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String Theory

    Remember how wonderful it was when we were told Georgia won the second round of the Race To The Top sweepstakes?  The application submitted by then-Governor Perdue and his team, amended from the first application that was almost but not quite good enough, had been amended to include the results of a survey that nobody remembered taking AND in meeting the USDOE guidelines and our lucky state was about to receive $400 million dollars and a little change.  The first announcement after the award was that about $200 million – around ½ - was to be reserved for “administrative costs.”  Most of the other money was to go to the 26 or so volunteer districts around the state that would pilot programs for the rest of Georgia school districts.  Among these pilot programs were the Teacher Evaluation Measure (TEM) and the Leader Evaluation Measure (LEM).  Both evaluation measures must, in accordance with the RTTT guidelines, tie a percentage of the evaluative scores to student academic achievement.  How this was to be accomplished was left up to the RTTT recipients.  Whether it was sound financial or educational practice was taken as a given, even without extant research supporting such a massive expenditure.  Nobody seems to have any idea of what would happen to RTTT when the money ran out, and, despite initial misgivings  during their respective political campaigns, Governor Deal and State School Superintendent Barge went along with the program and Georgia’s incursion and inclusion into unknown educational waters.  When I think of RTTT, an old television show comes to mind.

    Those of us born near the middle of the previous century remember the early years of the television industry, and how the medium began almost as an entertainment afterthought and quickly grew into the intrusive social construct of today.  Some early shows were precursors of the current fascination with reality TV.  One of these early reality shows was “Queen For A Day” hosted by Jack Bailey.  QFAD began as a popular radio show and in the early 50’s made the transition to television.  Contestants told their pitiful stories of poverty, hard luck, physical ailments and family sorrows to live audiences that responded with applause as measured by the “applause meter.”  Jack had the ability to ask each contestant questions guaranteed to bring tears to the eyes of every audience member.  Those with the saddest stories almost always got the most applause.  The winner was chosen to receive whatever the prize package was for that day, usually washers and dryers and appliances donated by sponsors.  The gifts, of course, were expected to change the lives of the winner from hopelessness and despair to instant happiness and fulfillment.  The audiences and sponsors were left with the illusion that their applause and choices and contributions had helped to miraculously and vicariously change the world for the better.  They didn’t, and those unlucky contestants whose stories were not pitiful enough to register at the top of the applause meter went back to their hopeless situations that were still……….well, hopeless and the winners enjoyed momentary celebrity status until they too were quickly relegated to yesterday’s news.  QFAD, like most Federal programs, was based on the underlying assumption that if you throw money at a problem or issue miraculous change will occur.  Just for fun, name a Federal program you would nominate to serve as a model of efficacy and financial accountability.

    RTTT is marketed as a “solution” for states and districts in search of reform, and provides states and public schools with relief from the punitive educational lunacy of NCLB.  Never mind that the “relief” is provided without Congressional approval and through the somewhat Machiavellian, tortuous legal wrangling and manipulation of USDOE policies and procedures that appear to cross the line of political maneuvering into the realm of bullying on a national scale…  The catch – as with all Federal money – is the cash comes with strings that will continue the emphasis on high stakes testing and the top down management theories that were the basis of NCLB.  The USDOE wants teacher evaluations tied to student test scores regardless of how it is done, and they want it done quickly.  The Georgia Legislature, in their willingness to add to the suffering of “those lazy public school teachers”, decided to saddle every state school system with an evaluation system that was based primarily on a deadly combination of conjecture, Federal assurances and corporate sponsorship, and implemented the evaluation system before it had been designed and without regard to consequences, understanding and any semblance of reality.  Asked about the lack of research  supporting “value added measures” used for teacher evaluation, a DOE Assistant Superintendent replied “we are hoping the research will catch up with us in a few years”.  I admire her optimism, but deplore the fact that 400 million dollars has been spent on the development and integration of a teacher evaluation method with no evidence whatsoever to support a positive effect on student achievement.  That’s not a string, it’s a rope.

    In addition to the strings tied tightly to RTTT, these same requirements are tied to the waivers offered to states by the USDOE from NCLB.  These waivers are based on the acceptance and implementation of a system to evaluate teachers on the basis of student progress on high stakes achievement tests.  Those teachers who teach subjects where testing is not currently done will be evaluated on Student Learning Objectives.  Look to Tennessee, New York and Hawaii to learn how effective this method has been and how teachers have reacted.  It’s not very hard to imagine the same teacher backlash to a hastily devised, quickly implemented, poorly researched, do-it-because-we-know-what’s-good-for-you evaluation method in Georgia.  President Obama used the State of the Union address to deplore the fact that teachers are required to teach to the test, but his policies for RTTT and waivers to NCLB require teacher evaluations to be tied in part to student test scores on these same tests.  He can’t have it both ways.

    The Common Core standards, written by Achieve, Inc. are designed to lead to national tests – also written by (wait for it………) Achieve, Inc. – will serve not to improve student achievement but to allow politicians to rank states and systems and schools in a gigantic expansion of what we currently see in the zip code effect.  The effects of poverty and socio-economic factors on education will continue to be largely ignored in our infatuation with the belief that student achievement will improve through intensified measurement.  The “teach the test” and “test prep” and “testing pep rallies” environment will grow stronger through the implementation of annual growth measurements (annual growth = 100% - 2011 proficiency rate of first time test takers divided by 6) that will serve as almost insurmountable incentives for teachers to teach to the test, by the test and for the test.

    Little thought has been given to the plan of action once the Federal money runs out.  RTTT supporters (usually DOE administrators whose salary is paid from the RTTT award) honestly believe local systems will voluntarily provide funds to continue an evaluation program they didn’t ask for, construct, vote on or believe in.   Several have mentioned the Georgia Legislature as a possible source of funding for a program that is guaranteed to produce an enormous backlash from teachers and administrators once it is fully implemented, and I predict lawsuits by the dozen by any teacher fired, reprimanded or non-renewed because of student test scores. That logic goes beyond wishful thinking and into the realm of self delusion.
    RTTT is not an answer to the question of educational reform, but merely an expansion of the influence of corporate interests that are following the money inexplicably spent in a futile attempt to quantify the unquantifiable.  Like QFAD, the aid offered to contestants is a by product and not the reason for the program.  Tests, we must remember, are developed, pushed and sold by testing companies with no vested interest in student achievement.  They are marketed to bureaucrats and politicians looking for an easy fix to a complex problem, and serve little or no purpose beyond teaching our students to become experts in bubble- in testing methodology.  They perpetuate the myth of the effectiveness of top down bureaucratic leadership that doesn’t work for business and has never worked for education either.  We continue to forget the reform in education must be led by teachers and educators from the local level up and not the other way around.  Tip O’Neil, for all his faults, got this one right; “All politics is local.”  He could have included education in that one too.  QFAD was never meant to alleviate poverty or the desperate conditions of the contestants just as RTTT and NCLB waivers are not meant to improve student achievement.  Both are extensions of corporate intrusion and self interest.
     The answer to school improvement and improved academic achievement has always been and always will be found in teachers.  Improving teaching and learning involves allowing teachers the time for collaboration and meaningful professional development designed, conducted and evaluated by teachers and for teachers.  Want to see more kids succeed at higher and higher levels?  Eliminate meaningless standardized testing requirements, empower teachers to do what they do best and  stop state and national efforts to legislate excellence.

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