“Measure Every Teacher Now!” Shouts District

thermometerNew Gaffe, NY—In its rush to get all teachers measured, the New Gaffe School District has ordered its schools to use any standardized measures at all, even if they bear no relation to the subject being taught.

“The point is to launch the new system and fire the bottom five percent of teachers,” said district chancellor Mark Islip. “We can’t waste time here. If we wait, the status quo will come sliding back down on us, like… a landslide. We’ve got to get the reform rolling. We can tinker with it later.”

According to the new directives, teachers of untested subjects may choose from an array of approved measures. One option is to take the students’ temperatures at the beginning and end of the year. “The September temperature, that’s your baseline,” said Islip. Then your June temperature may be higher, or lower, or the same. If it’s higher, it may mean there’s higher engagement in the class, or it may mean there’s a flu going around. We’ll take it as growth, in any case.”

Another option for such teachers is to use the English language arts test as a baseline and the mathematics test as a final exam. “Hey, you never know,” said Sandy Sullivan, a Reform Implementation Consultant (RIC). “The progress from ELA to math may be substantial. Music teachers might even get a boost.” When asked what “progress” from ELA to math would mean, Sullivan shrugged her shoulders. “We have to stay open-minded,” she said. “It could mean something.”

Not only teachers of untested subjects, but teachers of subjects such as chemistry and physics (which aren’t typically taught over multiple years) must use a baseline outside of the subject. “How can you have a baseline in physics, when the students don’t know any physics yet?” asked George Metropoulos, a physics teacher who, by virtue of being a teacher, clearly doesn’t know what he’s talking about. “This whole thing needs reconsideration.” Metropoulos was given three options for a baseline: the previous year’s social studies test, the third-grade reading test, or the number of sit-ups each students could complete per minute, timed under officially approved conditions.

“We’re dealing with a lot of nitpickiness and frustration,” replied Toby Winnow, an instructional coach who reportedly had “worked with” Metropoulos until the latter balked. “Clearly the baseline is going to make more sense for some teachers than for others, but in the end it makes sense for everyone. Think of it this way. The kids come in with knowledge of something. You add knowledge of something else. Subtract that something from the something else, and there’s your value-added, after it’s gone through a state-of-the-art formula. Simple as that.”

What if the new measurement system results in the firing of good teachers? “Oh, please,” said Islip. “At this point, we could fire teachers blindly and end up much better off than we are now. Research has shown that if you fire any five percent of the teachers, you will raise achievement by half of a standard deviation, and increase students’ lifetime earnings by precisely $124,932.56.”

Which research has shown this? “It was on a slideshow at the last superintendents’ meeting,” Islip replied. “Those slides are top-notch, prepared by the best in the field.”

“I don’t see how any of this makes sense,” said Ariane Tort, a tenth grader. “First of all, I don’t want any of my teachers fired. Second, I’m really good at sit-ups, so that means less ‘growth’ for my teachers. Should I slow down my sit-ups so they get more growth points?”

“Do whatever feels right for you,” said Winnow. “Remember, this has nothing to do with you. It’s all about the teachers. I know it’s painful to see them fired, especially if you like them, but change is always painful, if you know what I mean.” He paused for a minute. “It’s painful even if you don’t know what I mean. Even if I myself don’t know what I mean, or no one knows what anyone means. In fact, that last scenario might be the most painful scenario of all, or the least painful. Wow, I’ve gotten philosophical,” he mused. “I wonder how philosophy would be measured. The possibilities are endless. That’s the wonder of the new system. So much room for innovation here. We could even give the kids a typing test.”

District Announces Value-Added Bazaar

In a major urban district that requested anonymity, teachers will be required to attend a bazaar in order to purchase the value-added formula that suits them best. (In education, value-added formulas are used to rank teachers on the basis of their students’ test score improvement.)

“It’s ‘bazaar,’ not ‘bizarre,’” said Superintendent Elmer Bozard, whose initial proposal inspired a major donation from an anonymous celebrity, an “influencer” who thinks education is important.

(Readers may be wondering: how can the urban district remain anonymous, now that Bozard has revealed his name? Answer: Bozard is as yet unknown to the education world. He just graduated from the Broad Superintendents Academy and has never been a teacher or principal. His appointment is still unannounced, as the previous superintendent has yet to be officially fired.)

“This is sheer innovation,” Bozard went on to explain. “Ever since we started rating teachers with formulas, we’ve been getting numerous complaints about errors, inconsistencies, absurdities, you name it. So we got together in a secret focus group with industry leaders and came up with this new idea: Let the market be the formula.”

At the Value-Added Bazaar, teachers will view demos of each formula and speak with a value-added consultant. After purchasing their own personal formula (prices range from $10 to $1,000), they will take a personality test. This will match them with a Holistic Evaluation Knowledge Consultant (HEKC) who will manage their Holistic Evaluation Needs. “Research has shown that teachers are valid people, but that they resist change,” said Shelly Speranza, CEO of Valid People, Inc. “So our consultants begin by affirming the teachers as people. Then they tell them that if they want to stay human, they will have to change, because humans change. For consistency’s sake, we make sure that our evaluations match the value-added ratings.” Consultants earn a minimum of $1,000 a day, but each teacher will only have to pay $100 a month for the services.

Although teachers may choose the formula that rates them “effective,” the sum total of ratings will lead to the firing of 50 percent of the teachers. “You see,” explained Speranza, “each time a teacher is rated effective, someone else is rated ineffective. We tally up each teacher’s ‘ineffective’ ratings and divide down the middle. The ones most frequently rated ‘ineffective’ will have to go.”

“Brilliant!” exclaimed the economist and movie actor Brian Handshake. “We’ve been dying to find a way to get rid of teachers so that student achievement can shoot up to the heavens. Now they can get rid of themselves!”

Curiously, teachers have not shown excitement over the bazaar. “I’ve got to prepare a lesson on Blake,” said a high school English teacher. “I don’t have time for this.”

“We’ll hype it up a bit more,” said Bozard, when we passed on her comment. “We’re planning to give out a lot of goodies there.” Noting that teachers often pay out of pocket for required bulletin board supplies, he has ordered a large supply of bulletin board backing paper, colorful borders with stars and animals, staples, construction paper, pushpins, and ready-made rubrics and standards.

In addition, at the bazaar, a leading software and hardware company will be offering to inject microchips in teachers for free. “When they let us track them, we know they’re not hiding anything,” said Bozard. “Their disclosure level isn’t part of the value-added ratings yet, but their HEKC will be informed of it and will treat them accordingly. Over time, their personal lives will figure into their ratings as well.”

Eventually it will be possible to purchase value-added formulas at regular grocery stores. “We expect many more brands over the next 5-10 years,” said Handshake, “and it’s important to keep the market fluid. So you can expect to see machines dispensing cards with barcodes. Teachers will just scan them against their chips, and the calculations will begin.”

The Mayor’s Dream Dialogue

The New York State Legislature has passed a law prohibiting the publication of teachers’ test score ratings but allowing parents to view them.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg isn’t happy about this. He has decreed, therefore, that principals and assistant principals shall call all the parents to inform them of their right to see the scores.

Now, I am sure he has heard from many a reputable source about the problems with value-added ratings and the importance of regarding them skeptically. Yet he remains convinced that these ratings hold Truth.

But what makes him think principals agree with him? What makes him sure that they’ll say what he wants them to say on the phone? What does he hope they’ll say?

Perhaps he is hoping for a million conversations like this:

Principal: Hello, may I please speak with Leonora Thonge?

Ms. Thonge: Speaking.

Principal: Good morning, Ms. Thonge. This is Principal Eigenvalue of your son’s failing school P.S. 2345. I am calling to tell you that you may come to the school to view your teachers’ value-added ratings–that is, the ratings based on test score data.

Ms. Thonge: Oh, please tell me now! I have been desperate for the truth!

Principal: I would like to… but the ARIS database is down, and I am not allowed to give you the information over the phone. The union has my hands tied, you see. That’s one of many reasons why you should consider a charter school for Bernard.

Ms Thonge: I understand. I will be there shortly.

(Half an hour later, in the principal’s office.)

Ms. Thonge (weeping): His English and math teachers are both below average? And I thought they were so intelligent, so caring…

Principal (handing Ms. Thonge a box of tissues): There, now. It’s common for parents and students to think well of a teacher. That’s why we need the data to set the record straight.

Ms. Thonge: Are you sure these ratings are correct? I have heard that they are often wildly inaccurate.

Principal (in a confidential whisper): Don’t believe it. These are based on hard data and state-of-the-art formulas, and that’s as true as true can be.

Ms. Thonge: But what am I to do now? Where am I to take my Bernard, my poor little boy?

Principal: Well, as you may know, we’re a turnaround school. This means we will be firing half of the teachers soon. The ones we keep will be the ones with above-average ratings. I’m the Interim Turnaround Principal and won’t be here much longer myself. So you are welcome to wait it out. However, it’s a gorgeous day, and I suggest you go shopping!

Ms. Thonge: What do you take me for? Do you think I want to buy anything after hearing this shattering news?

Principal: No, no, I meant school-shopping! You can ask for their value-added scores and choose the school that promises the most growth for Bernard. I will recommend a few for you.

Ms. Thonge: Do they have a Shakespeare program, like this school does? Bernard loved the Shakespeare so much. He sometimes had the whole family act out scenes.

Principal: Shakespeare isn’t on the test. That’s part of what dragged  our school down: tearching things that weren’t on the test. The schools I’m recommending are completely test-aligned–or will be, once they start. They’re all brand-new. This will be good for your son. There won’t be any history to hold him back.

Ms. Thonge: Oh, thank you, thank you for putting my son first!

Principal: Thank the data. Without the data, none of this would be possible. We would all be trapped in our human ways.  In fact, I’m about to go to Data Mass, which starts at noon. You are most welcome to join me.

Ms. Thonge: Thank you! I will join you in adoring the data, from which all blessings derive, and then I will check out some schools. Oh, what a day of joy! Before we head over, do you mind if I ask you something off script?

Principal: Off script? I’m a figment of the mayor’s dream! I don’t know how to go off script.

Ms. Thonge: Let me put it this way. What do you really think about all this?

The principal flushes into life, and they end up talking for another hour. The mayor, still dreaming, waves his arms and shouts, “Cut! Cut!” but to no avail.

The End

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

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    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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