More ridiculous propaganda from Priya Abraham and StudentsFirst

Oh, look: StudentsFirst of Pennsylvania tweeted a link to an article by education expert Priya Abraham (just kidding–she’s a “Senior Policy Analyst for the Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives” with no background or experience in teaching or education) that yet again advertises Michelle Rhee’s agenda: to bust unions, diminish the immeasurable value experienced teachers bring to the teaching field, and push policies that will ultimately rid the profession of experts and replace them with an influx of “young zealous [inexperienced] teachers” who should be replaced every few years.

Abraham begins her article with this gem of a claim [emphasis added]:

“Given our still-sputtering economy, Americans have grown used to their public schools facing tight budgets. This fiscal squeeze has drawn out a hidden crisis in public education: How do we keep our best teachers in the classroom?

The short answer is, we don’t.

Between 2009 and 2012, public schools laid off about 140,000 teachers across America. In most places, teachers are let go in order of seniority, based solely on how long they’ve been in the system.”

There it is, in four sentences.  We don’t keep our best teachers in the classroom?  The 140,000 teachers who were laid off between 2009 and 2012 were all “young”–and categorically superior to their more veteran counterparts–and therefore their dismissal is a gross injustice for that reason alone? Our very best teachers are the ones without seniority?

To support this claim, Abraham cites a single, anecdotal example: a special-needs student (the son of Philadelphia representative Vanessa Brown) made progress with a “dynamic new teacher” with whom he “connected so well,” until years later, when he “grew frustrated,” “started acting out,” “missed an opportunity to go to college,” fell into a “long, dark depression,” and ultimately considered suicide. Abraham attributes these problems to a “more senior teacher” who mistook the student’s learning difficulties for behavior issues–and who also”bumped” the student’s previous, younger teacher out of a job when layoffs hit Philadelphia.

First of all, this story, as Abraham tells it, doesn’t even make sense.  A wonderful, young second-grade teacher had a positive impact on Brown’s son, but years later (how many years later is unclear, because Abraham claims the student “moved up three grades in just one year”), when the student was in ninth grade, his second-grade teacher was “bumped” by a “more senior [ninth grade] teacher”–who was then responsible for the student’s high-school problems?   Okay, but the relationship between the second-grade teacher and the ninth-grade teacher is unclear to me, save for the fact that Brown’s son had them both in class, because I don’t understand how Abraham can attribute the absence of the second-grade teacher to a ninth-grader’s struggles.  Maybe I’m missing something.

Anyway, it is a tragedy when any teachers are laid off, particularly in urban districts that have high concentrations of special-needs students; and it is a tragedy when any student is unsuccessful–and certainly more of a tragedy when a student feels depressed and hopeless.  And logistical problems aside, this anecdote raises a few more questions:

1) By what metric is Abraham measuring this student’s progress?  She cites none, other than the fact that he “moved up three grades in just one year.”  Is she referring to standardized test scores? grades? or solely emotional health (which is, inarguably, vital for students in terms of academic success)?

2) Conversely, what metric is Abraham using to attribute this student’s emotional (and presumably, academic) collapse–to the point of near-suicide–to one teacher, whose primary fault, as listed here, can be attributed only to years of experience?  Test scores?  Emotional struggles? Disciplinary records?

While the answers to these questions are unclear because Abraham’s argument is grossly unsupported, the questions themselves expose an interesting paradox that groups like StudentsFirst–and reformers like Michelle Rhee and organizations like Teach for America–don’t want people consider: that if education is all about the “connection” to which Abraham attributes this student’s early success (and to be clear, I believe that a teacher’s ability to connect with students is very important), then test scores are less important than reformers make them out to be–and the reform obsession with standardized test scores is misguided.  But even more problematic is that Abraham’s implication here is, invariably, that teachers lose their ability to “connect” once they’re not “young” and “zealous” anymore.  And that’s just nonsense.

So what’s the verdict, StudentsFirst and Priya Abraham: is it the emotional connection teachers make with their students that’s important?  Or is it scores on standardized tests?  The latter is the metric with which Michelle Rhee is rabidly obsessed, but with so much outcry over standardized testing abuses all over the country, are reformers attempting to make a tactical shift in focus to push their agenda? Here, Abraham seeks to quantify the immeasurable. That’s great, but not when the immeasurable is manipulated to categorically favor novice teachers over experienced ones.  (Remember when Michelle Rhee said that if something isn’t measurable, it isn’t worth teaching/learning? How funny.)

Either way, a glaring problem remains for reformers who attempt to claim that inexperienced teachers are preferable: neither high test scores nor emotional connections can be attributed exclusively to one “type” (age? level of experience?) of teacher–and attempts to create a tangible profile of what a “successful teacher” looks like contribute to the depersonalized climate that is polluting public education.

And either way, this anecdote is an opportunistic oversimplification and exploitation of one student’s very real struggles for the purposes of pushing the reform agenda that’s damaging our public schools.

Let’s be real.  Are there veteran teachers who are ineffective?  Yes–and administrators must work with them to help them improve–or move to have them removed from their positions.  And are their novice teachers who are disasters?  (Or how about this: are there novice teachers whose sole “commitment” to the field centers around the promise of a padded resume and financial support for graduate school?) Of course. Any arguments otherwise are inaccurate generalizations. But one thing is indisputable: that content mastery, and further, mastery of effective ways to present content to students in a meaningful manner, takes years to develop.  Years.

The ultimate irony? Reformers’ primary criticism is that our students are underprepared for college and careers–presumably that they don’t know enough to function competitively in either endeavor–but teachers’ expertise, which can only be shaped by years of experience, is devalued and discounted.  Only people with little experience in a classroom could believe such nonsense, and Abraham is a prime example. Her implication here is that all veteran teachers are out of touch, crotchety, and ineffective. Period.  And that inexperienced teachers who have energy are immeasurably better.  Period.

But I suppose none of this is surprising, since most proponents of education reform have little or no experience in a classroom–and yet they still feel they have the authority to dictate policy and know what’s best for kids.

The bottom line is this: when we implement policies that completely disregard teachers’ expertise and years of experience–and further, when we vilify experienced teachers for the purpose of promoting a political and social agenda–students suffer.  For that reason and so many more, Abraham’s article is reprehensible and irresponsible.



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5 responses to “More ridiculous propaganda from Priya Abraham and StudentsFirst

  1. Thoughtful piece. Thank you.

  2. Teacherbiz: based on this story, we thought you would find this joke amusing (it’s an oldie but a goodie)

  3. I think the point she was trying to make is that teachers are retained or let go based solely on their years of experience and not based on their quality or abilities. If we have in place a valid quality assurance system we can ensure no quality teacher is let go regardless of their number of years teaching. The best way to solve this is for the teaching collective to come up with our own system for ensuring quality (I’m a teacher myself). For example, we could make the unions a quality assurance org, where if you don’t pass muster you wont be admitted. Just one idea of how we could do it.

  4. And youre missing to general information thrust of the statement. the point is not that young teachers are better. The point is that teachers are currently dismissed based on seniority and nothing else. As a profession we need to come up with a better standard that just number of years in the classroom to measure quality

  5. Thank you for the comments. I do understand that people find the idea of seniority objectionable, but as I said in the post above, this article’s failing is its unsupported assertion that young teachers ARE categorically better. (No, this isn’t always the argument against seniority, but it’s the point that Abraham makes through her generalizations–whether it was her intention or not.)

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