Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Give the People What They Want—Educational Snake Oil and Teachers to Burn!

Burn, Teacher, Burn! (Image from Flickr, cdrummks)
A recent poll by the Los Angeles Times and University of Southern California has found that a majority of California voters want teacher evaluations made public and student test scores used in their reviews.

So what?

Does the public necessarily get or even deserve what it demands? Do we make employee evaluations public for nurses, doctors, firefighters, police, receptionists, retailers, insurance sales reps?

Teachers are already one of the most scrutinized, regulated and manipulated professions out there (most regulated, according to Assailed Teacher). They get reprimanded and sometimes even fired for “transgressions” in their private lives, like having political bumper stickers on their cars or posting  work-related gripes on their private Facebook pages, which is not much different than in the old days when they got fired if they got pregnant. Teachers have been reprimanded for expressing controversial comments or sharing controversial content with students despite their supposed academic freedom.

Unlike the above examples, teachers have very little control over student test scores, which are correlated far more with students’ socioeconomic background than with the quality of their teachers. Evaluating teachers based on their students’ test scores is like evaluating doctors on their patients’ blood pressure and blood sugar. In both cases, lower income people are much more likely to have undesirable results and the professionals who work with them are much less likely to be able to help them.

Another relevant question is what would the public do with this information? Demand the mass firing of all teachers at low income schools because their test scores were too low?

This would conflict with another recent public demand—supported by an ACLU lawsuit and court mandate in Los Angeles—that teachers at low income schools be exempt from layoffs.

If we did fire all teachers at low income schools or anywhere that test scores did not make the required arbitrary improvements, would the public then demand higher wages and an influx of funding for teacher training programs in order to recruit and retain “good” teachers, or would they accept the inevitable mushrooming of class sizes to 40 or 50 students?

Of course rather than demanding that “bad” teachers be fired, parents could use the data to pull their kids from schools with too many “bad” teachers, just as they might use similar data to avoid “bad” doctors. However, they can already pull their kids from “bad” schools and they already know which schools these are: the low income ones that tend to have the lowest test scores. Linking teacher evaluations to these test scores and publishing teacher evaluations does nothing to make this any easier or more effective.

The hysteria over “bad” teachers has the same source as the hysteria over “bad” schools:  fear mongering promulgated by the test publishers, educational management organizations, tutoring industry and other businesses that hope to capitalize on testing, accountability and the resulting punishments. The teacher witch hunt is further exploited by politicians and the wealthy who hope to distract the public from the major cause of the achievement gap—poverty and the growing wealth gap—problems the OWS movement is now shoving in their faces more effectively than the teachers unions ever did.

It is worth considering that simply dumping what you don’t like (e.g., “bad” teachers or traditional public schools) does not necessarily get you what you really want and can result in something much worse. Consider the Egyptians who dumped their dictator and got a military junta that has been slaughtering them in the streets for the past week. What are we getting when we dump the “bad” teachers and schools: elitist charter schools that loot school districts of scare resources while squeezing out minority, special education and low income students, and a growing achievement gap.

It is important to have an accurate understanding of what the problem actually is and a valid critique of its causes before an effective solution can be proposed. Since the data overwhelmingly shows that poverty is the biggest influence on the achievement gap, low test scores and low graduation rates, simply firing teachers and giving away the public schools to private educational management organizations cannot end the achievement gap, get all students to graduate on time or attain the status of Finnish and South Korean schools.

Tying teacher evaluations to student test scores will result in declining numbers of teachers, exacerbating the problems of overcrowding and student access to quality teachers. Many good teachers will lose their jobs simply because they were working with low income students. Others will refuse to work in low income schools because it could jeopardize their careers.

Making teacher evaluations available to the public serves no public good and could result in great harm, not only to teachers, but students, as well. Too many bad evaluations at one school could result in a mass exodus of those families with the time, resources and knowledge of the system to get their kids into other schools. This would result in some schools becoming even more segregated, even more concentrated with poor, immigrant and low-achieving students.

On a more sinister note, if the public is not satisfied with schools’ response to bad evaluations, witch hunts and vigilantism against teachers could result.

Why Get the HPV Vaccine For Your Children?

This Pumpkin's Mommy Refused to Get It Vaccinated (image from Flickr, cjc4454)

The following is from the Scienceline blog and the Science Based Medicine blog:

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) can cause cervical, anal, penile, vulvar, vaginal, mouth and throat cancer and can affect both boys and girls. Thus the CDC is now recommending that boys and young men, as well as girls, be vaccinated against HPV.
  • HPV is the only known cause of cervical cancer, which kills roughly 300,000 women annually, one of the highest causes of cancer death for women globally.
  • HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the world, infecting half of all sexually active men and women in their lifetimes. One estimate suggests that between 75 and 80% of all Americans will be infected at some point in their lives
  • The majority of those infected never know it, which means they may unknowingly be transmitting it to their partners, but that it is persisting in their bodies where it could be contributing to the development of tumors
  • The vaccines, Gardasil and Cervarix, are 70% effective at preventing cervical cancer and 90% effective at stopping genital warts
  • Clinical trials show that the vaccine has no serious side effects. While there have been claims of vaccine-related deaths, none have been verified and no causal links between the vaccine and fatalities have been proven
  • The vaccines are much more effective when administered to young teens than when given to older teens and adults
  • It won’t make them sexually promiscuous (either they will be or they won’t be, depending in part on how their parents talk to them and support them). The only drugs that might promote promiscuity are those that lower their inhibitions, like alcohol
  • It won’t make them mentally retarded, contrary to Michelle Bachman’s claims. In fact, there is no credible evidence that anyone has become retarded because of the vaccine.

Today in Labor History—November 30

November 30, 1830 – Agricultural laborers rioted at Shaftesbury, Dorset, in England, to win the release of five imprisoned comrades. Simultaneously, in Banwell, Somerset, paupers rioted at the poorhouse, then launched an attack on the prison, releasing its prisoners. (From the Daily Bleed)

November 30, 1854 - "Fighting Mary" Eliza McDowell was born on this date. In 1902, McDowell helped organize the first women's local union of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters, which was made up mostly of the low-paid women working in packinghouse canning and labeling operations. (From Workday Minnesota)

November 30, 1930 – Mother Jones died, age 100, Silver Spring, Maryland. Jones was an organizer or "walking delegate" for the United Mine Workers (UMW), famous for her bravado. When she and 3,000 women were released by a militia after being held all night in McAdoo, Pennsylvania, they marched straight to the hotel housing the soldiers and ate their breakfast. Even well into her 90s, she still roamed through the hills of West Virginia, encouraging miners to organize. (From the Daily Bleed)

November 30, 1980 –Anarchist, pacifist, and co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, Dorothy Day, died on this date in New York City.
 (From the Daily Bleed)

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

God's Approval Rating Is Down

According to the Harper's Index, only 52% of Americans approve of God's job performance.

The question I have is how 48% of Americans suddenly got the chutzpah to judge God in the first place. Has the OWS movement helped them to finally see that he is a member of the 1%? Have they given up their belief that he is omnipotent and infallible? Are they ready to occupy Heaven until he does a better job?

Let Them Eat Tomato Paste!

25 years ago Reagan declared that ketchup was a vegetable in an attempt to red wash the greasy, salty, processed foods served in school cafeterias. Today, in spite of Michelle Obama’s duplicitous attempt to nip the obesity epidemic in the bud (see here and here), we are seeing the same game replayed, with Congress approving agriculture appropriations language allowing the tomato paste on pizza to be considered a serving of vegetables under the USDA’s new school lunch guidelines.

If we really cared about our children’s health, we would do away completely with processed foods manufactured thousands of miles away and trucked across the country in a plume of carbon dioxide and particulate air pollution. We would retrain and promote the low wage factotums who presently reheat and serve these prefabricated meals into actual cooks who prepare fresh, organic, locally grown meats, cheese and produce. We would teach children to enjoy a variety of fruits and vegetables and flavors that are not dependent on high levels of salt, fat and sugar. We would bring physical education back as a daily class for kids of all ages and invest in more after school athletics and dance programs. We would ensure that all families have sufficient food to eat at home, every day of the year, and that they all have access to free or affordable health care.

In actuality, children’s health, like everything else in our society, is irrelevant except as much as it can be used to make a profit. What really matters is that processed food giants like ConAgra, Schwan Food, Nestle and Unilever continue to get access to the billions of federal tax dollars that are funneled each year into school lunch programs. Not only does this put cash directly into their pockets, but it helps shape children’s eating habits and preferences so that they will continue to purchase large quantities of their salty, sugary, fatty products as adults.

The legislation came in response to lobbying by ConAgra and Schwan Food, one of the world’s largest producers of frozen pizzas, according to the OB Rag. It also came in the wake of a Senate amendment that blocked the USDA from limiting the quantity of potatoes served in school lunches, a rule pushed by senators in the potato states of Maine and Colorado.

Pizza and potatoes are probably the two most popular foods at school. However, there is no reason why they cannot continued to be served, but why not using fresh produce and prepared from scratch, on site, with less salt, sugar and fat? Pizzas do not have to be doughy Frisbees overflowing with commodity ground beef, sausage, pepperoni and American cheese. Likewise, there are countless delicious and healthy alternatives to tater tots, like potatoes boiled and served with butter and herbs, baked, roasted, mashed, or served sliced in salad.

None of this is happening any time soon, so if kids want healthy food at school, they will have to bring it from home. If their parents cannot afford it, they can always apply for one of the low wage scab custodian jobs that will open up after Newt Gingrich gets elected.

Today in Labor History—November 29

November 29, 1832 - Louisa May Alcott, author, nurse and abolitionist, was born on this date. While she was most famous for her book, “Little Women,” Alcott also wrote “Work,” an autobiographical novel that exposed the exploitation of women workers. (From Workday Minnesota)

November 29, 1870 – England initiated state-run compulsory education. (From the Daily Bleed)

November 29, 1934 – Retail workers at Boston Stores in Milwaukee launched a strike at the beginning of the Christmas rush. The strike was a united effort between three unions, including clerks, teamsters & building-service employees. An extremely cold winter and the store's willingness to hold out through the holiday season eventually broke the strike. For the next 60 years, none of the city's major department stores were unionized. (From the Daily Bleed)

November 29, 1999 - Thousands of activists, students, union members, environmentalists and others shut down the World Trade Organization (WTO) summit in Seattle. It was the first large-scale demonstration in the United States to protest the “corporate agenda” and “globalization” and the beginning of many similar protests, including the current OWS movement. The WTO protest, like the OWS movement, was effective at raising awareness of corporate greed while simultaneously promoting the delusion that, with a few reforms, capitalism and democracy would serve the needs of the people. (From Workday Minnesota)