Sunday, March 11, 2012

It's already happening

Years ago, when I began teaching, I ran across a sharply written allegory about the No Child Left Behind Law. Called No Dentist Left Behind, the essay hears out the reactions of a dentist whose skills will be judged by the number of cavities in his clients' teeth.

"Don't you see that dentists don't all work with the same clientele; so much depends on things we can't control?"For example," the dentist said, "I work in a rural area with a high percentage of patients from deprived homes, while some of my colleagues work in upper-middle class neighborhoods. Many of the parents I work with don't bring their children to see me until there is some kind of problem and I don't get to do much preventive work."

The dentist and the narrator go back and forth, outlining the arguments for North Carolina's education accountability law, which parallels NCLB. The dentist sums up:

"You don't get it," he said. "Doing this would be like grading schools and teachers on an average score on a test of children's progress without regard to influences outside the school — the home, the community served and stuff like that. Why would they do something so unfair to dentists? No one would ever think of doing that to schools."

Ho, ho, ho. That was 2002 when the ball was just rolling. Now, 10 years later, teachers are being evaluated according to students' standardized test scores, with Colorado, New York and Washington State most recently passing laws that tie testing to teacher reviews. Not coincidentally, the changes help the states qualify for hundreds of millions of dollars in "Race to the Top" federal funding.

To be clear, we're not just making changes to drive out good teachers, compromise our children's educational content, and reduce the professionalism of teaching, we are in a race to do it.

Already education, educators and students are suffering under the test score / evaluation process. Stories this week have the arc you would expect, but since I stumbled upon so many of them in a few days, I thought it was worth noting here. Of course, there are others, and I hope if you find some good ones, you'll post links in the comments.

• A "bad" teacher "confesses" in the opinion section of the Sunday NYT that by hopping-to whatever his principal instructed him to do during evaluations, his special education students suffered.

• Teacher Tom shows frustration that politics seems to win over common sense in education policy, and he doesn't mince words:

I used to think we were just dealing with misguided crusaders and dilettantes, well-intended folks striving to give back, but no longer. There are powerful, wealthy people who want our children to be less well-educated, more obedient, and less likely to question; they are looking to our schools to create a citizenry that is so hard at work keeping their heads above water that they don't have the time, let alone the ability or knowledge, to speak for themselves.

• The New York Times' Schoolbook blog quotes E.B. White in an anecdote about how teaching to the test doesn't necessarily yield a series of correct answers.

Diane Ravitch commented recently in the New York Review of Books blog:

No incompetent teacher should be allowed to remain in the classroom. Those who can’t teach and can’t improve should be fired. But the current frenzy of blaming teachers for low scores smacks of a witch-hunt, the search for a scapegoat, someone to blame for a faltering economy, for the growing levels of poverty, for widening income inequality.

Hmmm....and something like 76-82 percent of teachers are female, and 52 percent hold a master's degree or higher. Now there's a Ph.D. thesis for another day.

• And not as recently, Anthony Cody, on an Education Week blog, challenges the notion that teachers could elevate one in four students from poverty (through standardized tests, which prove how good the teacher is):

Teachers have already chosen to put our shoulders to the wheel of inequality. Those of us who work with children in poverty are making tremendous sacrifices to meet their needs. The reason child poverty has expanded over the past two decades has nothing to do with "bad teachers," and everything to do with the huge concentration of wealth, and the devastation of America's manufacturing base, as millions of jobs have been shipped overseas in pursuit of higher profits.
The drive to get rid of bad teachers for the benefit of the poor is a phony crusade. The use of test scores for this purpose ensures that students in high poverty schools will continue to wallow in year-round test preparation...

The interesting part here, is that the the LAUSD evaluation process ("STULL") that has been so soundly attacked, in my experience very closely resembles his description of what a strong process should be — if the principal follows it. Which takes me back to: Where are the principals in all of this? As the managers of the teachers, why aren't they being held accountable to their number one role of supporting teachers? How come there aren't more out there like Clarita Zeppie?

We must have evaluation that is sensitive to the composition of each class. You will not get this from a spreadsheet. You cannot get here with data tools. We are dealing with human beings here. We need the skill and judgment of compassionate experts. And that is what we want every teacher to be with his or her students -- a compassionate expert, able to give specific feedback, encouragement, and create a good learning environment. A school is like a classroom in this way. A good principal is a strong instructional leader, and works with his or her staff as a community of learners. What we want is for the doors in that school to be open, for the principal to be circulating, for teachers to be circulating as well, observing and learning from one another, and solving problems together. When the starting point for teacher evaluation reform is "we have far too many bad teachers, and we need to start using data to expose and drive them out," the entire process is sabotaged from the start.

How does this happen?

It's up to citizens to get schooled in the politics, the process and some details about child development, to make a difference here. We will have to vote with our feet, our voices and at the polls. But the voting will not be significant without educating ourselves about the real needs in the classroom. 

Find a teacher you know and love, today. Ask her what she thinks. Find a way to support her, and her work: locally, today...and in the big picture with your government. It is our understanding that will make a difference.

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