So , the state of the union was on Tuesday. And the President said some nice stuff about teachers. Which he did last time there was an election. But my cynicism cup runneth over.
As everyone on facebook and twitter was saying ‘yay, the president just said stop teaching to the test!’ I couldn’t help but feel a bit sick inside. The disconnect between what he is saying and what his administration has actually been doing is just too overwhelming.
This administration arrived with great hope and fanfare for education. The first bump was when Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University, who advised the President on ed policy during the campaign, was passed over for Ed Secretary in favor of a business leader who had taken over the Chicago schools and had claimed to have performed near miracles there. Though it was hard to tell in the moment, this was the first sign that the current administrations policies on education would be not just a continuation of the Bush presidency, but an amplification of them.
Much as Ron Paige was heralded by Bush as having performed miracles in Houston, Arne Duncan came with assurances that he could do for the US what he had done for Chicago. Which he pretty much is doing, it just isn’t that good. So at least that part is honest. We know now of course that not only Houston, but most of the ‘Texas miracle‘ in education was nonsense. And the evidence that what happened in Chicago isn’t all that great is also coming in. This dynamic has been repeated over and over again (see: Michelle Rhee). As a rule, if someone claims to have performed something miraculous in education, wait for the data.
I read The Answer Sheet today and I think Anthony Cody had it pretty much right:
Let us be crystal clear. The Obama administration has made the use of test scores to evaluate principals and teachers a pre-condition for federal aid. Both Race to the Top and the No Child Left Behind waivers(being offered to states by the Education Department) require that states develop evaluation processes that incorporate this data. Furthermore, the administration proposes to continue to identify and target for closure or “turnaround” the bottom 5% of schools, once again based on these same test scores we are told should not be taught to.
You cannot have it both ways. You cannot tell teachers to be creative, you cannot pretend you are “flexible,” when you mandate the use of test scores for teacher and principal evaluations, and continue to use them as the basis by which schools are condemned as failures.
We can’t have it both ways is right. Sadly, while Mr. Obama is a master rhetorician when he turns it on, his rhetoric is profoundly out of synch with what his administration has done, is doing, and promises to continue to do. The problems with this path are many, and thinkers much better than I have addressed them, and there is plenty of evidence that the ‘test and punish’ policies of this administration are, and will, have profound negative consequences for America and its children. At the minimum, there are basic human issues that concern me deeply (as Doc Z pointed out the other day). Not to mention, I just don’t believe, based on my own experience as a teacher and parent, that these policies will educate our children well or prepare them for a dynamic and uncertain future.
I actually don’t doubt good intent on the part of many of the actors in this never-ending Greek tragedy. I have no reason to think that President Obama or Ed. Sec. Duncan are so shamelessly cynical as to not care about education except as a means for electioneering.
But I am tired. We keep chasing the silver bullet and there isn’t one. The problems of education, as real as they are, will never lend themselves to easy solutions. Or even one solution. We will have to address serious social issues, cultural issues, and structural issues to effect change in education. And we will have to do so without negatively impacting the many, many really good schools that are out there (I know you don’t hear that much, but there are a LOT of really good public schools, I happen to teach in one). And we will have to stop focusing the blame for the problems on the teachers and other front line workers in education. And it might be nice if our leaders listened to policy advice from actual educators. Maybe just once.
So what I really want is for the President to just make sense. Don’t be so completely disconnected from your own policy that those of us in education can only stand by and watch, while our collective heads explode from the cognitive disjunct of trying to reconcile what you say with what you do. That’s it, just make sense.