I like to think that the biases of reporters don’t directly influence their reporting. I may be wrong about James Vaznis, but I think he’s trying conscientiously to do his job. In the case of his editors, however, I have serious doubts.
I’ve heard that top editors don’t tell their reporters what to write. I believe it. But I also believe that editorial biases trickle down. Editors assign stories, provide sources, suggest story angles. And reporters may read the editorial page of their own papers. I don’t know exactly how a newsroom works, but I doubt reporters operate in a vacuum. It’s only my hypothesis, but I’m guessing that the editors’ position on educational policy is affecting news coverage for the worse.
Whatever Vaznis’s journalistic sins may be, I think those of his editors are greater. Not only do they double down on Vaznis’s inaccuracies, the editors of the Globe paint a black-and-white world of education policy: agree with them and you’re “exemplary”; disagree, or mention the color gray, and well, you’re a failure. In their editorial Sunday, they cast the question of teacher evaluation in Manichean terms:
The public will get a chance to evaluate teachers and their union leadership by how they respond to this proposal. Embracing it would be exemplary. Rejecting it or trying to water it down in collective bargaining would rate a resounding F.
Darn that collective bargaining! Who needs it when the editors of the Globe know what needs to be done?! Scott Walker anyone?
Ironically, the proposal put forth by Chester emerged from the recommmendations of a task force that benefitted from the input of educators and teacher unions. As MTA president Paul Toner has said,
“We have said from the start that the observation of educators at work and human judgment must still be the central components of an educator evaluation system, as they are for virtually all professionals… We have also said from the start that student learning outcomes at the classroom, district and state levels should also be reviewed and considered in the evaluation process because, at the end of the day, our main job as teachers and administrators is to improve student learning. However, we and 90 percent of the other task force members are also clear that there is no single measure, including MCAS, that fully, fairly and accurately identifies the effectiveness of any individual teacher. These measures are all prone to error. Therefore, while they should be considered, they must not supersede evaluator judgment.”
Ninety-percent of the task force and the MTA representation. It wasn’t that long ago that the Globe wrote about Paul Toner and the MTA’s support of teacher evaluation. And now they’re going to stand in the way?
Editorials are not formally held to the same journalistic standards as articles, but wouldn’t it be nice if they were? Wouldn’t it be nice if they didn’t impart research findings as if they were as unassailable as gravity? Here are the editors with truth from nowhere on teacher quality:
Effective teachers routinely impart a year-and-a-half-gain in student achievement over the course of a single academic year. Three or four consecutive years of exposure to that level of instruction can eradicate the achievement gap between low-income and high-income students. Bad teachers routinely secure just a half-year of student progress over the same period. A few years of that kind of instruction can lead to academic ruin.
These are research findings and should, therefore, be sourced, regardless of how well they support the editors’ position. By its very nature, research is not the final word on anything. It always has limitations.
Whether or not the editors know it, their source is Eric Hanushek, the formemost economist of education and Hoover Institute fellow, who has testified in front of the California State Assembly that money is really not a factor in educational achievement. (And therefore, there’s no need to increase the amount going to school systems serving the underprivileged).
When you stop to think that readers often don’t remember where they got information, this kind of stuff is troubling.
The Globe editors would have us think that there are no gray areas in teacher evaluations or tying teacher evaluations to test scores. While they are right in suggesting that teacher holds promise for improving teaching and increasing student achievement, there are genuine complications. Here are a few:
1) Cost. Many school systems fail to regularly evaluate their teachers. This isn’t because of teachers. The fact is, administrators don’t have the time. It may be part of their job description, but they aren’t shirking their responsibilities, they are too busy to get to them. Requiring more extensive evaluations will require more administrators, or at least more evaluators, and will thus more money. Another dirty little secret of the existing evaluation system is that many administrators lack the training to conduct effective evaluations. Some administrators have also never taught in an academic classroom; before they taught, they were guidance counselors and physical education teachers and band directors. They lack the acutal classroom experience that would seem to make evaluation something simple. Training these folks will cost money too. These obstacles are not insurmountable, but unless regulations are either watered down or mandated without funds, there are going to be implementation problems.
2) MCAS Score Factors MCAS scores are problematic for evaluating teachers. One reason is the fact that so many factors that result in a test score; these range from student investment in the test to what students have learned in years prior to taking the test. MCAS can be useful as a rough measure of progress, but the single number they produce is next to impossible to attach to a single teacher.
3) Who Teaches to the Test? The second problem with MCAS scores is that not all teachers have them attached to their subjects. In high school, English and math are tested in sophomore year. Teachers who teach these subjects after 10th grade can’t be held accountable by MCAS scores. In my school 9th graders take MCAS biology. That means all the other science teachers are off the MCAS hook. And teachers of physical education, health, business, foreign languages, and electives? They don’t even have MCAS tests to teach to. Do we just ignore them when evaluation time comes?
The teacher evaluation proposal now on the table is the direct result of the participation of educators and teacher unions. We want to see it done and done right. We can only hope that that whatever system is implemented rises above the journalistic standards the Boston Globe has set for itself.