Monday, August 30, 2010

Teachers and Test Scores

It is not fair to blame Paul Hubbert, Executive Secretary of the Alabama Education Association, for all that is wrong with our school system. We suffered for many generations with poor schools long before he came along. Nevertheless, he manages to be identified with substantial road blocks to progress in education.

It is noteworthy, then, when he makes a sound point. I am referring to his opposition to using test scores to evaluate teacher performance. It is understandable why the boards may want to find an objective measuring stick to determine promotions and retention of teachers. With strong tenure rules, the incompetent teachers seem to be embedded in the system. Bureaucrats need an objective test that is both fair and effective in weeding out the incompetents. Unfortunately test scores may be objective, but they are not a fair measuring tool.

I do not think that these tests were designed to evaluate teachers or schools. They are supposed to assess the progress, accomplishments and capacity for learning of the individual student. The tests provide valuable information which should enable the school to determine the needs and opportunities available to that student.

Using test scores to make hiring, firing and retention decisions is based on an assumption that teachers have the capacity to materially affect those scores. That is simply not the case. For instance, Mountain Brook students regularly score at the top and those from poorer communities bring up the rear. Is it realistic to suggest that the teachers in a black belt county can under any circumstances teach their students up to the Mountain Brook level? I have no hesitation to suggest that the students of the worst teacher in the Mountain Book System would easily out perform those of the best teacher in one of our poor counties. On the other hand I suspect that the star teacher from the poorer school would be much the better teacher.

Therefore, where is the fairness in comparing teachers on a test score basis when they are not working on a level playing field?

A common retort would be that the teacher should be measured by the “improvement” in test scores instead. The assumption there is that all teachers in all systems have been performing poorly in the past and even an average teacher should be able to raise the scores. Do I need to answer that argument?

Then there is the teacher who does in fact raise the scores but has turned the class room into a year long cram course for the test. This can be done by finding in old tests and looking at the tendencies that would indicate what will be asked. (Law graduates do this all the time when preparing for the bar exam.) If the score has been raised, it means nothing other than that the school has learned how to short cut the system. It does not indicate any inherent improvement in the quality of the education.

The truth is that successes of great teachers are not measured by improving statistics but by their impact of the teacher on individuals one by one. Most people who are successful in life can point to one or two of such teachers and are grateful for the profound impact those teachers made. That is what teaching is all about.

I wish I could say that this phobia over test score evaluations is harmless, but it is not. In the first place, it represents a gigantic misuse of scarce resources. But it is much more. It stifles creative teaching. I had much rather my child be exposed him to the magic of Mark Twain or Louisa May Alcott, rather than pouring over old tests.or listening to a lecture on how to eliminate the obviously wrong answer on a multiple choice test in order to improve the odds of finding the correct one.

Worst of all, the test score is so simplistic that the school boards (who are a big part of the problem but not the subject of this blog) act on misinformation and come up with poor choices in the direction of their school systems. Their job of making personnel evaluations is extremely difficult and can always be flawed, but there is no panacea. Drawing draconian conclusions based on a multiple choice tests is both meretricious and misguided.

Mark up an attaboy for Paul Hubbert.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Mosques and Demogogues

The dispute over a mosque across the street from Ground Zero is an excellent example of how democracy can get steered into the Theater of the Absurd. (I am not sure what Theater of the Absurd is all about, but it sounds like an apt metaphor.)

The Imam in charge of the proposed mosque stated that he was seeking to serve as a bridge of understanding between Islam and the United States.

If that was his goal, he got off to a bad start. New Yorkers are super sensitive about the Twin Towers, and their pain has not subsided. Thus a highly predictable uproar erupted over the proposed facility. As best I can tell the local officials jumped in quickly seeking some solution that would be satisfactory to the Imam and would abate the criticism. I have not heard anyone claim that there was any genuine objection to some compromise effort. In fact it would be reasonable to assume that the support of the local authorities would in fact aide the effort of the Muslims to build bridges.

Under any circumstances, every politician who feels the need for publicity seems to be conscience stricken to step in and be of assistance.

One such politician was Congressmen Rick Lazio, who is engaged in a heated contest for governor of the state. He seem to be certain that the problem was caused by the ineffectiveness of the state attorney general, who happens to be his opponent. He suggested that the Imam may be using money from nefarious sources which needs to be investigated before the mosque is approved..

That is fine indeed, but, apparently, he did not think up this idea until the polls told him that the proposal was extremely unpopular with the electorate. Moreover, he has an Italian name. That makes him Italian, not American. He must have some connection with the Mafia - at least as much as does the Imam with the Al Qaeda. Why isn’t he taking his witch hunt to Manhattan to find out the source of funding of at least half of the finer Italian restaurants in the city?

Then the matter was ratcheted up again by our President, who has a disconcerting habit of opening his mouth before his brain is fully activated, entered the fray. He wrapped himself in the comforting arms of the Bill of Rights. He said that the Muslims have a constitutional right to build a mosque in accordance with local laws.

It is reassuring to know that the First Amendment has not been abrogated recently, but he injected a non-issue into the conversation.. No one claims to be denying the freedom of religion to the Muslims. Even he seems to recognize by implication that the issue of where the mosque might be located is a matter of local law. What the President did was mischaracterize the facts so that he could utter an inapplicable principle relating to a situation that does not exist.

The President’s position was not good politics, either, since about a fourth of the population believes that he is Muslim, himself.

Now the runaway train is totally out of control. Newt Gingrich equates the location of the mosque next ot Ground Zero with placing Nazi headquarters next to a holocaust memorial. The Democrats loved that. Now the Arab world has been encouraged by our President to believe that a substantial segment of our country is attempting to override the constitution in support of efforts to persecute the Muslims who live here.. People in all continents of every persuasion are now weighing in - all because our politicians stuck their nose into a matter that probably would have been handled best by the persons in the City of New York who have been entrusted with the responsibility of dealing with the situation.

Ain’t democracy great!