Children who can't read or do math OK by Seattle teachers union

August 30, 2010

The Seattle Times reports this morning that the Seattle teachers union refuses to allow the district to evaluate teachers in part on student academic growth, measured by test scores. They say evaluating teachers based in part on student test scores is unfair.

Contract talks are at an impasse. Teachers are scheduled to vote on the contract on Thursday, September 2nd.

Union leadership remains true to form, resisting any change which threatens their control over education policy. The union refuses to require teachers to show that they are effective at raising student achievement, as this would introduce the concept of teacher performance into collective bargaining agreements---too much of a change from the past.

The past contract, which we have reviewed extensively here, has resulted in abysmal student test results on the WASL in Seattle. One-quarter of students cannot read at grade level and nearly half cannot do math at grade level--take a look at these scores for Seattle from the OSPI website. No wonder only 63% of Seattle's students graduate on time. No wonder less than half of Seattle's minority students graduate on time.

The most important factor for student learning is the quality of the teacher. The Seattle teachers union, by clinging to past practices, is being unfair to Seattle's students.

Teachers unions across the nation are accepting pressure to change and altering their collective bargaining agreements to allow teacher evaluations based in part on improving student achievement, on tests. The time has arrived to embrace change---change we all believe in---a better future for Seattle students.

2008-09 WASL Results (Administration Info)

Grade Level

Reading

Math

Writing

Science

3rd Grade

74.3%

71.4%

 

 

4th Grade

75.7%

59.9%

69.6%

 

5th Grade

75.3%

67.7%

 

51.9%

6th Grade

74.7%

57.9%

 

 

7th Grade

62.2%

56.3%

75.1%

 

8th Grade

69.9%

53.9%

 

52.2%

10th Grade

81.6%

48.9%

84.9%

41.5%

Comments

Now for some corrections

Ms Finne writes well and passionately, but not with precision.


She writes: "The most important factor for student learning is the quality of the teacher." This is simply untrue. The greatest determinant of academic achievement is the active involvement in the student's education by an adult in the child's home. This fact has been proven again and again in study after study. Well over two-thirds of student achievement is driven by home-based determinants rather than school-based determinants. Even without the studies we know that it is true.


Does anyone - anyone - actually believe that if high performing students from middle class homes were to switch schools with low-performing low-income students that their test score outcomes would switch as well? Would most of the middle class kids start to fail the tests and most of the low-income kids start to pass the tests if they just swapped schools, teachers, and principals? It is not the schools that are making the difference between success and failure for these kids.


In a single class there are students who pass the tests and students who fail the test. How would that be possible if the quality of the the teacher were the primary determinant of achievement? Did the teacher whisper the lessons into the ears of the favored children and withold it from the others? I don't think so.


Second, Ms Finne presumes that equal opportunities in the classroom will result in equal outcomes for students. This is a very strange perspective coming from a conservative think tank like the Washington Policy Center. While I can count on you, like all true Americans, to support equal opportunity, usually you folks are not the ones also demanding equal outcomes. The teacher is obligated to provide the equal opportunity to all students by presenting the lesson. It is the student's responsibility, however, to take advantage of that opportunity and do the learning. It is usually a left-wing trick to point to unequal outcomes as prima facie evidence of unequal oppportunity. The unfortunate fact of life is that there are some students who simply don't care to learn, some who have other, more urgent concerns, and some who are unprepared to accept the lesson because they lack the foundational knowledge or skills to assimilate it. As they say, You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink. None of these factors are in the teacher's control. None of these factors are the teacher's responsibility. None of these factors reflect on the quality of the teaching.


Ms Finne writes: "The past contract, which we have reviewed extensively here, has resulted in abysmal student test results on the WASL in Seattle." I would make two disputations about this. First, it is insane (and unsupported) to attribute the WASL pass rates to the teacher contract. You might as well blame them on the weather. Second, the assertion that these results are abysmal. I would remind Ms Finne and her readers that the WASL pass rates for Seattle exceed the state averages. If Seattle is above-average and is abysmal, then the problem is hardly attributable to anything in Seattle. Moreover, these pass rates are not, as Ms Finne suggests, bad at all. They reflect something slightly better than the historic averages.


The fact is that more students are learning more and are graduating from high school more than ever before. That's true because there are more students in the system than ever before. Seattle Public Schools, and the other public school districts across the state, enroll children who would not have historically been in school at all. Let's remember that about 12% of Seattle public school students are in Special Education. Let's remember that 12% of Seattle high school students are in re-entry schools. Let's remember that 13% of Seattle public school students are English Language Learners. These kids would not even have been in our schools in the 1960's. And it's not like everyone graduated from high school back then.


So if these pass rates are bad, what pass rates would be good - or at least acceptable? Where's the finish line Ms Finne? What's your benchmark? It's easy to say something is bad, but bad relative to what?


As for those who cannot do math at grade level, perhaps it is not the teachers, but the horrible misguided materials and pedagogy that the teachers are required to use and follow? At Schmitz Park Elementary, where they use different materials, 93% of the 5th graders passed the MSP (the new name for the WASL in grades 3-8). So maybe it isn't the teachers, but the District-mandated lesson forming the impediment there.


So while we all believe in change - and I do believe that things have to change - we do not all believe in the same change. When you have data to support your view, instead of bumper-sticker slogans and rhetorical sleight of hand, please present it.


- Charlie Mas