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Riding the Silver Bullet

Teachers are panicked. I’m panicked. With the state’s new teacher evaluation system, I figure I have three years before I can be fired for factors beyond my control.

Next year I’ll be rated as usual. That shouldn’t be a problem — administrators who’ve judged me by what they’ve seen in my classroom have been pretty good to me. But come 2012 and 2013 they’ll look at my students’ scores. They depend not only on what I do, but also on what the kids do. I’ve been teaching teenagers for 25 years (and I have one at home). I know one thing for certain about teenagers — you never know what they will do.

On the brighter side, there are surefire ways to improve statistics. When you focus on that, you don’t need to worry as much about whether or not kids actually learn anything, or communicate in English (the language I’m paid to teach). Taking this broad view, it may be easier to create favorable statistics than actually teach. Instead of wasting time with actual classroom techniques, let’s examine a few individuals who’ve managed to look good under this up-and-coming paradigm.

One good example is former Education Secretary Rod Paige. Paige is famous for having engineered the 1990’s “Texas Miracle,” in which he managed to curb the dropout rate and get kids through school in unprecedented numbers. This became not only a calling card for future President George W. Bush, but also the predecessor of the prominent No Child Left Behind. So how did Paige manage to engineer this miracle? It appears he doctored the statistics. Using such methods, NCLB’s goal of 100 percent proficiency for all in 2014 appears much more realistic.

Another success story is Steve Perry, the principal of Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Connecticut. Perry’s claim to fame is 100 percent of the students who graduate from his school manage to go to four-year colleges. Via this remarkable feat, Perry’s managed to become a prominent CNN education commentator who blames teachers, badmouths the NAACP, and urges the use of vouchers. The question, of course, is how you meet this seemingly incredible 100 percent figure. Apparently, what you do is rid yourself of 43 percent of your students before they reach graduation. That way, the 57 percent who finish magically become 100 percent, and you become a working-class hero, celebrated by the media.

This brings us to Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein. They brought us a campaign for continued mayoral control a few years back that aggressively boasted of their test score gains (a campaign funded directly from Bill Gates’s pocket). Critics have been saying these test scores were inflated for years, and it turns out they were absolutely right. It further turns out Mayor Bloomberg’s much-touted claims of having erased the achievement gap were utterly baseless.

At the moment, eclipsing Bloomberg and Klein is President Barack Obama. He rode into the White House promising change, but for my money appears to be taking marching orders from Bill Gates and the Walton family, cheerleading a direct continuation of George W. Bush’s policies. Obama’s deputy, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (who ran the Chicago public schools Obama deemed not good enough for his children) is adding some of his Chicago-style reforms nationwide via Race to the Top. How have Duncan’s initiatives affected Chicago’s all-important test scores? From the Chicago Tribune:

Scores from the elementary schools created under Renaissance 2010 are nearly identical to the city average, and scores at the remade high schools are below the already abysmal city average, the analysis found.

The moribund test scores follow other less than enthusiastic findings about Renaissance 2010 — that displaced students ended up mostly in other low-performing schools and that mass closings led to youth violence as rival gang members ended up in the same classrooms. Together, they suggest the initiative hasn’t lived up to its promise by this, its target year.

That hardly sounds promising. Yet here we are in New York City, closing and transforming schools a la Chicago, hoping for the best, and ignoring all aspects of education problems unrelated to unionized teachers.

But hey, if this is the game, this is the game. If teachers get to play by the same rule utilized by the reformers, we can’t help but win. Bad stats? Just change ’em. Critics? Attack them personally on the city’s dime.

It’s another matter, though, if this whole accountability thing applies only to the little people. That would go a long way toward explaining why Mayor Bloomberg chooses to hold up Lady Gaga as a role model. Plenty of parents would like their kids to be famous singers or NBA stars. Those who depend on it, though, may as well blow the college fund on lotto tickets.

Despite abysmal results, it appears reformers, from Joel Klein and Michael Bloomberg to Barack Obama and Bill Gates, are willing to take just such chances with our children. None sent their own kids to public schools. This goes a long way toward explaining why they see “full speed ahead” as a perfectly acceptable approach to clearly failed policies.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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