Outrage in Florida
The assault on public education and the teaching profession is now in full swing, as states scramble to qualify for the billions of federal funds in President Obama's Race to the Top program. The latest outrage just occurred in Florida, where state legislators passed an extraordinarily stupid piece of legislation. This law abolishes teacher tenure and ties teacher pay to student test scores. In addition, the state will no longer consider either education or experience as factors in teachers' compensation. What teachers earn will depend on their students' test scores.
The economists who floated this bad idea, perhaps as a theoretical exercise, should step up to the plate and take responsibility for what they have wrought. This path devalues education, devalues whatever cannot be measured, and undermines teachers' morale. It may be that high school students, with a few weeks' training, can produce even higher test scores in basic skills than teachers with National Board Certification. If so, we should turn the schools over to anyone with a pulse and forget about professionalism. We may be the first nation in the world with a federal program intended to dumb down our schools and destroy the teaching profession.
You know how easily the test scores may be corrupted when high stakes are attached to them. For those who don't know, may I recommend that they read chapter eight of my new book, which demonstrates how high-stakes accountability has promoted cheating by teachers, principals, districts, and states. The polite term for cheating is "gaming the system." For those who want to learn more, read Richard Rothstein's Grading Education and Daniel Koretz's Measuring Up. And if you want to see the latest research on how pointless it is to evaluate teachers by test scores, even by "value-added assessment," read chapter nine of my new book.
Since my book appeared, I have received hundreds of e-mails from teachers around the country. All of them express profound disappointment, even despair, about the current demand to punish teachers if scores don't go up. It is not that they fear evaluation, but they know that students are not randomly assigned to classes; one year they will have an eager and receptive group of students, the next year they might get a group dominated by reluctant learners.
Several Florida teachers contacted me, seeking help. I asked one to explain how the new Florida law would affect her. She said that the law would create hostility among teachers, as well as between teachers and administrators. She wondered whether anyone would ensure that the demographics of every classroom would be the same, so that all teachers had an equal chance. And she wrote as follows:
I teach at a Title I school so I already have a low level of parent involvement as well as a high ratio of transience. My students do not have a great deal of stability in their lives. My students may go home to an empty house (if they have a house at all) and may not have much to eat for dinner. They may not get a good night's sleep because they are worried about gang activity (yes, we have active gangs in my small city), or they can't get to sleep until they know mom is home from her second job at night, or they are caring for younger siblings, cousins, neighbors, etc. There is no one at home to help them with their homework, or if there is, they cannot help because they don't speak English or they are illiterate themselves. No one is at home teaching my students about the importance of health and cleanliness so my student may come to school with poor hygiene. My student needs glasses, but the family can't afford to provide their child with the tools necessary for his/her success. My student does not even possess adequate background knowledge to fully comprehend the passages he/she is reading. So many aspects of my children's lives are out of my control; yet I will be held accountable (to the point that my teaching certificate itself is on the line) based on how these children perform on one test, one standardized test, taken on one highly stressful day out of their already tumultuous lives...According to NCLB and its brilliant analysis of adequate yearly progress, we are not even measuring my students according to the learning gains they made in one year. AYP does not compare my third graders at the end of the year with those same children at the beginning of the year. The flawed system compares my third grade students' scores this year against completely different students from previous years. Can we just put an end to this numbers game we are playing?
The legislation in Florida was initiated by a Republican state senator named John Thrasher. The bill will indeed thrash teachers and thrash the state's public schools. Who will be the beneficiary of the teaching-to-the-same-lousy-standardized-tests? We can safely anticipate more cheating and greater demand to private public schools.
Almost alone among the national media, Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post has kept close watch on this legislation. She tried to get a comment on it from Secretary Arne Duncan, perhaps hoping that he would denounce it. The Secretary, who was quick to applaud the mass firings of staff at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island, had no comment on Florida's plan to abolish the teaching profession and turn it into the test-prep profession. (See also these other blog posts by Valerie Strauss: "Florida Senate Approves Disastrous Teachers Bill," March 24, 2010, and "Disaster for Florida Teachers: Senate Bill 6," March 24, 2010.)