Students, Their Neighborhoods, Their Schools, and the Unions

September 18th, 2012 at 10:47 pm

I’ve done just one post on the Chicago teachers’ strike, pointing out that ratcheting up the weight on teachers’ evaluations based on value-added modeling (VAM)—one of Mayor Emmanuel’s conditions—is a really bad idea.  Now, according to Reuters, the framework agreement they’ve reached out there scales back on that weighting.  Here’s a useful piece by Richard Rothstein with more background on how and why these tests fail to accurately and reliably identify effective teachers.

But this morning, I’d like to take a bit broader look at the issues in play here.  I open my WaPo this AM to read this:

Two days after a student was gunned down while walking to Anninna Sigmon’s high school in Prince George’s County, she still wasn’t sure when she would feel safe enough to return to class.

“I just feel like I could be next,” said Sigmon, 17, a senior at Central High School in Capitol Heights. “People shouldn’t be afraid to go to school.”

I am then reminded by this Rebecca Mead post that 80% of Chicago public school students qualify for free and reduced lunch, a proxy for poverty status.

And it just reminds me how ridiculous it is for us to expect teachers to solve these problems for us while we’re busy beating up on their unions, cutting school budgets, laying off education personnel, and sharply reducing that part of the federal budget that could help make a difference in urban poverty.

Of course we should insist on teacher accountability, but imagine for a moment being the teacher whose students legitimately fear for their lives upon walking to school.  Just how talented does she have to be to offset the impact that must have on the ability of students to absorb her teachings?

Now that there’s a framework for an agreement in place, I think the Chicago teachers should be back in the classroom.  The fact that they’re not is a potent measure of the level of distrust that’s built up between the mayor and the unions.  But if you think teachers unions are the reason too many kids aren’t learning enough, you’re wrong.

As Mead puts it:

No doubt there are some lousy teachers in Chicago, as there are everywhere. But blaming teachers for the failure of schools is like blaming doctors for the diseases they are seeking to treat.

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4 comments in reply to "Students, Their Neighborhoods, Their Schools, and the Unions"

  1. Theo Clifford says:

    Aren’t economists supposed to think at the margin?

  2. Guest says:

    This is important for this debate:

    Shows that getting good teachers and paying them well more is such an important thing – so important that it can overtake a lot of these other variables.

  3. David Cox says:

    I find it interesting and a bit sad that educators are apparently unfamiliar with the thoughts of W. Edwards Deming in his book The New Economics For Industry, Government, Education. If the goal is quality, it would seem worthwhile to consult Deming, the proven guru on quality.

  4. Andrew says:

    Perhaps our current notion of school just isn’t appropriate for many of those attending in a place like Chicago. Perhaps we should rethink what we’re doing altogether. Are there things that might be more meaningful to the students (and potentially more helpful at alleviating the poverty) than our current attempt to treat a poor and disadvantaged population like a rich one? This isn’t a matter of “giving up,” it’s a matter finding a more effective way to help every student, soon to be adult, to live a fulfilling life. We so afraid to try something new, but what we’re doing doesn’t seem effective. What do we have to lose?