Monday, April 12, 2010

How the news talks down to teachers

Florida Could End Teacher Tenure, Embrace Merit Pay.   
This story from NPR shows how the specific concerns of educators can get trivialized in the news.

Mr. Scott Finn, the author, gives the first quote to a teacher who bravely opens up about feeling disrespected as Florida passes controversial new public-school legislation.

Then he quotes State Sen. John Thrasher, the bill’s backer, allowing him to speak for teachers in general through his daughter, a former teacher who sees only good in her dad’s bill.

While emails and phone calls run strongly against the bill for many specific reasons, Mr. Finn sets up the story as teachers' feelings vs wisdom from the VIP.

He explains the bill in terms of how it affects teaching jobs – loss of tenure, merit pay based on testing, getting fired over insufficient learning gains.

Not a word about how it will affect students and families. Nothing about students facing the loss of high-quality teachers due to a  flawed measurement system. Nothing about the loss of high-quality teachers as job security evaporates. Nothing about the learning gains requirement needed to hang on to a teaching job having no foundation in research.

To celebrate the legislation he is supposed to be reporting, Mr. Finn quotes a spokesperson for  The National Council on Teaching Quality - and she glorifies the new measures without actually saying why.

Sandi Jacobs of NCTQ labels the bill “big and bold” inferring it would have a powerful positive impact, and Mr. Finn doesn't press for any justification.

"What Florida is considering is really very big and very bold," Ms. Jacobs says. "And while other states have passed related pieces, what Florida is proposing would really be very unprecedented."

So it's big and bold because it is very unprecedented. Her comment is most useful as an example of circular reasoning.  

Mr. Finn avoids presenting evidence to support this “big and bold” label. That's most unfortunate for listeners and readers, because evidence for one side would require getting evidence for the other side, and that could easily refute Ms. Jacobs’ contention that the new laws are positive. 

See for instance, this letter to the Florida Legislature from a leading school-reform expert who says the legislation will "dumb down” Florida schools and “cause many of your best teachers to leave the profession.”  - Diane Ravitch letter to Lawmakers.

While avoiding evidence, Mr. Finn contends that "studies show that students excel when they have high quality teachers, although other experts debate whether merit pay helps."  Excuse me. What exactly does students excelling have to do with merit pay

To the best of my knowledge, nothing.

Yes, studies show having a good teacher helps students. But two years of looking have shown me no studies showing a valid link between standardized test scores - the measuring stick for merit pay - and being a good teacher.  

I hear the same thing from educators across Florida. Merit pay based on test scores lacks even a shred of credibility. There is no valid connection. This is one of several reasons why so many Florida teachers, school principals, school-board members, parents, and education experts oppose the bills. They don't want the people in charge of educating their children subjected to evaluation that rests on a false premise. 

Many oppose the legislation because it carries hefty new costs for local school districts, with no way to pay for those costs. No mention of that issue, either.

But the main thing missing from the story is any proof for the bills' premise that student test scores rise or fall with teaching quality.  

Where is the test company, where is the scientifically valid research that proves student test scores should be used to evaluate teachers? Where did this idea originate? Why?

Could Sen. Thrasher answer this questions? Nobody in the press seems to be asking, so The Emperor's New Suit as yet remains undetected. 

The test-and-punish premise for these bills doesn't stand up because students cannot possibly be considered a uniform sample. Countless other variables outside the classroom impact test scores and affect academic growth. 

So who wants to evaluate teachers based on student scores? Who thinks student progress should be measured by high-stakes, one-shot testing?

Not educators. Not experts in education science. Not parents. Only politicians and their hopefully shrinking band of misguided allies. 

But wait. Aren’t Florida teachers being recognized as some of the best? Aren't more Florida students doing better than ever? And doesn't research show that one of the key factors in student success is household income, which puts the responsibility back on business leaders and government policymakers to create living-wage jobs with family-friendly benefits?

If Florida truly wants more students to succeed, if Florida wants a healthy, diverse economy with better jobs, shouldn't it be supporting education instead of cutting it? 

Economists say yes. But these considerations rarely find their way into the public discussion in Florida, or resulting coverage about school reform.

Instead, teachers and school principals get blamed for standing in the way of reforms that aren't really reforms. People who work in the schools make handy scapegoats because they dwell at the bottom of the education food chain. 

Journalists should perhaps be considering who stands to benefit from "reform" that involves the systematic misuse of testing and the relentless scapegoating of educators.

Maybe that's just too much for reporters to think about. This NPR story, like many others in the mainstream press, simply caves in and lets the senator shape the discussion. It's easier that way.

When reporters allow politicians to control the way news is presented, whether they do so intentionally or just because they are easily manipulated, news stories at best leave readers and listeners wondering, and at worst enable corruption. 

And then near the end of the story Mr. Finn has his teacher saying basically whatever happens, veto or no veto,  we’ll make it work like we always do. 

That's quite true. Teachers do make it work. And very often they make it work in spite of state leadership. 

During fund drives, NPR sets itself apart from corporate media by boasting about its hard-nosed objectivity. Perhaps true, at times. But this time NPR sheds fair and impartial glory on Sen. Thrasher's side of the story and pretends the other side doesn't exist. 

All Things Considered? The story fails to consider the very people who most depend on public schools – students and families. And it grossly oversimplifies the concerns of educators.

Education policy in Florida. Sigh. When will somebody tell it like it is?

Florida to Michael Moore: Come on down.


  1. Mike, Once again, spot on. NPR execs need to read your cogent assessment of this piece of fluff. Unfortunately, he has a larger audience than you. Since his is an opinion piece with faulty reasoning, maybe they could print an opinion piece of yours as a response. What has happened to the "art" of teaching?

  2. Thanks, Mike, for exposing this coverage [sic].