A blog about living in Aberdeen, New Jersey.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Testing Makes Race to the Top Unpalatable; Forced Scramble for Funds Makes It Undignified

Here are some more comments I found on Race to the Top, a White House funding offer that has some difficult strings attached. I wrote an article on this issue on Friday and thought further research was in order.

Ken Mondschein captures the essence of the problem with Race to the Top in his opinion piece in today's Faster Times.
  • Relatively speaking, there isn't much money in this program to be divided up across so many states, but what money is available will be pitifully scrambled for by districts in dire need of cash. "The method of deciding who gets the scant money—a total of $4 billion for the entire country, which is two-thirds of Chicago’s annual school budget, about a fifth of New York City’s, and about an eleventh of the federal Department of Education’s—is pure laissez-faire: The districts compete for the cash by sending in proposals saying just how they’ll get with the program. This is the same financial strategy that made cultural highlights such as “Bumfights” possible: The desperate promising anything for crusts of bread."
  • Education is becoming a cold-hearted business. "In a nation where profit is the highest good, education has become run like a business. If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it—and so the intangibles of education have been reduced to what can be tested. If a child’s ability to read can’t be measured, then they might as well be illiterate—never mind what they’re reading, or if it expands their mind or helps them to see their world in a new way. Accordingly, teachers are forced to “teach to the test,” making kids into bubble-filling machines rather than thinkers."
  • Comparison of scores between poor urban and rich suburban school districts is based on ridiculous logic. Both teachers and students can expect to lose. "Failing districts can lose funding, making a hard job even more impossible; they may be required to spend more money that they don’t have on remedial programs; and schools can even be taken over and teachers can even be fired. Nothing in the bill, however, compels parents to put down the Doritos and make sure their kid does their math homework."
  •  Testing is harmful to students at the top and bottom of the educational spectrum. "Those who don’t test well are sacrificed for the good of the rest by being stuck in special-education classes, while bright students, rather than being challenged, are taught to pass the same mediocre test as everyone else."
  •  Testing is harmful to teachers, too. "[Teachers] are expected to pull up test scores without looking why they’re so low, such as teenage pregnancy, a lack of childcare, and parents who don’t give a damn about their children’s education. This gives not just an incentive for teachers to rig the test, but basically mandates that they cheat so that they can keep their jobs."
  • In the end, we all lose. "[B]oth liberal and conservative administrators have put their faith in ... outcome-based results, standardized tests, increasing Federal control, and the loss of autonomy for teachers."
The National Academies of Science say it is too early to be using student test scores to evaluate teachers' performance.

National Journal hosted a discussion about Race to the Top. Here are some of the discussion points I found interesting.

     Dennis Van Roekel, President of the National Education Association, says, "[T]he proposal to link student achievement data to teacher and principal evaluation misses the mark. A "Race to the Top" can quickly turn into a "Race to Judgment." I’ve explained to Secretary Duncan that educators have been burned by NCLB – where the results of one high-stakes test were used in a punitive manner. We’re concerned about the effectiveness and reliability of requiring states to link data on student achievement to individual teachers for the purpose of teacher and principal evaluation."

     Monty Neill, Deputy Director of Fair Test, says, "Is it fair to children to further narrow their education and encourage even more teaching to predominantly multiple-choice tests, as is now happening under "No Child Left Behind"? No – but that will be the primary consequence if federal "Race to the Top" guidelines link test scores to teacher and principal evaluations and create a new cycle of standardized tests. The guidelines say that tests should be a "significant factor" in teacher evaluations. "Significant" is not defined, but it is safe to assume it means weighty enough to affect educator behaviors, and hence intensify teaching to the test."

     Steve Peha, of Teaching that Makes Sense, says, "When I look at the Race to the Top from a Washington D.C. perspective, it looks bright and shiny and new – just what we need to kick recalcitrant states into high gear on ed reform. But when I look at it from a classroom or single school perspective, I ask, 'How’s all this new stuff gonna get done?'

     Take, for example, the criteria from the Great Teachers and Leaders section:
  1. PROVIDING ALTERNATIVE PATHWAYS FOR ASPIRING TEACHERS AND PRINCIPALS. A fine idea in theory but it hasn’t worked out so well in practice. I can see some pretty poor programs being funded here.
  2. DIFFERENTIATING TEACHER AND PRINCIPAL EFFECTIVENESS BASED ON PERFORMANCE. This’ll take some union battling to be sure. And that takes time. How’s a state gonna work this out in time to meet grant application deadlines?
  3. ENSURING EQUITABLE DISTRIBUTION OF EFFECTIVE TEACHERS AND PRINCIPALS. This one requires that #2 get done first, then comes the hard part: involuntary transfers of effective teachers and principals to ineffective schools. That’s not exactly the reward most effective educators are looking for. And then there’s the problem of sending less effective educators involuntarily to more effective schools. I don’t think that’s gonna go over very well either.
  4. REPORTING THE EFFECTIVENESS OF TEACHER AND PRINCIPAL PREPARATION PROGRAMS. This sounds smart. But the devil is in the details. How are we going to rate these programs in a way that would be useful to both the programs and their participants?
  5. PROVIDING EFFECTIVE SUPPORT TO TEACHERS AND PRINCIPALS. This would be wonderful. But does anyone realize how much support 'effective' support is? Forget about the money. Most states don’t have the manpower to provide support that is truly effective.
      The more I study the Race to the Top, and really read the fine print, I’m starting to realize how ambitious it is. Ambition is good. But too much ambition causes people to do strange things – like take money for programs they’re not sure can actually be implemented."

The Daily Record in central Ohio shows that small districts are moving ahead with their Race to the Top submissions despite their teachers unions' unease with mandated testing, while larger districts see the writing on the wall and are not applying for the funds at all.

Those on the Matawan Aberdeen school board should realize that accepting this funding scheme will require expenditure of a significant portion of the "found money" on administration of the new tests, tests that will cause more wasted hours in test prep and more hours away from curriculum. We'll have no say in the tests the Feds want given. The tests are set to be ones given in Georgia. If we're not already giving those tests, once again we'll be measuring apples and oranges and wasting our time and money.

Honestly, forcing this scheme down teachers' throats for such little real gain is probably one of the least Machiavellian moves MARSD could make.


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