Monday, March 07, 2011

Vallay of deception

I don't know if Vallay Varro, the executive director of MinnCAN is ignorant, a liar, or both. Either way she takes readers of the Star Tribune on a fantasy ride in an op-ed this morning. Give Varro credit: she's a master of deceit, playing on conventional wisdom that has demonized school teachers for decades. Almost nothing that Varro writes in her op-ed is true, but it sure sounds like it could be. As Hannah Arendt famously wrote, liars have an advantage over truth-tellers:  They are free to say what listeners have already been conditioned to believe.Thus Varro can tell this whopper without batting an eyelash:
Decades of research have confirmed that teachers matter more to student success than anything else.
Uh, no. That's not even close to being true.  "Decades of research" have confirmed that the number one predictor of student success is their parent's income. In fact, 60 to 70 percent of educational achievement is fundamentally linked to factors outside of schools. The remaining 30 to 40 percent is divided between the school, classroom and teacher. Half of that is due to the school itself. Only 15 to 20 percent is linked to the classroom. How much of that remaining 15 to 20 percent is linked to a specific teacher is an open question. Previous Star Tribune anti-teacher propaganda has at least had the decency to use the caveat that teachers are the most important factor in learning within the schools. But not Varro. She for some reason feels the need to extend the lie.

Varro then builds off her wrong assertion that the path to higher educational achievement is primarily dependent on teachers, making unproven claims about teacher quality:
The top 20 percent of U.S. teachers produce learning gains for their students that are three times those of the bottom 20 percent. 
Varro pulled that one out of thin air. Attempts to rank teachers by their students' test scores have proven remarkably unreliable, as many researchers have pointed out. A teacher who scores in the top 20 percent of such rankings one year could easily be in the bottom 20 percent the next.  A study titled Review of Learning About Teaching by Jesse Rothstein found that
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s “Measures of Effective Teaching” (MET) Project seeks to validate the use of a teacher’s estimated “value-added”—computed from the year-on-year test score gains of her students—as a measure of teaching effectiveness...

...value-added for state assessments is correlated 0.5 or less with that for the alternative assessments, meaning that many teachers whose value-added for one test is low are in fact quite effective when judged by the other. As there is every reason to think that the problems with value-added measures apparent in the MET data would be worse in a high-stakes environment, the MET results are sobering about the value of student achievement data as a significant component of teacher evaluations.
The rest of Varro's column rests on the false assertions that teachers are the most important factor in student learning, that their "performance" can be accurately computed from the test scores of their students, and that 20 percent of teachers don't do their jobs well. From there it's an easy logical leap to assume that if we could replace the "lowest performing" 20 percent of teachers with 20 percent of the "highest performing" teachers educational gaps would disappear. Garbage in, garbage out.

Hailing a recently passed bill in the Minnesota legislature loosening teacher standards, Varro writes approvingly of Teach For America (TFA):
".. through proven programs like Teach For America and others, we can really begin to recruit the next generation of our nation's leadership into Minnesota classrooms."
Teach for America is anything but a "proven program." The reality may be just the opposite. Studies have shown that TFA teachers produce significantly worse results than conventionally trained teachers for math and reading students in the first few years of their careers. Additionally 50 percent of TFA teachers leave by the end of their second year, 80 percent by the end of their third year. Their short tenure imposes financial and educational burdens on the school districts that hire them. How can TFA recruits be the leadership in our classroom if they don't even stay in the profession?

There's also one other curious thing about TFA in the column. Varro writes about how MinnCAN is "calling for legislation" (remember, MinnCAN is a501(c)(3) tax-exempt charity) that
"...would implement a five-year probationary period to prevent effective teachers from unfair tenure decisions based on too little data and prevent ineffective teachers from premature tenure."
This provision would have the effect taking tenure away from many traditionally trained teachers for at least two years, while not affecting TFA teachers in any way - by the end of their third year 80 percent are gone, and by the fifth year hardly any of them are still around. In at least one state cohort (Louisiana) only four percent remained after five years.

Finally, Varro's illogical and ignorant op-ed raises a troubling question: Doesn't anyone else wonder why we would take advice about how to educate our children from people who literally cannot think straight?

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