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Education Opinion

Vapidity Is the Watchword When It Comes to Edu-Leadership

By Rick Hess — September 01, 2010 4 min read
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It’s like a bad joke. You’re interviewing candidates for an important education job and ask each about their views on using performance-based metrics to evaluate and potentially remove teachers. Who actually answers the question, much less inspires confidence that they’re up to snuff?

The ex-basketball player who says, “We have to elevate the status of the profession. We can’t do enough to recognize great teaching. We can’t do enough to shine a spotlight on success. And we have to be willing to challenge the status quo together when it’s not working.”

The union lawyer who says, “I think the issue is, what we’re all grappling with, is how you make sure that teachers are the best they can be. Failure is not an option, and I think what’s happened is that we’re all trying to figure out how to make teaching--which has always been an art--into an art and a science, which is why data is really important.”

Or the school chief who responds, “We completely revamped our teacher evaluation model so that it was more aligned with how students were actually performing, so in our new model, 50 percent of the teacher’s evaluation is based on how much they’re progressing their students, in terms of academic achievement levels, 40 percent is based on observations of classroom practice, another 5 percent based on how their school is doing overall, and then the final 5 percent based on their contributions to school community.”

If I were judging Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, AFT honcho Randi Weingarten, and DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee on their answers Sunday when they appeared on ABC’s “This Week,” Duncan and Weingarten would be out the door, quick. Rhee would be the keeper. That’s what makes it so bizarre that it’s Rhee who, pending the outcome of D.C.'s mayoral election, might be out of a job come January.

Given an audience of millions of serious adults, Weingarten and Duncan spouted platitudinous clichés and avoided saying anything that might inform. Host Christiane Amanpour asked Weingarten: “Something like seven teachers were let go this year for bad performance out of thousands of teachers in New York. And there’s...evidence in Los Angeles, as well, of it taking years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to [remove a teacher]... How do you get through that impediment to good teachers?”

Weingarten ducked the actual question, while taking, ahem, liberties with the evidence, saying, “First, the states that actually have lots of teachers in teacher unions tend to be the states that have done the best in terms of academic success in this country. And the states that don’t tend to be the worst. The issue is not a teacher union contract or a teacher union management contract. What we have to do with these contracts is we have to make them solution-driven.”

Amanpour asked Weingarten, “The question really is about, who gets kept, who gets fired, who gets merit pay?” Weingarten’s content-free response: “No one--myself included--wants bad teachers. We talk about bad teachers and good teachers all the time, but we don’t actually spend the time talking about the overwhelming number of good teachers who do a superb job... At the end of the day, teachers--this is probably the most important thing I can say--teachers want what students need.”

Duncan chipped in with, “Let me be clear: We have to educate our way to a better economy... We have to get that dropout rate to zero as quick as we can. We have to dramatically increase graduation rates. And we have to make sure every single student that graduates from high school is college- and career-ready. So the status quo is not going to work for the country.”

And then there’s Weingarten’s parting shot: “We have to help all kids. And so what happens is that some of these programs, particularly the ones that are collaborative, what we’re going to have to see is how they work going forward, because the goal is not just some kids, but all kids.” As I said back in February, this is why I can’t stand “it’s for the kids” rhetoric.

Part of the issue here is that interviewers need to learn how to ask real questions when it comes to schooling. Supposedly battle-hardened journos like Amanpour seem to turn into wide-eyed naifs when dealing with education, falling for empty pieties and failing to press for real answers. This rewards and encourages vacuity. Wouldn’t it be nice if reporters covered schools as seriously as the weather, same-store retail sales, or Brett Favre’s preseason?

I’m out on a limb here, but I think smart policy and practice start with calling things by their proper names and accepting honest disagreements. Others may see the banal utterings of Duncan and Weingarten as inspiring. I view them as an embarrassment and a guarantee that all our talk of reform will run only skin-deep. And I think it ludicrous but revealing that Rhee, the only one of these three willing to talk straight, is the one who may soon be out of a job.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.