One of the more negative features of contemporary educational policy debates is the way in which a number of ‘camps’ have adopted a strategy of intellectual non-engagement and avoidance toward differing positions. The martial metaphor of ‘camps’ is deliberately chosen here, since the underlying logic of this strategy is one of opposing armies meeting on a field of battle. The essentials one needs to know in any debate, according to this view of educational policy, is who lines up with your army and who lines up against it – is the advocate of this policy friend or enemy? The substance of the argument made for or against a policy is largely immaterial. Indeed, it is better not to discuss that substance, since a discussion might reveal a weakness in one’s own position, or worse, the strength of the alternative position. All that is important is whether or not the ‘policy’ in question is part of your weaponry, and whether its advocates belong to your army.
If the reader suspects that we are demonstrating a weakness for hyperbole here, consider the responses to the publication earlier this year of a study evaluating the academic performance of charter schools and the controversy surrounding the AFT’s release of NAEP data on that subject, The Charter School Dust-Up: Examining the Evidence on Enrollment and Achievement. Over at Eduwonk, Andy Rotherham dedicated several column inches to a “review” of the report. He began by pointing out the union connections of the Economic Policy Institute, the progressive Washington DC think tank which co-published the text with Teachers’ College Press and to which a number of the authors were affiliated. He then headed off on a tangent concerning NCLB accountability measures, turned to a defense of his prior characterization of the AFT’s release of the NAEP data as a “hatchet job,” and went on to criticize the method of publication and dissemination of the report. Finally, after eight lengthy paragraphs on such ancillary matters, Rotherham managed to find one facet of the report worthy of a brief discussion, its treatment of charter school demographics. Nowhere did he address the actual question at the core of The Charter School Dust-Up – the academic performance of charter schools. Not to be outdone, Checker Finn produced a “review” dripping with disdain at Gadfly, managing to avoid even a single reference to an actual argument from the text. Every word of Finn’s commentary was dedicated to the propositions that the authors were critics of charter schools, and that EPI had received financial support from teacher unions. That’s all you need to know, in the logic of Finn’s presentation.
Sadly, this pattern of intellectual non-engagement and avoidance, this ‘don’t confuse me with any actual arguments’ approach to ideas and policies, is what passes for educational debate in some circles these days. We say sadly, because it is hard to see how educational policy moves forward under the tutelage of pseudo-debates, or how educational ideas are strengthened and improved when they are never intellectually engaged, but simply dismissed as the work of the enemy. What reigns is the most vulgar form of politicization, in which the measure of the value of an educational policy is reduced to its efficacy as a weapon in the great education wars – which, for all too many practitioners of this strategy, is simply a euphemism for the great culture wars. As a consequence, today much of American education is far removed from the republican ideal of a public square, in which ideas and policy proposals are vigorously debated and refined; instead, we have a public discourse that, in all too many quarters, rarely rises even to the level of ‘spin.’
Take the question of the recent report of the New Teacher Project, Unintended Consequences, which targeted school staffing clauses in urban teacher contracts. Here at Edwize we took the time to read the report carefully, and to offer some considered comments and criticisms. We found that its arguments were lacking and that its research methods fell far short of scholarly rigor, and we disagreed strongly with the report’s conclusions. But we thought it important to lay out a serious critique of the actual arguments of Unintended Consequences, to show where they were wrong and where they ignored inconvenient realities, rather than simply dismiss the report because the New Teacher Project has as its paying “clients” the very school districts it was “studying” in this report, and because the main “endorsers” of the report were the leaders of those same school districts. Our readers are certainly entitled to be informed of the connection between the researcher and the researched/endorser, but a due respect for what educational policy debates should be and for the intelligence of those readers required that we address the report’s actual arguments.
Unfortunately, the response to that critique of Unintended Consequences from Eduwonk’s Andy Rotherham fits the pattern of “intellectual non-engagement and avoidance.” We read Rotherham’s comments several times, looking for even a hint of substantive grappling with the points we made. But the conclusion we were forced to draw is best captured by the words Gertrude Stein reportedly used to describe Oakland, “there is no there, there.”
The issue that the Unintended Consequences and Rotherham claim to address – what must be done to staff low performing schools serving high poverty communities with accomplished teachers – is, without question, an important issue. It is at the very center of efforts to bring a measure of equity and justice to urban schools which are caught in an educational system which is still all too separate and all too unequal. The UFT takes this issue seriously, and we are committed to doing what needs to be done to bring quality teaching to these schools and to the young people they serve. A year and a half ago, Randi Weingarten laid out a comprehensive strategy for an ‘educational enterprise zone’ for low performing, high poverty schools. Among the specific measures in that strategy were unprecedented proposals for changes in our contract, such as a salary differential for teachers serving in these schools as an incentive to attract experienced teachers, and the establishment of a lead teacher position to provide instructional leadership, professional development and mentoring in these schools. Moreover, our school based staffing plan – which was added to the contract at the initiative of the UFT, and which Unintended Consequences had to misrepresent to make its case – meant that any school in this zone that wanted control over the hiring of their staff could have it. And we have discussed the question of how to staff low performing, high poverty schools at some length here at Edwize, well before the publication of Unintended Consequences.
What was so striking about Unintended Consequences was the extraordinary disconnect between the goal it purportedly espoused of staffing low performing, high poverty schools, a goal which we have long supported, and the various proposals for the expansion of management authority and power it proposed. It was remarkable, for example, that the report which was so lavish in the space it dedicated to the symptom – how teachers in urban districts like New York City are placed in a new school, once they are excessed – had not a penny’s worth of a line to give to the underlying disease – why there is so much excessing, especially mid-year excessing, and why that excessing is so heavily concentrated in low performing, high poverty schools. This contrast can only be explicable in the context of the ideology of ‘triumphant managerialism’ that runs like a bright red thread through the report. The issue of placing excessed teachers is one in which teachers have some voice, through the collective bargaining agreement, while the issue of the extent of excessing and its concentration in low performing, high poverty schools is one solely under the discretion of the school district. So if your agenda is about expanding management authority and power, you go after the placement of excessed teachers, and ignore the problem of excessing and everything that gives rise to it.
According to Eduwonk’s Rotherham, the wily teacher union advocates are engaged in a ‘misdirection’ ploy when we point to the Unintended Consequences’ studious avoidance of the underlying systemic problem of excessing. But we think our readers are intelligent enough to know the difference between spin and “keeping your eye on the prize,” and are able to recognize when we are doing the latter. If one really cares about the problem of staffing low performing schools serving high poverty communities with accomplished teachers, then one has to diagnose and treat the disease, and not just mask the symptoms. For our part, we are prepared to work with anyone serious about the real problem, and to modify collective bargaining agreements, when the changes address that real problem. Randi Weingarten’s comprehensive strategy for an “educational enterprise zone” demonstrates clearly and unambiguously that we are prepared to ‘walk the walk’ on this issue. Our record on contractual changes such as school based staffing shows that we follow through on these commitments. Unfortunately, a year and a half after that proposal was made, the NYC Department of Education has yet to even ‘talk the talk.’
On more mundane matters, Eduwonk’s posts on the subject of Unintended Consequences are interesting as a specimen of the strategy of “intellectual non-engagement and avoidance” in action. The writing is rich in techniques, but we will limit ourselves to a few illustrations.
The case made for the report includes the fact that the lead author is a “Clinton [administration] alum,” a line that regular Eduwonk readers will recognize as a common refrain from that blog. We would refer Rotherham to Thomas Aquinas, who famously noted that “the argument from authority is the weakest of all arguments.” And being a Clinton appointee does not exactly make you the strongest of authorities to begin with. Or perhaps we should now all turn to the writings of a better known Clinton administration alum, Dick Morris, for our moral philosophy.
However, we did detect a fine piece of Clintonian linguistic parsing in Rotherham’s announcement that New Teacher Project CEO and President Michelle Rhee was not a “paid witness” for the NYC Department of Education and against the UFT in the fact-finding process. Given that the New Teacher Project and Rhee publicly boast that the NYC Department of Education is one of their “clients,” are we to believe that this pecuniary relationship is somehow mystically dissolved for the one day she appears as its witness? It must all depend on the meaning of ‘was’ in ‘was a paid witness.’
But we save the best for last. Here is Eduwonk on the method used to publish and disseminate The Charter School Dust Up:
Finally, worth noting that the way the book was released was the policy equivalent of a drive-by. A private conference call with a handful of reporters and no advance copies circulated to people being criticized in the book. That’s no way to business and essentially no different than President Bush’s fraudulent “town meetings” on Social Security which have understandably enraged the Left and one can only assume EPI doesn’t support.
Guess how Unintended Consequences was published and disseminated? Yes, a private conference call with a handful of reporters and no advance copies circulated to people being criticized in the report. And that is only the beginning. This was a report that ‘analyzed’ the New York City collective bargaining agreement as one of its five case studies, and its authors managed to interview numerous DOE officials, labor relations staff, personnel staff, superintendents and principals – and not a single person from the UFT or the AFT. Better yet, they managed to avoid even quoting the language of the contract they were discussing, a remarkable measure which they defend as necessary to protect the school district’s anonymity. Note that the “anonymity” did not survive even the publication of the report, when Joel Klein and Alan Bersin – the heads of two of the five districts during the period of the study – appeared as its main endorsers. And when asked for their interview methodology and questions, the New Teacher Project has not exactly been forthcoming. The interview questions could be shared, but the school districts have a “proprietary interest” in the data, the AFT was told. One wonders how the Annie E. Casey Foundation, who the New Teacher Project reports funded the ‘research’ for this report, feels about the NYC DOE having a “proprietary interest” in the data. Come to think about it, one wonders how they feels about the quality of the research in Unintended Consequences.
Do you think Eduwonk might be able to mount some outrage over the ‘drive-by’ way Unintended Consequences was published and disseminated? Over research so shoddy that it can ‘study’ labor relations, and only interview the management side? Over the way in which The New Teacher Project refuses to share the report’s data? Don’t count on it. The New Teacher Project is part of his army.