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Et tu, Mr. Boasberg?

Posted by Oct 13th, 2010.

Kevin Welner is a professor of education policy and program evaluation in the School of Education at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and director of the National Education Policy Center.

On Tuesday, I published a guest blog on the Washington Post’s “Answer Sheet,” and Alan asked that I post the same thing here. It’s a heartfelt and, I hope, substantive expression of how infuriating it is to watch policymakers charge ahead (or backwards) with poorly conceived, poorly supported, and facile notions of how schools can improve.

I have always promoted reform that benefits vulnerable children who have the cards stacked against them, and of course that includes improvement of teaching and implicates changes in hiring, retention, and dismissal (as well as working conditions, induction, professional development and the like). But I am certainly among those who are very troubled when leaders – including Tom Boasberg, superintendent of DPS and one of the Manifesto’s signers – buy into the trendy and simplistic finger-pointing. With that said, here’s what I wrote:

For a concise compilation of today’s fads and gimmicks in education, go read “How to fix our schools: A manifesto by Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee and other education leaders,” published in the Outlook section of Sunday’s Washington Post. The sort of nonsense about education found in the new Manifesto has become astoundingly commonplace, but this time it came not from a Hollywood filmmaker or a Washington think-tank advocate but from the leaders of 16 of the nation’s major city school districts.

According to the Manifesto, “It’s time for all of the adults — superintendents, educators, elected officials, labor unions and parents alike — to start acting like we are responsible for the future of our children.” Absolutely. Members of each of these groups can do more – a lot more.

In fact, we should start by removing the irresponsible signers of this Manifesto from any position of power over “the future of our children.”

Are the adults who signed this Manifesto acting responsibly when they bash teachers, and only teachers? What about the “superintendents” and “elected officials” who are conveniently never mentioned again in the Manifesto but who actually have some control over the resources available to students and their teachers?

Are these adults acting responsibly when they advocate for even more test-based accountability and school choice? Over the past two decades, haven’t these two policies dominated the reform landscape – and what do we have to show for it? Wouldn’t true reform move away from what has not been working, rather than further intensifying those ineffective policies? Are they acting responsibly when they promote unproven gimmicks as solutions?

Are they acting responsibly when they do not acknowledge their own role in failing to secure the opportunities and resources needed by students in their own districts, opting instead to place the blame on those struggling in classrooms to help students learn?

As a researcher and a parent, I yearn for an end to the over-the-top propaganda, the slick think tank reports, the educational “leaders” more interested in blaming than in solving, the wasteful sinking of taxpayer money (and educators’ time) into reforms that have been shown not to work, and the stirring films that suggest that the heartbreaking denial of educational opportunities to innocent children can be miraculously solved by the latest fad.

  • Move money from neighborhood schools to charter schools!
  • Make children take more tests!
  • Move money from classrooms to online learning!
  • Blame teachers and their unions – make them easier to fire!
  • Tie teacher jobs and salaries to student test scores!

None – literally NONE – of these gimmicks is evidence-based.

Charters? Overall, they’re no better than other schools.

Tests? Twenty years of testing has bought us minimal improvement in scores but made learning less engaging.

Online learning? Sometimes it’s a good supplement for classrooms, but the research doesn’t support it as a widespread substitute – unless you’re an investor in one of the companies that stand to make a fortune courtesy of taxpayers.

Easier routes to firing teachers? Why do states, districts and schools (including charter schools) with few if any union protections have the same patterns of student learning?

Test-based merit pay, etc? Rarely has a policy been so vigorously pursued that so clearly lacks research support.

The Manifesto and these facile “solutions” are built on little more than rhetoric, and it all begins with a patently incorrect factual assertion:

“So, where do we start? With the basics. As President Obama has emphasized, the single most important factor determining whether students succeed in school is not the color of their skin or their ZIP code or even their parents’ income — it is the quality of their teacher.”

If the president did in fact say this, he is wrong. [And, as a commentator on the Washington Post site pointed out, the Manifesto appears to have severely twisted the president’s actual words.] While no researcher could offer precise numbers, regression models tend to attribute a far greater role to out-of-school factors such as parental educational level and family income. While teacher quality is, in my opinion, the most important in-school factor, there are many others: school leadership, class size, facilities (e.g, working bathrooms, heating, air conditioning, lighting, etc), learning resources (books, computers), and curriculum. Teacher quality is critical, but the variance we can attribute to this one factor is probably less than 10 percent. This isn’t new – we have known about the high predictive ability of out-of-school factors since the famous Coleman study almost 45 years ago.

None of this means that in-school factors should be ignored. They should absolutely be addressed, including teacher quality. But they should be addressed based on evidence of best practices, and calls to address these needs should not be made as part of an attempt to downplay out-of-school needs. It is disgraceful for these leaders who are in charge of 2.5 million students – disproportionately students in impoverished, urban areas – to act as enablers for those who dismiss the need to address issues of concentrated poverty. Unemployment is high. More and more families are falling into poverty, and their children are showing up to school hungry, in need of health and dental care, and even homeless. Yet these “leaders” dare to suggest that everything will be just fine if we had fewer tenured teachers and more charter schools and online learning.

Think about that – the people to whom we have handed over responsibility for educating our children are engaged in scapegoating, offering bread-and-circus diversions while the children under their care see their life chances slipping away. These are the people in power – the people who have overseen the system that they now seem to acknowledge has only gotten worse under their regimes and their policies. They scapegoat and divert because they refuse to acknowledge their failures and to step aside. How very, very sad.

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20 Responses to “Et tu, Mr. Boasberg?”

  1. Alexander Ooms says:

    Kevin’s polemic is patently absurd, not just because he resists the idea that any specific person or thing might be accountable for poor educational outcomes, but in his insistence to offer the false choice of either education reform or broad societal change.

    The response to Kevin has already been written, and I won’t try to improve on it. Here is the link and two highlights: http://bit.ly/cP4Sbi

    “it’s crucial to understanding the worst intellectual pathologies of the education establishment. People like Welner don’t just think that Joel Klein, Michele Rhee, Andres Alonso, and Arlene Ackerman are making bad decisions in the course of helping poor children learn. Welner believes that by asserting that poor children can learn, the superintendents are hurting the cause of making poor children less poor. While many people believe this, most choose not to say it so clearly.”

    “Poverty, moreover, isn’t getting solved by Monday morning. But students will be in school Monday morning. And as all reasonable people acknowledge, both poverty and schools matter. So this leads to the more specific question of what should we do about poverty in terms of education.”

    • Kevin Welner says:

      Oh my. I go away for a day and return to such kind notes. :-(

      I think you know as well that I do not “resist[s] the idea that any specific person or thing might be accountable for poor educational outcomes,” nor do I “offer the false choice of either education reform or broad societal change.” I am a strong believer in both.

      Please read the following again and then explain to me which part is unclear: “None of this means that in-school factors should be ignored. They should absolutely be addressed, including teacher quality. But they should be addressed based on evidence of best practices, and calls to address these needs should not be made as part of an attempt to downplay out-of-school needs. It is disgraceful for these leaders who are in charge of 2.5 million students – disproportionately students in impoverished, urban areas – to act as enablers for those who dismiss the need to address issues of concentrated poverty.”

      Mr. Ooms, as I think you know, I’m generally the one in the room who explains that polemics are unproductive and that policies and people often get unfairly caricatured with cartoonish and inaccurate misrepresentations. While I did use stark terms, I also tried to stay focused on the substance of my reactions and objections. I know this piece surprised a lot of people; it’s out of character for me to rant. :-)

      And please forgive me because I know people like you, Van (and Kevin Carey) are pushing in a direction that you must truly believe is wise. But my research life is such that I’ve spend almost two decades immersed in evidence and in a culture where evidence is paramount. A good theory is nice, but if the evidence is lacking, it’s time to move on. As director of the NEPC, it’s very troubling for me to watch this policy push – a very potent policy push – in the face of the evidence. I’m reacting with a great deal of disappointment and frustration – it’s infuriating because I see damage being done to children and their schools.

      • Alexander Ooms says:

        Kevin,

        Well, I don’t know if I find rants or emoticons more out of character for you, and I don’t think anything you write is “unclear”. But I do object to the last sentence in the paragraph you cite, where you describe these Superintendents as “enablers for those who dismiss the need to address issues of concentrated poverty.” I find that statement maddeningly absurd for obvious reasons – not the least of which is the premise that education reform is harmful in the fight on poverty. It is as if I argued that you are an enabler of those who want to keep low-income children ignorant and in poverty because you have different educational priorities than I do.

        You and I have had this difference before. We both agree that the status quo is unacceptable, however you favor policies with an unrefutable research base of evidence and because of that support little to nothing that is either specific or actionable; I believe that innovation necessitates trial, error, and (importantly) refinement with a number of practices, and that single-variable correlation is less useful since it is likely to take a combination of educational practices to have an impact (similar to medical vaccines where it is no single drug but a combination that is effective). Generally I think this is a productive tension.

  2. Van schoales says:

    I strongly agree with Kevin Carey and Alex Ooms’ responses.

    Alan did not share another important piece to Kevin Welner’s background, which matters. He has strong ties to the NEA, including being a board member of the National Education Association’s Foundation. This is important to remember when reading any of his writings or any reports coming out of National Education Policy Center (NEPC), which is more of an advocacy organization or think tank than an independent academic research institute. NEPC receives some, not sure how much funding from teacher unions.

    While often the NEPC “research” is of reasonable quality, it is often fairly selective and biased towards most of the teacher union or traditional education school policy agendas. You will not find a report by NEPC that supports any form of school choice, charters, increased school or educator accountability or much positive about teacher workrule/pay reforms. Most of the reports are designed to slap down a new reform proposal because of little, poor or no research. I actually think some of their work can be very helpful when considering policy decisions but it should not be mistaken for the authoritative perspective on education policy.

    You will not find much from NEPC that calls for system reform except on issues of school integration and tracking which they are right to advocate for. NEPC should be considered a think tank or advocacy organization that supports a particular agenda, much like AEI, NEA, Heritage, Cato and even my own organization, Education Reform Now. Their research like most of the other groups should always be considered in the context of their agenda/perspective, which I wish they were a bit more explicit about instead of hiding in the supposedly objective ivory tower.

    • Bruce Baker’s take on Kevin Carey’s response– worth a read:
      http://bit.ly/amPVwD

    • Alexander Ooms says:

      Who knew? Kevin, would you care to clarify the sources of NEPC’s funding?

      • Kevin Welner says:

        Indeed — who knew? We hide that information on our website, under the craftily title “Support” heading: http://nepc.colorado.edu/support :

        “How we are funded

        “The National Education Policy Center is funded by contracts and grants, in addition to tax-deductible private donations made through the University of Colorado Foundation. In addition to individual donors, NEPC has received direct or indirect funding from, among others, the Ford Foundation, the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice, and the National Education Association.”

        • Alexander Ooms says:

          Kevin, with all due respect and although I admire your contributions to education discussion immensely, I find this remarkably disingenuous.

          My surprise was precisely because although you and I have had considerable spirited and productive debate both on these pages and in person — and have consistently included in those discussions controversial topics of deep importance to unions such as SB 191, tenure and the like — and never once during those exchanges did you disclose that you receive direct financial support from NEA and serve on the Board of their Foundation.

          For the polemic above is not an abstract policy brief. You are calling for these Superintendents — all of whom have had well-publicized clashes with unions — to be removed (presumably either fired or resign). Disclosure in politics should have a high standard. While you did not obscure your association, if anyone is going to call for the removal of the NEA’s declared enemies, I would expect that person to disclose items that might be perceived as an influence or conflict.

          To me, the oddest part of your essay is that you hold these Superintendents to a far higher standard than their predecessors whose tenure had student outcomes that were clearly no better and in many cases demonstratively worse. To discover that you receive direct support from their chief opponents seems pretty relevant – and since you don’t seem to be willing to disclose the dollar amount of support, it’s even harder to gauge the potential conflict.

          Plenty of people on these pages have cordial, professional disagreements on lots of topics, and I certainly don’t question the validity or value of your opinions, so perhaps we will just add this to the list of things on which we agree to disagree. But I’ll maintain that particularly with political topics, disclosure should have a higher standard than it did here.

        • van schoales says:

          Kevin, there are number of us that are looking forward to seeing who and how much funding you receive from what groups. Given your focus on debunking and discrediting research related to the current wave of school reform, it’s strange that your organization does not model financial transparency and the agenda that underlies your work. The explanation you’ve given here and on your website is totally insufficient.

          By the way, it’s not difficult to see how biased NEPC research is just by spending a few minutes on Google looking at what their authors say about the topics they are “researching”.

          See an excerpt from a 1997 interview of Alex Molnar, NEPC’s Publishing Director. http://www.ibiblio.org/pub/electronic-publications/stay-free/archives/13/molnar.html After reading many NEPC authors writings, it should come as no surprise that almost every NEPC report is in some way critical of charters, vouchers, testing, accountability and choice (again some are good just not the whole story). Don’t get me wrong there is plenty to criticize from all the low-performing charters, the commercialism in schools (that Molnar thoughtfully describes) to some of the mindless tests that kids are forced to endure but there are also lots of things that choice has lead to in terms of schools like DSST, West Denver Prep and KIPP.

          Molnar Interview
          So looking at, specifically, voucher programs, privatization of public schools, and charter schools. Are these unnecessary reforms? 
Oh yeah, they’re completely unnecessary. They have nothing to do with improving the quality of public education. They’re based on a particular ideological premise, and that is that competition and the marketplace necessarily produce improvement. They’re based on a kind of wacky analysis of why some schools don’t succeed very well. And the analysis is that somehow these schools that are in thrall to teacher unions and others could do much better if they were liberated from these union protections and these bureaucracies. These people need to feel competition. Now, anybody who’s spent ten minutes in an inner-city school with 35 or 40 kids in a classroom would not first leap to the conclusion that the best thing you can do for the teachers is take away their union protection. How are we going to improve the quality of instruction in this class? The first thing that a sensible observer would say is take about half of the children and give them their own teacher. That’s the first thing. But that costs money, real money.”

          • Kevin Welner says:

            Van, my friend. Since your interest is in financial transparency and you’ve decided to attack me on that basis (a type of non-substantive attack that our policy center has studiously avoided), and since our interest is in substantive discussion of important issues, I will make you a deal: I will identify our organizational funders (including any funding from teacher unions), if you and Alex do the following:
            1. I ask that each of you read and substantively critique two out of our four most recent policy briefs. That is, I’m asking for a single review of each of the four, with the entire task split between you. I promise to offer substantive responses to your critiques. Here are the most recent four:
            a. Safe at School: Addressing the School Environment and LGBT Safety through Policy and Legislation
            b. The “Common Core” Standards Initiative: An Effective Reform Tool?
            c. Equal or Fair? A Study of Revenues and Expenditures in American Charter Schools
            d. Teach For America: A Review of the Evidence
            2. I ask that you describe here, with the same level of detail that you would like for me to offer with regard to NEPC, the funders for the following two organizations: Democrats for Education Reform, and Education Reform Now.

          • Kevin Welner says:

            As promised, Van, here’s a substantive response to the attacks in your comment. (btw, you’ll see that word – “substantive” – throughout this comment.)

            First, what I’m not going to respond to: attacks on Alex Molnar. He’s one person involved in the project and he’s more than able to speak for himself. He also has a long history of high-quality and influential scholarship that speaks for itself. What I can say is that you’re incorrect in your sweeping statement regarding NEPC, me, and charter schools. I can think off the top of my head of two major papers I’ve written that have a positive take on charters, whether as a system (http://www.colorado.edu/education/faculty/kevinwelner/Docs/Welner_Locking_up_Ideas_Locking_out_Reform.pdf) or a specific school (http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/universal-access). I think if you looked closer you’d find similar nuanced views among many of our scholars.

            Our intent at NEPC is to produce high-quality research and research summaries. We absolutely come to this task with values and belief about education. Why would anyone get into this field who doesn’t have a passion to make our schools better? And why do you call that an “agenda”? Put another way, can you name anyone who cares about education who doesn’t have an “agenda” as you seem to be defining it?

            Just to clarify — since this seems to be a point of repeated misunderstanding — our values and goals are clearly set forth:

            1. First and foremost, all of our work is grounded in high-quality research. Our policy briefs (such as the one you offered kind thoughts about last week) go through a rigorous peer review and editing process. Our recommendations for policy are evidence-based. We substantively challenge work that is not, and we welcome substantive challenges to our own work. We are researchers and academics, and we believe very much that knowledge grows through that sort of conversation.

            What we have refused to do is what you seem to be doing here: fall back on ad hominem name-calling and dismissal of work because of the values or funders of the work’s authors. We don’t hesitate to take stands and to criticize, but we remain focused on the issues and on the research. I do not know who funds Education Reform Now or who funds other university policy centers like Paul Hill’s CRPE or Paul Peterson’s PEPG; it’s not relevant to what we do at NEPC.

            I am curious, however, whether you characterize those latter two as “advocacy organizations.” For what it’s worth, while I have problems with the work they produce, I approach them as serious researchers and my critiques of their work have always been focused on the substance. (There’s that word again.) Whether or not something can be legitimately called an “advocacy organization” (which I don’t think any of these university centers are) is, in my mind, much less important than asking about the quality of work they produce. But since that seems to be your interest, I am curious: are CRPE and PEPG advocacy organizations?

            Surely NEPC’s own work is not perfect. If you find fault with any of it, why not point to weaknesses? Why result to these cheap attacks? You’re a smart fellow, capable or reading and analyzing a policy brief, right?

            2. We believe strongly that children in America should have equitable and high-quality opportunities to learn. And we see public education as both a private good and a public good. We tremendously value that latter role and would like to see it strengthened. This, I think, is the “bias” you keep pointing to, but we’ve always readily acknowledged it. Our former name, you will recall, was “Education and the Public Interest Center.” To the extent that some (although not all) of our contributors are strong skeptics of school choice reforms – again, if I’m reading your correctly, that’s your bugaboo – it reflects a general consensus in the education research community. Yes, there are heated debates, but they generally are at the margins and begin with the conclusion that school choice to date has overall made little if any difference in terms of the student outcomes we all care about.

            Anyway, no, of course I’m not “objective.” What does that even mean? Does it mean not caring about the educational issues we research? Does it mean never reaching conclusions about best practices? Does it mean never actually arguing for change, based on those conclusions? NEPC’s work does remain grounded in research evidence; we don’t recommend policies just because of an appealing theory, compelling story, or ideological beliefs. If that’s a way to define ‘objective’ then I’ll claim the mantle, but I doubt that’s really what you’re getting at.

    • Kevin Welner says:

      Van, I think I’ll have to take up the main thrust of your comment in a separate note, maybe over the weekend when I get a break (too much there — and you can imagine how busy I am during the week being the handmaiden of the teachers union).

      But regarding Kevin Carey, I have to agree with Sabrina Shupe — Rutgers Professor Bruce Baker responded better than I ever could. Please go read: http://bit.ly/amPVwD

      Regarding the NEA Foundation, I’ll take this opportunity to plug its work. The Foundation is a philanthropy that receives part of its funding from the teachers union. The board of directors is made up primarily of successful business-folk, attorneys, and whatnot. I’m on the board because they want research expertise. You seem to be under the misapprehension that the Foundation is part of the NEA. It is not.

      Anyway, for the teachers out there, please consider applying for one of the Foundation’s small grants: http://www.neafoundation.org/pages/educators/grant-programs/ We have funded Colorado teachers every year I’ve been on the board, and it’s a joy being able to help with your thoughtful and worthwhile projects.

      • van schoales says:

        Kevin,

        Thanks for responding. I’m not sure why you’d try to link a review by me of a policy brief or sharing ERN’s budget to making NEPC’s finances transparent. I would hope you’d share NEPC’s income sources and amounts to the public regardless of what I do or don’t do.

        Having said that I’d be happy to share our finances and even willing to read one or two of the policy briefs for feedback in the next month.

        Again, my main critique of your organization is that you claim a certain objectivity because of your relationship with the academy and “peer review” when most of your groups’ research seems thoughtfully designed to discredit reform efforts in the same way your opponents (the advocacy groups promoting reforms) have designed research to promote reform. This back and fourth jousting reminds me of those great Spy vs. Spy cartoons from my favorite childhood reading, Mad Magazine. Most of the early voucher and charter studies were perfect examples of Spy vs. Spy education research advocacy cartoons.

    • Alex, there are some kids in my district that are getting evicted or their homes foreclosed upon on Monday. I think that has direct implications on achievement. Heck, they may not even show up to school for a while if that happens. More hits on achievement for that kid.

  3. jeff says:

    You know, this is exactly the kind of crap that makes me want never to read education blogs ever again. I was surprised by the tone of Welner’s piece but I managed to lift something our of it. I read the Carey piece and honestly, I don’t understand how it has any actual connection to the ideas Welner presented. I suppose I’ve just opened myself to a bunch of bashing there but what ever. Do your worst.

    Now we’re all puffed up and beating our chests, full of righteous indignation and not one single child will be served by all of the time and energy we’ve invested in this. Since I can’t explain why I’m still doing it, I guess I’ll just press post.

  4. Van schoales says:

    Well I do appreciate Kevin’s response and look forward to hearing more. Maybe because I’m originally from the NY, I find this sort of honest tough dialog helpful as long as it’s about ideas and practice. I also think it’s important to acknowledge that all of us feel very strongly that there is much at stake for kids and this country regardless of our perspectives, otherwise we would not be as invested and passionate about the issues.

    I totally respect Kevin’s work and also respectfully disagree with him about what needs to be done. And no I don’t think he’s a tool of the unions (he’s a tenured professor) but I do think NEPC appears to have a strong bias against almost any of the current reform ideas.

    Having said all of that maybe Jeff has a point about the quality of the dialog here though i disagree in general about the value of conversation about what we should do.

    What do you say about all of us bloggers/commentors etc meeting over a nice beverage in the next couple of weeks?

    Alan what do you think, the blogosphere can make all of this so impersonal.

    I’m happy to host near downtown sometime at the end of the day in the next 2 or 3 weeks if there are others are interested unless the PEBC or DK wants to do it.

    And we should only do it if there are folks that straddle both or the twelve sides of these issues that want to hang out and talk.

    Let me know- vschoales@gmail.com

    • jeff says:

      The exchange between Sabrina and Alex on another thread seems more like “honest tough dialogue” than this did and I agree it has value.

      I also agree that actually seeing the people we correspond with humanizes them and reduces the chance of posts that tear down people rather than addressing ideas. I appreciate your willingness to host and, schedule permitting, will plan to attend if it happens.

  5. Van schoales says:

    Ok folks…what about Wed, 10/27 at 4 PM? We can either do it my office at Park Ave West/Tremont on the terrace or happy to do it at my house on Gilpin and 14th. Alex will supply beer and I’ll have wine, water and snacks.

    Please send me a note if you are going to join us. My email is vschoales@gmail.com

  6. Alexander Ooms says:

    Kevin,

    Once again, we’re run out of the ability to reply in a thread. While I can’t speak for Van, I’m not sure why you would make policy critique a condition of financial disclosure. Why not just disclose? I hope Van will do the same with his organizations.

    And in response to the articles you cite (and I’m unfamiliar with the issues in and can’t really speak to “a”), I would far prefer to review reports where NEPC advocates in favor of a specific policy, instead of in opposition. As you know, a common tactic of status quo defenders is both to claim the current system in unacceptable and yet argue against any specific policy change. Most of the NEPC work seems to fall in this safe vein – point me to four similar papers where you advocate in favor of specific policies and I’d be genuinely interested in reading more.

    Iif you insist on a policy critique, I’d prefer a simple one: just tell me where your positions (or those of NEPC) are in opposition to positions of the National Education Association? I would be happy to reciprocate in kind.

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