Thursday, July 9, 2015

When Perfection Isn't Good Enough

Curmie is way behind on his writing, which accounts for not getting to this story quicker. We all know that the GOP and the corporatist wing of the Democratic Party have joined forces to declare war on public education in this country. It’s all about “accountability” and similar catch-phrases, which are achieved only by high-stakes standardized testing.

The problems with this philosophy occur at two strata. First, the tests and the curricula with which they survive in perverse symbiosis are designed almost exclusively by non-educators with a single purpose: to increase the power, wealth, and prestige of their progenitors. No one is really interested in providing an accurate assessment of either student development or teacher competence. No, in a fetishistic desire for quantification, we’ve just allowed the Pearsons of the world to make shit up and pretend that it’s meaningful. And we’ve allowed arrogant know-nothings like Bill Gates, charlatans like Geoffrey Canada and Michelle Rhee, and corrupt bureaucrats like Arne Duncan to convince us that they care about making education better, when in fact they’re just looking to scapegoat teachers as an excuse to sell their solutions to wildly exaggerated problems.

Curmie has argued against the overuse of standardized testing in general on several occasions—here’s a piece from three years ago with internal links to several others, but there are times when the inanity of the system is very pragmatic and specific. There are the utterly stupid questions.

There’s the corruption of “cut scores,” the scores a particular state or municipality decides is acceptable. If you want to show that your snazzy new system is working, you lower the cut score; if you want to show the status quo isn’t working, you raise it. And, because you’re either a corporation trying to sell a product or a politician trying to sell an idea (and usually a product licensed by one of your campaign contributors), you do this after the scores are in. So if last year’s cut score was 60% and you want to show that your spiffy new approach is working, you lower the cut score to 50% and voilà!, a higher percentage of this year’s students passed. Or, more recently, vice versa: “Oooohhh… we need to adopt this new strategy because fewer students got a 70 this year than got a 60 last year. Education is free-fall, and we need to fix it.”

There are the teachers who are evaluated on the basis of how students they never had in class fare on standardized tests. The reigning Curmie Award winners are the administrators at Rhame Elementary School, who removed 4th grade teacher Vuola Coyle from the classroom because her students’ test scores were too high, making it difficult if not impossible for her 5th grade colleagues to demonstrate that they, too, know how to teach.

It doesn’t matter if you do.  It’s not going to be good enough.
And now we get a variation on that theme. In Florida and, Curmie fears, other places as well, teachers can be punished even for students who earn perfect scores on standardized tests. You see, if they got a perfect score last year, they should show improvement by getting better than a perfect score this year, or the teacher involved is clearly an incompetent. Well, somebody is an incompetent, but Curmie suspects it’s not the teacher.

Ah, but the mouthpiece for the state education department assures us that counties are allowed to adjust their VAM (that’s Value-Added Model, for those of you unfamiliar with corporatized educationese) to accommodate such situations. Except, of course, they don’t (or at least didn’t). Well, at least those perfect scores are so rare it really doesn’t matter. Except that there are tens of thousands of perfect scores, meaning that the chances that some teacher was penalized because one or more of his/her students wasn’t better than perfect is roughly equal to the chance that Donald Trump will say something stupid and boorish in the next 24 hours: ontological certitude, in other words.

The most significant problem here isn’t that hosts of teachers are being treated unfairly because of a glitch in the system—there’s a pretty good likelihood that it’s been fixed by now, after all. And, once middle school teacher Luke Flynt made headlines by challenging the stupid rule, it’s a reasonable surmise that other Florida teachers were alerted to the possibility.

Nor is the central issue the fact that teachers are being evaluated by a system that is rife with flaws, doesn’t measure anything worth measuring, and pays no attention whatsoever to the fact that different teachers are more effective with different students, that student populations vary—sometimes radically—from year to year or even from class to class, and completely disregards significant factors in students’ performance completely unrelated to the classroom: economic and social issues, for example. All of these criticisms are legitimate, and all of them are damning. But it’s all sort of to be expected. Regardless of what you do for a living, there are two kinds of people who are guaranteed to believe they know how to do your job better than you do: rich people and politicians… and God save us from those who are both.

The core (or Core… ) problem, however, is not that a particular district has a silly procedure in place, or that this or that teacher is being punished for circumstances that no rational person, let alone an educational professional, would consider legitimate. Those cases are awful, but they are anecdotal. The central issue, however, is systemic, and it permeates into every part of our society, not merely the education sector.

The problem is that we, the electorate, keep voting for lazy, arrogant, morally bankrupt, and utterly irresponsible politicians at every level. No sentient adult would consciously vote for the kind of idiocy that passes for public education policy in Florida (or New York, or Pennsylvania, or Texas, or…). I started to include “stupid” in the list of adjectives in the first sentence of this paragraph. The problem is, that’s not accurate. They aren’t stupid. They know better, but they’re too beholden to campaign donors, too myopic to actually contemplate the implications of proposed legislation, too interested in supporting a general concept (core curriculum, privileging good teachers over bad ones, etc.) without examining the details (which is where the Devil lurks) of a proposal. And they’re trigger-happy about their pet projects. Yes, delaying tactics are very much a part of the political arsenal of both parties. But the rush to pass legislation for the sake of appearing to solve a problem is what gives us violations of basic human rights (the PATRIOT Act), prolix and convoluted gibberish (Obamacare), and knee-jerk hysteria (the rush to bar the Confederate battle flag from national parks on one or two specially designated days a year
even at Civil War cemeteries ).

The average state legislator knows precisely nothing about education, and the average education secretary knows (and cares) less than that. But as long as we, collectively, keep electing people unfit to clean the toilets in a public school, there’s a very real sense that we get what we deserve. There is no Curmie nomination forthcoming on the issue of punishing teachers for students’ perfect scores: you can’t embarrass a profession to which you don’t belong. You can only embarrass yourself. And politicians of both parties across the country are doing a very good job of that, indeed.

NOTE: Curmie changed his mind. People who control the entire educational system of a state are Curmie-eligible.

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