26 May 2010: State Reforms Ruinous to Education

State “reforms” ruinous to education

Here’s a variation on an old maxim: With Democrats like these, who needs Republicans?

The just-ended Democratic-controlled legislative session and the Democratic soon-to-be ex-governor just performed a lobotomy on public education a Republican-controlled legislature and governor could not nor would have dared to attempt: equating learning with test scores and telling a select group—teachers—50 percent of their evaluations will be based on a benchmark over which they have no control: student test performance.

In my past two columns, I have written about the new law and excoriated retiring Sen. Dan Gibbs for his lack of critical thinking, inquiry skills, and intellectual curiosity. At the session’s end, I understand he was backslapped by Republicans and fellow Blue Dogs Democrats. Picture the look of surprise on my face. So it goes.

With SB 191 a fait accompli, it’s time for requiems: for a governor whose four-year performance can be likened to the sheen of a never-polished 1990 gray sedan; for a legislature that buckled under the daze of a former principal-turned-senator and the lure of a bribe from the feds—where are the righteous Republicans on this one?—to the tune of $175 million in Race to the Bottom moneys; for the career of a once promising young legislator. Goodbye, Mr. Gibbs. So it goes.

In his venerable classic “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” to be part of the collateral damage of SB 191, Ernest Hemingway uses allusion to a John Donne meditation to ask not for whom the bell tolls. His story is set during the Spanish Civil War with American Robert Jordan fighting with Spanish republicans fending off the forces of fascism. They lost and Francisco Franco won, plunging Spain into a dark age for the next 40 years. So it goes.

In Colorado, the bell tolls not for the players in the drama, but for open inquiry, creativity in learning, and other non-quantifiable aspects of learning. So it goes.

A friend and former colleague recently asked if I had to do it over again, would I be a teacher. Unhesitatingly, I said, “Yes!” but then quickly added, “But not now.” Being a classroom robot perpetuating fraud in the name of scholarship is not my ideal, and that is what the state of Colorado is demanding its teachers to be.

Over the past few years, it was disconcerting to read about teachers “teaching to the test” when it came to CSAP. But on occasion we’d read of those who in desperation or with a desire to sabotage the test cheated by giving their students the answers to the test. My thought about those teachers was “you rock!”

Now teachers throughout the state live in fear they will need to teach to the test to survive. That is a legitimate concern, but what we should understand first is teaching to a test is oxymoronic: Doing such is incongruous with real teaching.

The reality is SB 191 is law. The close of the session brought up emotions not felt since the day after the 2004 election: anger, frustration, and a sense of betrayal.

The law raises numerous questions, and teachers, the troops on the ground, know it will have many unforeseen consequences.

How do we hold PE and art teachers accountable for Johnny not reading, writing, and adding? What about the students I busted? Will they use their new power to get me fired?

Why should superintendents and their assistants be immune? As for principals and their legions of assistants, will they ultimately be held accountable for low test scores or for not firing teachers?

What about department internecine warfare? Why should I get the classes with the indifferent students and you get the IB/AP/honors whiz kids whose lives are all about stressing out on tests?

If my evaluation is based 50 percent on tests, shouldn’t my students’ be as well? “Test early, test often” should be the new motto. Imagine the retention rate with kids failing to make the magical number that marks a kid as a failure, soon to be raised in Clear Creek schools to 70. Of course, that could help resolve budget woes.

How do we identify an effective teacher? How do we identify an effective legislature and governor? We could use Justice Stewart’s guideline about pornography: while it can’t be defined, you know it when you see it. But applying that standard to the legislature and the governor would give porn a bad reputation.

Finally, what are the political ramifications? A local Democratic leader reminded me it was not the party that perpetrated this crime of educational fraud. True, but there were enough Democrats to vote with the usual Republican bloc and it was the party’s leader who dropped the guillotine when he signed the bill. So it goes.

With countless unanswered questions and unknowns, accountability is in order for those who authored, supported, and voted for this bill. Better yet, a day of reckoning. So it goes.

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