachers of color  will push schools toward making social justice a part of their curricula? Whether you think Zuniga made a mistake or not, does it make sense to pounce on her when she is trying to navigate a topic that is both complex and critically important (and likely with little guidance)?

Second, when we push teachers of color out of the profession, we destroy a path to the middle class, particularly for young women. There is no evidence that replacing teachers of color with white teachers in urban schools leads to better outcomes. But even if there were, would marginal test score gains be worth it? Especially on instruments that are designed to yield normal distributions?

I know we can't ever, ever speak about education policy in terms of what might be good for teachers, as doing so is proof that the "status quo" is all about adult interests and greedy, lazy union members and blah, blah, blah... But what good is raising the test scores of students of color if we don't have middle-class jobs waiting for them when they graduate? Why wouldn't we want young students of color to aspire to becoming educators? Shouldn't they see teaching as a viable career option, one that will provide economic security and a fulfillment?

And will they seriously consider teaching if they know their every move will be subjected to intense scrutiny -- particularly if they dare to address issues of social justice?

Again: I think Marylin Zuniga made a mistake. I think she would have had to demonstrate she had learned from that mistake if she wanted to remain a teacher. I don't think her assignment was appropriate, and I would expect she not give it again. And I think her story is a lesson all teachers ought to take to heart about the appropriate use of social media in these times.

But let's be clear: chasing Marylin Zuniga out of the classroom probably made a few people outside of Orange feel better about themselves, but it didn't do much to help make teaching a profession that is attractive to the talented young people we need in our schools.

I know the reformy spin machine is going to be working overtime to deny it, but this country has been killing the teaching profession for a good long time. Were I an Ivy League educated 20-something like Marylin Zuniga, I'd suppress any urges I had to make a difference in the classroom and find a different career in which to make my daily bread. That she and others her age are willing to put up with the crap being dished on teachers these days (Mel and Steph, I'm looking at you) is nothing short of amazing to me.

That we would be so quick to pounce on them when they falter, however, is even more amazing.

ADDING: Here's Democracy Now's take on the story:


* News reports have spelled Zuniga's name as both "Marylin" and "Marilyn." I believe the first is correct, but my apologies to Ms. Zuniga if I've spelled her name incorrectly.