OpinionThe Fact-Check

Don’t Humiliate Teachers… But Fire the Worst: Does David Denby Realize He’s Agreeing With Reformers?

By Matt Barnum | February 16, 2016

The Fact-Check is The Seventy Four’s ongoing series that examines the ways in which journalists, politicians and leaders misuse or misinterpret education data and research. See our complete Fact-Check archive.
The New Yorker’s David Denby is tired of the war on teachers. In a piece titled, “Stop Humiliating Teachers,” Denby declares, “We have to stop blaming teachers for all of the ills and injustices of American society.”
Denby doesn’t really say who’s doing this specifically, except for vaguely defined “reformers.”  But his point is clear: testing, tough teacher evaluation, and charter schools are bad.
Denby’s essay is flush with talking points but thin on facts, concluding with a head-spinning twist ending where he concedes that reformers are right about a fundamental point.
What Denby gets wrong (a lot)
Denby’s piece is riddled with contradictions and backed by confident assertions offered often without the slightest evidence.
Denby declares, “In December, the Obama Administration pulled the plug on No Child Left Behind, deputizing the states to administer tests and to reward and punish — a de-facto admission that the program wasn’t working well.”
Not really. It may have been a failure as a political matter, the media has declared it a disaster, and it certainly had problems that needed to be addressed. But researchers have generally found that the law improved student achievement in math.
Denby: “As recent surveys have shown, the high-stakes testing mania has demoralized the profession as whole.”
I don’t know what Denby is referring to because he does not cite any source. I suspect he may be talking about an unscientific survey — which was sent to respondents “by email and social media” — of teachers conducted jointly by the American Federation of Teachers and the Badass Teachers Association. There is certainly evidence that some teachers are frustrated by accountability reforms, but research has actually found that contrary to conventional wisdom No Child Left Behind did not increase voluntary teacher turnover and did not harm teachers’ job satisfaction. Maybe that’s changed with recent reforms — it certainly wouldn’t shock me — but Denby offers no evidence to support this claim.
Denby: “Using … tests to evaluate teachers themselves has been questioned again and again by statistical experts as well as by critics of these programs. The heart of the criticism: the tests measure demographics (the class and wealth level of the students) more than teachers’ abilities.”
Denby does not appear to have even a passing familiarity with the way many teachers are evaluated via test scores. It’s often through a statistical formula, known as value-added, which statistically controls for past achievement and demographic characteristics. (I encourage Denby to read The 74’s thoroughly researched flashcards on this issue.) This method is controversial and researchers disagree on what role, if any, it should play in teacher evaluation. Yes, we can discuss whether the method controls enough for student characteristics or whether it’s sufficient to control just for past achievement, as some states do. Yet other measures of teacher performance, such as principal observations, may be even more biased against teachers of disadvantaged students.
Denby complains about what he sees as an obsessive focus on bad teachers, quoting journalist Dana Goldstein who describes it as a “moral panic”; later he points to “linked promotion or dismissal to teachers’ ability to get kids to score well on tests.”
He doesn’t mention that in most places recent reforms have not appeared to lead many teachers to actually be dismissed. New evaluation systems have not generally labeled many teachers ineffective. Denby highlights New York, but as I reported last year, under the supposedly tough new evaluation system just one tenured teacher has been fired because of it, according to the State Education Department. Teachers may have many legitimate frustrations with new evaluation systems, but the new moral panic, it seems to me, is about imaginary mass firings of teachers
Denby says reformers have put too much pressure on teachers to fix societal problems — this after he writes, “At their best, teachers are everyday gods, standing at the entryway to the world.”
Denby says reformers should be focused more on expanding “health services” to poor families. Somehow he doesn’t mention that at the same time the Obama administration was pushing education reform, its signature domestic policy initiative was something we now call Obamacare.
My favorite Denby-ism though is this breezy declaration, offered without a shred of measurable evidence: “Corporate thinking, mostly inappropriate to education, has turned teachers into individual operators potentially at war with one another.”
The war on teachers is silly enough — but now it’s a civil war that’s broken out?
Denby’s twist ending
By far the oddest moment in Denby’s piece is when he flatly agrees with a crucial aspects of the school reform project: “My own feeling is that it should be easier than it is now for principals to fire bad teachers, but that tenure should not be abolished.”
That sounds suspiciously similar to, say, former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan or the reform group TNTP, neither of whom supports eliminating due process for teachers, but do want to ensure ineffective teachers can be swiftly dismissed if they do not improve.
Denby also advocates significant increases in teacher pay, something many (though not all) reformers have argued for as well. Little does he seem to know that this utopian vision exists in the arch-reform capital of Washington, D.C.  Perhaps Denby would disagree with some specifics, but teachers in D.C. are paid well, and then held accountable for performance based on multiple measures. Research suggests that D.C.’s system of rewarding the best teachers and pushing out the worst improved student achievement, particularly in high-poverty schools.
What Denby gets right
Like Denby, I also have a twist ending. Even though, in my view, he gets a lot wrong — really wrong — Denby also gets some important things right. I think he is correct to argue that reform movement, such as it is, ought to advance a coherent anti-poverty agenda, put more political capital towards raising teacher pay, improve teacher evaluation systems, and do more to cut back on unnecessary testing.
Indeed, some of what Denby recommends — higher teacher salaries, greater efforts to address poverty — are not at odds with the reform agenda. They actually complement it, and many reformers recognize as much. Unfortunately, these areas of potential agreement are lost in Denby’s storm of sweeping claims and broad condemnation.
In many respects the school reform movement is on the defensive right now. And the fact that the pages of the New Yorker are now filled with fact-free anti-reform talking points ought to be concerning. Yes, reformers should point out where Denby is wrong, but they should also consider where he’s right.
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