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Stanford: How Obama uses junk science to punish teachers

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Jason Stanford
September 4, 2013

The new requirements for No Child Left Behind waivers from the Department of Education have bad news for America’s teachers. The Obama administration wants states to use standardized tests to not only judge students and schools but now teachers as well, lest we lose ground to China. Coincidentally, China this week banned standardized testing in early grades and reduced it thereafter. China, it seems, wants to be more like us.

The test scores of American kids have lagged well behind the rest of the industrialized world since well before we put the first man on the moon, built the World Wide Web, revolutionized business software and mapped the human genome. The United States still has the largest economy in the world 30 years after “A Nation at Risk” warned that we’d better get our schoolhouse in order. Apparently the standardized tests have no bearing on American ingenuity.

The Obama administration worries we face a testing gap, but the Chinese have figured out they face an innovation gap. This is why, according to Chinese-born professor Yong Zhao of the University of Oregon, China wants to move from a “labor-intensive, low-level manufacturing economy into an innovation-driven knowledge society.”

Obama’s demand that states rate teachers on their students’ test scores moves America away from innovation toward utter lunacy. Judging a teacher on a student’s improvement means states have to start testing kids in pre-K. Education Secretary Arne Duncan calls these “formative assessments” and has set aside $500 million to develop tests for kids as young as 4.

Using standardized tests to identify bad teachers gets taken to the woodshed by Diane Ravitch in her new book “Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools.” She quotes studies showing that a teacher only affects 15 percent of a student’s test score. The biggest influence on a student’s performance is home life—Did dad lose his job? Are the parents divorcing? Do the parents use big words at home and take their kids to museums?—none of which the teacher can control.

Simply put, judging teachers on their students’ test scores makes as much sense as judging a farmer on his crop without accounting for drought, severe weather, freezes, pestilence or Wall Street bankers crashing the market and making it impossible to get a loan to buy a tractor.

“Stated politely as possible, value-added assessment is bad science,” writes Ravitch. “It may even be junk science.”

Worst of all, the system requires teachers to show improvement every year, like Wall Street demanding ever-increasing profits. Simply doing great every year in unacceptable, penalizing good schools.

I had this experience with my oldest son. As a fifth-grader, he aced Texas’ standardized test. Under No Child Left Behind, school ratings depend on whether a 10-year-old fills in the right bubble, so schools emphasize the test in the fifth grade to a fault. Not so in the sixth grade, freeing up Mr. Nelson to blow my son’s mind. In one assignment, his class became a living history exhibit for the younger grades. My son started learning German and trombone. Because they weren’t so focused on the state test, my son’s scores dipped slightly in the sixth grade. According to Obama’s policy, Mr. Nelson is a bad teacher.

Ravitch admits we need better teachers, but she suggests investing in better training and collaboration. Obama’s policy will encourage teachers to emphasize test preparation at the expense of enriching instruction, something unlikely to yield better teachers.

“Nothing about a multiple-choice test is suited to finding the most inspiring and the most dedicated teachers in every school. In every school, students, teachers, and supervisors know who those teachers are. We need more of them,” writes Ravitch. “We will not get them by continuing to turn teachers into testing technicians or judging teachers by inappropriate statistical models.”

Liberals and other fans of clean air rightfully skewer Republicans for using junk science to deny climate change. It is time for us to stop letting Obama off the hook for using junk science to fire teachers, or we’ll really start losing ground to the Chinese.

Jason Stanford is a Democratic consultant who writes columns for the Austin American-Statesman and MSNBC. He can be reached at stanford@oppresearch.com and on Twitter @JasStanford. His columns are distributed by the Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.



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