Tennessee Waltz

Teachers of a certain age will remember the 1960s’ singing comedians the Smothers Brothers and their zany songs. One of the zaniest was ‘The Last Great Waltz’, whose romantic protagonist, fond of the waltz, finds happiness in the arms of a three-legged woman who shares his passion.

In a contemporary story harder to credit than that song, the schools of Tennessee are trying to win the heart, or at least the dollars, of the US Department of Education with a ‘reform’ plan of monumental goofiness. It started with the Department of Education’s astonishing demand that RAT[1]programs have as an “absolute priority” the intention to “measure” students’ “knowledge and skills” across a set of standards including some “against which student achievement has been traditionally difficult to measure.” Not asking whether the difficulty was due to an epistemological problem, Tennessee spent seven years wooing DoE with a plan which is now “in place”.

What a plan! What a place! Unlike the ballroom in the song, which had only one three-legged dancer in the corner, Tennessee’s educational dance-floor is crowded with unfortunate educators who have been fitted by mandate with third legs. It is hard to know who is stumbling worse: the teachers or the principals. Teachers must compose lesson plans to such a demanding rubric that plans taking four or more hours to produce for a single lesson may be rejected. Principals must conduct five observations of every teacher, each with a conference before and after. During the observations they must rate the teacher on over 100 criteria—one every thirty seconds—and justify those ratings. ‘Value-added’ tests, given twice a year, assess skills and knowledge only in English and math. Teachers in other subjects are rated by how their school’s students do on the English and math tests. (I wonder what they study in geography class—assuming there is one.) No wonder they can’t walk, much less dance.

Tennessee’s band leader, Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, insists that the dance go on whether or not everyone on the floor can dance with three legs. He blames on teachers’ laziness and fear of the unknown their reluctance to accept the state’s pedagogical prostheses. Resistance or grumbling can even be heard among principals, not normally a rebellious group, though some of them welcome the program because it has brought principals back into the classroom, which is like welcoming a third leg because it leads to more exercise.

Given the choice of the Smothers Brothers’ “Last Great Waltz” or the Three-legged Tennessee Waltz, I’ll take the Smothers Brothers. One reason is that the tune is catchier. Another is that is less painful to hear. The third is, as Miss Prism said, that “the  good end happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.”



[1]RAce to the Top

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