A not-so-short commentary on a short news article

Published online 24 July 2009

Here we go.  Only a few months after teacherken gave incoming Secretary of Education Arne Duncan a ringing endorsement of “it could have been worse,” we are now in the Twilight Zone of education politics.  Duncan is threatening to withhold money from the already-underfunded California schools if the legislatures here can’t repeal a law which prohibits the state from using test scores to evaluate teachers.

Generally, here, I engage a critique of the “accountability” movement, of which Arne Duncan is the most recent example.

(Crossposted at Docudharma)

So THAT’s how the test scores correlate most strongly.  They’re a measure of how good the teachers are!  From today’s Los Angeles Times:

California could lose out on millions of federal education dollars unless legislators change a law that prevents it from using student test scores to measure teachers’ performance, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is expected to announce in a speech today.

And I thought those test scores correlated most strongly with the educational levels and socioeconomic status of the parents!  Silly me!

We are, as predicted, at the same level we were with Bush: dealing with the “accountability movement,” i.e. a bunch of bureaucrats looking for new ways to regulate the schools.

Have any of these “accountability” folks ever had real teaching jobs?

You teach 5th grade in California.  At least thirty-one pairs of eyes are on you, from September to June: at least thirty parents (assuming that each child has one parent watching her or him — two would be nice) and your principal.  They are all evaluating you to see whether or not their kids belong in your class.  (And let’s not forget the teacher interns, who are being supervised by their universities on top of all that.)  Remember, these folks are the stakeholders, the ones who have the most distinct interest in your doing well.  You guys are all good servants of capitalist discipline, right?  You believe in stakeholders, right?

And then, of course, if you teach 5th grade in California, you spend about one-sixth of your school year on average preparing for the state’s standardized tests, which will be used to evaluate your school (and possibly to remove you from your job, under the rules for “Adequate Yearly Progress,” catch-22 courtesy of NCLB).

Something is obviously wrong here.  As a teacher, you have at least thirty-one supervisors — but none of their supervision justifies the job of a Federal or state bureaucrat.  Thus those test scores need to be used so that the bureaucrats can supervise you personally, never mind that your classroom is already being supervised through your principal and your parents.

And then there’s the idea, promoted by the “accountability movement,” of the role of the teacher.  The role of the teacher is, of course, to teach — but then there’s the problem of what to teach.  The promoters of the regime of high-stakes testing imagine that the role of the teacher is to produce high test scores.  Yeah, that’s what America needs — high test scores.  High test scores are what defines an “effective” teacher, at least according to the promoters of the “accountability movement.”  Ages from now, when your students have all failed to make it into the class of the entrenched elites who really control America, that’s what we’ll all be talking about — those high test scores your students produced.  Uh huh.

An alternative vision of American education might regard the role of a good teacher (given students of sufficient ability) as someone who teaches her/ his students how to learn.  Good learners, of course, don’t need teachers — they learn on their own, by themselves, and (most importantly for the motivational factor) FOR themselves.  Once you know HOW to learn, the issue of WHAT to learn becomes moot — if you need it, you’ll pick it up, because we know you know how to do that.  And so we need not worry our little brains and duodena into IBS attacks wondering when-exactly you do that.

Of course, this isn’t what high-stakes standardized tests measure — high-stakes standardized tests must be calibrated to compare learners of all walks of life, and so the problem of making sure students know “how to learn” must be decontextualized and simplified into a problem of making sure they know “what to learn.”  The role of the teacher must be adjusted accordingly — the teacher, then, must be a transmitter of content first.  The most obvious legacy of content-mandates in the California schools has got to be the math “standards” which have the students all learning algebra by 8th grade — if they failed to learn pre-algebra in 7th grade, because they didn’t know how to learn it then and there, too late!  Time to move on.  Good luck learning algebra with no knowledge of pre-algebra!

(and then, of course, there’s the “Car Talk” critique of all that content…)

Now let’s question the role of the student in a school system where the test scores are being used to evaluate the teachers.  You’re a teacher with eager students — you must be better than those teachers with students who are not so eager.  Right?  Can we really claim it was you who made those students so eager, or was it the hand your principal dealt you when she/ he selected from among the graduates from the previous grade to be in your class?  The idea, here, is that the student is a passive individual, whose dependency upon her/ his teacher extends to all aspects of learning.  Wouldn’t questioning that model of the student be a prerequisite to not producing such students?

And then there’s the matter of who will actually be hurt if Arne Duncan goes through with his threat to leave California out of this category of funding.  California, as we well know, is going bust this year, & its schools will be subject to some rather severe budget cutbacks.  Who’s that going to hurt?  The schools with lower-class students, of course.  They’re the ones actually dependent upon government funding, the ones who can’t raise a lot of money through a bake sale or a car wash or through municipal tax increases or contributions from an alumni fund if the state is having a bad year.  Duncan’s threat will do the same thing.  School is one of the few forms of welfare our bureaucrats still respect — threatening to leave the schools out of a money pool is a threat to the poorest of our state’s children.

*****

CONCLUSION

Quoting from the article, with critique below each quote:

In recent public appearances, Duncan singled out California’s law as “ridiculous” and “mind-boggling,” saying that it prevents the state from identifying which of the state’s 300,000 teachers are effective and which are not.

“No one in California can tell you which teacher is in which category,” Duncan said at one meeting of education officials. “Something is wrong with that picture.”

Is Duncan talking to any parents of California public school students?  They can tell him in which category their child’s teachers belong.  Or maybe he could ask the kids themselves!  One of the first goals of a proper education should be to foster in students the ability to distinguish between an effective and an ineffective teacher.

In recent speeches, Duncan has laid out four key areas of reform in which applicants must show progress: adopting rigorous academic standards; recruiting and keeping effective teachers; turning around chronically low-performing schools; and building data systems to track student achievement and teacher effectiveness.

  1. If standards are “rigorous,” that doesn’t mean that they’re the right standards, or that students will be able to meet them.
  1. I don’t have statistics on this, but the main cause of teachers leaving the profession has GOT to be the problem of work conditions.  If the “effective” teachers quit in disgust because the work conditions are so bad, where are the new “effective” teachers going to come from?  And how long are they going to stay there before they, too, give up?
  1. Past efforts to “turn around chronically low-performing schools” have attempted to do this on the cheap, i.e. by ignoring funding disparities between schools and the socioeconomic statuses of the students.  Is this another one of those?
  1. Building data systems is, of course, meaningless if the data are misinterpreted, misused, or just no good.

*****

Practically all meaningful school reform is accomplished through the empowerment of multitudes of local participants.  Empowerment, in this context, means dealing with underfunding issues (since the Federal government prints money every day, it has the power to cope with these), and with issues of the meaning of schooling (which are not likely to be resolved as long as schools are being tortured by the “accountability movement”).  Duncan’s effort doesn’t look to me anything like that.

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