Monday, September 20, 2010

Does Arne Duncan Have A Soul?

"Not even this much of one."

You'd think that after the recent infamnia the LA TIMES perpetrated against teachers, Arne Duncan, the US Secretary of Education with no background or credentials as an educator, would have had the good sense to either repudiate this clueless act or at least keep his mouth shut about it. Instead, he outdoes himself with the following:

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan last week urged school districts across the country to disclose more data on student achievement and teacher effectiveness, saying too much information that would help teachers and parents is being kept out of public view.

The education secretary told an audience in Little Rock, Ark., that schools too often aren't disclosing data on student achievement that could not only help parents measure teachers' effectiveness, but also help teachers get better feedback.

Mr. Duncan said his remarks were prompted by a Los Angeles Times series analyzing teacher performance through value added scoring to show which elementary teachers were helping students make the most gains. The secretary said he was not advocating posting the results online, as the Times plans to do, but he urged transparency.
 From Education Week [American Education's Newspaper of Record], Wednesday, September 1, 2010, Volume 30, Issue 2, p. 4. See

So what, exactly, is the difference between posting the results of misleading or meaningless data on-line and Mr. Duncan's vision of "transparency"? As he apparently offered no specifics, it's impossible to know how he distinguishes what the LA TIMES did and plans to do from something else. But of course, the problem isn't transparency versus secrecy. It's between meaningful data and utter bullshit. And using student scores on questionable tests and a phony formula with no credibility to rank teachers in terms of "effectiveness" is simply the latter: complete, utter, political bullshit.

How many times are we going to be asked to swallow the patent lie (speaking of 'transparency') that any of these pols and pundits are interested in learning about what kids actually know and can do, or in seeing that TEACHERS (as well as parents, kids, and other stake holders in education) get useful data that will potentially lead to more effective instruction and great student learning and achievement? For in fact, were that the goal of the folks at the LA TIMES, at various right-wing foundations,at the US Dept. of Education, or anywhere else where self-righteous 'experts' wring their hands over the results of fraudulent excursions into experimental statistics and psychometrics, then they would be calling for a very different sort of assessment and holding their peace until such assessments were being give and data collected from them. Further, they would all demand that the data be collected in ways that gave teachers, students, and parents specific feedback on each and every relevant data point: kids and parents would know how the student did on each item, what his/her answer was, what are the likely weak points or areas of confusion in the subject based on the answers, and what is recommended for that student to improve; teachers would receive similar data, but for both individual students and classes as a whole, as well as expert recommendations on how to address the weak areas. Something might actually happen to make things better. But such is not the case, nor is it likely that it will be until at LEAST 2014 when the folks being paid to make better tests to fit the Common Core Standards roll out their first products.

It remains to be seen what those "better tests" will look like, given the much higher cost in time and money that creating, administering, and particularly grading non-multiple choice, non-short answer, non-true/false items of a performance-task nature entails. Creating ANY good test item is challenging, but creating test items that actually tell us what we need to know to improve teaching, learning, and parenting when it comes to academic subjects is a major challenge. If the deform crowd is seriously committed to these goals (as opposed to merely paying them lip-service and instead focusing upon destroying teachers' unions and public schools in order to promote profit-based, private takeovers of public education - quite frankly precisely their real goals, on my view - then they must publicly and privately commit to paying the price to create excellent assessment and seeing that only such instruments that pass reasonable professional and public scrutiny are used for "high-stakes" purposes.

I'd prefer, of course, to see the whole notion of high-stakes testing interrogated with as much care and brutality as the pundits and deformers have been using on kids and teachers. I've said on multiple occasions that as things stand, the only fair way to go if we're going to stick with the multiple-choice nonsense and weak 'student-generated' and 'free-response' questions that dominate the current crop of high-stakes tests is to demand that the pundits and pols who advocate and vote for these tests be made to take the things themselves and allow their scores to be circulated on the internet and published in newspapers. Until then, I doubt that many of them, even those with truly good intentions, will start to look closely at what's being tested, how it's being tested, and what practical uses the results of such tests can be put to. If they really pay attention, they might start to see how antithetical to the alleged purposes of improving education - i.e., teaching, learning, parenting - these instruments are in practice.

Meanwhile, Mr. Duncan will no doubt continue to alienate the vast majority of educators with his ham-handed, anti-teacher proclamations. It would be lovely to see him placed under the same sort of microscope and held to the same sorts of standards he advocates for teachers. It would be more lovely still if President Obama would get his head out of his behind regarding education. For all his own experiences, none of which had a bloody thing to do with the sorts of garbage he and Duncan have been pushing on our nation's public schools, Obama seems purblind about education. While I didn't grouse when the Obamas chose to send their kids to Sidwell-Friends School, I'm now starting to wonder if a dose of ordinary reality isn't just what the doctor ordered for our "socialist" president.

Clearly, he's not a stupid man. Can he really believe that the more we test kids, the more we scapegoat teachers, the more we put weapons into the hands of privatizers and right-wing education deformers, the more we bully and bribe states, the better things are going to be for kids? For the country as a whole? For the future of American democracy? Or has that never really been the point of public schools?

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