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Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 05/19/2011

What is Joel Klein talking about?

What is Joel Klein talking about?

The former New York City schools chancellor writes in a new Atlantic magazine article about how he couldn’t move state officials -- or, rather, the Democratic-controlled legislature -- to allow him to consider student standardized test scores in teacher evaluations, and how that explains “the depth of the problem.”

The problem, according to Klein, is that adults in education (except for him and others who agree with him) only care about themselves and not about helping kids learn and that the lousy teaching corps and its unions are responsible for the sorry state of public education. The hyperbolic headline on the magazine cover is: “Who Ruined Our Schools: An Insider Tells All.

(Nevermind that, according to Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, a number of indicators of student progress are higher than ever and that “the lowest performing 5 percent of our schools are erroneously defining what is happening in the other 95 percent.”)

Yet there’s this: A few days ago New York state officials did finally adopt the very measure that Klein says he couldn’t get done. It was Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo who spearheaded the decision to increase the percentage that the scores will matter in an evaluation from at least 20 percent to 40 percent.

And the linkage between test scores and teacher evaluations — often referred to as value-added because it supposedly tells how much value a teacher adds to a student’s learning — is becoming the law in state after state and the District of Columbia, with the approval of the Obama administration.

Even the teachers unions — who Klein essentially paints as the labor equivalent of the devil, caring not a whit for kids but only for adult jobs — have moved off the position that the tests should never be used to evaluate teachers. The National Education Association, the country’s largest union, this month released a new policy statement that said it wasn’t against the practice if the tests are sophisticated enough to do the job well. Which they aren’t. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten has supported experimentation with the idea for a while.

Klein ended his eight-year tenure as chancellor of New York City schools late last year after it was revealed that test scores that he pointed to as proof of the success of his business-based reforms were based on increasingly easy standardized exams. He now is executive vice president at Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.; two weeks after his move was announced, the company said it was buying a technology company with big financial ties to the New York City school system.
(Quite the coincidence.)

Klein acknowledges in his article that reform “progress” has been made, including in the area of value-added, but makes it sound like it is incidental and in danger of being reversed. There is an air of unreality to the article that doesn’t seem to square with facts on the ground. His view of reform has actually won the day in many state legislatures and the Education Department. Why does he sound so defensive?

The really sad thing about all of this is that the value-added idea taking hold around the country is bad policy, one the unions should not have approved. The test score-teacher evaluation linkage is being implemented despite research that shows the value-added model isn’t valid and reliable enough to be used for high stakes decisions.

It is not the “objective” tool it is promoted as being. Look at the situation in the Los Angeles Unified School District, where the Los Angeles Times released its own ratings of thousands of elementary school teachers based on a value-added formula it hired someone to devise. The district had its own formula, and some of the results weren’t the same; it asked the newspaper not to publish its own results to avoid confusion, but it did anyway.

If different formulas can come up with different results on effectiveness, how objective is it? Maybe one day there will great tests and the perfect formula, but there isn’t yet.

Klein’s is just one in a recent spate of stories and articles and television segments about public education that take as gospel that certain “reforms” -- including value-added -- are the answer to the ills of failing schools. The danger is that people who don’t know better believe the carping about how teachers and unions have wrecked public schools and only reformers like Klein and his ally, Michelle Rhee, who was chancellor of D.C. schools for 3 1/3 years, know how to fix them.

He blames Weingarten’s American Federation of Teachers for spending a lot of money to defeat Rhee’s patron, then-Mayor Adrian Fenty last year. Fenty actually lost because he had turned off voters, not because the union didn’t like Rhee. In fact, the union signed on to Rhee’s controversial teacher evaluation system that involved merit pay for increased standardized test scores, but Klein somehow attacks that move too.

Meanwhile, he says this about that teacher evaluation system:

. . .We have evidence to show that these monetary incentives can work. In Washington, D.C., Michelle Rhee negotiated a merit-based compensation system—where teachers could get paid much more in the early years. As a result, it appears, significant numbers of teachers from D.C.’s charter schools apply to teach in its traditional public schools. Only money can explain that.”

Really? Note that he said “it appears,” because we don’t have the numbers, according to my colleague Bill Turque, who covers the D.C. public school system. But even assuming it were true, other things could explain it, including the fact that some charter schools were closed down and teachers were looking for work. (Or maybe some teachers didn’t like the working conditions in the schools. Forty percent of the teachers eligible under the contract for merit pay, in exchange for giving up their job security, declined to take it. Money doesn’t motivate everyone.)

I write this not — repeat not — as a defense of bad teachers, or rigid union rules that have made it too hard to remove them. There are teachers who don’t belong in the classroom (good teachers know this better than anyone) and they should be removed, with due process, in a matter of months rather than years. Despite Klein’s trashing of the unions over this issue, Weingarten’s AFT has advanced, with the American Association of School Administrators, a new teacher development and evaluation system that would allow for the removal of a tenured teacher in no more than 100 days and often much less.

I write this not as a statement of support for “the status quo”or to say that there is no way to improve urban schools unless we fix poverty. Klein insists that this has become “one of the most cherished mantras in public education today,” though I don’t know anyone who says that schools can’t be improved unless poverty is eradicated. has adopted it

The critics of modern school reform who I know understand something that Klein refuses to: that poverty and its effects do affect student performance, and teachers can do a lot but they can’t do everything when kids come to school hungry or sick or exhausted or unable to pay attention. Refusing to acknowledge and deal with these issues is at least as damaging as insisting that nothing can be done for kids in poverty. It is simply a way to belittle those who refuse to address complex human problems with inappropiate solutions. Like grading kids, teachers and schools on the basis of test scores.

The term Klein uses to refer to the public education system — a “government-run monopoly” — is one used often by those who seek an end to the public education system in favor of privately run schools. As if private concerns can always be trusted to keep the needs of the country, rather than profits, front and center, just like they did when they practically wrecked the U.S. financial system.

Accusing several million teachers of being lazy and caring only for their pensions won’t improve public schools. Using questionable methods to evaluate teachers won’t either. And turning the public education system, a civic institution that is not a business and should not be run as one, into “a competitive marketplace,” as Klein suggests, will cause enormous damage that leaves far more kids behind than there are now.

After finishing the article, I kept thinking: “What is Joel Klein talking about?”

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By  |  04:00 AM ET, 05/19/2011

 
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