“Research” on Teachers: Cover for Demand to Dump Unions, Cheapen Education

The reforms proposed in the name of making education better and the nation’s children more competitive internationally are in reality proposals to cheapen education for the poor and privatize it for the White middle class. — Gene Glass, in Fertilizers, Pills, and Magnetic Strips: The Fate of Public Education in America

Over the past several months, a plethora of “research” and “investigateive” reports have been uncritically promoted by major media outlets. Acting as spokespersons for research think tanks funded by the largest monopolies, and aligned with the Obama administration’s education agenda, reporters take no responsibility to investigate the merits of these reports. No effort is made to evaluate the merits of the research or its status as “nonpartisan” (that is, not biased toward any particular political group). Reporters do not reprint the list of those funding these reports (lists which are easily obtained) and the known views of these funders (also easily obtained and by no means secret). In the worst cases, reporters produce their own articles supporting this line promoted by the think tanks. The undeniable fact is that all these reports are generated by rabid anti-union forces, who promote research driven by the demand for “data” that will “decide” teachers have no right to association. As Mike Petrilli, Vice President for National Programs and Policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute says, unions “need to be defeated, over and over and over again if reform is to advance.”

Some Examples

The most recent effort comes with a report, The Widget Effect: Our National Failure to Acknowledge andAct on Differences in Teacher Effectiveness, from the New Teacher Project. Their tag line is quite informative: “Teachers matter. In the fight to eliminate educational inequality, teachers matter most. The New Teacher Project works with school districts and states nationwide to ensure that poor and minority students get outstanding teachers.” (More on the significance of the title below.) Based on questionable research on 12 districts in four states, the report calls for eliminating the basic premise of a union with calls for pay for performance arrangements (note this is not merit pay or bonus, but pay contingent upon test score results).

As some critics have noted, to speak about educational equality absent the growing, grotesque social inequality that is in fact driven by those who fund such reports is irrational. Absent the affirmation of the human rights of poor and minority students, extant educational inequality will not be “eliminated.”

As reported in the document, “Primary funding for this report was provided by the Robertson Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Joyce Foundation. Additional funding was provided by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Arnold Family Foundation, the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation.”

Another example appeared in Education Week in April. Researchers Examine Contracts’ Effects on Policy Issues, by Stephen Sawchuk. It reported on a March conference held by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ). Its funders include:

  • The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation
  • The Brookhill Foundation
  • The Louis Calder Foundation
  • Exxon Mobil Foundation
  • Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
  • Fisher Family Foundation
  • Thomas B. Fordham Foundation
  • Gleason Foundation
  • Martha Holden Jennings Foundation
  • Houston Endowment
  • Joyce Foundation
  • Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation
  • Koret Foundation
  • Milken Family Foundation
  • Searle Freedom Trust

President of the Fordham Institute, Chester Finn, is on the Board of Directors. He and Fordham are not well known for careful all-sided analysis when it comes to research on teacher unions.

Here is one of the key reported findings from that “nonpartisan” conference. Researchers found evidence that salary schedules (which are associated with collective bargaining) appear to depress a school’s ability to attract the best teachers. The top 75th percentile of teachers in schools with salary schedules have scores on the SAT that were 2 to 3 percent lower than peers in schools without salary schedules. While admitting that I have not actually read these manuscripts, such a documented difference is probably only statistically significant. A 2 percent drop in an SAT of 1000 would result in a score of 980 (those in the latter group probably don’t get to line up in the Gold Executive Excellent Superior Because I have Access to Money Line when boarding planes).

But more troubling is the evident irrational logic. Ignoring the minimal difference in real life of a 2 percent lower score, unless the supply of “the best teachers” is unlimited (making the concept of best meaningless) the point is moot. Teacher quality will be unequally distributed, as housing, income and healthcare are unequally distributed, with many factors affecting distribution patterns. (Unionization is generally an equalizing force as it serves to raise the wages and benefits of its members, serving to close the income gap.) But the existence of differences in the quality of teachers is not caused by salary scales, although this illogic sneaks in the reported discussion; even if salary scales were eliminated, the “best” teachers could not be equally everywhere.

If one had a society where consciousness affirmed the need to place the best in the most challenging circumstances, understanding that with talent comes responsibility, things would be different. Such a society would reject the base notion that human beings only respond to narrow self interest and the reward of gadgetry and shallow Disney story line. However, being the best is presently a status that is linked to structural inequality.

McKinsey & Company (a “global management consulting firm”) is represented on the Advisory Board of NCTQ, who wrote that media celebrated masterpiece of pseudo science, “The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools.” (While not explicitly about teachers, they are clearly implicated.) In that report we learn that the achievement gap “imposes on the United States the economic equivalent of a permanent national recession.”

The one graph not inserted into this prettified document tracks the achievement gap over time as it corresponds to real measures of recession over the same time period. (The Economic Impact report is premised on “what if” scinarios, not actual experience, using models inspired by the very partisan researcher, Eric Hanuschek, who has dedicated much time to justifying funding cuts to education, larger class sizes for teachers, etc.) This graph would clearly show that changes in the unemployment rate, the S&P 500 or the GDP do not correspond to average group differences in norm reference tests scores over the last fifty years.

Of course, the material in the “Economic Impact” “study” strategically confounds cause and effect. On the one hand, it goes to great lengths to claim that poverty is not a determinant of achievement. But than it goes on to assert that raising test scores will facilitate social mobility and measured economic prosperity.

Finally, there was the May 3rd “investigative” piece appearing in the Los Angeles Times, entitled, “Failure Gets A Pass,” just in time to create public opinion against teacher actions. It used the scientific method of anecdotes with selective reference to context, written in a style that leads the reader to assume that all of what is being described is clear cut and the fault of unions. By linking the existence of unions to several extreme cases, the right of teachers to associate becomes associated with protecting drug dealers, child molesters and abuse.

Certainly the governing class has no hand in these activities! In the fantasy world of philanthropy, the free market in sex trade of children and existence of drug abuse is probably the result of collective bargaining too, as are the documented abuses of children at non-union, philanthropy supported, KIPP schools. If unions did not exist, KIPP would not be needed, so the unions are at fault in the end for promoting the suspcious idea that people have a right to form associations to defend their common interests, a practice which only leads to moral transgression. It’s really “All About the Kids!” And kids want really large classes, with underpaid teachers who completed quickie bootstrapping, white man’s burden teacher training programs that narrowly focus on “following orders” and that all-time favorite pastime of youth: standardized testing.

Anyhow, the agenda that might explain the public adoption of such irrational thinking is the drive to cheapen education by eliminating unions. But maybe this is the way forward! We all know that lowering salaries and benefits will contribute to economic growth…because test scores, which are not affected by poverty, can be raised among the poor and thus close the achievement gap, which is responsible for our national recession, which does not affect test scores, because poverty is not an excuse, because all children can learn, especially when they are placed in academic sweatshops by parents who chose to be poor but are now reconsidering their ill-advised previous life choices.

This irrationalism is a result of the starting point of the “research”, that is, to gather “evidence” that supports the view of the monopolies and their philanthropic organizations that at the root of the teacher quality problem is teachers’ right to association. Underlying the idea of the title “Widget Effect” is an attack on the principal that stands against feudal notions of caste and loyalty and for equal treatment, rights and duties, but it now becomes apparent that such an argument must be the object of an entire article.

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