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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Money trumps children, again

From Ed Voices

By Dave Reber

Much of today’s education reform debate is focused on reduction in force (RIF) or “layoffs.” Most teaching contracts specify that RIF, when necessary, occurs based on seniority. The logic of seniority-based RIF is that, by definition, RIF has nothing to do with job performance but rather with funding and staffing needs of the district.

My own contract defines RIF as “termination of an employee’s contract for reasons over which the employee has no responsibility.” The subsequent contract language assumes that principals are competent professionals who staff their buildings with teachers who are also competent professionals. When staffing needs change; RIF procedures provide a fair and mutually agreed upon system of deciding which teachers stay and which teachers go.

Instead of pink slips, let's opt for adequate funding this year.
Used as intended, seniority-based RIF procedures make perfect sense. RIF was never intended to be a large-scale, annual occurrence.

Corporate-model education reformers, salivating at the opportunities afforded them by current economic conditions, are pushing for RIF to occur on the basis of student standardized test scores. A “study” – exclusively released to the Associated Press in December – claims to provide a research-based rationale for such a RIF system. However, in typical corporate-charter-privatization reform style, this study is deliberately misleading. Not only that, but its premise rests entirely on a favorite logical fallacy of education-reformers: the false dichotomy.

Purported to be scientific, the study is more propaganda than science. A real scientific study would not be “exclusively released” to the Associated Press. Rather, a scientific study would undergo a rigorous peer review process before being published. If it proves worthy, it would then be published in a reputable scientific journal.

What kind of “study” skirts the accepted scientific standard in favor of a press release? One used to promote an agenda – the corporate-charter-privatization education reform agenda, in this case.

This “study” was conducted by the Center for Education Data and Research (CEDR). Lead author Dan Goldhaber is an affiliated scholar at the Urban Institute. The Urban Institute has a well-documented track record of misleading publications and publicity stunts designed to garner support for the corporate-reform agenda. The Urban Institute also receives funding from the Gates Foundation.

More than half the “researchers” listed on the CEDR website have ties to the corporate-reform agenda. Mike Puma comes from the Urban Institute and now from Abt Associates, Inc., a group that conducts research for the Gates Foundation. Lesley Lavery is a Teach for America alum. Mark Long hails from the West Coast Poverty Center, a Gates-funded organization. In fact, CEDR itself is substantially funded by the Gates Foundation. With such a pedigree and the absence of peer review, this “study” is questionable at best.

Goldhaber estimates that student achievement, following a seniority-based RIF, would drop by 2.5 to 3.5 months of learning per student compared to a system which targeted the least effective teachers. Ignoring the poor reliability of “value-added” measures of teacher effectiveness, Goldhaber reaches a corporate-reform-approved conclusion about seniority-based RIF: “If your bottom line is student achievement, then this is not the best system.”

Goldhaber pens a good sound-bite for the Associated Press, but it rests entirely on a false dichotomy: that we must choose either seniority-based mass RIF or standardized-test-score-based mass RIF. By treating annual mass RIF as a given, Goldhaber and his corporate sponsors ignore and suppress a viable third option: provide adequate funding of public education such that mass RIF never occurs.

But the corporate-reformers have jumped on current economic conditions as a tool to push their agenda. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is well versed in such tactics. Speaking to the corporate-reform-friendly American Enterprise Institute, Duncan stated “the economy has given the nation an opportunity to make dramatic improvements in the productivity of its education system.”

The “improvements” Duncan refers to – what he calls the “New Normal” – include massive layoffs and subsequent increases in class size. Never does he speak of restoring (let alone improving) public education funding – despite the proven benefits of small class sizes.

Across the United States, public school funding continues to plummet; and along with dollars go teachers, textbooks, support staff, and supplies. State governments plead poverty in today’s economy, and claim to have no choice – emphasis on “claim.”

In Kansas, public education funding was cut over $400 million (over 10%) for 2010-11. For 2011-12, the state faces a $550 million budget deficit, and Governor Sam Brownback has vowed not to increase revenues.

Meanwhile, legislators have continued to cut taxes, grant sales tax exemptions, and make other conscious efforts not to raise the revenue necessary to provide for public schools. In 2009, Kansas Secretary of Revenue Joan Wagnon estimated that tax cuts and exemptions passed since 1995 have resulted in $10.9 billion in lost revenue.

The “cut taxes, then plead poverty” strategy is a national epidemic. Those push for tax cuts are one in the same with those who claim public education is just too expensive. Look up how much income tax is paid by Microsoft Corporation, and compare it to your own – you might be surprised who pays more.

Money aside, the corporate-style education reformers reject the “no RIF” option as “just teachers fighting for teachers,” another false dichotomy they seem fond of. But there are no such dichotomies – no “you either support students, or you support teachers” or “we must RIF, so choose how” dichotomies. There is always a third choice; it’s just a matter of priority.

As a nation we can make public education a priority and choose to fund our public schools. We can answer the corporate-reformers’ false dichotomies in language they might understand.

Grab your #2 pencil and fill in the last oval: “none of the above.”

1 comment:

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