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John Thompson: Fact Checking the National Council on Teacher Quality

Guest post by John Thompson

The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), is a Gates-funded organization dedicated to data-driven, market-oriented "reform." It sees itself as a part of a coalition for "a better orchestrated agenda" for accountability, choice, and using test scores to drive the evaluation of teachers. Its forte is publishing non-peer reviewed opinion pieces under the guise of "policy analysis."

The latest NCTQ opinion piece, "Teacher Quality Roadmap," (downloadable here) seeks to shape Los Angeles school policy. The worst part of the latest attack on teachers is its saber-rattling statement that "economists recommend that districts routinely dismiss at least the bottom-performing 25% of teachers eligible for tenure." In fact, their source simply articulated a "thought experiment" and pulled the 25% figure out of thin air. Moreover, the source, "Assessing the Potential of Using Value-Added Estimates of Teacher Job Performance for Making Tenure Decisions," was a study which was also funded by the Gates Foundation. The study acknowledged its findings were mixed and would "reinforce views on both sides of the policy divide over whether VAM estimates of teacher job performance ought to be used for high-stakes decisions like determining tenure."

The L.A. Times, however, implied that the NCTQ buried its lede. The Times headline proclaimed that L.A. is wasting $500 million on "pointless training." It did not question where those numbers came from, however. I had hoped that journalists' suspicions would have been raised by the study's footnote. The closest thing that the NCTQ came to revealing its methodology was their explanation that the $519 million figure came from subtracting a "possible payroll, which simply compensated for experience," from "the current payroll." The report's mysterious caveat was, "This figure is intended for illustrative purposes only."

But the LAUSD also provides extra compensation for Advanced Placement, for National Board certification, peer review, and instructional coaching. The NCTQ offered no evidence questioning the effectiveness of those programs. On the contrary, it only reported the results of a meta-analysis of the effectiveness of masters courses. And defending itself from Diane Ravitch's criticism, the NCTQ scaled back their complaint even further, explaining, "L.A. doesn't just reward degrees...it tags 'credit' onto pretty much any activity with an intellectual bent, including a teacher's trip to a museum or to the opera. Earning these 'credits' is virtually the only way to earn higher pay ..." Had the "Teacher Quality Roadmap" showcased the problems associated with that narrow criticism of that district, it could have helped improve L.A. schools. I wonder how much national coverage would have been generated by such constructive criticism, however.

So what was the NCTQ saying, and why was it saying it?

The study asserted that good students, especially from top-ranked universities, make more effective teachers. But, apparently, the process of reading, writing, and exchanging ideas is only effective if practiced in undergraduate, not graduate programs?!?!

The "Teacher Quality Roadmap" then used Teach for America as an illustration of the type of teachers that should be recruited. It downplayed the part of the study, however, where L.A. principals expressed the lowest levels of satisfaction for TFA candidates and for must-transfers. (The original report said that principals were even more dissatisfied with TFA candidates than must-transfers. The report that is now on the Web shows that dissatisfaction with TFA is second only to must-transfer teachers. The difference is whether it was appropriate to include Not Applicable responses in the chart.)

To be fair, paying teachers for graduate degrees is similar to pay for performance, because neither have been proven to be effective in increasing student performance. The value of both is in their roles within comprehensive systems for attracting, developing, and retaining talent. The NCTQ, however, seems to prefer recruits who find monetary incentives to be more attractive than potential teachers who are more motivated by the exchange of ideas.

Strip away the rhetoric, and the NCTQ only presented three sets of evidence.
Firstly, it showed that a specific part of L.A.'s compensation system should be reformed. It presented no evidence, however that its preferred policies would be more effective than National Board certification, peer review, or other ways of building teams of instructional coaches.

Secondly, the study showed that it is not that hard to fire LAUSD teachers for ineffectiveness, but that principals do not believe the process is worth the effort. And even if due process prevented principals from firing more than two teachers per school, as suggested by the report, that practice would result in 60 times as many teachers being dismissed. In other words, the NCTQ's dangerous "reforms" would not be necessary if principals had been provided the capacity to do their part of the job of improving teacher quality.

The study's third set of evidence could have been invaluable had it been presented in an intellectually honest manner. The "Teacher Quality Roadmap" shows that the majority of L.A. principals in low-poverty schools are satisfied by the quality of their teacher pool. But only 25% of principals of schools where 91% or more of their students are low-income are satisfied with the applicants they would use to replace ineffective teachers. Similarly, nearly two thirds of those principals were stuck hiring the majority of their teachers in August or September. But that sad statistic was more than twice as bad as the numbers reported by principals of schools where only 3/4ths of their students are low-income.

By the way, the subtitle of the report is "Improving Policies and Practices in LAUSD." I wonder why the NCTQ did not attempt to do what it claimed it wanted to do. Why did it not study the actual problems faced by the LAUSD, and offer evidence-based solutions for them? Why did it try to equate an eccentric problem with a flawed aspect of L.A.'s system with a national debate on the best way to recruit, develop, and retain teaching talent? I also wonder why the press has not tried to explain why there was such a great disconnect between the NCTQ's recommendations and its actual evidence.

Any person who loved or loathed this latest report should check out the NCTQ web site and take a look at its other reports. Regardless of the district they are describing, their studies use almost identical words to describe the same policies. The problems are always the same - education schools, due process, not enough performance pay, and the failure to use enough standardized testing when evaluating teachers. And that gets us back to the NCTQ's commitment to an "orchestrated agenda." The names may change, but the NCTQ's villains and solutions do not.

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John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book,
Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.

What do you think? Are journalists at the LA Times and elsewhere doing due diligence in their reporting? Or are they contributing to the "orchestrated agenda" described here?

image used with permission, by John Thompson

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