During his stay on the flying island of Laputa, Lemuel Gulliver visits the Grand Academy of Lagado to see projects that Jonathan Swift has imagined satirically. They include a project to build houses from the roof down and one to extract nourishment from excrement. In a modern development proving that truth is more pungent than satire, the Grand Academy of RAT (RAce to the Top) has developed its own projects to amaze the visitor. Here are a couple of my favorites.
In Tennessee is a project to evaluate the success of physical education teachers by examining their students’ English and math test scores. Another seeks to have administrators evaluate teachers during five one-hour visits, each visit requiring ratings on 116 criteria, or one rating every 31 seconds, including time to watch the lesson. More can easily be found, for the RAT Academy is bursting at the seams.
Even Swift could not have satirized the reality that precedes these bizarre projects: applicants for RAT money, who need 2700 hours to fill out the application, discover that they must have as an “absolute priority” the intention to “measure” student “knowledge and skills” across a set of standards, including those “against which student achievement has been traditionally difficult to measure.” (Emphasis added.) If I were building this house starting at someplace lower than the roof, I would require as an “absolute priority” the assessment of students, and their teachers, against standards that can be measured—or, better, judged. That means not “measuring” teachers using formulas based on no standards, whose confidence interval spans 53 percentiles, and proceeding as if there were no confidence interval at all.
But even then we would not be starting construction with the basement. Diane Ravitch has often suggested beginning with maternity and early-childhood education. And in a recent articleshe reminds her readers that Finland begins building schools at the basement and has some of the best schools in the world to show for it. What does starting at the basement involve? She notes that Finland “rejects all of the ‘reforms’ currently popular in the United States, such as testing, charter schools, vouchers, merit pay, competition, and evaluating teachers in relation to the test scores of their students.”
And where, asks Ravitch, did Finnish schools get many of the ideas that they do use? From the United States—an earlier United States. One idea Finland did not get from the US, which seems like another basement feature to me, is insistence on the thorough preparation of teachers in highly competitive and demanding teacher training programs. (Finland’s accept one applicant in ten.) Having trained their teachers, the Finns then repose in them absolute confidence to do their job, allowing them to devise their own programs and tests.
The contrasting domestic reality, full of people trying to extract nourishment from excrement, seems to be solidifying, though the product remains nutrient-free. This does not keep people like an assistant commissioner for curriculum and instruction at the Tennessee Department of Education from saying that “the process is leading to rich conversations about instruction.” I can imagine how wonderfully rich they are, and how deeply satisfying. The minutes of them could probably fill a Bristol barrel.
 “[the ‘projector’] had a weekly allowance, from the society, of a vessel filled with human ordure, about the bigness of a Bristol barrel.”