Sunday, June 15, 2014

Making Schools Poor by Diane Ravitch | NYRblog | The New York Review of Books

Making Schools Poor by Diane Ravitch | NYRblog | The New York Review of Books:

Making Schools Poor

Ben Margot/AP Photo
A first-grade class of thirty children at the Willow Glen Elementary School in San Jose, California, where budget cuts have led to larger class sizes, January 24, 2013
Last week, Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu in Los Angeles ruled that five California statutes protecting the job security of schoolteachers were unconstitutional. Likening his brief, sixteen-page ruling to the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing racial segregation in public schools, Judge Treu invalidated laws protecting teacher tenure and seniority. He said that the effect of these laws was to deny high-quality education to minority children by making it difficult to fire “grossly ineffective” teachers.
The plaintiffs in the case, Vergara v. California, have powerful backers and Judge Treu’s decision in their favor could have far-reaching implications. The case was filed by Students Matter, an advocacy group created by a Silicon Valley fiber-optics multi-millionaire named David Welch, and the decision has brought loud cheers from Obama’s Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, as well as from various conservative groups, hedge-funders, and other advocates of tying teachers’ jobs to student test scores. Welch and his allies have said they plan to challenge tenure in other states. But was the judge right?
The case itself, which was brought on behalf of nine minority plaintiffs, was weak. No evidence was presented that any of the plaintiffs had teachers who were “grossly ineffective.” None of the teachers in question had negative evaluations. One student referred by name to a “bad teacher” who had in fact been named Pasadena’s teacher of the year. Two of the nine students were enrolled in charter schools, where teachers have neither tenure nor seniority. The Vergara sisters—after whom the case is named—attend a “pilot” school in Los Angeles where teachers may be dismissed for ineffectiveness.
The theory behind the case is that differences in test scores can be largely attributed to the quality of the teacher. Students who have “great teachers” will get high test scores year after year, which means they are more likely to go to college and earn a higher lifetime income. Even one such teacher, so goes the theory, can have this remarkable effect on students. On the other hand, said one of the expert witnesses cited by the judge, one bad teacher can cause students to lose an entire year of learning.
In fact, however, researchers overwhelmingly agree that family income and family education are the largest determinants of academic performance. Only a few months ago, the American Statistical Association said that teachers account for only between 1 percent and 14 percent of the variation among students in test scores. “The majority of opportunities for quality improvement,” said ASA, “are found in the system-level conditions”—that is, variables such as resources, class size, school leadership, the quality of the curriculum, and other factors that are mostly beyond the control of a single teacher.
In the Vergara case, the California Teachers Association called its own expert witnesses who endorsed this finding. According to these witnesses, the primary cause of variation in test scores is poverty, the effect of which is deepened by inadequately-funded schools. Persistent budget cuts mean that schools have larger class sizes, lose their arts teachers and programs, and are less likely to have a school nurse, counselors, psychologists, and a library with a librarian.
During the Schwarzenegger era in California, public schools had billions of dollars taken away from them through budget cuts, and California now ranks at the very bottom of states in per-pupil spending on education, providing 30 percent less funding than the Making Schools Poor by Diane Ravitch | NYRblog | The New York Review of Books: