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No Leeches Left Behind

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If I were a doctor, and Bill Gates suggested the use of bloodletting to improve medicine, I'd be skeptical. Still, Gates has all that money, so he must know something. He gives it away freely, and asks only that everyone follow the programs he starts (and pay to sustain them in perpetuity once his seed money runs out). Oh, and that institutions that don't meet his expectations be closed and replaced by others that more closely follow his methods.

Bloodletting is of no medical value, so it's understandably unpopular with modern medical practitioners. On the other hand, "value-added" evaluations, or judging teachers by scores of their students, is also highly questionable. Day by day, it appears as dubious as bloodletting.

Yet value-added is all the rage these days. Bill Gates thinks it's crucial. Therefore, Barack Obama and Arne Duncan think so too. The fact that it's largely nonsense doesn't appear to have worked in their favor on Election Day -- and I can't imagine I'm the only lifelong Democrat who doesn't plan to support it in 2012.

The LA Times saw fit to publish value-added ratings of 6,000 teachers, along with their photos. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan wondered what they had to hide. Perhaps one teacher suicide was not enough to inform Secretary Duncan. Regardless, wildly inaccurate methodology ought not to be used to vilify working teachers before their peers, families, friends and students.

Isn't it highly likely that factors other than a teacher's competence (or lack thereof) causes kids to fail? Even if we ignore social factors, as "reformers" do, there are additional considerations. If my kid brought home a bad grade, I wouldn't jump to blame the teacher. I'd first suspect she hadn't done her homework. As Aaron Pallas demonstrates in detail, the LA Times hasn't done its homework either.

In New York, value-added has been all over the headlines. Joel Klein's Department of Education wants to release value-added scores even though it specifically agreed not to. And the very consultants who designed the tests in question specifically stated that they should not be used to evaluate teachers.

Yet we plod on using methodology that's so clearly flawed. And even after what happened in Los Angeles, and Michelle Rhee dismissing 165 teachers based on such metrics, some, even fellow union members, say, "Well, everybody's doing it, so we have to do it too."

Notwithstanding the flaws in Rhee's calculations, the "everybody's doing it" argument is far from persuasive. I can't help but recall a certain first-grade teacher asking me, "Well, Arthur, if Rosemary jumped off the Empire State Building, would you do it too?"

Eyes to the floor, I admitted I would not.

I've been to countless meetings in which the virtues of "reforms" have been touted. Yet year after year, while the papers sang the praises of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, conditions on the ground deteriorated. I asked a Tweed representative why they targeted changes that wouldn't fundamentally help us, and he replied, "Well, we had to do something."

That's not good enough. If you want change, you have to do something effective. You can't just run into burning buildings and hope to avoid fire. You need a plan. 

Regrettably, we now have a President who relies more on Bill Gates' druthers than planning, let alone research or experience. If this President were a doctor, and Bill Gates thought it was a good idea, he'd be using leeches on us all - -and our children too. Such priorities may not bode well for his chances in 2012.

It's clear the President underestimates the power of union, not to mention public school parents. This is decidedly not the change we voted for, and if Obama harbors any thoughts of a second term, he ought not to take us for granted.