Is Education Better Off With NCLB, Race To The Top?

States Address Problems With Teacher Evaluations –

Continuing with the education series, I introduce another New York Times piece and my views – and open questions. Please, do not limit to read what I wrote; read the link above as well. But in essence, the points that both the article and I are making are – in my case it is more an inquisitive monologue: Are all the time and resources consumed by this new form of micro-managed classroom paying off?

Here is a supporter of the new system: Daniel Weisberg is executive VP and general counsel – that means he  is above all an attorney –  at The New Teacher Project : “If you don’t solve the problem of teacher quality, you will continue to have an achievement gap.”

That sounds to me like an awful simplification of what the causes of the achievement gap are- in statistical terms.  Again, as I have said before, individual cases which do not conform with an statistical model, are exceptions to the rule; not the rule. There is a huge dimension that Mr. Weisberg completely ignores – just as governor Christie and the other advocates of education reform do here in New Jersey: It is what I will call from now on – in the least controversial form I can find for the sake of keeping minds cool: The Student Baseline (SBL). In reality, SBL is the sum of all the background factors weighing in every student’s life.

Just to clarify: The first two dimensions are time (which could be translated into money) and teacher quality. Mr. Weisberg concentrates on the latter.  My actual position (I say actual because it is evolving) is that time is fundamental too and has the unique virtue of at least partially compensating when we can not modify SBL – of all 3 dimensions, SBL is the one that approaches the most the concept of a constant – distinct but almost immutable for every student.

To visualize the SBL’s imagine a blank sheet of paper with 20 or 25 horizontal straight lines, all at hopefully only slightly different heights, but all close to the bottom edge – meaning  the beginning of the academic year – and we want to bring all those lines to the same goal-line at the top of the page. And the task of promoting different rates of climb (ROC) in every student, while teaching the same class level to all falls squarely on the teacher’s shoulder – according to Mr. Weisberg: Teachers are the factor.

Now going back to the NYT article I find some rather unexpected side-effects: In one place, physical education teachers are incorporating math and writing into their activities since 50% of their evaluations are based on standardized tests, not sports.

Then there seems to be a lot of time spent on evaluations and conferences. Evaluating is the principals’ role by default but with the new system, it appears they have to evaluate every teacher more or less equally rather than concentrating on those that are known to be deficient.

Another paragraph in the article mentions principal/teachers meetings, the first before classes start and the second at the end of the day. The article does not mention whether this is done every day but I presume it is. On the other hand, the article mentions “4 to 6” hours inputting data but does not clarify in what period of time – a day, a week? I do hope it is a week. A principal also claims that this leaves much less time for contact with parents. How can we expect parents to be involved then?

Principals have less time to do unannounced spot check on classes they may perceive as needing more attention, They spend a lot of time evaluating teachers that they know perfectly well are effective. Gera Summerford, of the Tennessee Education Association – a teachers’ union – compares the system to forcing a car mechanic to use all the tools he owns regardless of the problem that is to be fixed.

Mr. Weisberg  says that the new system will need time to work. Then my reply to that is that we should see perhaps not jumps but at least noticeable incremental improvements every year. I must emphasize that if we are taking valuable time away from actual teaching, that deficit should be balanced by gains in quality and ROC on a constant basis – unless we simultaneously increase time. Otherwise, plain and simple: We will be losing the education race.

Now at the end, I would like to bring to the top a rather mundane question which above all applies to New Jersey under governor Christie: If any of you were 18 years old and in college, about to choose a major, would you choose to be a teacher in New Jersey? Or in other words: Given the current set of conditions in New Jersey, will we be able to attract the best and brightest and most dedicated  to teaching here?

Or will those young men and women thrown their arms in the air and move on to greener pastures?