Bob Somerby, Surgical removal of Charlie Rose's vocal apparatus without anesthesia. Daily Howler, July 10 et. seq.
OKAY, so timing may not be everything, but it still beats the hell out of second place when it comes to not being hit by a bus.
Professor Fisman is the Lambert Family Professor of Social Enterprise and research director of the Social Enterprise Program at the Columbia Business School. So he's a Smart Guy, and a smart guy. Smarter than us, without question. It's probably not his fault that Bob Somerby had just begun eviscerating his strangely familiar, George Washington's hatchet* of an article before it appeared. No doubt Professor Fisman is able to do complex math in his head, able to spot an experimental misstep or very fish-like statistical results from a hundred yards. Able, most likely, to catch a purchased term paper by the feel of its opening paragraphs. So what's the explanation for him leading off with this sort of tenth-generation horse manure?
PS 49 in Queens used to be an average school in New York City's decidedly below-average school system. That was before Anthony Lombardi moved into the principal's office. When Lombardi took charge in 1997, 37 percent of fourth graders read at grade level, compared with nearly 90 percent today; there have also been double-digit improvements in math scores. By 2002, PS 49 made the state's list of most improved schools.
Let us clarify: we have no particular knowledge that these miraculous figures are bogus, though, hailing from charter-school-mazed Indianapolis we're well aware that they tend to follow around the very educators who need them. We have no knowledge, either way, of whether the results depend in part, or wholly, to teaching to the test. We don't know if, in the intervening decade, PS 49 in Queens has become a magnet for motivated students of motivated parents, or if Mr. Lombardi is performing amazing feats of prestidigitation with randomly-selected members of the studio audience. We don't know, and Fisman has no apparent interest in helping us check his work.
No, it's immaterial, and not just because it's anecdotal, or because the Professor seems to have missed that it's anecdotal, but because, at the end of the Bush administration, with the long contagion of Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly, with the greatest stars of a generation of major-league baseball more likely to enter the Witness Protection Program than the Hall of Fame, anything this convenient has to be doubted until it's proven beyond a doubt.
Oh, but not at Slate, of course:
If you ask Lombardi how it happened, he'll launch into a well-practiced monologue on the many changes that he brought to PS 49 (an arts program, a new curriculum from Columbia's Teachers College). But he keeps coming back to one highly controversial element of the school's turnaround: getting rid of incompetent teachers.
So, it's the thing Lombardi keeps coming back to! Q.E.D. And, of course, he's been kept blindfolded in a soundproof room since 1998, so he couldn't possibly be saying what his audience wants to hear. Q.E. fuckin' D.
Now, let us again be clear about a couple of things: are there bad teachers out there? Sure, just as there are bad doctors, bad plumbers, bad candle-makers, and bad faux anti-faux-pro-reverse contrarian online magazines. Were they (the teachers, not the waxologists) the cause of PS 49's poor performance? Could be; bad accountants brought down Arthur Anderson, although in this case "bad" has an alternative meaning.
[We should note somewhere--might as well be here--that the Lombardian definition of Bad Teacher includes, not just teachers whose classroom performance, measured by test results, was sub-standard, but also those who Refused To Get With The Program, meaning we can sacrifice a few good teachers along the route. Maybe stick a couple of heads on pikes at the main entrance. We'll hire more! Sic semper, mac.]
Are we justified in concluding that Bad Teachers (and the Unions That Won't Let Us Fire Them) are the Problem, and using that assumption to inform the remainder of our 1300 words on the subject? No.
Y'know, common sense tells us a few things here. It tells us that there must be poor teachers in successful schools, who are also cosseted by Big Instruction, but who do not cause test scores to plummet. It tells us that there must be bad principals out there, too, drawn largely from the teaching ranks, and that the Petty Tyrant model of academic success--rarely, if ever, suggested for white suburban schools--just might have a kink or two in the hose. And it tells us that if this shit works it sure hasn't proven duplicable.
As Somerby incomparably points out, these people have been churning the discussion for forty years now, and not just without any success beyond the anecdotal, but with actual negative effect. (Rose was interviewing Wendy Kopp of Teach for America, and let Kopp answer the question of what we need to do to improve schools by avoiding it, and papering the show with these same tug-at-the-heart, tear-in-the-eye success tales. Including the one about her associate Michelle Rhee, whose own remarkable (and remarkably similar-sounding) achievement in the Baltimore public schools lost a bit of its glimmer when the school system couldn't produce her records.) Where's the improvement? We've battled for forty years over this stuff (not coincidentally, as long as we've been enforcing Brown, kids, which was simply ignored for the first decade after the ruling). You'd think there'd be something to show beyond textbook warning stickers and a foolish, make that cynical, over-reliance on test scores. Where's the improvement? The World's Third-Worst State Legislature™ stripped the union for Indianapolis Public Schools--and only that union--of the right to bargain over anything other than wages and working conditions. That was in 1995, and it was the law until repeal in 2005. Sorry about not reporting on the remarkable improvement in test scores over that period. Somehow I couldn't find them.
Show improvement, or get off the road! We are, at this point, as justified in saying that the ad-hoc consortium--or vast conspiracy, if you'd rather--of multi-multi-billionaire retired professional software pirates, firing-obsessed, publicity-whore megalomanic former GE CEOs and serial autobiographers, union-busting professional economists, and the sort of people who generate half the emails Snopes debunks on a daily basis has failed at least as colossally as they claim our schools have.
Of course, the beauty of assuming our conclusion ahead of time is that it greatly expands our possible reforms. So why do they sound like this?
What if there were a way to screen out the bad teachers before they get entrenched? Currently, New York City teachers get their union cards their first day on the job. In theory they're on probation for three years after that, but in practice very few are forced out. Lombardi suggests replacing this system with an apprenticeship program. Rather than requiring teaching degrees (which don't seem to improve value-added all that much)...
new recruits would have a couple of years of in-school training. There would then come a day of reckoning, when teachers-to-be would face a serious evaluation before securing union membership and a job for life.
So, the key to improvement is to do what we already have the power to do by doing it another way! Something which just happens to remove the right of collective bargaining from the people in the Trainee hats. (Here, as always, it is the fault of Uncaring Featherbedding Unions that they do not immediately jump to approve this sort of thing. In case you were wondering.) This has got to be a post-post-graduate analysis. Because I don't understand a word of it.
I mean, Kee-rist. Could you try? The Lombardi Miracle has been accomplished precisely under these rules, including his ability to threaten even veteran teachers with poor evaluations which would "[lead] to an onerous (for all concerned) two-year review." How is it we miss this point?
I know, I know. Forget it, Jake, it's Slate.
* the authentic one, the one that's had the head replaced twice and three new handles. Like Fisman's argument.