Recent data shows anti-union school “reformers” hoisted on their own petard. After insisting that test scores should be the chief measure of schools, a flurry of recent test results has refuted claims that non-union charter schools exceed unionized public ones. First, last July saw the Atlanta schools testing scandal explode, over five years after the local teachers union raised alarm bells the district ignored.
Second, a Los Angeles Times analysis revealed last week that “struggling schools under district control saw test scores rise more than most operated by the mayor, a charter organization and others.” This is after Mayor Villaraigosa repeatedly attacked public schools and tried to take control of the system.
Third, in Washington, DC, USA TODAY exposed doctored test results under the former regime of anti-union zealot Michelle Rhee; according to the New York Times, Rhee, who normally never passes up a media shot, is refusing to discuss the controversy with reporters.
And then we have Court TV founder Steven Brill, whose new book on public education is primarily an attack on teachers unions. Brill’s work got the coveted front pageNew York Times Sunday Book Review on August 21, but even a private school teacher reviewer who admits problems with teachers unions (a typical Sunday Book Review choice) found that Brill’s core claims lack a factual basis.
After years of teachers union bashing and corporate-led school “reform” efforts, anti-public school forces are now on the defensive. And the main reason is that the statistical measurements do not support their arguments, and even show a pattern of falsification.
Rhee Runs from Lies
Former DC Superintendent Michelle Rhee became a leading symbol of anti-teachers union attacks, gaining national media status. Now it is revealed that researchers found that for the past three school years most of the classrooms in Rhee’s most favored district “had extraordinarily high numbers of erasures on standardized tests. The consistent pattern was that wrong answers were erased and changed to right ones.”
How much did Rhee’s prized school (Noyes) cheat? According to USA TODAY, “on the 2009 reading test, for example, seventh-graders in one Noyes classroom averaged 12.7 wrong-to-right erasures per student on answer sheets; the average for seventh-graders in all D.C. schools on that test was less than 1. The odds are better for winning the Powerball grand prize than having that many erasures by chance, according to statisticians.”
As Michael Winerip reported in the August 22 New York Times, Rhee is now refusing to discuss this evidence of widespread test tampering with reporters. Once “the national symbol of the data-driven, take-no-prisoners education reform movement” when leading DC schools from 2007-2010, Rhee is still not acknowledging that her prescription for educational success has failed.
Los Angeles Realities
In Los Angeles, Mayor Villaraigosa’s union-bashing was so extreme that he even tried to seize control of the school district. But now that the L.A. Times analysis found poor performing public schools improving more than the Mayor’s alternatives, Villaraigosa is changing course. He told the Times, “We've decided to go to some of these similar [district] schools that are outpacing some of our schools and look at what they're doing."
Los Angeles is home to billionaire Eli Broad, one of the nation’s leading funders of charter schools. Broad and Villaraigosa sought to build support for outside organizations as an alternative to unionized public schools, a situation likely to change from the new test scores. As the Times noted, “another illuminating statistic is the change in percentage points, which more closely reflects how many more students rated proficient in math and English. In percentage point gains, the district outpaced all the outside organizations. Test scores in reading at the district high schools rose 7.8 points; math scores climbed 6.3 points.”
When I saw notorious anti-teachers union Steve Brill had a book on education on the front-page of the August 21 New York Times Sunday Book Review, and that the review was written by a private school teacher who has problems with unions, I assumed the worst. But this book by a legal entrepreneur with no educational background failed to even convince a sympathetic critic that teachers unions are the problem with American education.
As reviewer Sara Mosle writes:
“Yet Brill wants us to believe that unions are the primary – even sole – cause of failing public schools. But hard evidence for this is scarce. Many of the nation’s worst-performing schools (according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress) are concentrated in Southern and Western right-to-work states, where public sector unions are weakest and collective bargaining enjoys little or no protection. Also, if unions are the primary cause of bad schools, why isn’t labor’s pernicious effect similarly felt in many middle-class suburbs, like Pelham, N.Y., or Montclair, N.J., which have good schools – and strong unions?
More problematic for Brill’s thesis, charter schools, which are typically freed from union rules, haven’t succeeded in the ways their champions once hoped. A small percentage are undeniably superb. But most are not. One particularly rigorous 2009 study, which surveyed approximately half of all charters nationwide and was financed by the pro-charter Walton Family and Michael and Susan Dell Foundations, found that more than 80 percent either do no better, or actually perform substantially worse, than traditional public schools, a dismal record.”
Like Rhee, Brill’s animus toward teachers unions leads him to disregard unpleasant facts. The review notes that “Brill obliquely refers to such research in half a sentence. He then counters that other studies have shown better results for charters, without clearly indicating what these studies are or explaining why they should trump a comprehensive, national study.”
Unfortunately for attorney Brill, he does not have a Justice Scalia or Clarence Thomas to save him from his evidentiary shortcomings. Brill has inadvertently brought down a “case closed” on the once rising campaign against teachers unions, as it has fallen victim to the test score measuring stick of its own devise.
Randy Shaw’s most recent book is Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.