High-stakes testing is a bullet train barreling through education reform; you're either on the train, on the sidelines, or waving your hands in frantic protest, only to be run over.
Last week's education speech by emboldened New York City Mayor-for-Life Bloomberg (who just dropped nine-figures of his own cash on his re-election bid) is depressing news to people on the ground in schools. Conducting the Testing Express, Bloomberg announced:
"As [Secretary of Education] Arne [Duncan] had said a number of times, 'A state can't enter Race to the Top if it prohibits schools from using student achievement data to evaluate teachers and that's why California just repealed its prohibition on doing so.'
"In New York, 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! Thankfully, the law in New York is set to expire this June - but that is not enough.
"We will urge the State not just to prohibit but to require all districts to create data-driven systems to comprehensively evaluate teachers and principals. And we want New York City to lead the way..."
Teachers, and their nuanced dissections of these simplistic outrages, have no shot here. His disingenuous melding of testing and achievement is too smooth; his microphone and influence are too big.
Breaking down his words, the hospital analogy is problematic; as blogger Accountable Talk explains: "Any doctor will tell you that some of the best heart surgeons around have some of the worst survival rates because they take on patients in the most desperate situations. What teacher will want to take on the most challenging students, knowing that by doing so, they are risking their careers?" C'est la vie, achievement gap.
But Bloomberg's poor comparison is the least of the causes for hand-wringing.
The pervasive dogma that the score of one pressure-laden test equals a student's achievement and a teacher's effectiveness is tragically misguided. The many-tentacled fallout of this culture of high-stakes testing has been more and more apparent in the No Child Left Behind age, where curriculum-distortion, teacher- and student-burnout, and twisted administrative priorities are the norm in too many schools.
It's a shame that opposition to this regime has been demonized as a defense of a status quo. President Obama and Arne Duncan (with their Race to the Top testing-based incentives), and Michael Bloomberg have all bought into the idea that boldness and reform are synonymous with firing teachers based on test scores. They want to be bold, they want to be reformers. They're doing it the wrong way.
There are so many ways to evaluate teachers' effectiveness without centering the process on the Big Test. Unfortunately, all of them involve extended person-to-person contact (just like almost everything valuable in education) and don't lend themselves to flashy bar graphs or short-order, headline-friendly stats.
Jennifer Medina's story in The New York Times quoted Kate Walsh, president of the National Center on Teacher Quality, calling the issue of state tests the "Achilles' heel of the accountability movement."
Teachers are not against accountability. But I am against allotting such vast power and precious classroom time to testing corporations that generate an incomplete picture of students' achievement.
I can't sum up the case against Bloomberg's brand of testing in one sentence. The full argument takes time and attention to detail-- just like teaching and learning. Too easily, Bloomberg can make his aggressive, wrongheaded case, and dictate the discourse.
This is really disappointing.
Dan Brown is a teacher and the author of The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle. He is not a member of any teachers' union.
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