TWIE: Three More Thoughts On The LA StudentsFirst Forum

I wrote last week about the StudentsFirst “teacher forum” in downtown LA:

1. The event was well-attended. I was told the venue had 270 seats, and they appeared to be all full or almost full. An RSVP did not guarantee you a seat, and I’m not sure if anybody was turned away. There were some protesters outside (along with a police presence), but by the time I exited the building they seemed to have left.

2. Rhee and Parker had interesting things to say, and should elaborate on them more often and more thoroughly. Rhee seems genuinely sure the median teacher position on many reform issues is not that far from her own. That might or might not be true – she certainly overstated the case in some of the particulars, like on value-added measurement – but it’s a good way of framing the debate that encourages people to get specific about what they believe or think their opponents believe.

For his part, Parker (a former union president) argued repeatedly that unions are good and have a role to play, but that their interests don’t align with those of students as neatly as they could or should. That’s a line of thinking reformers should be pursuing more frequently and carefully, but it was never really clear what Parker’s alternative conception of teacher unions would look like in practice.

3. Perry didn’t get the memo. The goal of the forum as stated was to have an “honest conversation” about education reform that avoided “extreme rhetoric and personal attacks”. Perry either didn’t know or didn’t care. His answers consisted almost entirely of recklessly hasty generalizations from personal anecdotes, all inevitably pointing to somebody else’s cowardice or indifference to children.

Perry might be an effective spokesman for the reform movement – he’s casually funny and witty, and he’s stridently moralistic in a way that seems to excite supporters – but his contributions were sufficiently “extreme” and “personal” to undercut the ostensible purpose of the event.

4. It’s not clear that attendees were really looking to learn from the panelists anyway. Despite being encouraged to do so, only 16 audience members – roughly 6% of those present – submitted questions. My sense was that most of the people present were already high-information participants either looking to explicitly support (or oppose) the panelists or hoping to see some fireworks. (There weren’t that many fireworks, though there was the occasional shouting.)

A few other things that have since come to mind:

1. Everybody’s incapable of talking about unions in a plausible way. Anybody who spoke about unions at this event – whether on the stage or asking a question – assumed that union interests either align perfectly with student interests or are almost entirely at odds with them. Both positions are almost certainly wrong: union interests are largely aligned with student interests, it’s just that the areas in which they are unaligned (or less obviously aligned) are precisely the areas most likely to become most salient in people’s’ minds. We talk about tenure and LIFO a lot because there’s disagreement about them, but don’t let that confuse you into thinking that those things constitute most of what unions do.

2. I don’t actually know for certain how many questions were submitted. I said only 16 were, and that number was provided by the moderator. In the comments of the original post there is a claim that more were submitted, and that may be the case. I don’t know if questions were screened, or if the moderator even would have known that at the time. She also stated that all unanswered questions – she said that was 8 of the “16” submitted – would be answered online by all panelists, but I haven’t seen that yet. (Or, to be fair, looked for it.)

3. Reformers continue to confuse raising achievement with closing gaps. Almost everybody, including the three panelists, conflated “changes that would increase achievement” with “changes that would make a dent in achievement gaps”. Only one questioner all night pointed out that if you actually want to close the gaps in absolute terms (without limiting growth at the high end) you need to provide interventions that apply only to lower-achieving groups. So, for example, even the most optimistic plans to “eliminate LIFO” don’t really have anything to do with achievement gaps per se unless they’re plans to eliminate LIFO only in schools with lower-scoring groups of students. Otherwise – if the reform is useful – everybody wins, everybody’s achievement goes up, and the gaps persist.

Increasing achievement is a good thing, but conflating it with closing gaps is mostly1 confusing.

  1. Arguably, rising achievement overall could narrow gaps in relative terms. []
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  1. David B. Cohen
    Posted September 16, 2013 at 8:59 PM | Permalink

    Thanks for adding more info about the event. Your impressions of Perry absolutely match what I’ve seen and heard from him consistently. As for your comments on Rhee, I agree that forums like these, and online, would benefit from more detailed exposition on positions and differences – but her personal credibility on that front is damaged more than a few tightly controlled “town halls” meetings can repair.

    • Posted October 5, 2013 at 7:34 AM | Permalink

      I’m often puzzled by Rhee’s hot-and-cold attitude toward teachers and unions and think she maybe needs to commit to either trying to get them more on her side or not. She seems to me to be trying to have it sort of both ways, and as a result I’m not sure she’s getting it either way.

  2. Posted October 4, 2013 at 5:44 PM | Permalink

    I appreciated reading your comment that “union interests are largely aligned with student interests.” One of my biggest frustrations with Rhee is her repeated insinuation that teachers unions, unlike her, are not students first. When you look at the political agendas, funding sources, and alliances of reformers like Rhee, however, they’re the group whose actions suggest a motive different than what’s best for kids. The goal of helping students would be better served by allying with unions to improve teacher support and evaluation before focusing on dismissal and layoff practices.

    • Posted October 5, 2013 at 7:40 AM | Permalink

      Rhee, like many others, unfortunately seems to have her views of HR practices heavily influenced by extreme-but-rare cases, which is too bad. As a year-5, geographically mobile teacher my personal experiences with, say, LIFO, have been uniformly negative, but I still try to keep in mind that my personal experience is not necessarily representative so I try not to over-generalize from it. That doesn’t seem to be something Rhee (or Perry, etc.) ever think about. (This was actually something I tried to get at with the question I submitted, which was not answered, even online after the fact.)

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