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Saturday, July 12, 2008

Why are inside-the-beltway so clueless at diagnosing the real problems of our public schools?

See the typical screed in Slate, by Ray Fisman, a professor at the Columbia Business School, subtitled “Why are public schools so bad at hiring good instructors?” It decries the inability of principals to get rid of incompetent teachers, and attributes poverty, the achievement gap and God knows what else to teacher tenure.

Strangely enough, it reports that the principal featured in the story, Anthony Lombardi at PS 49 in Queens, managed to get rid of one third of entire his teaching staff since he arrived, despite the existence of tenure, and, you got it, test scores rose.

The article doesn’t question that looking at test scores alone may not be the best or the only way to evaluate teachers or the quality of education. This is peculiar, especially since Lombardi seems to have rated his teachers not by looking at their test scores, but by examining their lesson plans and observing them in action, which is exactly how tenure decisions are made now.

(By the way, the school got a “B” in its recent DOE school progress report, for whatever that’s worth. And the teachers who remain at the school, though they may have been spared Lombardi’s wrath, don’t seem to respect him much – in the teacher survey, 50% disagreed with the statement that “School leaders invite teachers to play a meaningful role in setting goals and making important decisions for this school for this school,” And 57% disagree that “School leaders encourage open communication on important school issues.”

Most notably, the article omits the fact that teachers no longer have the right of automatic transfer – and in fact implies otherwise: “Since his arrival, a third of PS 49's teachers have been squeezed out through Lombardi's efforts. Of course, this just meant they were moved to another classroom in another school, lowering the test scores of someone else's children.”

Perhaps this inaccuracy results from the fact that much of the description of Lombardi and his schools seem to be lifted directly from a now-outdated NY Magazine article from 2003 (click here).

But the most interesting aspect of the piece, to me anyway, is that it cites the findings in a study by Kane, Staiger and Gordon (yes, the infamous Robert Gordon) that the quality of teaching in LA did not diminish one iota after they had to triple their hiring of teachers to reduce class size, despite the repeated claims of the Bloomberg/Klein administration that lowering class size in NYC would inevitably do just this. In fact, there is no evidence in the research literature that this has ever occurred.

To the contrary, providing them with smaller classes is the most certain way to improve the effectiveness of the teachers we already have in NYC, as well as reducing our sky-high attrition levels, in the process making it more likely that students have experienced teachers – the most reliable predictor of effectiveness, as parents know and which is also backed up by research. It is widely known that no private school in NYC will hire a first year teacher, but makes them spend a couple of years of “seasoning” in the public schools first.

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