February 9, 2022

The Last Things Progressives And Conservatives Agree On Are Snitch Culture And Censorship (& Maybe Masks?), Plus The Teacher Shortage: This Time We Mean It! Reader Feedback, More…

By Bellwether

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We’re talking about Black History Month on Bellwether’s AOTH blog. I wrote about Zora Neale Hurston as a historical hero.

When Zora Neale Hurston died in 1960 at 69 she was basically broke, living in a public home, having worked most recently as a substitute teacher and a maid. Thirteen years later, Alice Walker found Hurston’s grave and marked it. Walker subsequently published an article that helped return Hurston from literary obscurity. That’s to all our benefit. Hurston herself, however, didn’t need rescuing. She was an iconoclast and unafraid to do things her way throughout her life…

There’s more.

Snitch culture may be one of the few things right and left agree on anymore?

Shouldn’t the folks who like anonymous “bias” reporting systems like this, too, if the idea is that people must have anonymous ways to report things? But they don’t! Meanwhile, the people who don’t like those bias lines are not up in arms about this? They kind of like it. I’d think the conservative position would be that these things are best worked out at the local level. Anyhow, here we are.

In other Virginia culture war news, the mask debate is being framed as D on R, Youngkin against the Ds, whatever, but in fact you can see mask politics changing pretty fast:

Democrats in Virginia’s Senate signaled support Tuesday for making school masks optional by July, a turnaround after weeks of howling against Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s efforts to end mask mandates right away.

Dale Chu with a really smart essay on cautions about the seemingly hard to assail idea of curriculum transparency. Some degree of transparency is desirable and necessary, but Chu raises some key questions. Another issue is that some materials are going to be under appropriate copyrights – the idea that everything should go online or be circulated on demand is to some extent at odds with the idea of high quality materials. There’s a balance to be struck here, of course, but the rhetoric is out in front of that. And if you just can’t live with consensus or have loads of veto points and want to opt out of a slew of things then you might have to consider a different option, notably private or homeschool. Society demands some compromise.

But what do I know. I read my kids Maus when they were pretty little, which is apparently irresponsible in the eyes of some. They turned out so far to be well functioning humane young people. But I have identical twins. Maybe I should have only read it to one and then waited to see what happened? Anyway, it would be nice if everyone eased up on the censorship, but it’s an old story and also one of the last things conservatives and progressives both still to like to do!

An interesting feature of our current education debate is an assault on measures like the SAT or value-added data through the lens of bias. Yet just as ditching the SAT can lead to a more biased college admissions system (if you think the SAT can be coached there is something you should know about college essays…) it turns out, surprise, classroom observations, a favored alternative to things like value-added may have their own problems:

Significant bias has contributed to lower classroom observation scores for thousands of teachers in Tennessee over the last decade, a study published in late December found. Even when controlling for differences in professional qualification and student testing performance, male and African American teachers were rated lower than their female and white colleagues.

OK, not a surprise to anyone who follows the issue but important as we try to design evaluation systems that are substantively and politically durable.

The teacher shortage panic is really full on. The other day we talked about this some in the context of the crisis fetishists who have taken over education discourse. Here’s a story from The Wall Street Journal. 

Jeff Jenkins, who heads sales and marketing at RTA, a Glendale, Ariz., company that provides vehicle fleet-maintenance software, says 30% of the resumes he has received in recent months come from teachers, some of whom he has hired for software training and sales executive roles.

“Teachers, just because of what they’ve experienced, they seem like they are a lot better fit for the workforce than other people who come out of different industries,” he says.

Stories like this should awaken your BS detector. There is no downside to saying ‘we want teachers, we love them.’ Why? You get the pick of the litter of those who do apply. It’s really great PR. And, who exactly is going to say the opposite? What kind of self-destructive asshole is going to tell The Wall Street Journal,  “Yeah, we’ve tried it and fact is, elementary school teachers just can’t cut it here?” The hiring manager is the new taxi driver it seems.

Last week’s WSJ teacher panic trend story had a correction that undercut the panic narrative. This week’s is missing some data that might help us make heads or tails of this trend. I tend to think 30 percent of the stats about this whole issue are more or less made up. Linkedin doesn’t really give us the data to put the claims in context either. I’ve got a half finished LinkedIn profile like everyone else. Would I rely on them for more than interesting anecdotes, probably not.

Meanwhile, there is actual data the government tracks about this very question. That data tells a more nuanced story. Surveys show people saying all kinds of things. It’s worth keeping in mind that telling someone you are thinking about leaving your job does not mean you are going to leave your job. Just today I’ve thought about becoming a professional fishing guide, operating a food truck, opening a bookstore in a ski town, teaching high school kids again, and working at REI. It does not mean I’ll be doing any of those things at this time next year.

It could be the data are wrong for some reason we’re not accounting for. Or a wave is coming and people will act more than in the past. These numbers bounce around some anyway. And it’s unclear what student enrollment will look like in different places when the dust settles.

All that means at this point it’s still a lot of anecdote, out of context data, lack of attention to base rates, speculation, and panic (with plenty of people happy to cheer it on because it fuels various agendas – namely send more money!) that’s becoming a perpetual motion machine. Editors ask writers to get them something on the catastrophic teacher shortage or writers pitch stories and everyone has the muscle memory because it seems there is always a big teacher shortage and an unquenchable thirst to talk down the job. 

Here again is a look at the broader contours of the teacher shortage.

Apropos of nothing I’m going to recommend a book I’m almost leery to, A.O. Hirschman’s The Rhetoric of Reaction. In our space, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty is his work that seems to get the most attention given its relevance to the school choice conversation. The Rhetoric of Reaction, however, may explain more about the education conversation writ large.

Basically, Hirschman lays out three common arguments against change, laid out in elegant historical context. They will sound familiar to anyone who has ever dipped a toe in the education debate. The three are the idea that any change will fail to put a dent in a problem, or make it worse so it’s futile. That change will put accomplishments or important things in jeopardy. And finally the argument that a change will drive perverse consequences. Of course any of these issues can be present and true in some circumstances, the problem is the extent to which they often function as an argumentative get out of jail free card to scare people and thwart change. It was published in 1991, I first read it in 2000, and while it’s not some sort of red pill kind of thing you do start noticing the patterns. That’s why I’m always hesitant to recommend it, in case you’re the kind of person who simply loves the fight.

The other day we talked about crisis rhetoric. I figured people would not like it (and I do like and appreciate thoughtful critical feedback please email anytime). Instead the opposite largely happened. A few selected responses here:

A person with strong philanthropic ties wrote,

Two years of managing a pandemic has left the traditional public education system—and especially too many more kids—in a demonstrably worse place than before… and I appreciate your case that the crisis here is not the simmering water now boiling in places but the cooks in the kitchen/leaders… and how the field might want to think more about what’s needed to stand up/support the leaders/capacity/commitment to dive in differently (to mix my metaphors).

A reader generally agreed but said the point about mental health understated the trend,

A pediatrician used to see 2-3 kids a week with serious mental health issues and now it’s something like 20-30.  Serious bad stuff like dangerous self-harm, actively planning suicide, existential crises, etc. 8 and 9 year old kids who have lost multiple family members are so angry at anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers that they are losing hope in humanity.  Parents who have no capacity to care for their kids because their own mental health is falling apart — and I mean more than just being tired.  It is nearly impossible to refer patients to psyc specialists because they are overwhelmed.

Someone wrote,

It’s a shame that facts have disappeared from so much of the education dialogue. The sky may be falling but not because of the rationale being put out there.  It is falling because of the lack of civil discourse. It is falling because of the hypocrisy of people claiming to serve the betterment of how we educate students (or adult learners) but truly are promoting their needs and their agendas.

Literacy advocate, HOF nominee, general badass:

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