Ph.D. Dad Provides Another Analysis

Ph.D. Dad has another full analysis for the thoughtful readers of Jeffco. The rumor mill and anonymous social media pages often share lengthy articles and blog posts containing an abundance of words written against the good work of our educators in Jeffco as well as anyone who supports their efforts. We appreciate the advocacy and correcting misinformation and hope you’ll share this after reading it so you can help correct inaccuracies when you see or hear them.

Jeffco, Taylorism, and Sophistry

Sophistry can be entertaining and harmless—those of an age will remember Jethro’s cyphering —but sophistry can also be dangerous in that it can give the appearance of a reasoned, nonfallacious argument; even more sophistry can distract us from a true conversation over important differences of perspective.

Consider this figure as an example: “1,416 Jeffco teachers were absent for ten or more days (out of a 185 day contract year.” Implied hare are several points:

  • These teachers are taking undeserved vacation and personal days.
  • These absences are affecting student achievement.

The author then links this statistic to another: “It is no wonder that Jeffco spends close to $10 Million each year on substitutes.”

Things look dark indeed. Until:

  • We recall that teachers are, by contract, allowed nine sick and two personal days per academic year. Let’s be clear: the teachers who are absent eleven days in total are following their contract; the author castigates them for this.
  • There are approximately four thousand seven hundred teachers within Jeffco; thus more than half of the teachers are not using their full allotment of sick and personal days.
  • The collection of this statistic allows school districts to include, within absences, days for personal development and others. Per the website cited by the author: “The FTE of teachers absent for more than 10 days was collected for the first time on the 2009-10 CRDC. OCR’s definition for teacher absenteeism excluded days missed for approved professional development where the teacher would have otherwise been teaching. During part of the collection, two different definitions of teacher absenteeism were provided to school districts, one excluding days missed for professional development and one including days missed for professional development as an absence. Therefore, some districts reporting teacher absenteeism may be including days spent on professional development as an absence.” The author does not reveal to us which method of collection Jeffco uses, so his figure may include professional development days.
  • The author shifts from days that are absences due to illness or personal days, to a figure, for substitutes, that includes all substitutes: that is, those who are needed for professional development, planning, field trips, etc.
  • If we look more deeply into the statistic and the population of Jeffco, a richer picture emerges. First, the majority of teachers within Jeffco are women and many of them have children; very often it is the mother who is responsible for taking care of sick and injured children. Second, teachers, among other professions, work in an environment were illness is ubiquitous; they thus are exposed to more viruses than some and thus are more likely to become ill.
  • Not all absences have the same effect on students; we need to take into account: the grade level, the material being studied, the quality of the substitute, and the quality of the lesson plan.

Significantly, the author poses no solutions. Is he suggesting that teachers have fewer sick and personal days? If so, how many of each? Should we take a page from the past and fire female teachers who marry, or who have children? Should we punish teachers for abiding by their contract?

Another favorite figure used by the author is “billion dollar budget.” The implication here is that the Jeffco School Board completely controls this amount and thus any problems faced by the district are not connected to the amount of money available, but to how that money is spent. And, thus, Jeffco did not need 3A or 3B. But this figure ignores some key points. For example, the total amount includes some double counting of funds, it includes funds that have restrictions on how they are spend (e.g. athletic fees), and the amount specified by the state legislature for the PERA contributions. To find these details requires a perusal of the budget.

Perhaps most damaging of all the claims that author frequently makes is that Jeffco has low student achievement. And, therefore, teachers deserve no raise (such as the Jeffco School Board is currently debating(April 2017)). He also uses this claim to support voting against 3A and 3B (and similar proposals in the future), as well as to suggest that the “union” works against the best interests of the children. As the author presents it, the argument goes like this:

  • A student’s score on the ACT is an indication of a student’s preparedness for college or a career.
  • Sixty-eight percent of students who take the text fail to meet all four key benchmarks.
  • Conclusion, Jeffco Public Schools, teachers specifically, are failing students. (In one piece the author goes so far as to accuse teachers of fraud. ) How well does this argument hold up under critical examination?
  • The fundamental assumption is that the ACT effectively measures a student’s preparation for college (I focus on this aspect). Yet, colleges and universities, at least the vast majority, use this test as part of a broader review of a student’s abilities; said broader view can include: the personal essay, grade point average, difficulty of courses taken, and activities.
  • Another assumption is that all students taking the test are motivated to do well, but this is fundamentally not the case: a student who is not intending to go to college may not take the test seriously and so the test may give a false assessment of that student’s knowledge.
  • The ACT is a one day snapshot of learning; this is inherently limiting.
  • The statistic on the failure rate conceals important information: what percentage meet all four benchmarks, three of the four, two of the four, and one of the four and by how much? At what schools is this occurring and is there an overall pattern, or does it vary from year to year?
  • The author chooses to pull out students who are on free and reduced lunch (making an interesting claim about poverty and intellect), yet it is quite possible that some of these students do very well.
  • The score on the ACT can be affected by test preparation courses: what percentage of students within Jeffco can afford and do take such courses?
  • Are we looking at the well known link between the average household income of a given school and how this relates to the ACT?
  • While the ACT might measure some aspects of intelligence, there are many things it cannot measure: artistic and creative ability, athletic talent, etc.
  • We should recall that the ACT is a product being marketed, with all that this entails.

In the background, and this is important, is a theory of education that the author implicitly endorses; one that derives from Taylorism (that’s descriptive; not evaluative). This viewpoint can be illustrated with an analogy.

Imagine a factory making pins. These are produced on a production line with individual workers being responsible for individual tasks—specific individual tasks. Now imagine that there is a quality check at the end of the line (we could also imagine a quality check after each specific task). Pins are measured against an objective standard; if there is a problem it is traced back to the responsible worker, who is replaced (or if to a machine, it is repaired or replaced, but my focus is on individuals). Such a replacement is relatively easy given the very specific nature of the individual jobs in the production of pins. Adjustments are made until a certain standard is met: 95%, 98%, or whatever number the company has selected. Workers who achieve a certain high percentage are rewarded with more pay (their managers with even more).

In this system, the workers have little power and are not allowed to innovate or to deviate from their set instructions. They are watched over by managers who operate within a hierarchical system of their own; each level having power and authority over the ones below it. The structure is highly centralized. In a nutshell, this is Taylorism.

I hope that the analogy is clear (it becomes even sharper if we recall a statement by a member of another school board referring to teachers as “entry level workers.”).

Taylorism has had a powerful influence on American schools: grouping students by age (rather than ability), organizing the day around specific periods (marked by bells), the use of centralized standards, and treating teachers as workers overseen by managers. Some schools even directly depict the connection in their design: I attended an elementary school in which kindergartners entered at one end of the building and exited sixth grade at the other—very much like a production line in which students are moved along and bits of knowledge are added along the way in a specific sequence.

To some extent, Jeffco has moved away from this type of system to one that is somewhat more decentralized. Principals now have some budget authority, some advisory committees have curricula and other power, parents serve on district level committees, and some schools use project based learning (which comes down to us from Dewey’s famous Chicago Lab School). But, we still retain objective standards, common tests, common methods, common texts, etc.

So, if we were to tweak the analogy, workers would be evaluated not just according to the quality of pins, but other factors; workers who failed to meet the measure would not be fired immediately, but additional training would be provided. Like all analogies, of course, this one breaks down if pushed too far (e.g. students are not pins).

We’ve discussed how the author suggests using the results of the standardized tests, but there remains a question of how best to use these results. The standards are mandated as are the tests (though it might be worth exploring alternatives), but the way the data is used is not. It could be used to bludgeon teachers in various ways, yet there are other possibilities. The goal of any assessment is to close the loop—to take the results and make improvements.

One assumption is that if pay is linked to results, teachers will have an incentive to be “better” and thus to raise results. (There’s an assumption of a kind of self-interest working here; more on that in another post.) Teachers now often work in teams and the work of any teacher is connected to the work of other teachers. But, we could use the results in a different way.

The Finnish school system is often held up as a model and I will use it once again. Teachers are evaluated, but the process involves peer and principal observation. There are a few standardized tests (and they are importantly different in that the final test determines the track a student takes after primary education, so there is an incentive for students to do their best), but the results are used to evaluate teaching practices as a whole, rather than individual teachers and schools. So, what if, for example, we collected the data from the ACT and had committees of teachers (and others) look at the results to determine what is working and what might be improved? Along with this, we might give individual schools more choices on texts, teaching methods, etc. As changes are made, they are compared with subsequent test results and the process continues.

Obviously, this is simply a sketch, but it highlights a different way of looking at schools, centralized versus decentralized (broadly speaking), and that is a conversation very much worth having.

[Referred articles: Jeffco Board Docs (letter) C-17-192 c (3/9/17); http:// yourhub.denverpost.com/blog/2017/03/memo-for-jeffco-superintendent-candidates/1756371/]