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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Monday, September 24, 2007

There's a lesson in this

by folkbum

One of the most important things I try to teach my students is skepticism, the notion that it is critically important to seek multiple sources of information about a subject, to seek multiple perspectives. And usually when I do that, I pull up a news story about something that my students know well, and ask them to spot the flubs. It ends up an eye-opener for them every time--if they can't get something like this right, my students wonder, what else might I be learning that isn't 100% accurate?

I'm not going to say a lot about the content of the study in question yet, but I had one of those moments the other day, reading the Journal Sentinel editorial endorsing a study's recommendations to change the way the Milwaukee Public Schools hires and places its teachers:
A consulting organization, the New Teacher Project, identified the flawed procedures in a report this week. MPS should correct these as soon as possible so it can better keep its commitment to putting a high-quality teacher in every classroom. [. . .]

The report lauds a major labor-management breakthrough, which took place about a decade ago. The MTEA permitted school committees, which included faculty members, to select new teachers. Before then, the most senior candidate got the position. Now, the two sides must expand the spirit of that reform by pushing aside other procedures that get in the way of hiring the most suitable candidate.

The committees consider only existing MPS teachers and cease hiring in June. The central office assigns all new teachers and, after June, reassigns existing teachers. The report recommends that the school committees do the entire faculty hiring--that is, that they hire new and transferring teachers year-round. [. . .]

With its high share of students disadvantaged by poverty, MPS especially needs high-quality teachers. Management and the union must get rid of procedures that defeat that goal.
I emphasized the key sentence above, which has a couple of things wrong with it, I can tell you from my expeience serving on interview teams for several years. For one, there's a lack of clarity in its generalizations: Not every school elects to have an interview team, and those teams don't hire teachers so much as place teachers who've already been hired into open positions. For two, the teams do, indeed, interview and place new hires. Some of the best teachers that teams I've been on have hired have been fresh out of school and their student teaching.

And, for three, interview teams do operate year-round--with one key exception. Between the beginning of July and the end of September, Central Office places teachers. This happens for an important reason missing from the editorial, which is that it is vitally important to have a teacher in place in every classroom on the first day of school. Every time a teacher who already has a position is placed in an opening by interview, that teacher's now-vacant position has to be filled. It can create a cascading series of open positions. The interview process is not immediate, so if that series of vacancies were to open in the weeks before school starts, you'd have schools scrambling to get teams and candidates in at the last minute. And then there's the necessary shuffling after the third-Friday counts--the district needs to be able to plug holes and move staff quickly once they know enrollments for certain all around the district. Starting back up in October, then, interview teams do indeed fill vacancies that arise, and they can indeed place newly hired teachers in those positions.

Most of those mistakes don't show up in Alan Borsuk's story about the study, or in the study itself (available from the NTP website). And whether or not that is the best way to do things is, of course, up for debate. But it's important to debate from a common--and accurate--set of facts.

So remember, kids--be skeptical. This editorial offers that lesson, and even a little more: If they can't get this right, what else have they gotten wrong? And what does it say about their recommendation, if it may be based on faulty information?

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