Saturday December 15, 2012

PITTSFIELD

With the pending activation of the new Massachusetts teacher evaluation system, teachers will be judged on how well they meet 33 state performance indicators, or rubrics. To satisfy all of them, they may be required to hunt for and gather up all of the available "evidence" to prove their success.

If some aspects of their instruction can’t be measured, quantified and qualified, will they be penalized? Will each evaluation cycle resemble the kind of evidence gathering usually reserved for the New England Association of Schools and College’s 10 year reaccreditation visit? If so, assembling this evidence will consume vast quantities of time and energy. Will the curricula they teach need to be rewritten to comply with the detailed models now available on the Massachusetts Department of Education website? If so, 48-hour days won’t be long enough.

In fairness, some time will also be saved. As the standardization process intensifies and grows, public school teachers may be relieved of much of the responsibility of thinking about what should be taught. Others may do that for them as we race faster and faster to the top. In some classrooms, the MCAS test already defines the curriculum. Conversion of the public schools from centers of learning and art to centers of measurement and assessment will soon be completed as the final pieces of the business accountability evaluation model are fitted into place.

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How will superb artistic programs such as Pittsfield High School’s Proteus drama society, formerly directed by Ralph Hamman, be affected? Will Proteus be forced to compete against testing and data collection for time and relevance? Will it face devaluation or elimination if its value cannot be statistically qualified and quantified?

Perhaps devices can be installed in the theater to measure the decibel level of the audiences’ applause. Then rubrics can be created that utilize decibel levels as indicators of varying theatrical quality.

When a skilled teacher stands before a class making micro-second adjustments to the pace, content and direction of each lesson based upon perceived behavioral cues, will that subtle adaptability be measurable?

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Will the depth of students’ engagement in lessons or their joy of learning be measurable or will such matters be dismissed as fluff? The tidal waves of reform flooding our schools produce strong currents that are difficult to resist, even the optional ones.

Some reforms are often wrapped in shiny, irresistible packaging, frequently offering generous financial incentives to any community willing to sell their autonomy for the right price. Those who hesitate to do so are vilified for their stubborn insistence that they retain some control over their own destiny.

To justify this march toward standardization, we point selectively to other nations where the school days and years are longer or we highlight the success of a select few charter school programs. Most often, private schools are cited for their academic excellence. In fact, many critics of public education insist that vouchers that enable children to access private school education will lead us out of the wilderness and that privatized programs free of those pesky public school unions are the only way to go.

Ironically, those private schools, commonly recipients of much more praise than criticism, operate without high- stakes testing, without state mandated curricula and programs, without evidence based micro-evaluation and without the need for statisticians and number crunchers to lead them to the Promised Land. The schools that we often identify as our very best are free from the regulatory requirements that have become the hallmark of public education reform.

In a private school, it will still be possible for a teacher to select and read a favorite poem to a class without a measurable objective. The goal might be to simply share a poem as a source of joy, or dare I suggest, of beauty. According to the new Massachusetts Standards and Indicators of Effective Teaching Practice Rubric, an exemplary lesson requires "measurable objectives and appropriate student engagement." Perhaps electrodes could be attached to students’ brains to measure their emotional reaction to a poem. If not, in the new world where measurement and data rule, joy might easily become an unwelcome interloper.

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We are so desperate to find a solution to our educational woes, that we are willing to consider almost any approach, especially one that mirrors the business world. Critics do have a point about the desirability of private education. In that world, teachers still decide what should be taught, how it should be taught and how to collaborate to create learning environments in which emotions, artistic expression and ideas that defy measurement still have value. Lewis Carroll had it right.

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun

O The frumious Bandersnatch!"

Edward Udel is a regular Eagle
contributor.