Mike the Mad Biologist

Why Does The Boston Phoenix Despise Teachers?

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Kevin
    September 13, 2010

    Why? I would guess it’s because they have a political ax to grind. As Jon Stewart said recently, to do good reporting, you can’t let the truth get in the way of your narrative.

  2. #2 EdK
    September 13, 2010

    As a Greater Boston native, I would say not to take the Phoenix too seriously. The only ones who do are hipsters in Allston.

    Good post though.

  3. #3 A
    September 13, 2010

    It is a pet peeve of journalists everywhere to talk down public education wherever they are; for an example involving the Washington Post and Maryland, see today’s (Sept. 13, 2010) http://www.dailyhowler.com/ .
    Typically journalists do not understand the meaning of the various assessments, derive wrong conclusions from them, and then like to blame teachers, the unions and ‘the bureaucracy.’
    (The http://www.dailyhowler.com/ web site has many examples for this; I am not affiliated with it in any way, other than as occasional reader.) This way, one can avoid mention of the problem of underfunding schools and social services for poor students and their families.–

    I think there is a psychological mechanism by which public education is talked down in the U.S.; it goes at follows:
    1. Parents learn that the local public schools are bad.
    2. Middle-class parents then send their children to private schools and sacrifice to pay for the tuition.
    3. To justify this great expense, those parents will tell themselves and others, how bad the public schools are, that the only way out was to send their kid to a private school.
    4. Journalists, also being middle-class, hear and repeat this in their articles.
    Thus, new parents learn… –> 1.
    Parents in private schools are also lost to do fund-raising and other quality-enhancing volunteer jobs in public schools.

    In some [typically very wealthy] locations, though, people are proud of their local schools [especially real-estate agents who want to sell you a house there]; this is so where I live. I was positively surprised to hear that a neighboring school district, about which I -reflecting local prejudice- had not thought highly about, actually had a high school with a ‘International Baccalaureate’ program. So even a district with many students qualifying for school lunch and high proportion of hispanics could maintain some high-quality programs. But in the paper, the only thing I heard was about some minor (financial) scandal involving a previous principal (and sports).–

  4. #4 katydid13
    September 13, 2010

    I think there is a second thing going on in DC, which is the populations of the inner ring suburbs have shifted (like virtually everywhere else in America). Schools that were considered excellent when today’s 30 somethings were school aged have started to have to educate more poor children with limited English skills, instead of the uppper middle class kids of civil servants and the like. They don’t seem so excellent anymore. In fact they seem like they are getting in some cases dramatically worse. I suspect it’s less about the schools and more about the kids they have to work with, but they look worse.

    So the DC public schools are what they are and the traditionally good public schools are struggling as they have a harder to educate population. It doesn’t look so great for public education if you don’t bother to look that closely. Or possibly have been hiding under a rock and missed the fact that poor kids with limited English skills are harder to educated than well off kids who hear “proper” English spoken at home.

    I honestly don’t think that DCPS bureaucracy can get too much blame since they routinely fail to do things like make sure textbooks are scheduled to arrive before school starts, produce an accurate number of people on their payroll, or have running water in all the schools.

  5. #5 Jim Thomerson
    September 14, 2010

    I am speaking about how things were 50 years ago, but I think it colors how we look at teachers today. At that time a degree in education was the bottom of the barrel. If you could not make it in any other program, you could get an education degree with a pretty good looking transcript. The demand for teachers was high. I graduated with a BS in geology while on scholastic probation, slightly better than C average. No jobs. I put a notice up on the education department jobs board and had a job teaching biology, chemistry, and physics in a 300 student high school the next day. So, at that time anyone could get a teaching degree, or did not need one for a temporary certificate, and would have no trouble finding a job.

    I think things are a lot better today. However, when I met my daughter’s third grade teacher (@30 years ago), she told me she had made a D in my general studies biology course. Well, so far as I could tell, she did a fine job as third grade teacher.

  6. #6 Kaleberg
    September 15, 2010

    There are a lot of adults who have never gotten over the third grade teacher who was “mean” to them and have never outgrown the general animosity between small children and teachers. It explains an awful lot. Sure, I may have sung “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the burning of the school” along with the other kids in my second grade classroom, but even then it was pro forma. Kids, especially boys, are expected to hate school.

    An alternate explanationm, of course, is class hostility in which it is just fine to denigrate the classes beneath one’s own, but upward rivalry is unacceptible class warfare.