Strategy and Analysis to Defend and Transform Public Education
You Don’t “Hella Love” Oakland Teachers OR Students with Research Like This.
A Critique of the NCTQ’s “Teacher Quality Roadmap” Report
Intro – A Racist/Classist Report for Oakland’s Schools
The NCTQ’s Four Main “Reforms”
No Social Context – No Race/Class Analysis – No Neutral On Moving Trains
No Mention of Budget Cuts and the Impact on the Community – Continued Ignorance of Race/Class Oppression
But . . . Schools Are in Crisis. What is to be done?
Intro – A Racist/Classist Report for Oakland’s Schools:
On Wednesday, March 20th, I went to a rally organized by Youth Together that was in support of the Local Control Funding Formula. At the rally, groups of Oakland and Richmond youth were yelling chants about “education not incarceration” and making demands for smaller class sizes, and better paid teachers.
Afterwards, I went to the GO Public Schools event that publicly released the findings of a report titled the “Teacher Quality Roadmap,” written by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ).This report by the NCTQ, presented by two white women, completely contradicts the demands that students of color were putting forward on the same day.
The entire presentation was centered on the role of teachers as the most determining factor in student achievement. Huge emphasis was placed on the role of “great teachers” as opposed to “average” or “ineffective” teachers. No explanation was given for how these categories of “great,” “average,” or “ineffective” were determined, but I have an idea of how: standardized test scores. No mention was made of what this study’s actual political viewpoint on standardized testing is. No mention was made of how teachers should be supported in improving their practice. No mention was made of out-of-school factors like police brutality, immigration raids, or unemployment play in shaping students’ lives.
The entire thing was shrouded in triggering statistics, flashy graphs, and seemingly convincing rhetoric about the problems of public education in Oakland. The purpose of this quick response is to challenge the report that GOPS is promoting in its utility for addressing the real problems in Oakland schools. Rather than supporting the efforts that teachers, parents, and students are putting into keeping quality programming alive in Oakland, and improving the programming that needs improvement, this effort is a veiled attack on the entire community of Oakland. It represents a neoliberal political program that seeks to address the challenges facing communities of color in Oakland, while in reality being a veiled version of white supremacy and classism that will only further the degradation and destruction of Oakland students’ lives.
What we provide below is a critique of the 4 main recommendations that the NCTQ make for the Oakland Unified School District. Secondly, we offer a critique of what the report leaves out, and the racialized and class based implications of these omissions. Finally, we offer thoughts on how to transform the OUSD to actually make schools places where students can learn in healthy ways, teachers can work under the conditions needed to make the student experience profound, and where community members can be integrated into the day to day operation of the school.
Anyone supporting this program should reconsider, immediately, if we have a real interest in improving our lives and the lives of other oppressed people in our community.
The NCTQ’s Four Main “Reforms”
The report proposes four main “reforms” for Oakland schools: 1) linking teacher evaluations to data (i.e. test scores); 2) using teacher rankings as the basis for tenure and pay; 3) giving Principals complete authority over hiring and firing; and 4) extending the number of contractual hours that teachers work everyday. These recommendations should be highly alarming to teachers, students and parents, and we touch on why one by one.
Linking teacher evaluation to data – and primarily test scores
First we must ask, is teachers’ effectiveness best judged by their data marks and is it really possible to accurately compare test score increases across schools, neighborhoods and student populations? While our guts might tell us that yes, everything that young people learn in the classroom can’t be represented by the score they get on a test, it is useful to also know that hard research tells us the same. The following are some of the conclusions that Chicagoland Researchers and Advocates for Transformative Education (CReATE – an organization of 100 Chicago-based academics) drew from their survey of the available research on value-added evaluations (“value-added” is a business term used to describe the incorporation of test scores and other data into teacher evaluations):
Value-added models (VAMs) of teacher effectiveness do not produce stable ratings of teachers. For example, different statistical models (all based on reasonable assumptions) can yield different effectiveness scores.
Researchers have found that how a teacher is rated changes from class to class, from year to year, and even from test to test.
There is no evidence that evaluation systems that incorporate student test scores produce gains in student achievement.
Student test scores have not been found to be a strong predictor of the quality of teaching as measured by other instruments or approaches.
Assessments designed to evaluate student learning are not necessarily valid for measuring teacher effectiveness or student learning growth. Using them to measure the latter is akin to using a meter stick to weigh a person: you might be able to develop a formula that links height and weight, but there will be plenty of error in your calculations.
When a teacher’s livelihood is directly impacted by his or her students’ scores on an end-of-year examination, test scores take front and center. The nurturing relationship between teacher and student changes for the worse.
With a focus on end-of-year testing, there inevitably will be a narrowing of the curriculum as teachers focus more on test preparation and skill-and-drill teaching.
Enrichment activities in the arts, music, civics, and other non-tested areas will diminish.
Teachers will subtly but surely be incentivized to avoid students with health issues, students with disabilities, students who are English Language Learners, or students suffering from emotional issues. Research has shown that no model yet developed can adequately account for all of these ongoing factors.
The dynamic between students and teacher will change. Instead of “teacher and student versus the exam,” it will be “teacher versus students’ performance on the exam.”
Collaboration among teachers will be replaced by competition. With a “value-added” system, a 5th grade teacher has little incentive to make sure that his or her incoming students score well on the 4th grade exams, because incoming students with high scores would make his or her job more challenging. When competition replaces collaboration, every student loses.
The NCTQ reports argues that such value-added measures will help, rather than hinder, the ability of the district to increase “teacher effectiveness,” and that teachers who excel on this test-based evaluation system should be rewarded with merit-based bonuses. None of the above critiques of value-added evaluations are addressed in the report.
Using teacher rankings as the basis for tenure and pay
Merit based pay is an approach to teaching and work where a teacher’s pay is determined mostly by the test scores of students. One of the main arguments that the NCTQ report uses when arguing for this merit based pay system is that it will increase teacher retention. When I talk to teachers at my school, I find that yes, Oakland teachers desperately want higher wages so they don’t need to work 2nd jobs or cut back on basic expenses to afford their rent or mortgage. However, merit pay is not a dependable way to increase teacher’s salaries since it is merely an annual salary increase, and even the most experienced, dynamic and effective teachers have hard years in the classroom. Teachers who feel they need to leave the district so they can make ends meet economically, are very unlikely to stick around in hopes of earning a yearly bonus. One thing that would definitely increase teacher retention in Oakland, is an across the board pay raise that is competitive with local school districts.
In 2009, when the Merit based Pay was first starting to be pushed heavily, Diane Ravich, the former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education, laid out these arguments against it. She states, “It ignores the fact that most teachers in a school are not eligible for ‘merit’ bonuses, only those who teach reading and math and only those for whom scores can be obtained in a previous year. It ignores the fact that many factors play a role in student test scores, including student ability, student motivation, family support (or lack thereof), the weather, distractions on testing day, etc. It ignores the fact that tests must be given at the beginning and the end of the year, not mid-year as is now the practice in many states. Otherwise, which teacher gets ‘credit,’ and a bonus for score gains, the one who taught the student in the spring of the previous year or the one who taught her in the fall?” http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/Bridging-Differences/2009/04/whats_wrong_with_merit_pay.html
Yet there is something else that I believe is a bigger motivator for Oakland teachers to stay in Oakland, and that is our hope for improved conditions in our schools and our need to feel they we are being successful as educators. We know that there are huge limits to what we can accomplish individually in our classrooms when many of the other teachers in our schools are struggling to positively engage students in rigorous learning. Oakland teachers want to work together to improve student learning across our schools, not be forced in competition with each other for whose individual set of tests scores will be the highest. The way to make teachers feel more successful and for students to be more successful is to set them all up for success – with small class sizes, more resources, and more collaborative planning time.
The recommendations of this report say absolutely nothing about how to coach teachers and support all education workers in our ongoing journey in developing our teaching practices. No mention is made of mentorship models where veteran teachers are paired with newer teachers in order for there to be a sharing of skills – new energy from the newer teachers, wisdom and acquired experience from the veterans. No mention is made of identifying local strengths at school sites and paying more money to school sites to have their own teachers lead professional developments. No mention is made of decreasing class size and having fully-funded team teachers collaborate to teach smaller groups of students. We are clear that no mention is made of these apprenticeship based models of teacher development because they cost money, and the interests behind this report are not about providing more money for schools on a sustained basis. Their lack of mention of these approaches to teacher development, as well as their neglect of a critical look at budget cuts at the state and local level leave us with no other conclusion other than that they are intentionally trying to obscure the structural basis of educational failure (more on this in the “No Social Context . . .” section.)
Giving principals total authority over hiring and firing
We need to call out the NCTQ’s recommendation to give Principals full control over firing and hiring for what it is – a seemingly “reasonable” way of calling for teachers to lose their seniority rights to positions in the district.
While there are serious issues about how seniority functions in the district (and from my perspective as a teacher in the flats, the most important is that there’s a tendency of more experienced teachers to use their seniority to get spots in schools in the hills rather than where they are most needed), the loss of seniority reproduces the challenges and problems that the OUSD has with attracting and retaining teachers to the district. A principal controlled hiring system will make the problem even worse – many principals will prefer to hire a cheap first year teacher who is more likely to go along with a test-prep curricular program than a more expensive, independent veteran teacher. As a result, this could open the door for even greater discrepancies in how teachers are distributed around the district, with working class schools composed of students of color remaining even more structurally composed of newer teachers.
Beyond a discussion of the pros and cons about the way seniority functions in our district, we need to look at another very pressing question: Who do we believe should be at the table when hiring teachers? And for that matter, who should be at the table for hiring administrators? Parents, teachers, students, and staff all have unique perspectives and deep interests in who works in Oakland schools and should have a role in decision-making. It is a sign of the classist politics of the NCTQ that the majority of its recommendations are focused on giving more power to principals and makes no mention of how other members of the school community might hold any real decision-making power.
Extending the number of contractual hours that teachers are required to be at school site everyday
Increasing the contractual hours that teachers are required to be at the school every day absent from a recommendation to decrease the number of preps (different courses) each teacher is assigned and a limit on class sizes, will result in Oakland teachers being even more overworked than they already are.
We must ask, what kind of learning will be possible in classrooms when teachers are working under these conditions? While we would all love for teachers to have more hours available in their day to tutor students, meet with parents and collaborate with their colleagues, this can only be achieved by decreasing the teaching load. Currently in Oakland, the maximum number of students an individual high school teacher can have on their roster is 160, and many teachers have exactly that amount (or even more in some cases). It is not uncommon for a high school teacher to have 3 different courses that they teach, for all of which they need to prepare different curriculum.
When teachers head home after 6 hours in the classroom with students, a one hour prep period, and a lunch filled with meetings and tutoring, they are doing so in order to quietly concentrate on grading student work and lesson planning for the next days. We want teachers to be able to do this work well and come to school the next day well rested and ready to teach. A recent study of Chicago teachers found that the average amount of time a teacher spent doing school related work every day was close to 11 hours – those of us who are teachers in Oakland can attest that the numbers are quite similar here (http://www.createchicago.org/p/fact-sheets-and-research-briefings.html).
It is insane and classist to tack on more hours to a job already requires so much to be done well. NCTQ’s proposal to extend the school day is based on their assumption that they best way to increase student learning is to increase “teacher productivity and accountability” and engage students in more hours of academic learning. All talk of productivity and accountability in this context seeks to frame education as a factory-like process where the bottomline is central, and the worker’s time needs to be tightly monitored and constrained; in this social factory, both teachers and students are workers forced to produce higher and higher test results for the district overseers.
Studies have found that students max out on what they can learn academically at 4 hours and desperately need to engage in other types of learning and play during the school day to develop socially and emotionally. This would be best done by hiring fully compensated professional educators to run enrichment arts, sports and learning programs during an extended day. Whether or not Oakland students would benefit from a longer school day, what students should be doing during school hours, and how teachers’ time can be best used, are all questions that we should be discussing as school communities. The NCTQ proposal for longer contractual hours for teachers is not the right starting point for these conversations; it does not take all these questions into consideration, and it will hurt Oakland students while further exploiting our teaching force and making our city less attractive to teach & learn in.
No Social Context – No Race/Class Analysis – No Neutral On Moving Trains:
Now that we’ve covered the problems of the report’s recommendations, we must examine what the report doesn’t say.
First off – the report says absolutely nothing about out-of-school factors which shape our young people’s lives. The reality is that these people have a political agenda which seeks to take attention away from issues that we find in the community. What are some of these issues? Three main ones come to mind: unemployment, police brutality, and repressive immigration policies. One of the main points I brought up in relation to this, which was quickly agreed to by the majority of the people at my table – including two principals of Oakland schools – was that immigration and police brutality are serious issues that have huge influences on how our young folks “perform” in school and on standardized tests.
As we went around responding to the presentation of the report, I stated, “I find the report to be dishonest on multiple counts. One of which is the problematic lack of emphasis on issues that we and our students face in the community. Neglecting this has serious racial and class implications.” Most people nodded their heads. One white woman at the table, a former teacher from Texas who worked for some consulting firm, asked me, “what are the racial issues you’re talking about?” I answered that she could interview every single elementary school student at the ICS/TCN campus which housed the event and ask them questions about their families experiences with Oakland Police (OPD) as well as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and that they could do a much better job than I at describing their experiences with state repression and the ways this influences their school day. Ignoring this amounts to implicit denial of the impact that these factors play in our daily lives as people of color and the youth of our communities. Someone once said you can’t be neutral on a moving train. I extend this and say that being “neutral” in relation to out of school factors like police brutality and repressive immigration policies amounts to ignorant white-man’s-burden at best (the racist logic of, “they face a lot in their neighborhood, but we can’t use that as an excuse: a good teacher can overcome it all!”) and tacit support for structural white supremacy at worst.
No Mention of Budget Cuts and the Impact on the Community – Continued Ignorance of Race/Class Oppression:
By obscuring this they are inherently siding with the same people who are cutting Adult Education, increasing class sizes, and incurring the OUSD more and more debt/legal fees for being over the administrator-teacher ratio year after year. This report naturalizes the shrinking budgets and increased classroom sizes, cutbacks, and layoffs which are increasing the rate of failure of our schools. The racialized and class based impact that all of this has on Oakland’s youth, community, and teachers indicates that the authors of the report and its co-signers are complicit in this racism and classism. This is unacceptable to support, especially in light of the current attacks on Oakland’s community by the OUSD board.
In the past month, the OUSD school board has voted to cut the very little bit (under 2 million dollars) of funding left for Adult Education. Adult Ed serves the community by providing ESL family literacy classes, computer classes, and GED courses for parents, returning students, and other family members of Oakland’s students. These are classes which are part of the real “full service community school” model that the OUSD board claims to support. In reality, by cutting these classes the board (led by Tony Smith) is taking away the support that Latino families get from their ESL classes – support that increases their ability to support their children’s academic development by understanding the language that their kids’ homework assignments are written in. By cutting these programs the board is saying that GED programs for students who have been pushed out of schools, or fallen through the cracks of the education system, aren’t worth the money spent on GED teachers. This attack on adult ed represents only the most recent dismantling of accessible educational programming for working class communities in Oakland, the vast majority which are people of color.
While the authors of this report are busy trying to make teachers’ salary increases seem like the cause of economic turmoil in Oakland, they are implicitly backhanding Oakland’s parents and students by being silent on the most recent attack on adult ed, neglecting to mention that the OUSD under-funded Oakland’s schools by over 4 million dollars by spending less than 55% of its budget on people who directly serve the needs of students (instructional aides and classroom teachers), and currently have over $13 million in reserves unaccounted for as of two weeks ago when they published their second interim budget report. All of these millions which the OUSD has misspent, hidden, or wasted paying the $100 million state debt are millions that are being robbed of those who actually use the schools: the parents, teachers and students of Oakland. These are not unfortunate accidents. As Wall Street and corporations are bailed out and the military and prison industrial complexes are funded enormously out of proportion to the positive parts of society, the government is forced to cut from our schools and public services to find the money for those policies. The current attacks on working class and communities of color in Oakland are only the local example of these national and global racist and classist policies. By ignoring these factors, and by focusing on teachers as the cause of economic hardship in Oakland, NCTQ is complicit in these attacks, and it’s necessary for all those who have signed on to this report to clarify where they stand on its conclusions and racist/classist political logic.
But . . . Schools Are in Crisis. What is to be done?
Unfortunately, all that we’ve written above demonstrates that the NCTQ hardly has a genuine interest in promoting educational equity in Oakland. Rather, their report is a thinly veiled attack on the very schools they claim to care for.
But the obvious reality remains: Oakland’s public schools are not doing well. There are real problems, and teachers are not innocent victims in this mix. Nobody is. We all bear responsibility for doing the best we can, even despite the wretched economic condition our communities and schools are faced with. Doing less than our best to teach and learn in Oakland schools leaves us being swept by the inertia of a perpetually underfunded and inequitable set of educational institutions. We’ve got to work hard as teachers; we need high standards for ourselves – high expectations for the instruction and conditions of learning which we create for our students. But we also need the support to match the high expectations.
What would it really take to start on the road toward developing strong centers of learning for our schools? The fact is that there are already teachers doing it. We need to recognize what’s going well and build off these practices as strengths. Ethnic Studies, critical pedagogy, project based learning, restorative justice, and internships are all programs which have met with some success in Oakland. We need to fight for meaningful funding for schools (primarily directed toward educators and school staff) so that we can create conditions in schools where teachers can learn from each other’s best practices, and students can increasingly reap the benefits from collaborative and caring educators who work hard to serve them.
Here is a sketch of steps that would actually move us toward transforming education in Oakland:
Limit the amount of preps that teachers teach to no more than 2; Have new teachers teach no more than 1 prep.
Institute fully-funded projects of team teaching where new teachers can team-teach with veteran teachers; Fight burnout and incompetency by keeping the veteran teachers active and on their toes while the newer teachers gain the wisdom and experience their more senior co-workers embody.
Identify strong teachers at each school site who have expertise on Ethnic Studies curriculum, Restorative justice, project based learning, and all academic disciplines; Provide paid time for these teachers to develop professional development programs for their co-workers in order to generalize their skills. Use school community surveys to determine each school’s strength (using tools like UTQI, or other models that school sites come up with).
Limit class sizes to 15-20; Modify the school day so that teachers can provide small group tutoring to students who need it.
All of these points are absolutely based on there being more money for schools. Here is a sketch of an economic program for OUSD.
All elected OUSD leaders, as well as Superintendent Tony Smith, should launch a campaign to immediately repudiate the $100 million state debt; Really caring for students means putting your job on the line to fight for what’s right.
Have a general assembly of parents, school workers, and students scrutinize spending on consultants; immediately end all contracts which are not useful for school communities. Cut millions of dollars in spending to consultants who provide no direct service to students.
Limit all administrators salaries to the salary of the highest-paid teacher; this would immediately free up a few million dollars.
Open the books to the community: host general assemblies which determine what the over $13 million dollars in reserves can be spent on.
All of these structural and economic changes would go a long way toward improving life in schools for all those who use them: the parents, school workers, and students of Oakland. We deserve the best teaching, learning, and working conditions, and we should be bold in fighting for what we deserve. Reports like those put out by the NCTQ are not helpful at all in re-shaping the conditions of education in Oakland. It’s time that we began developing a real vision for what we want in Oakland schools, and that we also begin to envision what needs to change in our communities. All members of organizations that co-signed this report – GO Public Schools, Youth Together, SEIU 1021, and Youth Uprising – should write public statements scrutinizing the report and making clear where they agree and disagree with its conclusions.