As protests and demonstrations continue in Ferguson, MO amidst the outrage over the killing of yet another unarmed black male in America, a friend of mine shared a poignant article about race on my Facebook feed on Tuesday, August 19th. The article, What does it mean to be white? by education professor Robin DeAngelo of Westfield State University in Massachusetts, was featured as a special in the Seattle Times on August 9th. In her article, DeAngelo articulates what racism is, distinguishing it from the superficial, though widely considered dictionary definition. She writes:
Mainstream dictionary definitions reduce racism to racial prejudice and the personal actions that result. But this definition does little to explain how racial hierarchies are consistently reproduced.
Social scientists define racism as a multidimensional, highly adaptive system — a system that ensures an unequal distribution of resources among racial groups. The group that controls the institutions controls the distribution and embeds its racial bias into the fabric of society.
In the U.S., while individual whites might be against racism, they still benefit from their group’s control. Yes, an individual person of color can sit at the tables of power, but the overwhelming majority of decision-makers will be white. Yes, white people can have problems and face barriers, but systematic racism won’t be one of them.
This distinction — between individual prejudice and a system of unequal institutionalized racial power — is fundamental. One cannot understand how racism functions in the U.S. today if one ignores group power relations.
She then posits four patterns prevalent in America “that make it difficult for white people to understand racism as a system” and challenges white people to both acknowledge this system and challenge it. DeAngelo, a white woman, characterizes white America as racially illiterate.
She is exactly right.
Just don’t tell that to white people.
My friend shared DeAngelo’s piece as a challenge similar in format to the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge: read the article and share it with three white people or donate $100 to the funeral fund for Michael Brown. She had posted this article, too, on her own Facebook wall. In that thread, two Facebook friends of hers had questions. Questions are good; I like questions. As a teacher and former lawyer, I’ve made a career off of asking the right questions. Here are the questions posed on her Facebook thread:
Why only white people?
Death is a tragedy, but what does this have to do with white people? One man shot another man, we don’t have any other factual information yet. You are perpetuating a division.
If you’re wondering whether the question askers were white, I can allay your suspicions - they were white. Males too. Two white males. We have that much in common. I am a white male as well.
I suspect that their shared perspective is one that many white people have about Ferguson, MO. Is this an issue of race? Or is it really just one man shooting another man? However, it may be more accurate to say that this thought is less of a question and more of an assertion. The claim “this has nothing to do with race” is implied within the questions posed. Thus, the questions, as asked, serve as a defense of whiteness, not as a sincere intellectual pursuit of getting at the truth of the matter.
Still, these questions need to be addressed, even if only for the fact that they are pervasive and evidence of the very system of unequal power distribution that confers benefits upon whites at the expense of persons of color.
Let’s address the questions.
WHY ONLY WHITE PEOPLE?
Systematic racism doesn’t affect white people. DeAngelo points out that individual racism can affect anybody, whites included, but the system of unequal institutionalized racial power will not affect whites. This is a powerful claim to make - one that requires evidence. We can, however, provide the evidence, both where to find it and what to look for.
To begin, we will examine whether systematic racism exists at all. If it does, we can then determine which race of persons it affects, whites or blacks. (Note, I am limiting my discussion to whites and blacks, though a more comprehensive analysis would include other races as well.) This will allow us to determine whether DeAgelo’s claim, that systematic racism doesn’t affect white people, is true or false.
To determine whether systematic racism exists at all, we should direct our attention towards essential institutions within our larger American system. This is where we would find the evidence of systematic racism, and allow us to determine which race is affected by systematic racism. I propose three such essential institutions: the justice system, the school system, and corporate America. Each of these institutions is part of the larger American System, but each is also substantially large enough to provide data about the treatment of those within each system. While not an exhaustive institutional analysis, it is a strong representative sampling. Indeed, you would be hard-pressed to find three other institutions that wield as much influence on American life than the three identified.
With our attention turned towards these three institutions, we still need to know what we’re looking for. Within each system, what constitutes evidence of racism? DeAngelo mentions control, i.e. the group that controls the power within an institution controls the distribution of resources. In this regard, we can examine the distribution of control and see whether that distribution mirrors or mostly mirrors the general population as a whole. In a racist system, we would expect the balance of power to disproportionately favor one group over another. When examining our question, we would look at whether positions of power were disproportionately distributed among either whites or blacks. A disproportionate distribution among one race over the other would evidence that group’s disparate control of the power wielded by the institution and thus, would lead, as DeAngelo asserts, to a disproportionate distribution of resources. If disproportionate control were present, only the groups not wielding that control would be affected by systematic racism. That is, once a group is found to disproportionately lack control, we can conclude that it is affected by systematic racism to the exclusion of the other group. The group wielding disproportionate control and power would benefit from the systematic racism and could thus not be said to be affected by it.
What else might we look for to determine whether systematic racism exists, and if so, who it affects? Besides the unequal distribution of control, we could look at whether the institution has a disproportionate disparate impact on members of one race over another. For example, if whites were disproportionately affected in a negative manner within an institution, it would be evidence to rebut DeAngelo’s conclusion that indeed, whites are not affected by systematic racism. Conversely, the absence of such disproportionate disparate treatment would mean that DeAngelo’s conclusion would continue to hold true.
Having identified two types of evidence to look for to determine whether systematic racism exists, and if so, which race it affects, it is important to note that it is sufficient for only one of these pieces of evidence to be present within a system to constitute systematic racism. That is, if either disproportionate control or disproportionate disparate impact is present, we can conclude that systematic racism exists. At this point in the analysis, we need only examine which race is affected by the racism to support or rebut DeAngelo’s claim. Furthermore, it is impossible to have competing systematic racism within any single institution between the affected race and the race in power. That is, if it is determined that blacks are disproportionately underrepresented exerting control within one institution (and thus affected by systematic racism), whites could not simultaneously be affected by that very system’s systematic racism if whites were the race benefitting from that system’s structures. The maintenance of control (and thus power) and the absence of disparate impact mutually exclude the affection of systematic racism.
The Justice System
Does systematic racism exist within the United States’ Justice System? If so, we need only determine whether blacks or whites are disproportionately disparately treated within the Justice System to determine which group is affected by the Justice System’s systematic racism. If either group is disproportionately disparately treated, there is no need to examine the distribution of power within the Justice System. Once we conclude whether whites or blacks are affected by systematic racism within the Justice System, we can conclude that the other group, by mutual exclusion, is not.
in a Justice System free of systematic racism, incarceration rates of the different races should be proportional to the population of those races within society. However, in the United States, this does not hold true. Blacks are disproportionately incarcerated in the United States. Despite constituting less than 25% of the U.S. population, black Americans “constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population,” and “black men were more than six times as likely as white men to be incarcerated in 2010.” The disparate treatment of whites and blacks within the Justice System is even more pronounced when drug statistics are analyzed. “[Five] times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of Whites.”
Because incarceration rates of the different races within the Justice System are not proportional to the population of those races within society, we can conclude that the Justice System is not free of systematic racism. Because blacks are disproportionately incarcerated within the United States and whites are not, blacks are affected by the systematic racism within the Justice System and whites are not.
The Education System
Does systematic racism exist within the United States’ Education System? If so, we need only determine whether blacks or whites are disproportionately disparately treated within the Education System to determine which group is affected by the Education System’s systematic racism. If either group is disproportionately disparately treated, there is no need to examine the distribution of power within the Education System. Once we conclude whether whites or blacks are affected by systematic racism within the Education System, we can conclude that the other group, by mutual exclusion, is not.
In an Education System free of systematic racism, suspension rates of the different races should be proportional to the population of those races within the school. However, in the United States, this does not hold true. Blacks are disproportionately suspended (and expelled) in American public schools. According to the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection on student suspensions, and reported by CBS news, blacks are suspended at an overall rate that is three times higher than whites. With suspension increasing the likelihood of a student dropping out (e.g. even one 9th grade suspension doubles the chance of a student’s dropping out), and dropping out increasing the likelihood that a young person ends up in prison (known as the School-to-Prison Pipeline), the Education System in the United States is essentially designed to fail black students.
Because suspension rates of the different races within the Education System are not proportional to the population of those races within the school, we can conclude that the Education System is not free of systematic racism. Because blacks are disproportionately punished with suspension (and expulsion) within the United States’ public schools and whites are not, blacks are affected by the systematic racism within the Education System and whites are not.
Does systematic racism exist within Corporate America? In this analysis, we will examine the proportionality of control. If the balance of control is disproportionate, we need only examine whether blacks or whites disproportionately exert that control to determine which group is affected by Corporate America’s systematic racism. If either group exerts disproportionate control, there is no need to examine whether either group is disproportionately disparately treated. Once we determine whether whites or blacks are affected by systematic racism within Corporate America, we can conclude that the other group, by mutual exclusion (and by the exertion of control), is not.
In a Corporate America free of systematic racism, we would expect the rates at which different races exert substantial control of a corporation (i.e. sit as the CEO) to be proportional to the population of those races within society. However, in the United States, this does not hold true. Whites exert a disproportionate control of power within Corporate America. As of 2012, only 1% of Fortune 500 CEOs were black. For those of you who are counting, that makes six. Six out of 500. Within these six, only one, Kenneth Chenault, of American Express, falls within the top 100 paid CEOs in the country. That Corporate America has such few black leaders in their highest positions is evidence that blacks are affected by systematic racism within Corporate America and whites are not. This aligns with DeAngelo’s point: “Yes, an individual person of color can sit at the tables of power, but the overwhelming majority of decision-makers will be white.” In Corporate America, six black leaders sit at the tables of power, but the overwhelming majority is white.
Because the rates at which different races exert substantial control of corporations within Corporate America are not proportional to the population of those races within society, we can conclude that Corporate America is not free of systematic racism. Because whites disproportionately exert control of corporations within Corporate America and blacks do not, whites are not affected by the systematic racism within Corporate America and blacks are. Indeed, as evidenced by the rankings of CEO salaries, whites (especially white men) benefit greatly from the very system they exhibit control over.
Back to the Question: Why Only White People?
An examination of three of the largest, most essential American institutions reveals that systematic racism exists in the United States and that whites are not affected by that systematic racism. However, blacks are. This means that the maintenance of institutions that exert racial bias and disproportionately affect blacks is a white person problem. Because whites are not affected by systematic racism, they are not subject to the unequal distribution of resources tied up within these institutions. In the Justice System, the resource is freedom. Blacks in the United States lose their freedom at a disturbingly disproportionate rate. In the Education System, the resource is an education and the right to learn without being kicked out of school. Blacks in the United States lose their right to a public education at a disturbingly disproportionate rate. In Corporate America, the resources are corporate control and financial gain. Blacks in the United States serve in disproportionately low positions of power and influence in Fortune 500 companies and make less than their counterparts who are white.
Racism is a system. It is a system in the United States that affects black Americans and does not affect white Americans. This system, as designed, routinely fails blacks in the Justice System, in the Education System, and in Corporate America.
This context is necessary to understand the goings on in Ferguson and leads to our answering the second question.
DEATH IS A TRAGEDY, BUT WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH WHITE PEOPLE? ONE MAN SHOT ANOTHER MAN, WE DON’T HAVE ANY OTHER FACTUAL INFORMATION YET. YOU ARE PERPETUATING A DIVISION.
Death is not always a tragedy. Death is a part of life. Sometimes death is a relief to one suffering earthly ills. Homicide, however, is a tragedy. Murder? Even more so. The killing of an unarmed teenager? Tragic. By the hands of a police officer? Even more so.
The above discussion articulated why racism is largely a white person problem. Racism is an institution perpetuated at every level by white power brokers to the detriment of blacks (and other persons of color). What happened in Ferguson, the shooting of a black teenager by a white police officer, is a white issue because it fits within the systematic racism of America. Maybe taken alone and isolated the case is just a case of one man shooting another man. But it is not isolated. It is part of a pattern. And this pattern is a white-person problem.
Between 2005 and 2012, a seven-year stretch, at least two black persons were killed each week by a white police officer. I say at least because these numbers are incomplete and only reveal the number of cases voluntarily reported by local police. Comprehensive data on police shootings doesn’t exist. Still, this data is a starting point and is evidence of a pervasive problem in the United States.
In the past month alone the police killed five unarmed black males. Eric Garner, of Staten Island, NY; John Crawford, of Beavercreek, OH; Ezell Ford, of Los Angeles, CA; Dante Parker, of Victorville, CA; and Michael Brown, of Ferguson, MO.
The shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, is not an isolated event. It is part of a larger pattern – a pattern that is evidence of systematic racism in America. A pattern of systematic racism within American’s police forces.
Saying that calling attention to the race of the victim in Ferguson amounts to “perpetuating a division” or playing the race card is evidence that one is ignorant of America’s racism, its system of embedding racial bias in the fabric of American life. Indeed, this is what DeAngelo means when she says, “One cannot understand how racism functions in the U.S. today if one ignores group power relations.” When my friend was told she was “perpetuating a division,” the white male who spoke the line was ignoring the power relations at play in Ferguson.
So, let’s not ignore the power relations at play in Ferguson. We do have some facts and we can bring them to our attention. Let’s examine four. The first, and most obvious fact is that a police officer shot an unarmed teenager six times. The second relevant fact is that the police officer was white. “Whoa! Whoa!” you say. “How is that relevant?” When a police officer shoots an unarmed teenager, and an outpouring of “fans,” white fans, band together to raise money for the “real victim,” you know, the one who is still alive, then his race becomes a relevant factor. When counter-protestors, almost all of whom are white, picket the streets for the “real victim,” you know, the one who is still alive, then his race becomes a relevant factor. When media outlets write stories of the officer’s having suffered a broken eye socket (to support the narrative that he was indeed justified to kill the unarmed teenager and is unfairly targeted because he is white) that turn out to be patently false, then his race becomes a relevant factor. Of course, his race was already a relevant factor because the victim was black. As one of a handful of homicides of unarmed black men by white police officers in the past month alone, Darren Wilson’s whiteness fits a pattern in American law enforcement, namely, that black men have an increased likelihood of being shot by white police officers. The fourth relevant fact involves Ferguson’s demographics:
Ferguson, MO, is 67% black, but has a police force that is 94% white. Ferguson’s police chief and mayor are white. Of the six City Council members, one is black. The local school board has six white members and one Latino. Of the 53 commissioned officers on the police force, three are black, said Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson.
Even in a city with a strong black majority, whites hold the overwhelming majority of positions in city leadership. This satisfies DeAngelo’s condition of systematic racism regarding control, and leads to the second type of evidence we examined earlier, the disproportionate disparate treatment of blacks in Ferguson.
So no, this is not just a case of one man killing another. It’s a case of a white police officer killing an unarmed black teenager. It’s a case that has resulted in the arrest of reporters, in violation of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. It’s a case of the militarization of small town American police forces. It’s a case where police officers have threatened to kill protestors. It’s a case that has revealed the systematic racism in the media, where a murdered black teenager is more likely to be described as a thug or petty criminal than as a high school graduate, and where white suspects and killers are more likely to be portrayed in a positive light than black victims.
This is not just a case of one man killing another. It’s the culmination of an American system deeply seeded with racism. A rigged system that allows blacks to be incarcerated at disproportionate rates, be kicked out of school at disproportionate rates, and disproportionately be denied participation in the upper tiers of corporate success.
This is not just a case of one man killing another. It’s an example of the vilification of black men, “thugs,” in contrast to the celebration of white men, “patriots.” When Cliven Bundy led an armed protest of federal agents to contest Bundy’s “right” to allow his cattle to graze freely on land he didn’t own, many hailed him as a patriot. Where whites continue to flaunt their Second Amendment right to bear arms by open carrying their guns, blacks get shot for holding toy guns.
And it is not just a case of one man killing another. A mother lost her son. A father lost his son. A community lost another young black man. And right now, his killer is free.
Racism is far more insidious today than it was decades ago. Racism need not be wrapped in the cloak of the KKK, or result in transparent segregation. Racism today has seeped through the cracks to invade the very foundation of America. It’s in our courts, our schools, our economics, and our media. Racism hides everywhere.
But racism can be eradicated. If institutions of racism are to be destroyed, then white America has to be willing to examine its role in the maintenance of these institutions. We didn’t build it, but it’s here and we benefit from it. We didn’t build it, but it’s wreaking havoc on our black brothers and sisters. We didn’t build it, but we can tear it down.
DeAngelo’s advice? Take the first step: have some humility and listen.
If you made it through this whole essay, treat yourself to John Oliver on Ferguson.
Imagine that you hire a contractor to build you a kitchen. It’s fair to say that you would expect certain things to be in this kitchen. A kitchen sink. Counters. Cabinets. Connections for a refrigerator, dishwasher, and oven. This all seems quite reasonable.
Now, imagine your surprise when, after weeks of staying away from your renovated home, you return to find something completely different. There is no sink. No counters. No cabinets. There are no refrigerator, dishwasher, or oven connections. Instead, you find a carpeted room with a TV, Ping-Pong table, and coffee table. There is an easel put up for painting art. There is a reading nook and leather recliner. You think to yourself, “This is not a kitchen. What in the world happened here?”
So you ask the contractor. “What did you do?” And the contractor says, “How do you like your kitchen? Great, right?” Understandably, you are not amused and it’s apparent in your reply: “No! It’s not great. Where’s my kitchen? You built me a family room.” The contractor, calmly but firmly, reassures you, “No. I built you a kitchen.” Dumbfounded, you walk out.
Or I would. I would not be content with this contractor. I do not want to be told I am the new owner of a kitchen if I’m really the new owner of a family room. And no matter the number of times the contractor repeats his utterance, “This is a kitchen,” I won’t believe it. It’s simply not a kitchen. It is, by the way of functionality and appearance, a family room. This room does not meet the expectations or qualities of a kitchen. It is not a kitchen.
In our world there are certain things, like kitchens and family rooms, that we can expect to observe the qualities of. The examples are almost infinite. A boat. A train. Television sets. Books. Blankets. Walls. Pavement. Each of these examples can be defined and observed. “Look, it’s a boat!” Or, “Thank you for this blanket.” It would be inappropriate to say “Look, it’s a boat!” if it were actually a train, or “Thank you for this blanket” if you were handed a computer. Your powers to identify the objects stated would be poor, and you may be unaware of what boats and blankets even were.
If you know what these things are, you could surely explain, probably in wonderfully creative detail, what one example might look like. Try it out. Ask your nearest neighbor what their ideal blanket looks like. Does the person describe a warm, soft, comforting piece of cloth or fabric that enwraps their body? If they describe a two-slotted metallic object into which one puts bread, they’ve described a toaster. Run from this person.
In nearly every case, I predict that any person asked, who is aware of what a blanket is, could accurately describe an ideal blanket. Their ideal blanket. Unless the responder had a mental health condition, if you asked 1000 people, I am confident you would receive 1000 examples of ideal blankets.
I bet you could try this experiment out with any number of describable things. Boats. Trains. Television sets. Books. Walls. Pavement. Kitchens. And in each case, I predict the person would accurately describe a boat, train, TV, book, wall, pavement, or kitchen. If a person were to fail in this task, we would examine that person’s answer and likely determine, again, that they failed to understand what was being asked of them (didn’t understand the term to be described), had a mental health issue that prevented a relevant answer, or was being intentionally obstinate and unhelpful. It is unlikely you would have a person, like our contractor from earlier, who described an ideal kitchen precisely how one might describe an ideal family room, and be otherwise sane, normal, functioning, talented, etc., but remain honestly insistent that they had described an actual kitchen.
This power, of describing things in identifiable and accurate ways, is an interesting one. For almost any example I give, I am confident a person could describe that object in an identifiable and accurate way. For almost any example. But not every example. There is one example, one very specific example, that a vast majority of the world have conceded they are incapable of describing accurately. So painful is their ability to describe this example that they go to great lengths to fix their understanding of the example when challenged, or ignore evidence to the contrary when presented with it. It is quite troubling to say the least.
The vast majority of our world is incapable of identifying accurately what a world would look like that was created by God. The vast majority of our world mistakenly asserts that this world, our world, is precisely what a world would look like that was created by God. Sadly, at least to me, there is powerful prejudice at play. People who believe in God are predisposed to believing, necessarily, that this world is the world that was created by God. It’s inescapable, really. If you believe in God, and believe God to be the creator of all things, then you believe that God created this world. This precise world.
I find this laughable.
Imagine a distant world where no one believed in God. These people might not even know what “God” was. Ah, the poor creatures. So unaware of salvation. If you can imagine these people, then you can imagine one of them posing a question to others of them. And that question (perhaps with some defining of terms) is this: “What would a world look like that was created by an all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-present being?”
Do you think any one of them would describe our world? Ask 1000 of them. Two-thousand. Ask every single one. Do you believe any single one of them would describe a world filled with violence? Murder? Rape? Natural disasters? Oppression? Slavery? Poverty? Famine? Homelessness? I cannot fathom the sadist on that world that could imagine this world from that description. It simply does not follow.
Instead, I think we would expect to hear descriptions like this: “A world created by an all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-present being would be beautiful, all day and night. No pain would exist because it would be prevented. No suffering would take place because it would be abolished. Every sunset would be perfect. The majesty of life would reign throughout the land and every person everywhere would get along. They would be so filled with love that life would just ooze happiness. And there would be no issue of debate. This being, all-present, would be observable. Concretely observable. You’d see him walking down the street. He’d say hi. You’d wave back. You’d almost stub your toe and he’d wave his hand to float you up. It would be perfect. That is what such a world would be like.” Ask any infinite number of these people and you would end up with descriptions closer to this than our own.
This is a problem. We are told by the majority of the world that we live in a world created by God, and yet it’s precisely the type of world one could not imagine God having created.
Let me present you with a thought problem. Imagine two worlds. World A and World B. On World A, God exists and some people believe God exists. On World B, God does not exist and some people believe God exists. Question: how could you tell the difference between the two worlds? Isn’t a world where God doesn’t exist but people believe identical in every way to our example of the world asserted to be World A, where God does exist and some people believe God exists? If our world is your chosen world for World A candidacy, then there is no distinction that could be made. You lose the ability to say, “World B is certainly not a world where God exists, despite people believing, because there is too much war, famine, poverty, and suffering. A God-filled world is distinguishable from that.”
World B is not distinguishable from World A. Not when the presented World A candidate is our own.
Wilhelm Gottfried Leibniz formulated a notion referred to as the Identity of Indiscernibles in his 1969 work Discourse on Metaphysics. Quoting the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “it states that no two distinct things exactly resemble each other. This is often referred to as Leibniz’s Law.” It logically follows that any two things that do exactly resemble each other are not two distinct things at all, but one and the same thing.
Applying Leibniz’s Law to the World A and World B matter, insofar as this world – our world- is the World A candidate, we can conclude that World A and World B, exactly resembling one another, simply are the same thing, and that World A is World B. That is, a world where God does not exist, but where some people believe God exists.
If I am wrong, then we have on our hands an interestingly devious and perhaps evil God. One that, despite every possibility of world available to create, decides to create a world that exactly resembles what we would imagine a world to look like where there is no God. A world with pain, suffering, violence, slavery, murder, rape, famine, hunger, poverty, homelessness. A God that chooses to create a world identical to what we would expect a Godless world to look like is a sinister God at worst or an impotent, ineffective God at best.
Stand for Children Washington includes passage of Senate Bill 5242 in its list of legislative priorities for this current session. In its efforts to help pass this bill, Stand for Children recently published FAQ: End Forced Teacher Placements.
Rebutting SB 5242…Again
I wrote about Senate Bill 5242 previously, when I responded to the Seattle Times’ OpEd in favor of its passage. My response to the Times provides a thorough analysis of SB 5242 and the harm it will do to school systems. Below, I narrow the scope of my analysis and rebut only the first FAQ presented by Stand for Children.
Stand for Children’s FAQ presents false information about Senate Bill 5242 in an attempt to win support for this dangerous bill. In its first FAQ, Stand for Children presents the following question: “Would SB 5242 allow school districts or principals to displace or let a teacher go regardless of their job performance or experience?” Stand then provides the following answer:
No. The bill only changes what happens after a teacher has been displaced. Local collective bargaining agreements and district policies still determine how, when, and whether a teacher is displaced. These local policies are generally based on seniority and are moving toward considering performance as well. If a teacher’s position is cut, this new law would give them the opportunity to find a new position that is a good fit for them by asking the principal and the teacher to agree to the new position.
This answer is false and should be rejected.
Rejecting Stand for Children’s FAQ as False…
Senate Bill 5242 would allow school districts or principals to displace or let a teacher go regardless of their job performance or experience. The text of the bill literally asserts this fact, and Section 1(2)(b) of SB 5242 contradicts Stand’s position; it provides:
“Displaced” means a certificated instructional staff member assigned to a particular school no longer has an assignment to that school as a result of a request for reassignment by the certificated instructional staff member, a principal, or the district administration; change in program; change in enrollment; or implementation of a state or federal accountability intervention model. (emphasis added)
Senate Bill 5242 does not, as Stand claims, only change what happens after a teacher has been displaced; the bill changes the very definition of displacement, broadening displacement’s scope to include a principal’s prerogative. I address “The Real Danger of SB 5242: Principal Prerogative” in my previous essay on SB 5242.
Stand for Children also misleadingly asserts: “Local collective bargaining agreements and district policies still determine how, when, and whether a teacher is displaced.” True. This is currently how displacement policy works, at the local level. Passage of SB 5242 will end this practice, however.
If passed, SB 5242 will remove displacement policy from the control of the local collective bargaining agreement. In its new section, Section 2, the bill provides:
A new section is added to chapter 41.59 RCW to read as follows:
Nothing in this chapter may be construed to grant employers or employees the right to reach agreements that are in conflict with the provisions of section 1 of this act.
Districts and local bargaining units are no longer free to bargain “how, when, and whether a teachers is displaced.” By including the principal prerogative provision, SB 5242 allows teachers to be displaced at the request of the principal. Principal whimsy is not the foundation of sound educational policy, and it contradicts the notion that bargaining units and districts are free to bargain “how, when, and whether a teacher is displaced.”
To Sum it Up
Stand for Children Washington has published an inaccurate and misleading FAQ to persuade legislators and the public that SB 5242 is sound policy. It is not sound policy. Though my prior essay on this topic explains in depth why SB 5242 is unsound policy, one only needs to read the text of SB 5242 alongside Stand’s first FAQ response to see that Stand is not presenting SB 5242 accurately. Reject Stand for Children’s reasons for passage of SB 5242 and reject SB 5242.
Seattle Times’ Editorial Board does not understand Senate Bill 5242 or the damage it would cause to school districts.
In its May 15th editorial, titled “Yes on ‘mutual consent’ bill to end forced placement of teachers,” the Times argues in favor of passing SB 5242. Its arguments are poor. Below, I explain why its arguments are poor and argue against passage of the bill.
Meeting the Needs of Students
The Seattle Times begins its editorial by making an ambiguous, ill-defined assertion. When it asserts that “The needs of public-school students justify Washington state Sen. Steve Litzow’s ‘mutual consent’ bill, which would prevent the forced placement of teachers in schools without the principal’s agreement,” the Times fails to identify what those needs are and how Litzow’s bill meets those needs. The Times’ failure to identify these needs reveals a shallow understanding of just what needs students have; its failure to explain how the bill would meet these (non-articulated needs) only compounds the revelation.
Reading the remainder of the editorial does not result in finding these details, either. The Times is content to make a claim without providing any reasoning for why its claim is true. To quote the late Christopher Hitchens, “That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” In this case, the Times’ initial point should be dismissed as a statement wholly without meaning or rationale, given its failure to provide elaboration or evidence of any kind.
Inarguable Platitudes We All Agree With
The Times’ second paragraph asserts the inarguable idea that “the quality of teachers is a critical ingredient of a quality education.” Teachers agree with this statement. Parents agree with this statement. Administrators agree with this statement. Trying to imagine a person who disagrees with this statement is a seemingly impossible task (as the denial of the idea amounts to believing that the quality of teachers is irrelevant to having a quality education, or similarly, that it’s appropriate to put just about anyone in front of students trying to learn).
So why, then, include this statement in its editorial?
By positing this assertion as its own, the Times implies that those who oppose SB 5242 oppose quality teachers. This implication is not only false, it’s offensive. SB 5242 is not a bill about teacher quality; it is a bill about teacher assignment and reassignment (known and subsequently referred to in this response as displacement). Teachers’ and administrators’ opposition to 5242 is justified and neither amounts to hypocrisy, contradiction, or a denial of the principle that quality teachers matters in a quality education. By conflating SB 5242 with teacher quality, the Times presents a logical fallacy that should be rejected.
The Propaganda of “Forced Placements”
With its use of the terms “forced placement” and “forcibly placed,” the Times mischaracterizes the “problem” that it claims SB 5242 solves. In using these inflammatory terms, the Times relies on propaganda to persuade its readers that 5242 is the only solution to what it implies is an abusive process. Not only is the process not abusive, this legislation is not the only means of addressing placements of this type (which are admittedly not ideal).
To rebut the Times’ characterization, let’s get clear on what displacement is, and why sometimes, teachers are administratively assigned to buildings.
Providing Clarity on Displacement
Depending on the district, various terms may be used to mean the same thing. “Involuntary transfer,” “reassignment,” and “displacement” are three such terms that are sometimes used to describe the type of placement described in SB 5242. For our purposes, I will use the term “displacement.”
Displacement is when an educator (for example a teacher, teacher-librarian, or school counselor) loses his/her assignment at a school as a result of the loss of what’s called FTE (full-time equivalence). In teacher talk, 1.0 FTE is equal to having one full-time teacher in the building. FTE reduces at a school for several reasons. Among them are a loss of student enrollment (FTE is directly linked to enrollment, so more students equals more FTE equals more teachers; less students equals less FTE equals less teachers); the loss of a program (e.g. a school loses its woodshop program, and the FTE that goes with it); the loss of federal funding (e.g. a school receives school improvement grant money to implement certain changes, but the grant decreases every year for several years until it expires; with each decrease, the school loses FTE); and the implementation of a state or federal accountability program (e.g. a “low-performing” school fails to meet Adequate Yearly Progress under No Child Left Behind for 3 straight years and is forced to select an accountability model, like a “turn-around school,” where at least 50% of the staff must be displaced). There may be other examples for a school’s decrease in FTE, but these four will illustrate displacement properly.
So, when a school loses FTE for a reason described above, it has to displace a number of teachers equal to the amount of FTE lost. So, 1.0 FTE lost means losing one teacher. Losing 3.0 FTE means losing three teachers. Notice, the loss of FTE has nothing at all to do with teacher quality. As such, the displacements required because of the loss of FTE have nothing to do with teacher quality. Displacement is solely a function of the loss of FTE.
Displacing teachers is a difficult task. A school could have a staff where every teacher is high-quality, but if enrollment drops, one of those high-quality teachers will be displaced. When this happens, how are decisions made? In many districts (if not most), displacement is done by seniority. In Tacoma, displacement is no longer conducted by seniority, but by a self-reflective process meant to identify a staff member’s fit for a building. In Tacoma’s model, seniority is a tie-breaker only. Regardless of how displacement occurs, the result in a school is that a teacher with a continuing contract is now out of a placement. The teacher still has a job with the district. is still under contract, and will still receive benefits and pay, but needs to find a new school.
When a teacher has been displaced, that teacher can apply for open positions and find a position. It’s not quite accurate to say that the teacher is looking to be hired, since the teacher has a contract. Rather, these displaced teachers, who are internal candidates, are looking for a placement. In my experience, most teachers who are displaced apply for openings, interview, and get placed through that process. However, as the new school year approaches and some teachers are left without placements, the district may intervene and place a teacher at a school. Some of these placements are for non-temporary positions (which would not trigger 5242). Some of these placements are temporary (e.g. as a building substitute). Senate Bill 5242 only addresses the administrative placement of certificated staff in temporary positions.
When might a staff member be placed in a temporary position? Some staff members are hard to place, meaning their certifications or endorsed areas to teach are narrow. For example, if a CTE teacher certified to teach high school wood shop and nothing else is displaced because the woodshop program loses funding and is closed, then that teacher is waiting for a new woodshop program somewhere in the district. If the teacher had multiple endorsements, he/she could be placed in one of those, in a non-temporary capacity (which would not trigger 5242). Absent of those additional endorsements, the woodshop teacher may be placed as a long-term substitute for the district. In this case, the teacher’s narrowly focused endorsements make him/her hard to place, and more likely to be placed in a temporary position. Under SB 5242, if that teacher worked as a substitute and the district did not have a woodshop opening, then that teacher could be fired for cause.
Contrary to Kristen Bailey-Fogarty’s claim that “great teachers will not have a hard time finding a position,” and that “this bill expects teachers to be hirable,” the reality is that many hirable teachers are left without permanent placements for reasons outside of their control. A district can have the best teachers in the world, but if FTE reduces and displacement occurs, even quality teachers can find it difficult to find a permanent position when the number of openings is low and other displaced teachers are looking for work.
Now That We’re Clear
With the process of displacement clarified, it should be apparent that these “forced placements” of certificated staff in temporary positions are rare. But the Times would have the state legislature pass this law despite this rarity and despite the fact that the rest of the law is even worse than the mutual consent proviso.
The Real Danger of SB 5242: Principal Prerogative
Senate Bill 5242 seeks to change the definition of displacement. Instead of teachers being displaced solely as a function of FTE reduction, SB 5242 would allow principals to displace teachers at their own discretion. This principal prerogative is a dangerous policy. SB 5242 defines displacement, with this prerogative, as follows:
‘Displaced’ means a certificated instructional staff member assigned to a particular school no longer has an assignment to that school as a result of a request for reassignment by the certificated instructional staff member, a principal, or the district administration; change in program; change in enrollment; or implementation of a state or federal accountability intervention model. [Sec. 1(2)(b)] (emphasis added)
Allowing principals to make unilateral displacement decisions is unsound policy. The principal prerogative provision increases the likelihood that teachers are arbitrarily or capriciously displaced. In addition, it assumes that principals are especially qualified to make determinations about which teachers should or should not be at a school. While strong principals with effective leadership can easily be trusted to make fair decisions, there are too many unskilled, ineffective principals willing to take unfair actions against their staff. SB 5242’s inclusion of the principal prerogative would make arbitrary displacements a real problem.
Inclusion of the principal prerogative provision would also be detrimental to staff morale. If displacement can arise as a result of one person’s decision, independent of an articulated standard, it will increase the likelihood that a culture of fear, as opposed to a culture of collaboration, will develop in our schools. A culture of fear is not conducive to effective instruction, which means it is not conducive to a learning environment that is best for our students.
The culture of fear that would arise from the principal prerogative is also likely to have a chilling effect on free speech, which would violate a teacher’s constitutional rights. Consider the Garfield High School teachers in Seattle who initiated the MAP Test boycott. If a principal had unilateral authority to displace teachers, those teachers would likely have to balance their desire to exercise their conscience and freedom of speech against the likelihood that such actions may trigger the principal’s decision to displace. This sort of fear-inducing policy is detrimental to a school community where teachers are willing to oppose bad policies (even when those policies are supported by the district or school administrators).
Principal prerogative also results in an unfair stigmatization of teachers. A displacement under this provision would carry the stigma of “not being a good teacher.” This stigmatization of teachers exacerbates (rather than alleviates) the widely known “Dance of the Lemons” problem. Popularized in the “Waiting for Superman” film, the “Dance of the Lemons” posits that bad teachers (lemons) too often get shifted from school to school (the dance) (despite the fact that the schools with the highest need for good teachers receive these low-performing teachers). Displacement should not be a vehicle to remove low-performing teachers from one school only to foist them upon another school. There is already a method of removing bad teachers in Washington State. Teacher evaluation (and especially, teacher evaluation under last year’s new teacher evaluation law, ESSB 5895) allows principals to evaluate ineffective teachers out of the system. And guess what, teachers support the removal of ineffective teachers from the profession! The teachers opposing the MAP Test even articulated as much in their open letter detailing their opposition when they wrote: “we wish for our colleagues who are struggling to be identified and either be supported or removed.”
How to Identify Struggling Teachers for Support or Removal
Redefining displacement to include principal prerogative, in an attempt to get low-quality teachers out, coupled with the “mutual consent” provision, included to ensure high-quality teachers get in, is an attempt to make displacement policy serve the function of teacher-evaluation policy.
When the Times writes that “A high-quality system should retain and reward the successful teachers and let go the persistently underperforming ones,” it attributes to displacement a role that is better served by evaluation. Teacher evaluation, not displacement, identifies successful and underperforming teachers. (Of course, even the newest teacher evaluation systems across the country contradict the narrative of the over-abundance of underperforming teachers.) And so it’s teacher evaluation, and not displacement, that should be used to rid school systems of underperforming teachers. As such, SB 5242’s provisions are overly broad and duplicative.
To best utilize teacher evaluation, districts should invest in thorough training for school principals and staff in order that each district in Washington is capable of implementing one of three instructional frameworks and evaluation models selected by the State. These frameworks/models are the Danielson Model, the Marzano Model, and the Center for Educational Leadership’s 5 Dimensions of Teaching and Learning. Each of these three includes dozens of indicators that evaluators use to measure teaching performance. As teachers learn these indicators and focus on improving their practice in alignment with these indicators, teaching skills improve and students benefit from best practices. If after this training a teacher is unable to improve their instruction, then that teacher will be evaluated poorly and, without sufficient improvement, will be out of teaching.
A Final Note of the Times’ Hyprocrisy
Nearing the end of its editorial, the Times highlights that the “Washington Education Association and its national union spent $1.5 million to elect [Jay Inslee],” who opposes “mutual consent.” The Times makes a not-so-subtle implication here that Governor Inslee is beholden to the teachers union and that he is willing to oppose legislation against the best interests of students because of the unions’ contributions. Despite the facts that this legislation is not good for students (cultures of fear do not promote good learning environments), that the Times fails to articulate how it meets the needs of students, and that it fails to explain how SB 5242 provides for quality teachers, the Times questioning of the unions’ relationship to Inslee is not only ironic but hypocritical. The Times itself supported Governor Inslee’s opponent, Rob McKenna, and did so by providing him with free advertisements. The compromise of a free press is a far greater affront to an honest state government than political donations by unions, despite the Times’ last minute connecting of dots between the union and Inslee. Red-herring anyone?
Displacement is a necessary byproduct of FTE allocation based on projected demographics. Teachers in Washington are displaced every year as a result of the numbers not happening to fall in their favor. It is not a reflection on the teacher’s ability to teach well, nor is it a reflection on the value of the teacher to the system. SB 5242’s inclusion of the “principal prerogative” provision is indicative of its willingness to stigmatize teachers for happening to get the short end of the numbers stick or to use displacement as a tool for which it was not otherwise intended. Principals should be educational leaders within their schools with a responsibility to ensure that effective instruction occurs for all students. If a teacher requires removal from his/her position, the appropriate tool for that procedure is in the evaluation process, not the displacement process. Using the displacement process in this way conflates ‘displacement’ with ‘low-performing’ and stigmatizes teachers who are undeserving of such a label.
Senate Bill 5242 should be rejected in full and the Seattle Times should recant its irresponsible editorial. Litzow’s bill is not designed to improve instruction. Litzow’s bill is designed to erode teacher due-process.
A Response to Michelle Rhee’s Op-ed, entitled, “MAP boycott is about keeping test scores out of teacher evaluations.”
Michelle Rhee is wrong. In a special op-ed to the Seattle Times on March 6th, she argues against the Seattle teacher boycott of the MAP test. Rather than summarize her arguments, I will present them below and address each sequentially. In this way, I will identify each of her arguments’ flaws and demonstrate that she has failed to establish a foundation for her very position. That said, I will begin first with her second paragraph, returning to her opening statement at the end of this analysis.
Logical Trickery: Ad Hominem and Equivocation
In her second paragraph, Rhee characterizes the boycott in the following terms: “Some local teachers union members have decided to reject Washington state’s student assessment program, and that’s unfortunate because every great teacher knows that student assessments can be a great tool.” Within this statement, Rhee utilizes several logical “dirty tricks” that you, as a reader, should reject.
First, when describing these teachers, Rhee makes a point to refer to them as union members. Now, while it is true that these teachers are union members, their status as union members is irrelevant to their decision to boycott the exam. The use of the term union members to describe the teachers is meant as a pejorative, what logicians label an ad hominem attack, a logical fallacy that discredits an argument based on a characteristic of the speaker, not the merits of the argument. By including these teachers’ union membership in this discussion, she avoids addressing the merits of their boycott and instead seeks to discredit their boycott by invoking the unpopularity of unions today.
Second, Rhee falsely characterizes the teachers’ boycott as a rejection of the Washington state student assessment program, which is factually incorrect. The MAP test is not required by Washington State, which is why it doesn’t affect student grades or graduation status. Furthermore, in their December 21st, 2012 open letter, the Garfield teachers who initiated this boycott specifically detail their rejection only of the MAP test. By describing the boycott as a rejection of the Washington state student assessment program, Rhee equivocates between the MAP test and Washington State’s required standardized student assessments, giving the appearance that these teachers oppose all of Washington’s state assessments. This is simply not true. This equivocation is another logical fallacy and should be rejected.
Finally, Rhee’s use of the platitude, “every great teacher knows that student assessments can be a great tool,” is empty and equivocal. As I wrote above, teachers are not rejecting student assessments en masse. Teachers are rejecting the MAP test. Of course every great teacher knows that student assessments can be a great tool; great teachers use student assessments on a daily basis, both formative and summative, to make informed decisions that affect their teaching and the students’ learning. Rejecting the MAP test is not a rejection of all assessments, and Rhee’s attempt to characterize it as such is misleading.
Statements Without Meaning and more Equivocation
In her third paragraph, she writes “The Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) assessments used in Seattle and throughout the state aim to measure how students in kindergarten through ninth grade are doing.” This statement is simply too broad to have any substantive meaning. Assessments are not created to measure “how students are doing.” Assessments are designed to measure growth in specific skills and/or content knowledge. Rhee fails to even articulate what it is the MAP is designed to assess, and in doing so, fails to demonstrate even a sufficient foundation for rejecting the Seattle teachers’ boycott.
Also in the third paragraph, Rhee again equivocates betwen the MAP test and other assessments. She writes “If tools like this are used correctly, they can help teachers adjust instruction, tweak lesson plans, and tailor classroom time to meet the specific needs of individual children in the classroom.” The boycott is not about “tools like this.” The boycott is specifically in response to the MAP test, for reasons outlined in the December 21st letter. By using the “tools like this” verbiage, Rhee seeks to present the boycott as an issue of far greater breadth than intended, and thereby misrepresents the boycott. Furthermore, teachers are not in disagreement that utilizing assessments can help to adjust instruction, tweak lesson plans and tailor classroom time to meet the specific individual needs of children in the classroom. By presenting her argument as such, Rhee’s narrative insinuates that teachers don’t want to adjust instruction, don’t want to tweak lesson plans, and don’t want to tailor classroom time to meet the specific needs of individual children. Again, this can’t be overstated: teachers use assessment data, both formative and summative, on a daily basis to make these instructional decisions. Boycotting the MAP does not affect those choices.
Finally, Rhee qualifies her statement with “If tools like this are used correctly,” (italics added). Rhee’s qualifier requires an assumption, namely, that the tool can be used correctly. In their December 21st letter, the first argument against using the MAP test put forth by Garfield teachers is that the test is not valid at the high school level because “the margin of error is greater than the expected gain.” For those students, the MAP test cannot be used correctly. The test is invalid from the onset.
More Logical Trickery: a False Dilemma and Ad Hominem
In the fourth paragraph, Rhee asserts “instead of engaging in a constructive discussion on how to fix the flaws they see in the MAP assessments, boycotters at three Seattle schools refused to administer the tests at all.” This assertion creates a false dilemma, a logical fallacy that fails to consider all relevant possibilities before reaching a conclusion. Here, Rhee presents “engaging in a constructive discussion on how to fix the flaws they see in the MAP assessments” as the only alternative to boycotting. This proposition fails to consider other alternatives to boycotting and whether these alternatives were ever attempted (e.g. whether such discussions already occurred; that the test had been administered for years, despite concerns, to the detriment of students). In framing the alternative to boycotting as “fixing the MAP,” Rhee limits the relevant discussion to a narrow course of action that itself requires several assumptions to even be viable.
Rhee’s “Fixing the MAP” argument requires two assumptions: first, that there is a constructive discussion to be had (that hasn’t yet occurred), and second, that the flaws in the MAP can be fixed. Rhee neither identifies nor explains the basis for these assumptions. Instead, she relies on the mere assertion that the teachers ought to have engaged in such a discussion, as opposed to boycotting the tests, to make her point. Without any justification, this point is unconvincing.
Rhee’s fourth paragraph also contains the following: “Teachers unions as far away as New York and Chicago jumped in to demonstrate solidarity. And that begs the question: Why are labor unions latching on to Seattle’s MAP assessments, entangling them with a completely separate national debate over using standardized testing as a means of measuring teacher performance?” These statements mischaracterize the support shown nationally for the Seattle teachers’ boycott and are again aimed at disparaging teachers unions (ad hominem). In their December 21st letter, the Garfield teachers conclude with the following paragraph:
We are not troublemakers nor do we want to impede the high functioning of our school. We are professionals who care deeply about our students and cannot continue to participate in a practice that harms our school and our students. We want to be able to identify student growth and determine if our practice supports student learning. We wish to be evaluated in a way that helps us continue to improve our practice, and we wish for our colleagues who are struggling to be identified and either be supported or removed. The MAP test is not the way to do any of these things. We feel strongly that we must decide to give the MAP test even one more time.
The Garfield teachers include teacher evaluation in their reasons for rejecting the MAP test, that use of the MAP in teacher evaluations does not help teachers continue to improve their practice. Rhee’s insistence that the national debate over using standardized testing as a means of measuring performance is a completely separate issue is disingenuous. Yes, the boycott of the MAP is local to specific groups of teachers in Seattle. But this rejection has a broader application to the use of invalid tests in teacher evaluation. Furthermore, Rhee’s assertion also makes an unfair assumption about those who stand in solidarity with these teachers. Effectively, Rhee argues that the only reason other teachers across the country support the Seattle teachers is because of their objection to the use of standardized tests in teacher evaluation. This completely ignores the reality that any teacher could stand in solidarity with Seattle because the boycott is the right thing to do, or because the MAP test, as argued in their December 21st letter, is invalid and is a detriment to students. By failing to properly characterize the national support for this issue and instead using the term union as a pejorative, Rhee flagrantly ignores facts inconvenient to her narrative and seeks to disparage teachers who are union members.
The Straw Person and Red Herring
Rhee’s fifth paragraph is perhaps the most flippant and offensive. In it, she casually brushes aside arguments against the MAP, saying “The arguments against the MAP can be dispensed with quickly.” She follows, characterizing those arguments as “some argue that because the MAP assessments have no bearing on a student’s letter grade, they aren’t taken seriously and therefore aren’t useful. But that’s something many educators can remedy by setting an example and choosing to take the assessments seriously themselves.” In the above argument, Rhee selects only one of the nine arguments presented by the Garfield teachers (as outlined in their December 21st letter), misrepresents the argument, and ignores the rest of the arguments. This is known as a straw person argument and is widely known to be a dishonest logical strategy that misrepresents the views of your opponent. Here are the nine arguments presented by the Garfield teachers (in summary form), in order:
1. The Seattle Public Schools recognize that the MAP is invalid. Its margin of error is greater than the expected gain. Why expend resources on an invalid test.
2. The MAP does not align well with the Common Core (those set of standards adopted in Washington State, and nationally, that describe what students should know at any given grade level). It therefore tests content that teachers are not expected to teach.
3. The MAP steals instructional time from the students who need it most (English Language Learners, Special Education, students in math support). Loss of instructional time averages 320 minutes per student.
4. The MAP violates the rights of specific groups of students (non-English speakers, Special Education students, and minority and low income children) by making them take a test with no educational benefit to them or their educational goals. School is hard enough for these students; a test that makes them feel bad about themselves by presenting them with unfamiliar content is not fair.
5. The MAP monopolizes school computer labs (because it is a test administered on computers) to the detriment of the rest of the school (e.g. students who use the computers for research, and students who don’t have computers at home).
6. Students do not take the MAP seriously because they know it doesn’t affect their grades. Why implement a test that is peripheral to the students’ education?
7. “The MAP test was originally introduced by then superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson while she was a board member of the Northwest Evaluation Association, the company that sells the MAP. When Dr. Goodloe-Johnson was fired, the MAP somehow survived the housecleaning. We object to having to give a test whose existence in our district is the result of a scandal.” [This objection was included verbatim because of the factual implications.]
8. The parent company of the MAP, the NWEA, “suggests extreme caution in its use and warns against valid legal action if the test is used in personnel decisions” due to possible statistical errors and errors that “become ‘particularly profound at the high school level.’”
9. The Seattle Education Association passed a resolution in opposition to the MAP, condemning it for, among other reasons, being a waste of valuable resources.
Rhee does not address eight of these nine arguments. And the sixth argument, the one she does address, she mischaracterizes. The Garfield teachers clearly articulate that students don’t take the MAP seriously because it does not affect their letter grade. Rhee does not make this clear. Instead, by failing to qualify her statement, she makes it appear that the teachers don’t take the test seriously and could remedy the situation by “setting an example and choosing to take the assessments seriously themselves.” Rhee’s willingness to ignore virtually every substantial argument (and mischaracterize another) is troubling. Such an approach is either intentionally dishonest (i.e. she knew of the arguments and chose not to address them) or negligent (she failed to know of the arguments but should have, given the fact that she’s writing an op-ed about the boycott).
Also in that fifth paragraph, she writes “Moreover, the MAP assessment was agreed to within the union’s collective-bargaining process just three years ago, and is scheduled to be a bargained issue again, appropriately, within the contract-negotiation process.” I was not a member of the SEA bargaining team, and cannot speak to whether it was or was not bargained, but this whole claim is irrelevant to the issue at hand. Rhee’s inclusion of this irrelevant information amounts to a red herring, the logical fallacy of changing the topic to avoid the issue at hand. If the MAP is invalid, it is not relevant that it was bargained into place; the issue is still one of whether the test is harmful to students. The only conclusion that can be drawn from her bargaining argument is that the SEA and SPS agreed to use an invalid test. If the test is invalid, if the test is hurting students, then waiting to negotiate the test out of the contract means leaving it in place too long.
Rehashing the “Fix the MAP” Argument and Ignoring Relevant Facts
In paragraph six, Rhee restates an argument she already made. She writes, “True, many assessments being used across the country could stand to be improved. That’s why educators ought to engage with them - not boycott them – in order to turn assessments into better measures of student learning.” By starting this point with what appears to be a concession, Rhee subtly frames her position as being inherently reasonable, i.e. “Look, I can concede a point, I’m not unreasonable.” But the point she concedes is not worthy of debate. Everyone agrees that many assessments could be improved. The testing industry itself invests countless sums of money to improve their own tests! But the concession is not the big issue in this paragraph; the big issue in this paragraph is her continued insistence that scrapping the MAP is folly, and that the MAP should be fixed. Teachers in Washington State will soon be required under a new teacher evaluation law to measure student learning and growth, with student growth data a substantial factor for three of the eight evaluation criteria identified in the law. Teachers are already working hard to make better use of assessments (both formative and summative) to improve and measure student learning. There is simply no reason why the Seattle Public Schools should invest any more time trying to fix a broken test when alternatives already exist.
In paragraph six, Rhee also avoids the use of a highly relevant fact when she writes “Seattle Schools Superintendent Jose Banda has already convened a task force to evaluate assessments; its recommendations are due in May.” Conveniently, Rhee omits the fact that this task force was convened as a result of the MAP boycott! The task force is charged with “reviewing District assessment programs and making recommendations for next year and beyond,” and addresses its role with reviewing the MAP specifically (the only such assessment identified by name) when it provides “[The task force] will carefully review the MAP assessment, and also hear from subject matter experts on key topics, such as future Common Core standards aligned assessments, and the new statewide evaluation system for teachers.” Thus, while the task force is evaluating assessments, Rhee’s characterization is overly broad and fails to recognize that the specific reason for this task force is to analyze the MAP itself!
Ad Hominem Ad Nauseum
In paragraphs seven, eight, and nine, Rhee sets up her argument against teachers unions, changes the focus of the debate on using test scores as a factor in teacher evaluations, and attacks unions with mere assertions (and no evidence). These paragraphs read:
No one argues against the idea that a student ought to be better at math and reading at the end of a school year than at the beginning. Also, no one suggests that every school should aim for something less than continual improvement.
Despite that, labor unions across the country are fighting against using test scores as a factor in teachers’ performance evaluations.
They focus only on preserving union members’ jobs, while many parents, teachers, and education reform organizations and other concerns citizens understand the need for some objective measurement to help determine how our schools are doing.
Look at Rhee’s second paragraph. She makes a claim without providing any evidence or context while simultaneously using the term labor unions as a bad word. Do labor unions oppose using test scores as a factor in teachers’ performance evaluations? Yes. Is that the end of the debate? No. Why? Context. Rhee fails to provide any context for why teacher unions oppose such tests. Recent research in the use of student assessments to evaluate teachers indicates that such scores are not reliable indicators of teacher success due to a large error in measurement (that can result in the mislabeling of teachers). The research also highlights the fact that test scores are not available for every content or grade level, which narrows their applicable use. Furthermore, using tests to evaluate teachers results in unintended and undesirable consequences, like narrowing the curriculum and teaching to the test. These reasons are not exhaustive (additional report here), nor is this research the only one on the topic, but Rhee’s failure to address the context under which teachers oppose the use of tests in evaluations is dishonest, and her continued insistence to frame this debate as the obstructionism of the teacher unions demonstrates her commitment and willingness to disparage organized labor.
In that third paragraph, Rhee makes another bold statement, an unsupported generalization, intended to again disparage teacher unions. Read the Garfield teachers’ letter again. These teachers identify the need to remove struggling teachers from the classroom. They specifically write: “we wish for our colleagues who are struggling to be identified and either be supported or removed.” Rhee’s narrative that teacher unions only protect struggling teachers is both common and stale. The reality is that most teachers want their colleagues to be effective teachers. Most teachers want struggling teachers to get better or leave the profession. And unions work hard to counsel many of these teachers out of the profession. But Rhee ignores this discussion because it does not fit into her narrative that unions only focus on preserving union members’ jobs. This statement is simply a lie told all too often.
Omitting the Whole Story
Paragraph ten is also a doozy. Rhee first begins with the claim that “We know standardized testing works.” She doesn’t define what she means by “works,” but we can infer from the remaining portion of the paragraph that perhaps she would define works as “standardized testing works when it can be included in teacher evaluations in order to distinguish between high performing and low performing teachers.” Never mind that this immediately invalidates the test (a test is valid when it measures what it purports to measure. Since standardized tests are designed to measure student growth in content or skills, using these tests to measure teacher effectiveness, an area they were not designed to assess, makes the tests invalid). Rhee ignores this invalidity issue and instead charges forward with what she asserts is evidence of standardized testing that works - evidence from her time as the Washington D.C. school chancellor.
In establishing her evidence she writes: “For example, look at the District of Columbia, where I was school chancellor. By including students’ test scores as a component of teacher evaluations, along with other reforms, such as rewarding teachers with performance-based pay increases, D.C. produced one of the best retention rates for great teachers in the country, 88 percent, while retaining only 45 percent of its low-performing teachers.” Rhee’s evidence is not convincing, however, because of the substantial problems with the evidence, as articulated in this Washington Post educator blogger’s article. But, even beyond Rhee’s use of dubious evidence, she goes a step further in her brandishing of her ed-reform agenda. Rhee touts the use of performance-based pay increases for teachers as a reform that works. The problem with this claim? It’s contrary to research that concludes that, not only do performance-based pay increases not increase teacher performance, they can lead to reduced student achievement! How is it that a policy that is proven through comprehensive research to not work, i.e. not improve teacher effectiveness or improve student performance or learning, is still touted by Rhee as a prime example of putting kids’ educations first? She and I have a big disagreement about what it means to put students first, apparently.
At Least We Agree on Something
In her eleventh paragraph, Rhee and I find something we agree on. She writes that “It is criminal that, in many communities throughout America, we send children every day into classrooms that are failing them. Astronomically high dropout rates and subpar math and reading proficiency levels in lower-income, inner-city schools ought to jolt us as especially immoral.” I agree (in part): many students are failed on a daily basis in this country. Now, Rhee is quick to assign blame to the classroom itself. To this end, I imagine she would recite the now famous adage that a teacher is the most-important in-school factor that affects test scores. But this adage, and Rhee’s continued reliance of it, hides the stark reality that the majority of factors that affect student learning are outside of the control of teachers, what we call non-school factors. According to William J. Mathis of the National Education Policy Center, “non-school factors, which are generally associated with parental education and wealth, are far more important determinants of students’ test scores.” Mathis also explains that “research also suggests that teacher differences account for no more than about 15% of differences in students’ test score outcomes.” This research undermines Rhee’s attack on teachers, that they continually fail students. The majority of differences between student test score outcomes results from non-school factors beyond the teacher’s control. It’s no wonder then why students in lower-income, inner city schools tend to perform lower – they would tend to have more non-school factors that negatively affect their performance (e.g. poverty and food insecurity). But, again, I agree with Rhee that the failure to properly serve lower-income and inner-city schools is a moral failure – it’s just not typically the moral failure of teachers; rather, it’s the moral failure of a country that fails to adequately address poverty.
Regarding Rhee’s Concluding Remarks
By her twelfth paragraph, Rhee finally writes a proposition that I wholly agree with: “Every child deserves a quality education, regardless of his or her circumstances, and a path out of poverty.” How true this statement is, especially for teachers. We believe that every child does deserve a quality education. This is likely the reason why most teachers teach. We also believe that education can serve as a path out of poverty (likely another reason we teach – to help others achieve a better life for themselves). Of course, unlike Rhee, I don’t think teachers that boycott the MAP test deprive students of a quality education. Rather, these boycotting teachers display the characteristics of educators who are doing their damnedest to fight for their students and to make sure that every minute of every day is maximized learning, and not wasted on an invalid test.
I also disagree with her final paragraph, which provides:
Instead of a national conversation over how best to serve our kids, Seattle boycotters are using a routine learning assessment to spark a debate over standardized tests and teacher evaluations. In doing so, the debate over the nuts and bolts of the MAP robs the public of a much more meaningful dialogue about how to ensure a high-quality education for every American student.
By boycotting the MAP test, Seattle teachers have created a national conversation over how best to serve our kids. Their position is just one that Rhee disagrees with. Namely, that our kids are best served by not wasting time on an invalid test. Thus, Rhee’s claim that these teachers are avoiding a national conversation is wrong and constitutes a gross mischaracterization of the dialogue that has resulted from their efforts. Furthermore, while teacher evaluations are a part of this boycott, they’re a small part underserving of equal billing with the harm done to students by the MAP test. And too, the public is not robbed of a meaningful dialogue. These teachers actions contribute to and enhance the dialogue, calling attention to an assessment that is not doing justice for our students.
And Finally, the Irony of Rhee’s First Claim
Rhee framed her op-ed with an ironic statement. “Seattle public school students should pay attention. They’re getting a front-row, real-world lesson in how the actions of adults can distract from what’s best for students.” Rhee’s statement implies two things, that by boycotting the MAP test Seattle educators are obscuring the larger issue of “what’s best for students,” and that not taking the MAP is not what’s best for students (i.e. that taking the MAP is best for students). Rhee doesn’t get it. It’s Rhee’s actions, of attacking labor unions and using rhetoric instead of evidence that distract from what’s best for students. The boycotting teachers make it clear in their December 21st letter that the letter “is an objection to the MAP test specifically and particularly to its negative impact on our students.” These teachers have an idea of what’s best for students and they make a stand to ensure that the students receive what’s best. Rhee does not present an idea of what’s best for students, other than to assert (without any evidence) that what’s best for students is using standardized testing to evaluate teachers and incentivizing teacher performance through additional pay. These assertions evidence the irony I mention above – that Rhee’s actions, not those of the Seattle teachers, distract from the reality of what’s best for students, since Rhee avoids any real analysis of improving student learning and instead focuses on her favorite ed-reform strategies of using standardized tests to evaluate teachers and merit pay.
Thanks for Reading
I reject Rhee’s arguments. I disagree with her opinions. I find her approach to this issue lacking in sound logic, compassion, thoughtfulness, and honesty. Michelle Rhee may sincerely want what’s best for children. But if she does, she does a poor job at illustrating that sincerity in this op-ed.
In the debate on whether to allow charter schools, one argument in particular always seems to surface from the pro-charter crowd: charters provide parents choice! It’s a common refrain. It’s also a lie. To see why, consider the following passage from this morning’s News Tribune:
“’A charter school does not equal an innovative school,’ says [Jennifer] Boutell, statewide field director for People for Our Public Schools, a group working to defeat the initiative. ‘A charter school is not a curriculum. A charter school is not a particular teaching method, or even an extended school day. A charter school is an ownership model.’” (http://www.thenewstribune.com/2012/10/21/2339324/charting-a-new-course.html?storylink=fb)
A charter school is an ownership model. Blunt. Concise. Accurate. What kind of ownership model? Charter schools are public schools, meaning they’re funded with taxpayer dollars. But, charter schools are privately managed and exempt from certain regulations (like hiring unionized teachers). So, the ownership model is ironic, to say the least. The irony? The charter school initiative is bankrolled by millionaires and billionaires (see http://www.democraticunderground.com/1082895), who could bankroll their own privately funded, privately ran schools and open such schools free of charge if they desired. But Gates, Bezos, Hanauer, Allen, and the Waltons don’t desire to do that. Such an endeavor is costly, and the logic says “why pay for it if we can get it for free?”
As voters, you should ask yourself that too: why should we finance their experiment when we already have quality schools?
Charter supporters answer this question by touting the choice mantra and spreading the myth that public schools are abysmal failures. (Though not perfect, public schools are not abysmal failures. See http://www.salon.com/2012/08/01/school_choice_vs_reality/?mobile.html)
But let me remind you: charter schools are not magic: they don’t have unique access to the best teachers, curriculum, or strategies; they don’t have novel solutions to the real issues facing public education - poverty and sufficient school funding. Charter schools are experimental and the supporters of the experiment want you to finance it.
So, if charter schools are not uniquely situated to address the real issues facing public education today, what are parents choosing between? A traditional public school with community investment and ties on one hand and a business-model, experiment on the other.
Examine the idea of choice further and you’ll see that not only is the charter alternative not a viable choice for Washingtonians, it results in less choice than before.
Public schools are governed by locally elected school boards. You voted them in. These elected officials hire the district leaders that transform the schools. District directors, principals, and teachers work in concert, accountable to the school board, who are accountable to the voters to improve schools. Charter schools are not accountable to voters.
Charter schools are privately managed with far less accountability. But forget about the large and obvious problem of who gets awarded the charter (and on what basis) for another day. Focus instead on who these charters are accountable to: instead of the locally elected school boards (whose members live within the boundaries of the district they serve ), charters would be accountable to a new state agency, the Washington Charter School Commission, that consists of nine political appointees, not beholden to you, the voter.
Don’t be fooled by the word ‘choice:’ When it comes to charter schools, you’re being asked to fund privately operated schools with tax dollars, relinquish your vote in regards to the accountability of those schools, and trust that maybe, just maybe, this is one of those few charter schools that performs marginally better than a traditional and similarly situated public school.
Please VOTE NO on I-1240.
Voting for Mitt Romney is akin to living the role of Little Red Riding Hood, with Mittens in the role of the wolf. In the classic fairytale, Little Red Riding Hood is tricked by the clever animal, who has eaten her Grandmother and disguised himself in her clothes. Red, arriving at Grandmother’s house, is surprised to see that Grandmother has such big eyes! Such big ears! And such big teeth! While Red’s surprise is evident, she is unable to see through the wolf’s facade. For the fairytale to work, Red has to be blind to what should be dreadfully clear: there’s a talking wolf in Granny’s clothes who’s here to do her harm.
Compare Red to Romney’s faithful. For the narrative of Romney to work, his voters have to be painfully unaware of what should be dreadfully obvious: Mitt is here to do you harm, all the while dressed as someone he’s not.
Consider taxes. Mitt’s tax plan calls for a 20% tax rate cut. But, as former Reagan economic advisor Bruce Bartlett writes in the fiscal times, a rate cut is not the same as a reduction of taxes. In his op-ed, found here: http://www.thefiscaltimes.com/Columns/2012/10/19/The-Last-Word-on-Romneys-Tax-Plan-It-Doesnt-Work.aspx#page1, Bartlett highlights the fact that Romney’s plan will result in increased taxes for many Americans (as a result of cutting various deductions). Good for Americans? No. And yet the Romney Hood faithful are willing to ignore these facts (and similarly ignore Romney’s refusal to identify the specific deductions he would target).
Consider women’s health issues. Romney is against abortion and therefore against female autonomy over their own bodies. He would appoint Supreme Court Justices that would overturn Roe v. Wade, and calls the case a clear example of judicial activism. (All of these claims are articulated on his campaign site.) But beyond his opposition to the act of abortion, Romney would deliver a forceful blow to Planned Parenthood, vowing to defund the healthcare provider because they perform abortions. See his statements at the Washington Post here: http://m.washingtonpost.com/blogs/election-2012/wp/2012/10/10/romney-ill-be-a-pro-life-president/
The problem with Romney’s position is two-fold: first, abortions represent only 3% of services rendered by PP. Second, federal dollars don’t fund PP’s abortions. (See fact check here: http://www.factcheck.org/2011/04/planned-parenthood/) Thus, Romney would defund PP, removing support for other essential female health services, like cancer screenings, annual check-ups, STI testing, and contraceptive services. Romney’s stance is punitive and political, designed to appeal to a base similarly opposed to abortion. So the Little Red Romney Hoods avert their eyes to the facts to fit Romney’s asserted narrative against Planned Parenthood.
The list goes on: Romney opposes coverage of preexisting conditions (unless the insured maintained continuous coverage, without a significant drop in coverage), despite the fact that covering such conditions is beneficial to tens of millions of Americans, regardless of political affiliation. See http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mobileweb/2012/10/04/romney-pre-existing-conditions-health-care-plan_n_1939735.html
Romney would support or enact policies that are detrimental to the majority of Americans. Just like the wolf in Red Riding Hood, he brazenly wears the mantle of someone he’s not while behaving in ways, with admitted intentions, that are hurtful to Americans, especially women, the middle class, and poor. And to complete the story, Romney’s faithful, who defend his actions and claims while willfully ignoring the obvious, play the role of Little Red Riding Hoods, seeing the teeth, seeing the ears, seeing the eyes, but accepting the explanation that it’s “all the better to see you with.”
America deserves better than a fairy-tale villain, better than a wolf-in-familiar-clothing who’ll say anything to position himself for the betterment of himself. Don’t fall for it. Don’t let the Little Red Romney Hoods close their eyes to Mitt’s harmful policies.