On The HotSeat: AFT's Joan Baratz Snowden Goes Off On Education

Joan Baratz Snowden is not your stereotypical teachers union apologist. The self-styled “czarina” of teacher quality and ed reform at the AFT used to work for ETS, of all things, and is just as happy to rip a bad Democratic idea to shreds as anything else. Excellent.

On this week's HotSeat, Baratz Snowden dismisses the NBPTS study as nothing more than an errant bird (seriously), compares economists working in education to drunks looking for their keys (seriously), says that the whacky policy ideas are coming from left as well as right these days (no doubt), and warns against too much hype about mentoring programs that are too feel-good (wonder who she means?).

What's the biggest misconception about the AFT, would you say?

JBS: That a union can’t represent teachers and at the same time advocate for the interests of children. We can and we do.

So, is the AFT for, or against, NCLB these days?

JBS: We have always supported the goals of NCLB. After all, we are the folks who were for standards based accountability before it was enshrined in public policy. And, similar to Checker and lots of observers of its implementation, we believe it needs to be improved.

What about charter schools – pro or con?

JBS: Yes.

I heard you took on Bob Gordon and some other talking heads the other day at a Center on American progress event about value-added – what happened?

JBS: It’s hard to tell the “left” from the “right” these days when it comes to zany proposals for the improvement of teaching.

What's the problem?

JBS: Getting more economists looking at the issue is a hoot, if it weren’t for the fact that people occasionally listen to them. The call for eliminating certification on the basis of a graph allegedly depicting no differences between the trained and untrained in teacher effectiveness is a great example of pushing data through a model with no understanding of the meaning (or meaninglessness) of the data. You got some numbers, grind them out. It’s like the drunk looking for his keys under the light—-not because he dropped them there, but because it is the only place where he can see.

Whatever happened to peer review and evaluation, which I remember being at least mildly popular for a while?

JBS: The rigorous review programs such as those implemented in Toledo, Rochester and Cincinnati have been shown to be effective. Other research has shown that good mentoring programs are important to the retention of good teachers who might otherwise leave the profession. Unfortunately, not all “mentoring” programs are equal—some are glorified buddy systems.

If you're all for incentives for teachers to work in hard to staff or otherwise struggling schools, which teachers should be eligible? NBCTs? Others?

JBS: If people take on harder assignments they should be paid to do so. If we want highly qualified teachers in hard to staff schools we must not only offer incentives, but selective about who gets hired. Yes, NBCT’s should get such pay, but so should other teachers who go through a rigorous, selective process.

What else is needed to make it work?

JBS: The much admired “Chancellor’s district” that Rudy Crew and the UFT implemented in NYC showed that they needed to address other factors—e.g., safety, administrative effectiveness—in order to attract highly effective, veteran teachers.

What do people need to know about the recently released study on NBPTS effects?

JBS: I certainly was disappointed that it didn't provide definitive support for the greater effectiveness of National Board teachers. But the study is just one of several that looked at the value-added of National Board teachers and larger scale studies have reached opposite conclusions. As the poet remarked, ”One swallow does not make a spring.”

It seems like teacher evaluation's failings are often blamed on principals. why don't principals rate teachers as unsatisfactory, and what would happen if more did?

JBS: There are lots of reasons that principals don’t rate teachers as unsatisfactory, but principle among them is the fact that too many of then are not knowledgeable about effective instruction and too often the evaluation tool is meaningless. The question is not whether something would happen merely because more teachers were rated unsatisfactory, the question is what is the evidence for the rating—satisfactory or not. What we need is better evaluation instruments, and trained evaluators—both teachers and principals.

Where are the good ideas coming from these days?

We don’t need more “good ideas,” we need to implement some of the good ideas we already have. The current penchant for discounting formal preparation for the classroom has captivated policymakers at the expense of true progress on the teacher quality front. We know what works… What we lack is the political will to implement these policies, so we go for the quick fix and wishful thinking approaches of luring the best and the brightest into teaching on a short term basis instead of shaping and sustaining a teaching force organized for student success over the long haul.

Whose writing about education do you like, if anyone's, and why?

The rise of the blogosphere has created an immediacy in educational debates that is a quite interesting phenomena. The instantaneity of news and opinion is terrific, but the lack of reflection at a deeper level in some of the writing is really quite stunning. I still think folk like John Goodlad and Larry Cremin are worth rereading. Too many of the big names in education are too busy scoring ideological points to offer much in the way of either new ideas or good ideas.


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