Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Education Reform Silly Season

It might be summer, but the education know-nothings are clearly not at the beach. The latest case-in-point is former CNN correspondent Campbell Brown's incredibly uninformed comments on teacher tenure that, unfortunately, millions of people saw and didn't stick around for the fact-checking. Her musings come on the heels of a California decision in which a judge ruled that tenure is unconstitutional because it deprives some students of a quality education. There is another case against tenure in New York States and I will assume that many other states will soon join in. It is true that there are some teachers who should not be in classrooms because they are ineffective or burned out, but depriving teachers of a due process right and subjecting them to firing because of issues unrelated to their job performance is the height of irresponsibility.

In Campbell Brown's case, she quotes the popular half-truth that the teacher is far and away the most important factor in a child's success, and that if all classrooms had effective teachers, then all students would learn. I suppose we could read this as a compliment for great teachers, but I also read it for the folly of what it implies.

What she and other education know-nothings are essentially saying here is that an effective teacher can overcome poverty, child abuse, hunger, malnutrition, unemployment, dysfunctional and nonfunctional families, drug and alcohol abuse, teen pregnancy, developmental disabilities, ADHD, the autism spectrum, lack of sleep, entitled parents and students, and general ennui and make productive citizens out of every child. This is what teachers see in their classrooms and every one of these factors, or a combination of many of them, is a distraction or an impediment to learning. If effective teachers could negate them and educate children in spite of them, then we also need to elect teachers to Congress and the Presidency because the country clearly needs them.

The truth is that teachers do overcome these obstacles, but not at the pace that society needs in order to help all students. What then happens, and the education know-nothings are quick with the response, the teachers, whose students do not perform well on the latest misuse of data, the teacher evaluation metrics, are labeled incompetent and worthy of firing. Since tenure is in the way, getting rid of it is the know-nothing's illogical retort.

The proper response would be for those with microphones and cameras to focus their attention on providing living conditions in all communities that allow for jobs with livable wages, responsive public services, adequate public health care, affordable housing, enrichment opportunities for the children, and safe neighborhoods. Those teachers who work in such communities know why their students are more prepared than others. It's not rocket science, but it is science; and we know how the right wing feels about science.

To further the folly of their arguments, though, the know-nothings have managed to institute teacher evaluation systems throughout the land that will do everything except provide for a valid measure of an effective teacher. They've made testing the default activity in schools when there is little research to support a system based on such testing. And for those teachers who don't teach a testable subject, there's the SGO, or Student Growth Objective. But now those measures are under review because, surprise, SGOs don't provide for a valid measure either.

In New Jersey, teachers who have questioned the testing/SGO folly are finally being heard. Tests, which were going to count for 30% of a teacher's evaluation, will now only count as 10% for the coming school year, and SGO's will be under scrutiny for how they are used for evaluation. Neither measure has been shown to predict or confirm a teacher's effectiveness, and putting them under a microscope should confirm that. Of course, with Governor Christie now running for president, the chances of further reform are nonexistent, but perhaps in a few years things will change. Still, many otherwise qualified teachers will be affected by the evaluation system. That's the shame of it all.

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