Tuesday, December 01, 2009

It's Not Heart Surgery

The NY Post has to stop cutting and pasting mayoral press releases-like it seemed to do in its support for Bloomberg's anti teacher's union proposal in yesterday's paper: "For every year that Albany tolerates substandard public schools, New York kids lose a year of sound education. This year, doing so may cost the state a ton in federal cash. Thus, Mayor Bloomberg, whose legacy is on the line, took it upon himself last week to act. The steps he announced couldn't be more welcome. Let's just hope that Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, who oversees the state's education apparatus, gets on board."

Well, well, the Post is salivating for a federal handout-quite droll, in our view. But this overheated panting masks the meretricious nature of the Bloomberg initiative-something we commented on last week. It rests on the fallacious notion that it is both possible-and worthwhile-to grade teachers on merit: "And Mike went further: He said a state law barring the use student-achievement data in teacher evaluations only covers those hired after July 1, 2008. And since at least three years of teaching is needed for tenure, no teacher being considered this year is covered by the law. With that, he asked Chancellor Joel Klein to immediately begin using student-progress figures in tenure decisions. It's a huge breakthrough: Teachers will finally be graded on their performance."

But as we noted in last week's post, this is a tenuous concept, one whose shortcoming we learned directly in our classroom experience: "In our view, however, tests are always a risky tool to use. Way back in the day when we taught the fifth grade one year we had an influx of Dominican immigrants. And it so happened, that this batch of kids was extremely bright, although not yet fluent in English. At the end of the year, a large number of the kids had jumped from second and third grade levels in reading to eleventh and twelfth grade scores-a recognition, without a doubt, of our superior pedagogical skills."

And then there's the idea that the grading will be correlated to these fraudulent tests that the Post itself has famously ridiculed-right after it had colluded with the mayor in using them to champion the success of the Bloomberg education miracle. Remember the false positive exams were used as the basis for giving out millions of tax payer dollars to reward ostensibly outstanding performances that have turned out to be as sartorially splendid as the Emperor's new clothes.

But the real danger lies with the folks who are designated proctors for the new teacher-and administrator-performance tests. Remember the admonition of the Roman Juvenal: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who will watch the watchmen?) The injection of a merit grading system will likely be rife with favoritism and corruption-and that's even assuming that the tests themselves are ever going to be reliable.

But hope does spring eternal-especially when it devolves from the thought that a new level of arbitrariness can be utilized in educational reform. Thomas Carroll underscores this-and cites the mayor's wildly inaccurate analogy in the process: "Repeal New York's "data firewall." This law tries to prevent school districts from using student-performance data in evaluating teachers. Bloomberg called for mandating districts to come up with ways to use that data as "one of multiple sources of input" in judging educators. The mayor explained: "The state Legislature passed a law last year that actually tells principals: You can evaluate teachers on any criteria you want -- just not on student-achievement data. That's like saying to hospitals: You can evaluate heart surgeons on any criteria you want -- just not patient-survival rates! You really can't make this up!" Yes, indeed."

This is from a mayor who has presided over a test regime that allowed one Bronx principal to elevate passing test scores one year from 34% to 83%. Who will watch the watchmen, indeed! As the DOE's so-called investigation highlighted: "The dramatic, 49-point vault in scores earned former Principal Elba Lopez-Spangenberg a tidy $15,000 bonus that year. Several months later, Lopez retired. But the evaporation of the stunning gain the next year prompted an investigation, and as the snail-paced probe dragged on, critics assailed it as a "coverup," particularly because officials never questioned Lopez -- the person with seemingly the most to gain. Probers also didn't question students in that miracle fourth-grade class until they were in the eighth grade and they couldn't use the kids' answer sheets as evidence because that paperwork had already been destroyed."

Sol Stern captures the inanity of all this: "It's a joke. It's a farce," Sol Stern, a contributing editor for City Journal, said of the results. Stern and former New York Sun columnist Andy Wolf beat the drum that sparked the probe, which was concluded this year. "Inspector Clouseau could have done better," Stern said, referring to the bumbling "Pink Panther" detective."

So, by all means, come up with a convincing methodology to scam the feds out of some stimulus cash-after all, the city schools are cash starved, right? But we need to ask, what's the difference between this feeding at the federal trough, and a similar feeding over food stamp allotments that the paper excoriated awhile back?

So, we need to be ultra careful about letting all of the non educators run amok in this teacher evaluation scheme. It is all a thinly disguised effort to erode union strength-and one that, in our view, will not put kids over teachers, as the Post believes. It will, instead, put the MBA bean counters over the entire system-a prospect that should chill even the most ardent critic of the current status quo.