Monkey on the Loose

The old British saying “Slowly slowly catchee monkey” is the beginning of wisdom in “educational reform,” but let us also add “Thinkee thinkee catchee monkey.” Unfortunately, that is not the way some education organizations see it, and so we get education “reforms” undertaken precipitately with poor thinking behind them, leaping intrepidly forward into a mess.

In Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust, as our hero strikes his Faustian bargain with Mephistophélès, an eerie chord sounds in the orchestra. One day recently, as I looked at the guidelines for submitting a proposal for a RAce to the Top (RAT) Grant on pages 18171 – 18185 of the Federal Register, I felt that if I had been examining those pages as a preliminary to signing on for a RAT Grant, I would have heard a similar eerie chord menace my determination.

Ask good teachers or administrators what the chief difficulty in their jobs is, and you will probably hear that they do not have enough time to do the job. Another likely complaint, which I must give as a Brit might say it, is that there is “too much bumf[1].” Reading the DOE’s estimate that it takes 2735-1/2 hours to complete a RAT grant application sounds a menacing chord in my apprehensive mind: if it takes more hours than the average person works in a year to complete the application, what will it take to implement the program? For an unfortunate answer, see below.

The chord would become more insistent in the mind of a thinking educator who reads[2] that the grantee 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.” The inquiring skeptic wants to know what happened to understanding in addition to knowledge and skill as a component of “achievement.” He asks why measuring some standards would be “traditionally difficult.” Maybe the difficulty here is not traditional but epistemological.

To help understand why, consider by analogy a trip to the Louvre to “measure the achievement” of the Mona Lisa. Imagining Thomas Hoving, clipboard and rubric in hand, in front of the picture before passing judgment should help us to see where the problem lies: We must be careful about what we mean when we say “measure achievement.” We must leave ourselves open to the possibility that some judgments  (and some achievements!) have nothing to do with measurement, period. Instead, they have to do with know-how or connoisseurship and are handled non-quantitatively. Exploring how to apply such thinking to students’ work must be done slowly—maybe even more slowly than filling out the RAT grant application.

But that is not what the good people of Tennessee did. In their haste to be first off the mark at implementing a RAT program, they came up with what sounds like a nightmarish scheme of evaluating—well, yes, students, but also their teachers. I will briefly mention a few outstanding horrors in what I read here and here (The New York Times and Education Week):

Plans for single lessons requiring 4 – 12 hours for an experienced teacher to prepare were rejected as insufficient before being rewritten.

In subjects that do not have “measurements” available for students’ “achievement,” teachers were assessed, and held accountable for, students’ scores on tests unrelated to the subject they teach. For example, a music teacher was held accountable by a test of her students’ writing, which was presumably taught by their writing teacher. You read that right.

Principals must evaluate each teacher five times a year in a process that includes a 20-minute pre-observation discussion, a one-period observation, and a 20-minute debriefing. Assuming a 50-minute lesson and a faculty of 65 teachers, a principal would have to spend about fourteen hours of contact time a week with teachers for their evaluations alone, whether they were good or bad. That doesn’t include the paperwork, which one Tennessee principal estimates to take him four extra hours a day.

I don’t mean to single out Tennessee as a locus of miseducation. My own experience one year was illustrative. We were preparing for our school’s re-accreditation and had foolishly volunteered to establish “measurable goals” to reach as part of the process. We came up with goals and “measurements” as required. When interviewed by the school’s Measurement Honcho, I said that these “measurements” didn’t measure what we claimed they did, and that what they did measure, they measured badly. My warning and advice were disregarded. When the re-accreditation team finally visited and then issued its preliminary report, it found that our “measurements” did not measure what we claimed they did, and that what they did measure, they measured badly.

Such inadequacy seems so obvious in retrospect that one wonders what is the difficulty in looking ahead. I have some thoughts. First, the impetus to reform in education is big on the vision thing but not on the thinking thing. Second, it takes place over far too little time to allow the careful thinking that is needed. This includes genuine consultation, not poll-taking that gets tabulated and ignored. Third, it relies on slogans, to which educators are terribly susceptible. Fourth, it dismisses or attacks criticism that is at odds with prevailing views. Fifth, it forgets that patience is a virtue and that without it the monkey will not be caught.

[1] This marvelous word, short for “bum fodder,” refers to all useless, excessive, or wasted bureaucratic or institutional paperwork.

[2] On p. 18173


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