March 23, 2008

Legislating on what you don't know much about

Do you get the feeling that legislators really don’t know what they’re doing anymore?

I’m not talking about the smorgasbord of sex scandals we’ve been treated to, or the logjams in Albany or Washington that indicate our elected officials don’t spend much time staff developing themselves in the basic skills of governance.

I’m talking more about how good these people are at judging what’s best for the profession of teaching: where are they getting their facts, and do they have the time, interest, or skill to really assess what their advisors are telling them.

At Lobby Day up in Albany a couple of weeks ago, a whole bunch of us went in to speak to our local assemblyperson, who, like many others, was not even in the building. Instead, we got to talk to — for want of a better word — a kid, an aide in his early 20s, whose face showed he hadn’t a clue what we were talking about. He took no notes, remaining alert, tense and frozen. He was probably praying he’d be able to respond intelligently to a couple of our points and remember a handful of things he could report back to his boss on. It was decidedly uncomfortable, for him and for us, who had given up a day to make the trip.

I don’t trust that elected officials know enough about education to legislate it, and I don’t know how we can get them to absorb what they need to know about teaching in underfunded schools and hostile environments.

Jennifer Medina’s reported in the NY Times last Tuesday that the Assembly passed a bill the week before that would keep school districts from linking teacher tenure to the test scores of students. Not bad for starters, but she went on to mention that the School Board Association director thinks legislation to toughen tenure standards keeps getting “watered down.” The rules on tenure passed last year, applying to teachers hired after this coming July 1st, say that tenure decisions must include, among other things, “an examination of how well teachers use data.”

I can’t imagine any legislator knows how to use data in the classroom. What I can imagine is how people whose business it is to use data try to persuade them that data is essential to good teaching.

Here’s an example of data in the classroom from when I was in high school some 45 years ago, before computers were invented and way before BloomKlein and their ilk could squander $80 million on computer projects like ARIS.

A teacher gave a test. No one got 100, even the best and most reliable students. He took the highest score and raised it to 100, then put all the others up the same number of points. Looking us square in the eye, he then told us that (a) he had misjudged our capabilities, and (b) he was disappointed in us. We got the point that it was not so much the mark that counted, but that our standards for ourselves were too low. Now, that's what I call a good use of data!

We don’t need test data to tell us how to teach. We need the time to assess our students’ work and speak to them individually about it. We need the time to look over their shoulders, offer comments in the margins of their papers, read over the details of what they write and the computations they make, we need time to correct their spelling and their grammar.

This does not come from legislation on the use of data. This comes from legislation on class size and making sure that when teachers are in school, they’re helping kids acquire skills instead of doing data entry and custodial duties or attending staff development sessions of negligible importance.

1 comment:

  1. Amen. The only qualification most legislators have for K-12 education is that most of them were once children.