Sunday, March 11, 2012

Because The Machine Says So

"It is a pleasure to visit a classroom in which the elements of sound teaching, motivated students and a positive learning environment are so effectively combined."

The head of the school's PTA (and a parent with a child in her class) said of her: 

"One of the best teachers I've ever come in contact with. Every time I saw her, she was attentive to the children, went over their schoolwork . . . she took time with them and made sure."

Naturally, this second year 5th grade teacher with glowing classroom evaluations was fired. Not "let go" as part of a last-in, first-out cost cutting measure, but fired for incompetence based exclusively on standardized test scores. That would be outrageous enough all by itself, but it appears that a large percentage of her students had come from another school in the district that is suspected of cheating on the prior year's tests.  She had even expressed concern earlier in the year that many of her students who had arrived with high reading scores where, in her opinion, barely able to read. So when these students who had been passed along to her with artificially inflated scores were tested in her class, "the machine" found that they had regressed and she was gone. Appeal denied. They even claim they "treated her fairly." It's the Blueberry Story writ large.

How does anyone expect teachers to work under these conditions? 

This happened in the District of Columbia Public Schools, one of many districts scandalized by what appears to be widespread cheating on these unproven, mathematically invalid high stakes standardized tests. What makes this particularly infuriating is that much of the cheating in this case happened between 2007-2010 under the watch of union-busting, corporate education reform poster child Michelle Rhee, who has risen to prominence based on her supposed turn-around of the DC public schools, when it appears she did it all based on lies and cheating. No, I don't think she personally engaged in the cheating, but as chancellor she certainly jumped at the chance to claim credit for those ill-gotten test scores and did everything she could to slow-walk any investigations on her watch. And she's still doing it.

Despite this, Rhee continues to hang out with Education Secretary Arne Duncan, receive $50,000 a pop speaking fees, and generally enjoy being feted as a leading light in American education.

You would think that, at a minimum, everyone with any kind of sense of responsibility about public education in our country would be keeping their distance from this deeply flawed champion of high-stakes testing, charter schools, and the de-professionalization of teaching, but no, they seem to be doubling down.

What's wrong with these people? I'm serious. Everyone from Bill Gates to President Obama to Arne Duncan to Michelle Rhee seem to be victims of some sort of brainwashing. No matter the actual evidence in front of them, they stay the course. No matter how many mathematicians and professional educators demonstrate that their tests are bunk, they stay the course. No matter how many studies show that charters and vouchers, on average, produce worse results that regular public schools, they stay the course. No matter how much their own "research" proves to be simply data that has been "fixed" around a pre-determined result (e.g., We prove that high stakes test scores help children learn by using high stakes test scores to show that children are learning), they stay the course. No matter what, they seem simply incapable of seeing or hearing anything beyond their dogma of corporate education reform, a project that seems specifically designed to enrich corporations, while totally ignoring the educational requirements of children and our democracy.

I used to think we were just dealing with misguided crusaders and dilettantes, well-intended folks striving to give back, but no longer. There are powerful, wealthy people who want our children to be less well-educated, more obedient, and less likely to question; they are looking to our schools to create a citizenry that is so hard at work keeping their heads above water that they don't have the time, let alone the ability or knowledge, to speak for themselves. And they seem to have managed to create these legions of brainwashed followers, who can see nothing but what they've been fed by lobbyists in smokey back rooms. It's hard to know which ones are the zombies and which their cynical masters.

Good teachers stand in the way of this agenda; teachers who think for themselves, who have a genuine interest in education, who understand that the corporate reform movement is not about education at all, but rather manufacturing methods designed to produce unquestioning worker bees. 

How does anyone expect teachers to work under this system? They don't. No, good teachers are actually a flaw in the system. They must be fired because the machine says so.

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Anonymous said...

Excellent post!

Erin said...

I agree 100% Luckily I teach in Ontario, Canada, unluckily it seems that we are following in the footsteps the the US education SNAFU.

Here is an interesting article about why the US will never adopt the changes that Finland did...

I feel like I'm fighting a losing battle here. Every year brings more data to collect, analyze and inform our teaching - at the expense of the learning. Sigh.

Unknown said...

I hope she goes to another school where they don't test. A private school. I hope she continues to be an excellent teacher that makes a difference for children in the world.

Judi Pack said...

It's infuriating! I just saw a film, "The Finland Phenomenon." They believe in equity and respect for all children. They believe that children should play. They believe that teachers should be well trained, supported, respected and trusted. They believe that learning means working together, questioning, making mistakes, having a context and real life experiences instead of punishing or testing. Then they make it all happen. Perhaps we have to ask what our society believes about learning and what it wants for its children. Sorry for the rant.

Carrie said...

I have a very large dislike for the machine. In our area, scores went Waaay down this year. Come to find out as I looked into the fall release there is a page stating that the bar was raised on proficiency. Well no wonder more kids are below the bar when you raise it on them like that - and then discourage "good" teaching.

Unfortunately high stakes testing isn't exactly new. On TV this weekend reminded me of Lean on Me about the same thing... released on 1989. The premise at the end was they wanted to get rid of Clark regardless of how much he had turned that school around, cared for those students and got the teachers moving in the right direction.

Laura said...

I am a bit confused about charter schools. Wouldn't charter schools allow you, or me, to start a school with public funding?

Anonymous said...

ahh, i suggest "dumbing us down". i am sure some of you're aware of this book.
very frustrating.

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Teacher Tom said...

Hey Laura, sorry I didn't reply sooner. Yes, in some states the charter laws would allow you or me to start a school. They also, in most cases, allow for giant for-profit testing mills and online schools to set up shop. Not only do these schools come to dominate the market through sheer marketing ability alone, but they cherry pick their students, leaving only the poorest, the learning disabled, and the behavioral problems for the public schools to educate. In spite of this, charter schools as a category have worse results than traditional public schools, but they also tend to cherry pick their "results" and market them in such a way that they "sell" themselves and further rundown public schools.

As far as I'm concerned, if a school is for profit it ought to also be subject to child labor laws, because that's what they're doing: making money off the labor of children.