Saturday, January 3, 2015

Six Recommendations for Responsibility

Anthony Cody's Living in Dialogue should be on your bookmark list. In addition to Cody's own valuable voice, the blog provides a great assortment of voices from the education world.

Last month he included a piece with a rather twisty pedigree. Last year NEA entered into a project with VIVA Idea Exchange (I'm supposed to put a little TM with that, which gives you your first hint about these folks). VIVA is linked to New Voice Strategies, a PR opinion-pushing firm that Dennis Van Roekel (blessedly-former NEA president) used and which hired Paul Toner once Massachusetts teachers had booted him out of his union president job. Reportedly, 900 teacher comments were solicited, then boiled down to the final product.

A result of that project was presented at Living in Dialogue, prompting considerable discussion both at LID and at Diane Ravitch's blog. There's considerable debate about how hard VIVA pushed for certain inclusions in the final product and how "pure" the process remained. I thought I'd just go ahead and see if I thought the results were any good. Here are the six recommendations regarding accountability:

1) Shift away from blame, toward shared responsibility.

This requires moving away from models that hold any ONE stakeholder as solely responsible for a student’s learning, and moving to a model acknowledging that teachers, families, students, and policymakers share responsibility for how well students learn.

Interesting list of stakeholders, as it includes politicians but misses taxpayers, voters, and members of the community. I'm not just nitpicking-- I consider that a glaring omission. But beyond that, I would certainly support any model that didn't involve intoning that teachers are the single biggest factor in student learning, so let's spank them real hard. I would welcome moving away from the ridiculous reasoning that if 50% of a state's students are not proficient, the only possible explanation is that 50% of the state's teachers are bad teachers.

So, basic idea is good. Specific iteration needs work. 

2) Educate the whole child

Good lord, yes. Reformsters have insisted that the parts of the child that they believe they can measure are the only parts that matter. Educating the whole child has not always been one of public education's Best Things, but we have never moved further away as a matter of deliberate policy than we have right now. If teachers are going to do their whole job, accountability freaks will have to accept that not all parts of a teacher's job performance can be measured easily, or even a all.

3) Top down funding without top down control.

This is unicorn farming. The federal government simply doesn't play this game; all federal money comes with strings attached. And the writers have sandwiched a whole lot of stuff in this particular bullet point that smells of horn polish.

Educators in every state need to develop education standards, benchmarks, and assessments in all content area due to an increasingly mobile and transient student population – without dictating a specific curriculum.

First, no. No, they don't. I know reasonable people believe in the inevitable necessity of national standards of one sort or another. I do not. And while I would be extraordinarily hard to budge on this point, I have never seen a single solitary piece of evidence that national standards have any educational value at all. None. Not a bit. So don't keep saying that to me like it's self-evident, because it's not, nor has anyone provided any evidence yet.

Second, you cannot fix your (imaginary) transient student problem with anything except a national curriculum.

They also have a wish list of three unlikely items and one good one. The three unlikely ones include a constitutional amendment requiring states "to direct necessary funds toward public education." Who's going to decide what "necessary" means? Their wish list also calls for a combination of lawmaking and lawsuiting to establish education as a civil right and supplement limited state money with limitless federal money. So, the feds won't exert top down control, except when they do.

The fourth item is full testing transparency-- what the tests cost in money and time and scoring and everything else. That would be peachy.

4) Teacher autonomy and professionalism

Recognize educators as professionals who care about the growth of students, the climate of schools, and the state of education in today’s world, and allow them the autonomy afforded to such professionals.  Given the impact of teachers on student achievement, it is imperative that teachers be treated as trained professionals who know their students, their students needs, and how best to deliver instruction in the most appropriate way.  Allowing teachers to determine best practices will result in removing scripted, one-size-fits-all lessons that often emerge from upper-level decision-making, ignoring the human element. Classroom teachers know how to assess, monitor, and adjust, and if allowed to use their professional judgment with their own students, schools will witness student growth.

Well, yes. That sounds about right, other than "given the impact of teachers on student impact" is just reinforcing the accountability myth that bad test scores can be best explained by bad teachers.

The second paragraph, unfortunately, is way too mealy-mouthed. Teachers should be valued. Their voices and opinions should be considered. Teachers should be free to offer comments and criticism without fear of retaliation (you know--we could offer them some sort of job protection that we could call "tenure").

Sorry to unload on this particular article, but I am tired of teachers and reformsters putting forth as their best ideal a world where teachers are "considered" and "listened to." I'd love those things. But as long as we're staking out unicorn farms, I'd like a world where the state licensing board for teachers and teacher education programs is composed entirely of working teachers. I'd like a world where no major decision about a school building can be made without the approval vote of the teaching staff. I would like a world where nobody is allowed to hold a major education oversight position, like charter school operator or state ed  commissioner or secretary of education, without at least ten years of teaching experience in a public school. That's my unicorn farm, and it includes a hell of a lot more than teachers just being listened to politely by all the non-teachers who have the actual power over the world of education.

And don't tell me they were just being realistic when they were writing this. They drop-kicked realism easily enough one item ago when the feds were going to hand out free money with no strings and the states were going to approve a Constitutional amendment. If the writers' biggest dream was to be listened to, they need to dream bigger.

5) Emerge from evaluation to support

Now here are some big dreams. Scrap every stitch of the current system, they say, and replace it with teachers providing an end-of-year report. No evaluations linked to merit pay, licensure, punitive crap, nothing, nada.

I can hear the public (some of whom I've been hanging out with over vacation)-- "So bad teachers will just write their own job performance review?" And I have to agree with them.

Look, if we want everyone to extend trust and respect to teachers based on our professionalism and ability, then we need to extend that same courtesy to our principals. Their proposed self-evaluation certainly has a place in a larger picture, but it wont stand by itself. More than simple honesty, it requires a self-awareness that even some really great teachers lack. I cannot imagine a functioning evaluation system that does not include principal obeservation.

I agree that the goal of such a system needs to be support, not punishment. That's good for the profession, good for the teacher, and good for the school system.

However, test scores have no place in teacher evaluation. You can send the principal to my classroom every day; I won't mind a bit and you'll probably learn a lot about how I do my job. But looking at my students' test scores won't tell you a damn thing about how well I teach.

6) One size does not fit all.

Students arrive with their own unique strengths, aptitudes, interests, and life experiences.  Education begins with recognizing who our students are as persons and facilitating the development of their gifts. 

Yeah, that's about right. And this, too:

Education must extend beyond a narrow academic focus to include a broad range of human developmental goals and values.   In order to educate the whole child, we need to support student growth through individualized guidance programs, electives that nurture aptitudes and extra-curricular activities that develop social skills.  This can only happen in a safe and democratic environment. Schools and school districts must communicate to students that they are accepted, valued, and needed just as they are, regardless of their academic achievements.

It's a good finish for this proposed list that-- well, it came from somewhere, somehow. It's kind of sort of about responsibility and accountability, though beyond the teachers-grade-themselves idea, it's not exactly loaded with actionable material. It's an interesting exercise in I-don't-know-what, because I can't imagine any reformster being convinced by it, and I'm not sure (beyond a few choice pull quotes) what PR usefulness VIVA will glean. Apparently there's another group working on turning it into another sort of document, so we can look forward to that.


  1. I think this report is a good first step in getting teachers' voices heard. You can tell it was written by teachers.

    My only thought is that if you want principals to be instructional leaders and to evaluate teachers, they need to have more than the minimum of 5 years teaching that they're required to in my state. I've had very few that had more than that, one that somehow had only one year (her father was a bigwig in central administration), and our last superintendent had 3 years. I think they should have 15. I still have trouble with them doing evaluations or even giving valid suggestions if their subject matter is different from mine. An alternate method would be having teachers in the same subject matter from neighboring districts come in to observe. But I still wouldn't call it doing evaluations but rather giving suggestions, colleague to colleague.

  2. Wait! You link in this column to "The Trials of Traveling Students", which has three comments from different noms de plume, each of which is signed with a variation of "Cheap Essay Writing Service". Did you ever figure out what the heck that was?

    1. It's actually not uncommon, but those were some of my first real spammers and I was so tickled that I left them there. Nowadays I just delete the spam.