Posts

Jerry Brown and CTA: Testphobic Twins

Children in the Golden State will get a better education when teacher quality becomes a priority.

In perhaps the most in-depth study on the subject to date, three Ivy League economists studied how much the quality of individual teachers matters to their students over the long term. The paper, by Raj Chetty and John N. Friedman of Harvard and Jonah E. Rockoff of Columbia, tracked 2.5 million students over 20 years, and using a value added approach, found that teachers who help students raise their standardized test scores have a lasting positive effect on those students’ lives beyond academics, including lower teenage-pregnancy rates, greater college matriculation and higher adult earnings. (The authors of the study define “value added” as the average test-score gain for a teacher’s students “…adjusted for differences across classrooms in student characteristics such as prior scores.”)

The only caveat from the authors is that using test scores in teachers’ evaluations could lead to “teaching to the test or cheating.” Nothing new here. Some people, when involved in any kind of competition, will try to gain unfair advantage or cheat outright. Typically, it’s a small part of the population and those who do should lose their jobs and face criminal charges.

The lesson is clear: test scores can give us a great deal of information about who the really good teachers are. But California Governor Jerry Brown, unfazed by the blockbuster study, actually called for less testing in his recent State of the State address.

No, Governor. In fact, we need more testing. In California, English and math are tested yearly starting in second grade. But history and science are tested only every few years. Tests should be given in the four core areas every year. As a former American history teacher, I could never figure out why there was no 6th or 7th grade history test. Why wait for grade 8 and throw in a few questions from the 6th and 7th grade curriculum? Never made any sense to me.

Senior Director of Education Studies at the Pacific Research Lance Izumi wrote in the Orange County Register last week,

“Brown’s education agenda contains a mishmash of proposals, some of which are steps backward and some that are mildly positive. On the clearly negative end, the governor, who has never been a fan of student testing, wants to reduce the number of tests and increase so-called ‘qualitative assessments.’ Trouble is, the reason tests are important is because they offer objective quantifiable data to measure student progress and the effect of teachers and schools on learning.”

While Jerry Brown’s call for less testing is wrongheaded, it isn’t surprising. Testing as a tool of assessing student progress has been around since Day 1, but using student test scores as a measure of teacher effectiveness has caused a backlash in some quarters. There is subset of teachers who laments that there is “more to teaching than just test scores.” And of course they are right, to a point, but they take their case to an extreme and dismiss testing completely. The ringleaders of the anti-testing zealots are the teachers unions, and their agenda has nothing to do with kids or their education. The California Teachers Association, by far the biggest political spender in the state, is about power and ensuring that the disastrous status quo is not disturbed.

Actually, teachers unions operate under the early 20th Century industrial mentality which stipulates that everyone can stick a widget on a car equally as well. Therefore, all widget stickers are equally good and all widget stickers should make the same amount of money. Substitute education for widget, teachers for widget stickers and students for cars, and you fully understand the teachers union model. Once this antiquated notion is truly grasped, the unions may find themselves in trouble, forced to acknowledge that some teachers are better than others, and that some are so bad that they shouldn’t be in the classroom at all. Once that is accepted as truth, better teachers might demand to be paid more than mediocre ones. And the good ones may not be so compliant if they’re the ones who get laid off instead of an inferior teacher who has been on the job longer. Thus, the whole concept of teachers as interchangeable industrial workers starts to unravel. And what could be worse for a group whose main lot in life is to keep acquiring buckets of money and enormous power being exposed as pushing a model that never should have been applied to the teaching profession in the first place?

The good news is that much of the rest of the country is catching on. Teacher quality has become a major topic of discussion with educators, the media and politicians of late. From Oklahoma to New York to Louisiana to New Jersey, states are getting serious about teacher evaluation, all using the results of standardized test scores as a significant part of the equation.

Good teachers matter a lot, and bad teachers can ruin a child’s future. Test scores are very helpful in identifying those teachers and value added methods are good ways to analyze test scores. But California, essentially governed by CTA, their bought-and-paid-for legislature and their man in the governor’s mansion will be the last state to do anything meaningful in this area. That means that one-tenth of the country’s children will continue to be victimized by a cartel that cares a lot about money and power and not a whit about them.

About the author: Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.