One of the subtle, but important things that influences national discussions of education is that the Washington D.C. public schools are dreadful. Not only do students do worse than would be predicted based on the poverty rate, but, according to the NAEP, the schools also do a worse job of educating poor students. Due to this repeated ‘discovery’, opinion makers, pundits, and politicians are bombarded with bad news about education and how our educational system is failing (in a fair number of states, our educational system surpasses that of every OECD country, so this really isn’t a ‘national’ crisis, but multiple state and local ones). Moreover, the D.C. government, and its education department, is hardly what one would call effective–in fact, the education department for years was subject to political cronyism. So I can understand why those in the Potomac-area chattering class despair over education. And some of that despair, rightly and wrongly, finds itself aimed at teachers.
What I don’t understand is the vitriol from The Boston Phoenix, which, for as long as I’ve been in Boston, has been aimed at the Massachusetts’ teachers unions (which we know are the evilest force in all of human history). The tone of this editorial, for instance, would lead you to believe that the MA teachers associations would to force their students into child porn. Never mind that the ‘reforms’ The Boston Phoenix lauds stand a good chance of harming the MA educational system. Their position simply doesn’t make sense: we should be praising MA teachers, not accusing them of betraying MA’s students.
Let’s assume that teacher quality (however that is to be assessed) strongly affects student outcomes*. Then, consider Massachusetts’ excellent educational performance:
1) MA’s test scores are outstanding, and are among the best in the world.
2) MA’s test scores, when controlled for low-income students, are better than expected.
3) Boston, according to the NAEP (the only MA system reported by the NAEP), does better than expected given its demographics.
4) Boston does better than expected educating poor students.
If you rub the first assumption together with those data, doesn’t it stand to reason that Massachusetts teachers are the best in the country? OK, in fairness, that’s a little extreme, since there’s no reason to expect a perfect correlation between teachers and student performance. But if teacher quality is a large factor, then Massachusetts’ teachers still have to be pretty damn good–and not just the suburban ones (remember Boston’s performance). The state’s teachers have to be among the best in the country.
So naturally, The Boston Phoenix’s response is to accuse teachers of “self-interest.”
If teachers are critical, then why is The Boston Phoenix castigating them, instead of congratulating them for their stellar performance?
*It’s not clear that this is the case. Leaving aside all of the problems with value-added teaching evaluation, I think this bias stems from most people (that is, former students) remembering their really good teachers and their dreadful ones. Of course, most people managed to learn the subject material in the classes taught by the unmemorable, average teachers.