March MADNESS

We owe Secretary of Education Arne Duncan a debt of gratitude. Thanks to his “Race to the Top” program, teacher evaluation has finally moved out of the 19th Century. Thanks to him, the outmoded and unfair approach–an administrator sitting in the back of the room once or twice a year–is history. And it’s about time, because that approach was susceptible to favoritism, laziness and sexual harassment.

My first school principal at Paul D. Schreiber High School in Port Washington, New York, evaluated us that way. Mr. Henderson, who was approaching retirement the year I began teaching, was known for playing favorites. He liked coaches who also taught, and he loved teachers who kept their classrooms quiet; those folks received glowing reports. Noise, even if it was a lively classroom discussion, was a bad thing in Mr. Henderson’s book, and those teachers received a talking-to. (I was one of those.)

Secretary Duncan has effectively replaced that outmoded approach with a performance-based, data-driven system where teachers are evaluated based on the scores of students on standardized tests. He did this with “Race to the Top,” the competition for scarce resources at the height of the Great Recession. To qualify for funds, states and districts had to commit to judging teachers by test scores.

Although most states didn’t get the money, nearly all of them fell into line in their efforts to qualify. In some states, 50% of a teacher’s rating is now based on test scores.

Of course, like any forward-looking innovation, this new approach isn’t perfect. For example, because most subjects are not tested, quite a few teachers can’t logically be held responsible for test scores. Some districts have gotten past this small bump in the road by linking those teachers to the scores of students in other classrooms, in other subjects, and even in other schools (but in the same district).

Another solution to this problem has been to add tests in more subjects. While this means more tests for kids and more money out the schoolhouse door and into the pockets of testing companies, this bold, progressive step will help achieve the goal of holding all teachers accountable.[1]

Secretary Duncan’s new approach has another tiny problem: The results generally don’t affect students, just teachers. The scores don’t determine whether kids advance a grade or graduate, for example, and it’s not unheard of for students to fill in answers randomly. So it’s ‘no stakes’ for kids and ‘high stakes’ for the adults. That’s led to occasional revolts, like the one led by idealistic students in Colorado who refused to take a test that would have been used to judge their teachers. It’s also led to cheating by adults, worried about their jobs, in too many places to mention. [2].

However, one very important teacher is not being held accountable by this new system. I’m referring to our Secretary of Education, arguably the nation’s number one teacher. He’s now being judged in the old way, through informal and formal contact with and observations by his ‘principal,’ President Barack Obama.

Wouldn’t test scores be a fairer way? President Obama likes athletes, and Secretary Duncan is an exceptional basketball player who scrimmages fairly regularly with the President, which could mean that his performance on the job is not being truly measured. And if the President has actually visited the Department of Education, it probably wasn’t much more than a drive-by. I believe the President needs some standardized test scores to measure just how effective his Secretary of Education is.

I have a modest proposal: Let’s hold Secretary Duncan accountable in the same way that regular classroom teachers are. To help move the process forward, I’m developing a standardized test to be administered to the nearly 4300 employees at the U.S. Department: The “Measuring Arne Duncan’s National Effectiveness with School Systems,” or MADNESS.

MADNESS will be a multiple-choice test, with questions of varying degrees of difficulty. I’m releasing a few sample questions here but, for obvious reasons, cannot publish the entire test.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 was passed by Congress in:
A. 1964
B. 1965
C. 2001
D. None of the above

2. The first person to receive an Associate’s Degree from a community college in Indiana was:
A. Clark Harris
B. Harrison Clark
C. Clarissa Harrison
D. None of the above

3. How many people work in the U.S. Department of Education?
A. About 3930
B. About 3712
C. About 4230
D. About half of them

Wander the halls of the Department of Education, as I have done over the years, and you will see men and women at their desks, apparently working on grants to states and districts. Sometimes they’ll be on the phone, perhaps explaining rules and regulations that govern how federal funds can be legally spent. After all, the Department distributes about $60 billion, money that school districts count on receiving in a timely fashion, and so the work of these anonymous bureaucrats is essential to keeping our public education system functioning.

Unfortunately, their important work will have to come to a halt for at least three weeks before MADNESS is administered, to give USDE employees time to become familiar with the test format and to study the material that the test will cover. Some may have forgotten–or never even studied–Indiana community college history, for example, and that makes test-prep vital. Even though they know that the MADNESS results will not affect their own status, many will want to help their boss keep his job.[3] If some employees decide to blow off the test, there’s nothing that can be done about that. Let’s just hope that doesn’t put the Secretary’s job in jeopardy.

To acknowledge Secretary Duncan’s prowess as a basketball player, MADNESS will be administered in March. As with most standardized, machine-scored, tests, the results will not be available until late August.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. 1. The additional testing will help us in international competition. We are number one in giving tests to students, and we are the only advanced nation that uses test scores primarily to measure teacher effectiveness. (Other countries use student test scores to assess students, if you can imagine that.) Go, USA!
  2. 2.  It’s also led to growing disrespect for schools generally, as I see it.
  3. 3. I wish I had thought of this earlier because then the President would have some baseline data to allow him to judge the Secretary’s progress. It’s too late for VAM, value-added measurement, but this will be a start.

4 Responses to “March MADNESS”

  1. Guy Brandenburg 07. Jul, 2015 at 10:32 pm #

    Very cute, John.

    Btw- One of the other problems with VAM is that teacher scores appear to fluctuate like crazy from year to year…. How to ensure that happens with March MADNESS?

  2. Christine Langhoff 07. Jul, 2015 at 11:20 pm #

    “However, one very important teacher is not being held accountable by this new system. I’m referring to our Secretary of Education, arguably the nation’s number one teacher.”

    I’m confused. Arne isn’t now, nor has he ever been a teacher.

    • John Merrow 08. Jul, 2015 at 9:06 am #

      The operative word here is ‘satire.’ :-)

  3. Ted Dintersmith 08. Jul, 2015 at 8:30 pm #

    This is very, very funny. I think we should extend this brilliant idea and apply it to the businesspeople who push for these assessments of teachers, but haven’t quite realized how helpful it could be in their own businesses. Oh, and let’s not leave Bill Gates out of the fun. We could develop standardized tests for foundation employees, and use that to determine whether the head of the foundation stays in her/his job.

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