"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Saturday, October 22, 2011

NCLB 2.0 and the New Feuderalism

Everybody connected to Washington's corporate legislative process badly needs some good PR.  With approval numbers for Congress in or near single digits, and with both high-rolling presidents of the "teachers' unions" implicated in the destruction of public schools and the teaching profession, and with both legislative bodies suddenly nervous about being ignored by a White House that has calmly showed that it assassinates its enemies if need be, the stars could be coming into alignment for a reauthorization of ESEA, which has been delayed until NCLB's AYP requirements could blow up urban education in America.

Whether or not any bill gets past the Tea Party pledge to block anything that could be construed, even vaguely, as a victory for this Administration,  the best Senators that money could buy have been parading around the Senate Building this past week with whatever amendments the highest bidders were able to purchase.  Apparently, the "teachers' unions" were high bidders on at least one item involving teacher evaluation.

With Dennis (NEA) having sweet-talked NEA delegates this past summer into supporting teacher evaluations based on test scores, and with Randi (AFT) having had a lead backroom role in devising Rhee's byzantine evaluation scheme in DC,  both are working overtime now to reclaim some semblance of respectability from their dwindling memberships after being castigated and denounced by those in DC this summer at the SOS rally for pushing the Chamber of Commerce plan for teacher evaluations.

And so those on the NEA payroll can report a "victory" this weekend, with NCLB 2.0 coming out of Committee without a national plan for teacher evaluation.  Hurrah for Randi and Dennis!, right?  The sad truth is that Dunc's darling plan for national teacher eval would not have been deleted in Committee had it not been aligned with Tea Party interests to end any federal influence in education, as a step toward ending public education altogether.  The sadder truth is that both Randi and Dennis (and Arne) know that pushing the teacher evaluation-crafting responsibility down to the states simply makes it easier and less visible for the oligarchs to buy their agendas, one state at a time--without the national media attention, such as it is.  This the new Feuderalism.

Tennessee is a perfect example of what happens when the Gates Foundation and the creepy TFA are put in charge of state education policy.  And where was the milquetoast NEA affliliate, TEA, as the new plan was rammed through the Tennessee legislature last spring?  Totally and completely emasculated, overrun, outgunned.

Earlier this week, Nashville's NPR station had a story about disappointed teachers in Tennessee who are finding that perfectionism, hard work, and meticulous preparation of previously-successful lessons are not enough to get a top score in the new state teacher evaluation system hastily devised by the former Teach for America cult members who now run the Tennnessee Department of Education.

Half of Tennessee teachers' evaluations are based on test scores, and if you teach outside the core subjects, then half your score must depend upon your school's overall score--which is based on the teaching capacity of someone other than yourself.  Massive lawsuits waiting to happen.  This glaring unfairness, itself, is enough to keep all the best lawyers in Nashville busy with lawsuits for years to come, but this fact hasn't seemed to register with Corp Cult Commish, Kevin Huffman.

The other half of this evaluation scheme comes principally from a series of annual evaluations by hastily-trained evaluators using a non-validated four-page "rubric" designed to make it extremely difficult to score better than a 3.  Apprentice teachers are evaluated 6 times a year, and veterans are clipboarded 4 times a year.  Notice that there is no way, using this rubric, for teachers to analyze which specific areas they may have excelled or fallen short.  Notice, too, the same instrument is used for experienced teachers and apprentice teachers.  Notice, too, that there is one instructional approach for a universe of needs, subjects, styles, and venues.  One size straightjacket fits all, or else.  Notice, also, that the "rubric" follows a pattern of "always or almost always" for a 5, "mostly" for a 3, and "seldom" for a 1.  Wonder what a 4 would be described as?  More than mostly but less than almost always?

If a graduate student turned this rubric in to me as an example of what she would devise for a high-stakes assessment of teaching, I would score this as a big Not Yet.  And yet this kind of ramrodding by educational amateurs is what we can expect if the new Feuderalism takes effect in ed policy.  Instead of capitulating as NEA and AFT have done, in ways they hope will look heroic, they should be calling for national strikes by teachers until the hedge funders, corporate foundations, and ed industry lobbyists are run entirely out of the Department of Education.  Fat chance as long as Randi and Dennis continue to be propped up by the Oligarchs.

The NPR story:
Tennessee overhauled its teacher evaluation system last year to win a grant from the federal Race to the Top program. Now many teachers say they are struggling to shine, and that's torpedoing morale.

For Janna Beth Hunt, who teaches first grade at Norman Binkley Elementary in Nashville, it's been a disappointing process. Tennessee's new observations grade teachers on a scale of 1 to 5. Many are scoring what feels like a C, which under the system isn't enough to get the job security of tenure.

"I definitely feel like I'm better than an average teacher. I'm not happy with a 3, but I told my principal that, and he knows that I'm a perfectionist and that I want a 5. It's just extremely difficult to get a 5," Hunt says.

Some teachers say it feels impossible. To score at the highest levels, students must demonstrate a mastery of the day's lesson. But the four-page checklist used to grade teachers is incredibly detailed, down to how handouts are passed around. That kind of nitpicking is new for every teacher in Tennessee, but especially for veteran educators, who may not have had anyone watching them in years.

"We evaluated tenured teachers twice every 10 years, and virtually every teacher was told that they were at the top end of the scale," says Kevin Huffman, the state's education commissioner.

That's not unusual. A study published last year by the New Teacher Project [administered by former TFAers] pointed out weaknesses in teacher evaluation systems across the country. Race to the Top money pushed through controversial changes in several states, often without the full support of teachers. But Huffman [former TFA exec] says there's no way educators are performing at the top of their game when students aren't.

"I don't understand how you can run an education system where we tell more than half of the children — these are children — in the state of Tennessee, 'Hey, you're not proficient,' but then we're uncomfortable saying to adults, 'Not all of you are great,' " Huffman says.

Teacher Dorcel Benson has 30 years of experience and still puts in long hours.

"I would love for [Huffman] to come and spend a day or two with me. Tell me specifically what I need to do to improve," Benson says.

While other teachers are spending late nights prepping for the new high-stakes observations, Benson has accepted her mediocre marks.

"Life is too short. And my health is much more valuable to me," she says.

Benson says she and most teachers do the best they can, even when they're handed a tough situation, like a student who reaches her fourth-grade class still unable to read. Education officials, she says, don't seem to appreciate the challenge.

'It's Why We Come To School'

Discouraging evaluation scores have shattered teacher morale, says Tim Tackett, a school board member. "Don't forget that these are just big kids. They like to be patted on the back, too," he says.

Tackett is from one of several districts whose school boards have fired off letters to the state asking for a complete review of the new evaluation system. They're also voicing concerns about the workload on administrators.

Principal Barbara Ide says she struggles to find time for answering emails and talking to parents between all the additional observations.

"Nothing was taken off the plate, and a lot was added to it. But the part that was added to it is really the essence of what an instructional leader does. It's why we come to school," Ide says.

Even while principals have some critiques, Ide isn't alone in recognizing the advantages of accountability. Being in classrooms, she says, has led to deeper discussions about teaching techniques.

Lakesha DeJarnett left her job in journalism three years ago to teach. She teaches 8th grade at Thurgood Marshall Middle School outside Nashville.

"There are some who feel like, 'I don't know what I got myself into,' especially some of us first-, second-, third-year teachers, and especially those of us who changed careers to come into this," DeJarnett says.

But she says the challenge is bringing out her best. She just wonders how long she and others can keep up the new pace.
When your "business model" is based on replacing peasant teachers every 2-3 years, who cares?  There's plenty more where those came from.

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