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Vince Marsala: Politicians are Wrecking Our Schools

Guest post by Vince Marsala.

As election season nears, grandstanding Democratic and Republican politicians will discuss the importance of educators and not teaching to a test. Then, with their empty rhetoric still in the air, they will enact laws that base evaluations on test scores, weaken due process, and inject competition. Meanwhile, many news organizations, who have failed to report on why many educators are against these things, will hail their efforts. None of these efforts will work, and the thousands of teachers and principals who have criticized these ideas will then clean up the mess.

In 1991, New York released its first set of coronary-bypass mortality numbers for cardiac surgeons, and in a 2005 report by New York Magazine, an astonishing 79 percent of doctors who do angioplasty said anonymously the mortality statistics discouraged them from taking on risky patients. Now, some want to evaluate and publish - like the New York Times and LA Times recently did - teachers value added scores which have up to a 53 percent margin of error. Doing so will place the test score between the child and teacher, just like the mortality rating was between the doctor and patient. Instead of working with disabled, non-English speaking, or needy students, educators may avoid them.

Making matters worse, the pressure for high scores will lead to a narrowed curriculum that may not include untested subjects like the Arts, Family & Consumer Science, Foreign Language, Music, and Industrial Technology. David Dranove, a Northwestern health-industry management professor who analyzes the impact of health report cards, stated in the New York Magazine report that this occurred in medicine, "It's kind of like teaching to the test. The doctors are going to treat patients who are sick on the dimensions the report card mentions. But they're not going to operate on patients with illnesses the report card doesn't mention, because they won't get credit for it." Also, as happened in medicine, schools will cheat, lower passing scores, and exclude low performers to make it appear scores are increasing. In the report, David Brown of SUNY-Stony Brook spoke of a doctor doing an unnecessary surgery to ensure the patient was not on the doctor's rating, "He did a mitral annuloplasty, which is putting a little ring around the mitral valve. I called him, and he sort of hemmed and hawed about it. I was going to report it, because I thought it was assault. Certainly it was done strictly to manipulate the data."

Second, just like all college degrees, a teacher pays thousands of dollars to earn a degree, but they also pay thousands more to keep a teaching license current. If after all this investment, a teacher loses a job for not assigning "the correct grade" or not agreeing with a certain viewpoint, educational careers - not jobs - will become obsolete. Here is why: education's dirty little secret is that many schools shy away from hiring experienced teachers because they cost more, so if a veteran teacher does the right thing but is wrongfully let go, he cannot just move to another school.

Third, when teachers collaborate, children win. Offering an incentive to one over another through competition or salary will end this successful practice. Imagine Teacher A has created an assignment that will help Teacher B. By using Teacher A's assignment, Teacher B may receive a higher salary, but Teacher A might never see a salary increase. Unlike the private sector, all educator salaries are public, and naturally, there may be resentment. To expect educators to do what many in the private sector are not willing to do - freely give away their work - is unrealistic.

In closing, some will dismiss this criticism, but a successful school vision has an involved community, students, and parents, a stable, experienced staff, adequate resources, and a balanced curriculum. As conservative and liberal politicians continue dragging education back and forth to earn votes and the media's praise, teachers, principals and their professions are being unfairly bashed, and their students are being thought of solely as test scores. When Mercutio died in Romeo and Juliet, he yelled," A plague o' both your houses!" Many educators would say the same to both political parties today.

What do you think? Have our schools become a political football?

Vincent E. Marsala has taught English since 1997 in Northeast Ohio. He is National Board certified, and coaches football, too. He believes that a successful educational community is a team effort between the community, parents, students, and school personnel.

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