Guest blog: Jerry Mulvihill on educational reformers.

Jerry Mulvihill, a colleague of mine in Park Ridge, wrote the following op-ed piece for the Southtown Star.

“(Mr. Mulvihill), when you come up with a plan to decrease salaries and spending in wasteful and ineffective (school) districts and shift resources to the efficient and effective districts, you may gain some credibility. Until then, you’re acting like no more than a union shill.” — Illinois Policy Institute Liberty Leader Bob Shelstrom


It would appear in today’s economic and political environment that almost everyone can declare themselves a qualified school reformer. Bob Shelstrom certainly fits, as exemplified by his above quote. But while I believe we would all agree with Mr. Shelstrom’s sentiment that the fight for quality education for our children is too important to abandon, I would argue that his solutions to improve Southland schools and the data he uses to support his ideas are fundamentally flawed.

As a 20-year public schoolteacher, former school board member and father of two students in Southland public schools, I feel a professional obligation to offer an additional perspective to Mr. Shelstrom’s Dec. 11 Insight column. What did I do to draw his ire? I submitted an opinion to the SouthtownStar’s Forum, expressing my belief that the inequitable nature of school funding in Illinois was one obstacle in the way of putting Southland kids’ educational success on the same level with students who live in more affluent communities in our state.

As an educator, I agree with Shelstrom’s idea of looking at the data as an important indicator for student achievement in Southland schools. He compares two school districts, Consolidated High School District 230 and Indian Prairie High School District 204, as models of schools with similar potential for success. Although he fails to define his standard of similar potential, he points out that District 204 outperforms District 230 on the annual Prairie State Achievement Exam. He stresses that District 204 students are taught by teachers who make an average of $15,000 less annually than those in District 230.

But are these two districts with “similar potential” an example of the exception or the rule? What other factors in each school or community need to be analyzed to determine the reasons for such differing testing results? Shelstrom fails to ask these questions but concludes that using this data to determine teacher effectiveness and to reduce resources for underperforming Southland districts is an appropriate way to improve educational performance.

Shelstrom presents another flawed idea of school reform by comparing the per-pupil expenditure levels and results of the ACT and PSAE scores of an entire school district, Rich Township High School District 227, to a single school in one of the most affluent school districts in Illinois, Hinsdale Central High School. Shelstrom neglected to note the disproportionate percentage of low-income students in District 227 as a possible factor in student test performance.

Why is this important to point out? Recent studies call into question the correlation between student test-score performance and teacher effectiveness. Diane Ravitch, a New York University education research professor and former assistant secretary of education, says testing experts warn that tests such as the ACT and PSAE should be used for diagnostic purposes — not to determine teacher performance or overall school effectiveness.

The basic rule in teaching, Ravitch said, is that testing should only be used for the purpose for which it was designed. A test of 11th-graders in math on the PSAE is an indicator of whether students performed well in math; it is not a test of teacher quality. Ravitch also points out that testing research indicates overwhelmingly that minority and low-income students consistently test lower than white students from affluent households.

Shelstrom also proposes that students participate in the evaluation of their teachers to help identify what he believes to be the real enemy of students — old, lazy teachers. He says student evaluations would show that more experienced teachers lack the necessary interest and motivation to be effective. His “young teacher, old teacher” narrative ignores the realities of the context in which our teachers operate, and it’s a recipe for disaster in our schools.

For example, study after study shows that between one-third and one-half of new teachers voluntarily leave schools in struggling districts because of poor training, no support, inadequate curriculum and other poor working conditions.

Good schools have a professional staff with a broad range of experience, backgrounds, ages and education levels. Does Shelstrom really believe that discarding the most experienced teachers in the Southland would improve student performance?

Everyone agrees that Southland schools need improved performance. It is important not to overlook the fact that standardized testing is but one of many indicators of performance. But arguing that funding disparity and poverty level are not part of the problem faced by our schools simply ignores the greater context of the challenges faced by Southland children.

In addition to Shelstrom’s advice to parents to attend school board meetings to influence school improvement, I offer this litmus test to parents: Visit your child’s school. Observe the teachers in their work environment. Do your observations support that your school is a good one? Does your child’s teacher appear effective in his or her instruction?

It’s likely that the reality of the day-to-day activities and performance of your kids’ teachers in their classrooms is often a different one than the images and stories being told by self-proclaimed education reformers.

Jerry Mulvihill, of Alsip, is a public schoolteacher, public school activist, school volunteer and father of two students in Southland public schools.

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