VideoGate, Day 7

To her credit, Diane Ravitch has offered an apology to Deborah Gist for having accused her of gross misbehavior.  Here is what she wrote:

… I reflected on a blog I wrote recently about my visit to Rhode Island. In that blog, I wrote harsh words about state Commissioner Deborah Gist. On reflection, I concluded that I had written in anger and that I was unkind. For that, I am deeply sorry.

Like every other human being, I have my frailties; I am far from perfect. I despair of the spirit of meanness that now permeates so much of our public discourse. One sees it on television, hears it on radio talk shows, reads it in comments on blogs, where some attack in personal terms using the cover of anonymity or even their own name, taking some sort of perverse pleasure in maligning or ridiculing others.

I don’t want to be part of that spirit. Those of us who truly care about children and the future of our society should find ways to share our ideas, to discuss our differences amicably, and to model the behavior that we want the young to emulate.

While this is a very positive development, it does not fully address the issue.  The main issue at this point is not Deborah Gist’s hurt feelings for having been accused (apparently wrongly) of exceptional rudeness and incivility; the main issue is Diane Ravitch’s credibility.  It is not enough for Ravitch to say that she is imperfect if the imperfection is about the very thing that makes everyone pay attention to her — her authority as an accurate chronicler of events.

To maintain her credibility Ravitch needs to give permission for the videotape of her meeting with Gist to be released.  Even if she is sorry or believes that she wrote in anger, she has still not spoken to the basic accuracy of her account.  If the video confirms her account, she could still be sorry but also be vindicated as a reliable source.  If the video does not confirm her account, she would be sorry and unreliable.  We still need to see the video and Ravitch should agree to release it.

In addition, there is something self-serving and potentially insincere about Ravitch’s generic denunciation of “the spirit of meanness that now permeates so much of our public discourse” coming only after she is potentially caught in making inaccurate allegations against others.  Ravitch’s meanness toward “the billionaire boys,” Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, etc… has existed for some time without any concern from her about the nature of public discourse.

My concern about the sincerity of her newly expressed opposition to meanness is compounded by her use of the phrase:  “[t]hose of us who truly care about children…” by which I can only imagine that she includes herself and excludes her opponents.  Self-righteousness does not normally accompany contrition.

But perhaps Ravitch has turned a new leaf and is truly sorry for her own role in the meanness of public discourse.  The credibility of that contrition will have to be determined in light of her future writing and speaking, just as her credibility as a chronicler of events will have to be determined when she agrees to release the video.

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29 Responses to VideoGate, Day 7

  1. Mike McShane says:

    “I despair of the spirit of meanness that now permeates so much of our public discourse. One sees it on television, hears it on radio talk shows, reads it in comments on blogs, where some attack in personal terms using the cover of anonymity or even their own name, taking some sort of perverse pleasure in maligning or ridiculing others.”-Diane

    Has she not read her own Twitter feed? She goes after TFA teachers and leaders, Charter school operators, politicians, and real researchers with an unbridled glee that borders on disturbing.

    Sometimes in dealing with her I feel like Mugatu in Zoolander: “Blue steel, Ferrari, Le Tigre? They’re the same face! I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!”

  2. toni says:

    Hi Mr. Greene,

    regarding your article about “merit pay”:

    I have been working in the private sector in software engineering for 10 years or so. Of the half dozen or so employers I worked for, none – not a single one – instituted what could be called “merit pay”. That is, I haven’t seen a single private sector employer, and none of my colleagues has, that was trying to quantitatively measure employee performance and base the pay on the measure. The only exception to that is the sales department, where bonuses based on sales numbers are of course common. But in engineering, never.

    Sure, an employer could count the lines of code I wrote or the number of bugs I fixed. But none ever tried such a system, and for good reason: the actual productivity of an engineer is difficult to measure, and any attempt at quantification creates incentives to beat the system. For example, it would be easy to write more lines of code to do the same job if one gets paid by the line. It would be easy to create bugs that need to be fixed if one gets paid for each bug. In my view, it wouldn’t work and apparently, private sector employers agree. They use quality control and project reporting and performance reviews and what not, with more or less success. But they would never dream of trying to evaluate an employee by a set of single-minded quantitative measures.

    My question then is: if merit pay doesn’t and wouldn’t work in the private sector, with narrow exceptions (let’s not mention those “merit” bonuses for AIG traders as rewards for blowing up the economy), why would it work in public education? Have you, by any chance, ever worked in the private sector?

    • Hi Toni,

      Your comment is not exactly on the topic of this post, but just to clarify — I am not a big fan of merit pay. See http://educationnext.org/blocked-diluted-and-co-opted/

      • toni says:

        Well I must have misunderstood the gist of your article then: “Interest groups wage war against merit pay” doesn’t sound like “I’m not a big fan of merit pay”.

        At least we clarified that but I am still wondering about the statement at the end: “Attaching continued employment and level of compensation to job performance is something that frequently occurs among private enterprises in competitive markets.”

        In some rather vague sense, this is true but in my experience it is not true in the sense of merit pay as it is being proposed for the education system. I don’t see accountants or software engineers or architects or lawyers being subjected to a quantitative performance measurement and their pay based on that. I would be curious to see a real world example of a true “merit pay” system that actually works.

      • Stuart Buck says:

        Lawyers most certainly do get bonuses (which is all that teacher merit pay plans have involved) based on their performance and billable hours.

      • toni says:

        Stuart Buck: When I need to hire a lawyer (unfortunately I have been in that situation), I have to pay that person a steep fee (flat fee or by the hour) no matter how good his or her performance is and crucially, regardless of success (there are cases where the lawyer only gets paid in case of success but they are the exception and not the rule). If the lawyer turns out to be mediocre, there is nothing I can do except hire a different lawyer and forgo the money I already paid to number 1. To be sure, there are rare cases where a lawyer screws up so badly I might get my money back and the lawyer might get disbarred. But most of the time, the truth of the matter is that the performance of a lawyer has little bearing on his/her pay. We do not in general tie lawyer pay to success at trial and we do not in general tie the pay of doctors to whether their patients get better. It is worth considering for a moment why not. If we tried such a system, doctors would refuse to treat high risk patients and lawyers would refuse to take on difficult cases.

        Moreover, we do not in general have merit pay for architects or plumbers or software engineers or journalists and certainly not for CEOs (their bonuses are usually structured “head I win tail you lose”).

        What I object to is the hypocrisy of the whole discourse about merit pay. It is simply not the case that merit pay dominates our economy with teachers being the exception. In the real world, merit pay is uncommon. In truth we are singling out public school teachers to be subjected to a crude social experiment that the private sector would never try.

      • Stuart Buck says:

        In the long term, we most certainly do tie lawyer pay and doctor pay to how good they are at their jobs. If you lose every case, even the easy ones, people become reluctant to hire you as a lawyer. Therefore your pay goes down.

      • Patrick says:

        Toni,

        The problem is YOU CAN choose another lawyer. You can’t choose another teacher. That lawyer can also go out of business if he or she continues to underperform (or lose significant income). The teacher will keep getting promotions and pay increases…even the terrible ones.

        Nevada, for example, keeps 99.4 percent of its teachers – that statistic comes from the Center for American Progress a left-wing think tank that now supports getting rid of teacher tenure and seniority rules. Do you want me to believe 99 percent of our teachers are satisfactory or better?

      • toni says:

        “In the long term, we most certainly do tie lawyer pay and doctor pay to how good they are at their jobs.”

        Doctors and lawyers? However you try to spin it, theirs is not a merit pay system. Yes there are feedbacks, sometimes effective and sometimes not, but there is no attempt at quantifying individual performance and basing pay on that.

        Do you want some fine examples of how our glorious system of private enterprise defines “merit pay”?

        Transocean Execs Get Bonuses after ‘Best Year in Safety,’ Despite Gulf Oil Disaster

        AIG bonuses: $235 million to go

        You are aware, aren’t you, that I could cite tons of incidents like this? The question that this raises is why we single out lowly paid school teachers when we are seemingly unable to hold highly paid executives accountable? Why is it that a failed CEO “merits” millions in severance pay, representing the lifetime earnings of many teachers, but school teachers – not administrators, not policy makers, but school teachers at the bottom of the food chain – “merit” to be punished for the failings of their students, the failings of their parents, the failings of the educational system, the failings of society?

        (And for the sake of full disclosure, I am not, and never was, a school teacher).

    • Patrick says:

      I bet your software firm does not have a “last hired first fired” policy, does not pay people thousands of dollars extra for earning extra degrees (heck, lots of hackers have only high school degrees), or promote you based on aging…

      When principals, or even parents, have no choice in the matter merit pay might be the fairest way to reward successful teachers. It is certainly a lot better than the lock-step pay we have now.

      • toni says:

        Most private employers do pay employees in part based on educational achievement, that is certainly true in high-tech fields such as software engineering, and many do prefer to retain their more experienced employees. They may opt for the opposite but that would usually be for cost reasons rather than merit or performance.

        When principals, or even parents, have no choice in the matter merit pay might be the fairest way to reward successful teachers. Except for the small matter that we don’t really know what distinguishes a successful teacher.

      • Patrick says:

        IF the degree made the person better, but high tech firms are more than happy to pay college drop outs more than college grads if the drop out is more productive.

        And from what I hear from other software programmers is that college professors are often 2-5 years behind the curve on what is cutting edge – so I really doubt having a degree makes much of a difference in computer programming.

      • Patrick says:

        “Except for the small matter that we don’t really know what distinguishes a successful teacher.”

        Except we know it when we see it. Give them a year or two to prove themselves and then nice big rewards.

      • Daniel Earley says:

        I believe the key to making merit pay work best is really in shrinking accountability systems to their most organic level. Your point, Patrick, illustrates this best: “but high tech firms are more than happy to pay college drop outs more than college grads if the drop out is more productive.” Indeed, counterintuitive as the organic marketplace of merit incentives may seem, some have actually encouraged dropping out.

        Thiel Fellowship Pays 24 Talented Students $100,000 Not to Attend College

        http://chronicle.com/article/Thiel-Fellowship-Pays-24/127622/

      • toni says:

        “IF the degree made the person better”

        It is never the degree that makes a person “better”. But for better or worse, degrees are customarily taken as proxies for desirable qualifications, and this is the case throughout both the private and the public sector.

      • Daniel Earley says:

        While it’s easy to seek for cover behind the word “customarily,” it is actually a red herring, since the defining nature of the entrepreneurial innovator is that he most often chooses a path that is *not* customary. Infusing precisely that creative ethos is the aim of many of us in education reform.

      • toni says:

        Patrick: “Except we know it when we see it. Give them a year or two to prove themselves and then nice big rewards.”

        I see that you are an education expert. Nowadays, everybody is, just as everybody is a climate scientist ;-)

        Can we at least get this straw man out of the way? Teacher tenure is only granted after a probationary period, which I gather is 3 years in most states and up to 5 years in some. So the claim that teachers are getting tenure without having had to prove themselves is baseless. If incompetent teachers slip by the tenure process, blame the administrators who need to do a better job. Somebody above pointed out that different industries have different embedded feedback mechanisms. The tenure process with its probationary period IS such a feedback mechanism. You may think that it’s not good enough, that is fine with me, but please do not claim, as mathewladner does, that public education lacks a feedback mechanism and that just about anybody gets hired as teacher and offered tenure.

        The number about 99% retention mentioned above of course disregards the considerable rate of attrition, including those who quit on their own after realizing that teaching is not for them. Are 99% of those teachers who get through probation satisfactory? I cannot tell. Maybe retention should be lower. You realize, though, that there are limits. You cannot run a school by firing 10% or more of the teachers every year, on top of attrition and mobility. Certainly not in the long run.

        Here’s a fact of statistics that is rarely appreciated. The average teacher, just like the average software engineer and the average lawyer, is bound to be average. Not a star, not an incompetent. Just average. (On top of that, must of us believe that we are above average in our profession.) No matter how you structure the system, that isn’t going to change.

      • toni says:

        “While it’s easy to seek for cover behind the word “customarily,” it is actually a red herring, since the defining nature of the entrepreneurial innovator is that he most often chooses a path that is *not* customary.”

        Rhetoric, lots of rhetoric.

      • Daniel Earley says:

        Since everything merely appears to be rhetoric to you, Toni, I sincerely hope you will ponder over the following story published today. No need to respond; please just contemplate the implications in light of our stated objectives. http://educationnext.org/ignoring-bad-incentives/

      • toni says:

        Thanks for the link but statements such as “Since everything merely appears to be rhetoric to you” fall back on you. I do take your arguments seriously but at a certain level of vagueness, it becomes difficult to argue.

  3. matthewladner says:

    Toni-

    In the “real world” employers can hire/fire and compensate workers in direct relationship to the degree to which the people running the organization perceive that they contribute to the goals of the organization.

    In dysfunctional bizzarro world of public school human resource mismanagement, lifetime employment is handed out with all the discrimination of a New Orleans crew throwing beads at a Bourbon Street crowd and everyone is paid according to a pay scale which has nothing to do with how much or how little they contribute to the goals of the school.

    • toni says:

      matthewladner: “lifetime employment is handed out with all the discrimination of a New Orleans crew throwing beads at a Bourbon Street crowd”

      I wonder whether you really believe what you say? (You also want to be careful not to insult our tenure host by insinuating that tenure is easy to get.)

      The kind of rhetoric you espouse is heard frequently nowadays but interestingly, when people are asked about their personal experience with teachers, whether their kids’ or their own back when, often have good things to say. I for one, educated by tenured teachers in the public education system, do not think that any of them were undeserving incompetents. (Similar sentiment at Uncertain principles) Maybe I was just lucky. But I suspect that a lot of those ranting about incompetent teachers don’t understand that in any profession, you will get a few excellent practitioners, a few lousy ones, and a bunch who are about average. If anybody has evidence that the rate of incompetence is higher among teachers than in any other profession, let me know.

    • toni says:

      matthewladner: “lifetime employment is handed out with all the discrimination of a New Orleans crew throwing beads at a Bourbon Street crowd”

      I wonder whether you really believe what you say? (You also want to be careful not to insult our tenured host by insinuating that tenure is easy to get.)

      The kind of rhetoric you espouse is heard frequently nowadays but interestingly, when people are asked about their personal experience with teachers, whether their kids’ or their own back when, often have good things to say. I for one, educated by tenured teachers in the public education system, do not think that any of them were undeserving incompetents. (Similar sentiment at Uncertain principles) Maybe I was just lucky. But I suspect that a lot of those ranting about incompetent teachers don’t understand that in any profession, you will get a few excellent practitioners, a few lousy ones, and a bunch who are about average. If anybody has evidence that the rate of incompetence is higher among teachers than in any other profession, let me know.

      [Sorry for double posting, there was a bad typo]

      • matthewladner says:

        Toni-

        Everyone that went through the public school system, myself included, had some wonderful teachers that made a difference in their lives. I can’t say however that all of my teachers made it into this category.

        Saying that any profession has ineffective, effective and highly effective practioners is of course true, but the difference lies in how the profession responds to failure.

        I’ve never seen a proposal to grant “tenure” to surgeons regardless of the number of patients they kill on the operating table, or accountants regardless of the number of tax filings they botch.

        Meanwhile about a third of American 4th graders can’t read, and no one is held responsible.

    • toni says:

      title=”U.S. Is Urged to Raise Teachers’ Status”

      To improve its public schools, the United States should raise the status of the teaching profession by recruiting more qualified candidates, training them better and paying them more, according to a new report on comparative educational systems. Andreas Schleicher, who oversees the international achievement test known by its acronym Pisa, says in his report that top-scoring countries like Korea, Singapore and Finland recruit only high-performing college graduates for teaching positions, support them with mentoring and other help in the classroom, and take steps to raise respect for the profession. “Teaching in the U.S. is unfortunately no longer a high-status occupation,” Mr. Schleicher says in the report, prepared in advance of an educational conference that opens in New York on Wednesday. “Despite the characterization of some that teaching is an easy job, with short hours and summers off, the fact is that successful, dedicated teachers in the U.S. work long hours for little pay and, in many cases, insufficient support from their leadership.”
      (NYT, March 16, 2011)

      I thought this a fitting conclusion.

      I appreciate you commenters engaging in the question I asked. This was interesting.

    • toni says:

      U.S. Is Urged to Raise Teachers’ Status

      To improve its public schools, the United States should raise the status of the teaching profession by recruiting more qualified candidates, training them better and paying them more, according to a new report on comparative educational systems. Andreas Schleicher, who oversees the international achievement test known by its acronym Pisa, says in his report that top-scoring countries like Korea, Singapore and Finland recruit only high-performing college graduates for teaching positions, support them with mentoring and other help in the classroom, and take steps to raise respect for the profession. “Teaching in the U.S. is unfortunately no longer a high-status occupation,” Mr. Schleicher says in the report, prepared in advance of an educational conference that opens in New York on Wednesday. “Despite the characterization of some that teaching is an easy job, with short hours and summers off, the fact is that successful, dedicated teachers in the U.S. work long hours for little pay and, in many cases, insufficient support from their leadership.”
      (NYT, March 16, 2011)

      I thought this a fitting conclusion.

      I appreciate you commenters engaging in the question I asked. This was interesting.

      [Sorry formating problem]

      • toni says:

        Don’t know what’s wrong with the link. Again:
        U.S. Is Urged to Raise Teachers’ Status

        matthewladner:

        I’ve never seen a proposal to grant “tenure” to surgeons regardless of the number of patients they kill on the operating table, or accountants regardless of the number of tax filings they botch.

        Strawman. Nobody proposes to employ teachers who commit child abuse. And it does seem that oil execs have the equivalent of tenure, only much better, regardless of how much oil they spill (see above), and financial execs regardless of how many bad mortgages they write. And I could add, highly paid pundits can write whatever nonsense they want with no consequences whatsoever whether they are right or wrong . Wouldn’t it be nice to have merit pay for political commentators based on factual accuracy? Forget it.

        Again what is bizarre is that we talk as if school teachers get away with anything (which is not true) while we let quite a few rich and powerful people DO get away with anything.

  4. Daniel Earley says:

    Toni — It may be helpful to pause for a moment to consider a subtle point that may be generating an accidental straw man in this discussion. You are right that no singular system of merit-pay is inherently standardized across or even within any industry in the private sector. As you noted, some professions only use merit pay structures in particular settings. Oftentimes, however, they are more intrinsically part of the fabric itself and not so obvious. Regardless, education reformers generally do not propose any standardized “universal” merit system for education. Instead, the idea is to facilitate granular and organic innovations at various local levels (which is quite analogous to other industries) while helping all schools become as independently accountable as possible to either the wrath or support their customers — precisely as the case is for their private sector counterparts. Ultimately, however merit is ascertained and rewarded would be up to the people on the ground facing the parents. A century of such authentic evolutionary pressures would certainly yield better fruit than the previous one.

  5. Paul Hoss says:

    Jay,

    Your post was exceptional. Unfortunately, only the first comment pertained to your message. A very disappointing string of comments.

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