The Scarlet 'T'
by Steve Zimmerman
Mar 12, 2012 | 2298 views | 0 0 comments | 16 16 recommendations | email to a friend | print
One always has to wonder how far the pendulum will swing in one direction before it begins its inevitable return. Happens in politics, happens in fashion and, hopefully, it will happen in education.

The city recently brought us a sight I never thought I’d see: 18,000 teachers ranked 0-100 by the Department of Education. In the good old days we would have just taken the 9,000 teachers who scored below 50 (by mysterious and inconclusive measures, we might add) and put them in stocks in the town square. Now, however, we can shame them on Facebook or, better yet, call up the principals and insist they remove our kids from every classroom not led by a teacher with at least a 51.

Why don’t we make all teachers scoring below the 50th percentile wear Scarlet T’s?

So here’s how the pendulum has swung: we started out with perfectly good intentions under No Child Left Behind by insisting that all schools make annual yearly progress (AYP), measured by improved scores on standardized tests.

In New York City, we went from testing in 4th and 8th grades to testing at all grades starting at 3rd. Then we standardized the curriculum in New York City so that all kids were learning from the same books. Then we started to get really “data driven” and created school report cards based largely upon Math and ELA test scores.

Then we started to take away music and art and gym and even social studies so that we could really focus on those Math and ELA scores. Then, with the carrot of Race to the Top, we managed to convince the Teachers Union that we had to link test scores and teacher evaluations. And then, we took the student data, twisted it into “teacher-effectiveness” data and made our teachers do a perp walk.

To paraphrase Jon Stewart talking about how the Republicans are taunting each other into taking increasingly extreme positions: Are we nuts?

To the DOE’s credit (the people who work there are actually all very smart and hard-working), they simultaneously came out with a paper telling people to NOT use this data as a way to excoriate teachers. However, that’s a bit like a judge telling a jury to strike some really nasty evidence they’ve just heard. Correct, but unlikely.

Last point here, because my take on this is colored by my work with charter schools: The names of charter school teachers were not on the list. At first, I breathed a sigh of relief that our teachers hadn’t been subjected to this humiliation, but then I learned that our teachers would be outed later in the week.

Well fair is fair, and there’s no reason why this pendulum shouldn’t swing further and knock our house down, too.

I also suspect that those of us laboring in the charter school world bear a fair amount of blame for nursing and feeding this testing beast that has now come to devour us all.

Once upon a time, we were told that starting charter schools would let us innovate and create new models for urban education. But in our own zeal to prove ourselves superior to DOE public schools (which our charters mandate, by the way) we bought into the idea that the only way to do that would be to out-test them. This will come back to haunt us, and a very worthwhile movement.

This is a very sad day for education in New York City. Someone please tell me that the pendulum has begun its return.

Steven Zimmerman is director of the OWN Foundation, an organization that promotes community-based, democratically operated charter schools.
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