Monday, June 16, 2014

The Education Earthquake Continues In California

Our education system has been in the middle of a decade-long reform period that is working wonders. The spread of charter schools, the imposition of standards (over Glenn Beck’s dead body), and the requirement for testing so that failing schools can be identified and overhauled are all very quickly improving education in America in a dramatic way. Now there’s a new piece of the puzzle from California.

One of the biggest problems facing the reformers (aside from the sudden outbreak of fringe idiocy) has been the opposition of unions. They have fought every single reform to the death, without a moments regard for whether or not that reform would make things better. But little by little, the unions are starting to fail. In fact, in the past decade, the left has actually come to realize that the teachers unions stand in the way of repairing and improving the system. As a result, the left is starting to abandon their defense of the unions. They’ve given up on the idea that more money will solve the problem. They are admitting that testing and standards and better teachers are required. And they are looking to weaken the unions.

That brings us to California.

One of the biggest problems education reformers face is the inability to get rid of the lousy teachers. Bill Gates once noted that “if every child had math teachers as good as those in the top quartile, the achievement gap between America and Asia would vanish in two years.” Unfortunately, when you can’t dump bad teachers, you can’t do that. In only 23 states can a teacher be fired for unsatisfactory evaluations... the rest are protected by tenure.

In California, a teacher has a one in 125,000 chance of being fired for incompetence. Getting rid of teachers is almost impossible and can cost millions to make happen – California teachers get tenure after two years. And when layoffs happen, the new teachers are require to be fired first, leaving the tenured teachers no matter how they perform.

So imagine everyone’s surprise when an advocacy group called Students Matter sued California on behalf of nine minority students and argued that California’s tenure rules “allowed grossly ineffective teachers to remain in their jobs, and that such teachers were disproportionately to be found in poor and non-white areas.” Interesting. This is a brilliant attack, using liberalism against liberalism.

Well, Judge Rolf Treu bought this and struck down five tenure laws, saying they violated the constitutionally guaranteed right to equal education. In fact, he called the evidence of this overwhelming and the result “shocking.” The case is on appeal, but stands a decent chance of being upheld. From there, it is likely to spread to other states.

Naturally, the unions freaked out. They’re screaming that teachers can now be fired on unreasonable grounds and that the expensive teachers will be fired first. And with a massive amount of gall and irony, they whined that using a court to strike down these laws wrongly circumvented the legislative process... something that never once bothered them when they sued the state time and again to impose things the legislature didn’t want.

This is another piece of the puzzle and may result in a major improvement in public education. It will be interesting to see if this ruling gets upheld and if it spreads to other states.



Tennessee Jed said...

I love that. And hope it holds up on appeal

Kit said...

Good news!

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Let's hope. This has a real potential to cause a lot of change for the better.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, Yes, it is. It's an interesting strategy to, to use liberalism versus liberalism.

Anthony said...

Its a great ruling but I'm not sure how big a difference it will make. Like I've said before, in my experience student performance has more to do with parents than anything else and that a lot of the problems of the education system are tied to the decline of the family.

On a related note, teachers that do well in public school are not just good at teaching the subject matter, but those who can motivate kids to learn and deal with the inevitable handful of troublemakers in each class.

*Shrugs* But there are burnouts and incompetents so if the new reform only gets them out of the way, it will help thousands of kids.

Critch said...

Education is not just teachers, you have to have administrators with cojones who will back the teachers when the teacher is right. These same administrators have to be willing to get rid of problem children, all they do is disrupt the education of something. State education departments are overrun with bureaucrats who have never taught in a classroom...I know of three here in Missouri...What ever teaching materials are required for crying out loud make sure it makes sense, some of the crap I've seen out on there Common core is downright stupid. Don't blame a teacher is little Johnny didn't learn anything because his parents wouldn't make him toe the line. I know a lot of school superintendents, some are great, some are just there for the money, and BTW, some of them make tons of money for what little they do. .

tryanmax said...

Fighting liberalism with liberalism is a great strategy, not just in education, but in all sorts of arenas. The ideology is so fraught with contradiction that, if the right pressure is applied, implosion is inevitable. I would venture to say that it is the only strategy that makes sense when tackling Democrat-built bureaucracy.

We talk at times about the conservative check-out; this is where it applies. I see Anthony and Critch engaging in it presently. "If we can't solve all the problems, then why solve any?" Parents are a huge influence, doubtless. But what's the legislative solution to that? Kids with bad grades become wards of the state? Meanwhile, we've got some really bad teachers hiding behind bad parents because that's an unsolvable problem.

It's a fallacy to think you can't separate a teacher's performance from the students'. Everyone is worried that a good teacher will unjustly get the ax, but there is no normal incentive for doing that. The current, perverse system all but ensures that the very thing we fear most is already happening.

But that's not even the half of it. Look at what reformers are up against. In 27 states, teachers cannot be fired for poor evaluations. Don't even think about how the evaluations are structured and ask, what's the point of even doing evaluations? The point is, bad teachers have been identified, but there is no more that can be done about it. Shifting the conversation to parents is dodging the issue.

AndrewPrice said...

Anthony, I think the effects of this should not be dismissed. As I see it, this has three very large potential effects:

1. It lets schools eliminate the bad apples they haven't been able to before.

2. It sends a shockwave through the teaching community and causes them all to take their jobs more seriously because the immunity is gone.

3. The weakening of the unions ultimately will mean that fresh blood can be brought into the field.

Each of those changes is potentially significant. And while you are right that parents are the largest input in terms of education output, teachers can be the biggest input when they are not average, i.e. extremely good or extremely bad. This ruling is more likely to reduce the downside risk of bad teachers.

AndrewPrice said...

Critch, Good administration is vital and few schools have good administration. Most administrators are rule-bound bureaucrats with no willingness to rock the boat. That needs to change. Power should be pushed down to the principle level for management of the schools and they should be provided with clear legal guidance on what powers they really do have over students -- because most schools don't seem to know the rules.

This ruling should help with that because it removes the excuse administrators have for failing to overseas schools -- "we can't do anything because the rules won't let us."

As for Common Core, it's very state dependent on what it turns out to be as states craft the curriculum ultimately. I've seen a little bit that I thought was odd, but by and large, it seems like a good program and most of the complaining has been in bad faith. (A lot of the complaining is actually about things that became standards/practices about a decade ago, which are now being wrongly assigned to Common Core.)

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Fighting liberalism with liberalism is something I've seen done several times and it always ends well. What's interesting is that the two groups of liberals turn on each other in a brutal way and start smearing the other "racist!" "sexist!" "ageist!" etc. It gets really ugly. So I think it is something we should consider using more as a weapon.

In terms of fixing the whole thing versus part of it, I agree. It would be nice to have a comprehensive fix for all problems, but you almost never get that chance. Hence, problems need to be fixed incrementally. It's not as satisfying, but it can be just as effective over time.

Agreed about the incentives. There may be some bad blood now and then between a teacher and a principal, so there may be some stupid/unjust firings, but the incentive really is to gather the best teachers -- especially as schools are now being tested and scored based on student performance rather than meaningless factors.

In terms of parents v. teachers, I definitely agree that parents are probably the biggest single input in terms of student performance. But teachers are a close second, and I think we can all attest to the fact that good teachers got much more out of us than bad teachers. So teachers really do matter.

Critch said...

From my perspective I saw tons of really good teachers who had no backing from parents, principals or administrators and they gave up and quit teaching...which sometimes left the crappy teachers...everyone seems to want to focus on teachers,,,you better get a wider view...or at least make any kind of rating system for teachers fair,,,they can't control every variable out there...if by chance their 5th hour math class is a bunch of dumbasses, that's not their fault...

AndrewPrice said...

Critch, I don't disagree with you at all.

1. You can't solve this problem by focusing on teachers alone. Replacing bad teachers needs to be part of the solution, but that alone is not "the" answer.

2. You need administrators who will use their power to (1) remove disruptive students, (2) defend good teachers from bad parents, and (3) give good teachers the freedom they need while making sure everyone is doing their jobs.

3. There needs to be a major re-think when it comes to parents. Parents need to be given a role in this and held accountable. Too many parents on the "low end" (i.e. parents of the worst students) don't give their kids the right attitudes to be capable students, discourage education, don't bother to enforce attendance, don't help with homework, etc. They are a total hindrance to the education of their spawn.

I'll tell you what, I can tell within minutes if someone is going to raise a smart kid or a retard by watching how they handle their kids. Good parents encourage curiosity and problem solving. Bad parents invariably refuse to answer questions and criticize the kids for asking. The only problem solving skills they teach are "might makes right." And then you add an utter disrespect for teachers, and you are staring at "parents in name only."

That's the long way of saying, this is a multi-part solution. Unfortunately, few people are willing to suggest the kinds fixes that are really needed when it comes to parents.

Koshcat said...

There will always be holes in the system. My daughter had a teacher a couple years ago who often wins awards, etc. She is a bubble-headed dingbat, in my opinion. What are you going to do? There are people like that in every part of life. I think the real point is that the unions have been so recalcitrant in even discussing the issue when they should actually be leading it. I haven't seen a formal poll but it wouldn't surprise me if more than half the teachers have significant disagreement with their union.

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, I agree. There will always be holes in the system. Any "system" that employees three million people will experience mistakes and abuses. But random mistakes and abuses are much better than the systematic failures and abuses that the unions have allowed.

Interestingly, I remember a recent poll which showed a generational gap on union support. Older teachers support the unions about 2-1, whereas younger teachers oppose the unions about 2-1. This has the unions freaked out.

Anthony said...

Tryanmax and Andrew,

I clearly came across as too dismissive of the ability to fire bad teachers, but I think most troubled kids' problem is their parents. I could tell a lot of stories. Sometimes I am amazed that kids turn out as well as they do given the mountain of crap some indifferent/incompetent parents subject their kids too.

I can tell some terrible teacher stories. I once had a French teacher whose French may have been very good, but we never heard it. She would tell stories about her past life in France (in English) and the tests were open book.

I remember a social studies teacher who clearly didn't want to be there. You could kind of sense the vindictive hate coming off the guy even when it wasn't spewing from his mouth (which was fairly often, since kids loved to bait him).

My mother was a public school teacher, I came up through public schools, I mentored troubled kids for two years, my daughters have spent most of their lives in public schools (and are currently in them now) and I am moderately active in the PTO, so believe me I know the system is far from perfect, but still, the most horrific stuff I have seen have been has been inflicted on kids by adults family members (I can't say parents because sometimes parents aren't in the picture).

*Takes deep breath* Anyway, its great that bad teachers can be dismissed and I think Andrew's proposed solutions are good ones.

AndrewPrice said...

Anthony, I agree. Like you, I believe that "troubled" kids are troubled because of their parents. I've seen that in action. I've seen parents who simply don't care about their kids' education and they actually get hostile when told they need to be involved. Similarly, I've seen the documentaries exposing unbelievably bad parents -- drug addicts, child abusers, welfare moms who totally give up on their children, etc. Those kids are in such bad shape that asking the school to "fix" them is nonsense at best. And I honestly believe they need to start taking those kids away and putting them in a different environment. There is no other workable solution. But we're not allowed to suggest that because somehow being an abusive parent is a right.

There is also a second set of parents who aren't at that level, but are still bad. One of my best friends throughout school had parents like that. "D is for done," they would tell him. They never paid any attention to school, never met a single teacher, and told him education was a waste of time. He bought into that and now he delivers pizzas for a living at the age of 44.

Neither of those two groups can be helped by firing bad teachers.

But beyond that, there are a vast number of decent kids who want to learn, but aren't super motivated like the top tier kids, and their education can be dramatically affected by the teachers they have. That's where I think this will help the most -- the average kids who learn at the level they are offered.

As an aside, I had a couple horrible teachers too. We had a track system and I was in the Gifted and Talented Track. One of my teachers was opposed to the whole track idea and was determined to do as much harm to our class as she could to prove that having a G&T Track was a bad idea. I had a German teacher who spoke worse German than I do, and I'm not a pro. I had a seventh grade English teacher who HATED boys. Etc. Teachers like those need to be fired or forced to improve under threat of being fired.

tryanmax said...

Anthony, likewise I don't intend to be dismissive of parental influence. Unfortunately, that issue calls down solutions that are unacceptable to most people, even in modest measure. Almost every issue has such an angle, though few are so obvious as education. Yet time and again, I hear conservatives latching onto just those angles in order to say it can't be fixed. From there they either check out or spew fire.

Critch said...

I look back at some of the teachers I had and I realize that many of them were brilliant. My Latin teacher was educated in Rome and Madrid, taught in the Phillipines and physics teacher was retired from The Jet Propulsion Lab, and ther were many more. But they all had that fire that seems to make us remember those really good 6th grade teacher was a saint, for not strangling me, because I sure as Hell wasn't a saint in those days....its' almost like universities are knocking the rough off of these diamonds. I can't believe the silly ass classes a person has to take just to teach history or English, or math...BTW, I still consider Big Education to be a racket..

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