Federal Opinion

At the Department of Education, Warm Snow Falls Up

By Anthony Cody — February 23, 2012 9 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Follow me on Twitter at @AnthonyCody

As the Simpson family prepared to travel south of the equator to Brazil, Homer revealed some misconceptions. In opposite land, according to Bart’s father, “warm snow falls up.” Reading the latest press releases and speeches from the Department of Education, sometimes I feel as if this is where we have arrived.

For the past two years, the Department of Education policies have been roundly criticized by teachers. The latest response from Arne Duncan is a big public relations push bearing the title RESPECT -- Recognizing Educational Success, Professional Excellence and Collaborative Teaching.

However, as in Homer’s opposite-land, everything seems to be upside down.

In his speech launching the project last week, Secretary Duncan laid out what he feels are the problems afflicting the teaching profession.

The Department has solutions to each of these problems - but they often have pursued policies that actually make things worse. Here are the problems, and the solutions the Department of Ed has offered -- many of which are mandatory if states wish to qualify for Race to the Top or escape the ravages of NCLB:

Problem #1: “Many of our schools of education are mediocre at best. A staggering 62 percent of young teachers say they felt unprepared to enter the classroom.”

Solution: Evaluate schools of education based on the test scores of the teachers they graduate. Use VAM scores to rate schools of education, and remove funding from those that do not produce teachers with sufficiently high VAM ratings. Since VAM ratings have been shown to be lower among teachers of English Language learners and special education students, programs that place teachers in these classrooms are likely to do poorly. All schools of education will feel significant pressure to prepare their teachers to focus on test scores.

Problem #2: “Many teachers are poorly trained and isolated in their classrooms.”

Solution: Continue to support programs such as Teach For America, which places novice teachers in the most challenging classrooms with only five weeks of training.

Problem #3: “Teachers are given little time to succeed--and they are under increasing pressure to get results to meet accountability targets.”

Bizarre. What agency of the federal government made competitive grants and the continuation of federal funding contingent on whether states created evaluation programs like the one released last week in New York, that will result in teachers being fired after two years of poor VAM ratings?

Problem #4: “Not enough principals know how to attract, nurture, and let blossom the great teachers that they have in their buildings.”

Solution: Pressure states to dictate to principals exactly how they must evaluate their teachers, resulting in highly specific and onerous systems, generating piles of paperwork and little real support for teachers. The New York Times reported last fall on Tennessee’s system, praised by Secretary Duncan for leading the way.

In the five years I've been principal here, I've never known so little about what's going on in my own building." Mr. Shelton has to spend so much time filling out paperwork that he's stuck in his office for long stretches.

Problem #5: “While high-performing nations almost universally have a high bar to entry--rejecting as many as nine in ten applicants who want to teach in their countries--here in the U.S. we basically allow anyone to teach, and often train and support them poorly.”

Solution: Provide a grant in the amount of $50 million to the already well-funded Teach For America program, encouraging them to expand into areas that have no shortage of qualified teachers.

Problem #6: “Here in the U.S., evaluation is too often tied only to test scores, which makes no sense whatsoever.”

This is actually a clever feint.
In fact, here in the US, teacher evaluation has NOT been tied to test scores, even in part. But the Department of Education PR experts want to pretend that they advocate some sort of middle course. They OPPOSE evaluating teachers ONLY on test scores, and merely want scores used as one of the “multiple measures” of teacher quality. But this is a straw man. Show me a school or a state where evaluations have been based “only on test scores.” Opposite land. No such place exists. It is the Department of Education that has required that states mandate the use of test scores in teacher evaluations as a condition of NCLB waivers.

Problem #7: “Instead of a safety net beneath our children and teachers, test-based accountability has become a sword hanging overhead.”

And who sharpened the sword and demanded it be hung on the slender thread of VAM ratings? The Department of Education, through Race to the Top and now the NCLB waiver process.

Problem #8: “Too many schools resemble 19th century factories that treat all teachers and students alike, rather than establishing creative learning environments designed to address the individual needs of students and the personalized developmental needs of teachers.”

The Department of Education continues to require states to use test scores to identify the bottom 5% to 15% of schools, and subject those schools to the “turnaround” trauma we have seen fail in Chicago and elsewhere. Schools with large numbers of students in poverty will continue to feel intense pressure to raise test scores, until we stop measuring success this way, and stop believing the way to motivate and support people is by threatening to fire them.

Problem #9: “Both the teacher work day and work year are too short to get the job done and allow for the kind of professional collaboration teachers want and the learning time that students, particularly disadvantaged students, desperately need.”

Solution: Require teachers to work longer hours, extending the school day, as has been done in Chicago, though there is little research showing this will work. And though the Department of Education speaks of increased compensation for this work, how many states are allocating additional funds to increase teacher pay these days? And how many are looking to cut costs, while increasing our work loads?

Problem #10: “Teacher tenure and compensation is largely unrelated to job performance, skills, and demonstrated leadership ability.”

Solution: Eliminate the use of seniority as a means of determining layoffs. Instead use “job performance,” a significant part of which will now be based on test scores. When protected by seniority, a teacher knows that she cannot be dismissed unless there is clear evidence she is not doing the job. Under the new evaluation systems, as in New York, two years of bad VAM scores in a row and you are out the door.

Problem #11: “Compared to other important professions, teacher salaries are far too low to attract and retain top college students into the field and barely sufficient for existing teachers to raise a family, buy a home, and maintain a middle class lifestyle. Many teachers must work side jobs or rely on their spouses to make ends meet. Something is radically wrong with that picture.”

Solution: The Department actually has no solution to this at all. They have nothing to do with the funding that is used for teacher salaries, and have done nothing at all to address inequities in funding between wealthy and poor districts, even as the gaps there have widened. But doesn’t it make you feel great when Secretary Duncan tells us some of us ought to be earning $150,000 a year?

Problem #12: “Finally, good teachers often must leave the classroom--leave what they love most and what they do best--to acquire more responsibility, advance professionally, and increase earnings. Many simply leave the field.”

Solution: Pay people more if they raise test scores or take on more leadership. I support the leadership aspect of this. If teachers take on additional responsibilities, they should be paid accordingly. Unfortunately the lion’s share of this sort of funding has gone into pay-for-test score schemes, while the Department of Education has cut funding for real leadership programs like the National Writing Project and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. And all the test-centered policies described above will drive teachers from the profession, in spite of all the rhetoric.

Another interesting element of the RESPECT program is this. We teachers have long been clamoring for a seat at the table where decisions are made about schools. The Department has a cadre of Teacher Ambassador Fellows who work under the Office of Communications and Outreach, who are currently holding round table discussions with teachers around the country. But Secretary Duncan gave us a clue about the voices who will be heard the best:

The conversation will be on blogs, in the media, and in town halls like this one. We will engage our union partners at every level--national, state and local--as well as teacher reform groups, like Teach Plus, Educators for Excellence, and the New Teacher Project.

Interesting. Our unions have been a real mixed bag when it comes to these deals. But the three teacher “reform” groups mentioned are another story. All three are heavily funded by the Gates Foundation, and all three have played significant roles in pushing for the increased use of test scores in teacher evaluations.

Teach Plus played a key role in bringing teachers to testify in favor of Senate Bill 1, which passed last year in Indiana. Their goal there was to protect “promising young teachers” from layoffs, by supporting a system that would base layoffs instead on evaluations that are tied to test scores.

Educators 4 Excellence recently took credit for the new evaluation plan in New York. Their leader, Evan Stone, said the following last week:

For the last two years we have been waiting for an evaluation system that gives us meaningful feedback, and now we might have one...This is a huge step forward for teachers and students in New York, and its because of your voices that it happened. This entire policy proposal is based on the ideas of last year's E3 policy team, and it's your effort that got it included in the budget amendment today. But we're not done yet. We need to keep pushing and make sure our voice is heard.

Please take a look at the potential problems raised by New York principal Carol Burris here.

And Diane Ravitch explained:

...one sentence in the agreement shows what matters most: "Teachers rated ineffective on student performance based on objective assessments must be rated ineffective overall." What this means is that a teacher who does not raise test scores will be found ineffective overall, no matter how well he or she does with the remaining sixty percent. In other words, the 40 percent allocated to student performance actually counts for 100 percent. Two years of ineffective ratings and the teacher is fired.

The last group mentioned by Secretary Duncan, The New Teacher Project, is yet another Gates-funded group. TNTP was founded back in 1997 by Michelle Rhee, and got this whole teacher evaluation mania rolling with their 2009 report, The Widget Effect.

So it is very telling that these are the three organizations given special mention by Secretary Duncan.

The crazy-making thing about all this is that teachers are not stupid. We know when we are being systematically disrespected. We know that in order to have a career in teaching, we need some degree of security. We cannot survive if our jobs depend on constantly rising test scores. The supposed “bargain” we have been given is one that makes our work, especially those of us in high poverty schools, all about test scores. The Department of Education is attempting to create a reality distortion field, where we will somehow believe the spin, mistake all these new mandates for “flexibility,” and miss the fact that all these terrible test-scored-driven policies being introduced across the nation are driven by their policies.

Bad news, Homer. We are not in opposite land. Here in the USA, cold snow falls down, and test scores are indeed a sword hanging over our heads. And the agency most responsible for this is the US Department of Education. Real respect is all about being forthright and truthful. We will know it when we hear it.

Note: Lest I be accused of lacking solutions, allow me to once again refer readers to the report I helped write a couple of years ago, A Quality Teacher in Every Classroom, which offers detailed proposals regarding teacher evaluation.

What do you think of Secretary Duncan’s RESPECT campaign?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.