Steve Bowen, Maine's Commissioner of Education under our dear darling Governor Paul LePage, is a smart man by all accounts. Friends in Camden say good things about him from the time he was a teacher there. We hear words coming out of his mouth that we like, that seem to be words we have been waiting to hear from an education bureaucrat for...well, forever.
But this is Education we're talking about, and in the USA in 2011, words lose their meaning. Achievement is a good word. Literacy is a nice one, too. Teacher evaluation sounds very responsible, something we should have. Accountability sounds like something taxpayers ought to ask of any government-funded system. Critical Thinking, that's a big one; that's like Polaris, the star we keep looking for so we can follow it anywhere.
The problem is that we live in a time when words about the education of young people have been co-opted. You have to be a detective to understand the intent behind them, and there are certain clues you need to know about in order to determine this.
Take a look at this, from a DOE news release dated September 28, 2011:
*We’re implementing the rigorous Common Core state standards for math and English language arts – standards that clearly lay out what students need to know and be able to do to be prepared for college and careers;To me the above is simply bullshit. If I was a kid and I came to understand what the above meant, I would run screaming in the opposite direction. I'd think, “What does any of that have to do with me?” I know that language was not intended for kids, but you'd think that in that whole sweeping, bulleted scheme, above, there'd be something for a kid to latch on to. But there is nothing.
*We have plans to transition to a new generation of modern, computer-based assessments that are aligned with those rigorous standards, test higher-order skills and offer teachers the chance to make assessment useful – using it as a way to identify areas where students need help and to adjust instruction accordingly;
*We’re laying the groundwork for an accountability system that recognizes our educators when they help students grow, provides them with constructive feedback when improvement is needed and allows for a wide variety of improvement strategies – rather than a one-size-fits-all approach; and
*We have schools that are devising an array of model teacher and administrator evaluations that school districts can use – evaluations that provide helpful feedback to the professionals in our schools so they can continue to grow in their jobs.
Then there is the adult view of the above, and in my mind, quite honestly, it's bullshit. There's a couple things I want to focus on. “Clearly lay out what students need to know and be able to do.” Gah! This doesn't make you want to heave? However clearly you lay it out, there is no known formula on earth for “getting kids to do it,” because kids don't do things because you want them to.
I told a lie there. It's not true that kids don't do things because you want them to. They do things you want them to do IF and only IF they feel you trust and respect them.
Figure out how to gain the trust of a kid, figure out a way to respect who they are, and they will be more likely to learn what you want them to learn. But by then, what you want them to learn will be irrelevant because they'll be educated already, in ways that are meaningful to them. They will have taken your trust and your guidance and used it to educate themselves. You might have a hard time with that; you might feel that it makes adults pretty superfluous to the education of a child. That's a feature, not a bug.
So get rid of that whole first bullet and replace it with, “Find a way to establish mutual respect and trust between the adults and children in the educational system.”
That second bullet I can't even deal with. I am trying to train myself to stop recognizing the words “rigorous” and “aligned” because they have nothing to do with kids. As for identifying areas where students need help, Good Lord, leave them the hell alone and let them learn whatever they want.
I know that scoffing at those words and my desire to leave kids alone will anger some people, particularly those who are involved in helping kids who are in fifth grade and can't read, but I have no other response. Your system failed that child in 1st through 5th grade. Now it's time to leave that student alone and put him in a situation where he is able to learn what's most important to him right now.
On to the next bullet which says, “Recognizes educators when they help students grow.” “Recognize” is code for merit pay. I don't even want to know what measure they plan to use to determine if a child has grown or not. I have a question for Steve Bowen. Did you even read a word of Dan Pink? Or did you read “Drive” and simply not believe it, or think that the research that proves that merit pay does not result in greater motivation for teachers to succeed was simply wrong? Merit pay backfires EVERY TIME. Why?
Well, according to Dan Pink, (and many other authors and researchers; I'm not asking us to hang our hats on one person's opinion) it's because merit pay reduces the work a human being does to a financial amount and the human spirit doesn't respond to that. People actually work less hard when given a financial incentive. Turns out humans want to work for satisfaction and the intrinsic reward of a job well done. Turns out what you need to do to get people to work harder is trust them, give them autonomy and let them do their jobs.
Perhaps the most insidious of all the bullets is the last one. Steve Bowen is advocating for teacher evaluations being attached to student test scores. Now, on one hand, I might decide I need to do a lot of research on the effectiveness of such a change; but on the other hand, I probably already know everything I need to know. You can't put this change into place unless you believe test scores are the definitive way of determining a child's achievement. You can't do it unless you think letting test scores drive curriculum and learning is a good and worthy way to run a school.
You can't use test scores this way unless you think that they are the most important measure of a school, a teacher, and a child.
I just learned from a Twitter friend that there is a new buzz phrase: evaluating teachers using test scores is “treating teachers like professionals." On what planet?
We need to establish schools where teachers work cooperatively to constantly raise one another's effectiveness in fostering student learning. We need to have teachers in and out of each other's classrooms, learning from one another, learning how to safely criticize one another, learning to admit weaknesses and ask for help, and make that help available at all times. Their goal is clear at all times: establish respect and trust between you and your students.
You will know your teachers are effective because kids are asking to go to school on Saturdays. Until that point, keep working on it.
Since the above list doesn't address charter schools, I'm not going to get into it here; not today. Also, school choice, school vouchers and all manner of other excuses not to change education in all our public schools.
Steve Bowen says a lot of good things. He recommends a book that I am actually quite fond of, called Inevitable: Mass Customized Learning, which outlines ways to knock out the old walls of our system and build a new one in its place, gutting the insides and creating something truly new. I like this. His criticism of the industrial model of education is spot-on.
So why does he advocate for bullshit? Is it possible to find common ground with someone who seems to say good words, but beneath the surface advocates for so many backward causes?
I am happy to entertain challenges to my opinion about Bowen. If I've gotten things wrong, if I'm being short-sighted, if I am dismissing before I should dismiss, let me know. But my own bottom-line issues do not allow me to support this leader. Listen to his words, and make sure you understand their meaning.