Not quite, but almost, the second Krugman!


Michael Winerip’s Tennessee waltz: Twice a week, New York Times readers have a chance to learn something in their newspaper!

This opportunity knocks on Mondays and Fridays, when Paul Krugman’s columns appear. On a weekly basis, Michael Winerip tends to provide a third chance.

Winerip’s “ON EDUCATION” reports appear on Mondays. And good grief! Today, in a sadly informative piece, he lets us see how teacher evaluation is proceeding in Tennessee’s public schools.

Winerip mentions several possible problems with the state’s current procedures. But this is where today’s report had the analysts gnashing their teeth, rending their garments and in some cases tearing their hair:
WINERIP (11/7/11): Because there are no student test scores with which to evaluate over half of Tennessee’s teachers—kindergarten to third-grade teachers; art, music and vocational teachers—the state has created a bewildering set of assessment rules. Math specialists can be evaluated by their school’s English scores, music teachers by the school’s writing scores.
Say what? Math specialists can be evaluated by their school’s English scores? The problem arise for teachers of subjects for which the state doesn’t have statewide tests. For example, Tennessee’s schools employ music teachers—but there is no state test for music. How can teachers like this be “evaluated?” Go ahead—read for yourself:
WINERIP: To solve that, the state is requiring teachers without test results to be evaluated based on the scores of teachers at their school with test results. So Emily Mitchell, a first-grade teacher at David Youree Elementary, will be evaluated using the school’s fifth-grade writing scores.

“How stupid is that?” said Michelle Pheneger, who teaches ACT math prep at Blackman High and is also being evaluated in part based on writing scores. “My job can be at risk, and I’m not even being evaluated by my own work.”

For 15 percent of their testing evaluation, teachers without scores are permitted to choose which subject test they want to be judged on. Few pick something related to their expertise; instead, they try to anticipate the subject that their school is likely to score well on in the state exams next spring.

Several teachers without scores at Oakland Middle School conferred. “The P. E. teacher got information that the writing score was the best to pick,” said Jeff Jennings, the art teacher. “He informed the home ec teacher, who passed it on to me, and I told the career development teacher.”

It’s a bit like Vegas, and if you pick the wrong academic subject, you lose and get a bad evaluation. While this may have nothing to do with academic performance, it does measure a teacher’s ability to play the odds.


This would all be hilarious, except these evaluations can cost people their jobs.
Can this possibly be true? We can’t be fully certain. That said, Winerip is a good reporter; he doesn’t normally publish hoaxes or previews of Onion reports. Still and all, we’ll disagree with his last point. Nonsense like this could never be hilarious, given what it suggests about the overall judgment of the people who are running Tennessee’s various educational programs.

Even if this procedure couldn’t cost people their jobs, it would still be wasting large amounts of time and effort. It would be still undermining the morale of people like Pheneger—people who can somehow see that this practice is “stupid.”

We’ll suggest that you read the whole report, and that you look for Winerip each Monday. We’ll also mention one last point concerning a brush with greatness.

Winerip reports that Tennessee’s education commissioner, Kevin Huffman, has “asked the State Board of Education for modifications to the evaluation rules that are intended to reduce the amount of time principals must spend on them.” He quotes Huffman saying that the state “will listen and respond to feedback from educators on this evaluation model.”

Huffman is new to his post; his hiring was announced in February. The more ridiculous policies here may not be his creation or fault. (Once again, we’re assuming that Winerip’s piece isn’t a hoax.)

That said, we thought you might want to know that Huffman is Michelle Rhee’s former husband and her longtime partner in “education reform.” Is Huffman responsible for this nonsense? Or is he cleaning it up?

Assuming this whole report isn’t a hoax, inquiring minds may be curious.

1 comment:

  1. This is appalling. Unfortunately, badly thought-out plans from state and federal education bureaucrats are nothing new.

    I remember 35 years ago when my kids were in school, there was some special science program called SCIS, which came from the bureaucrats. When I visited the classroom, the SCIS materials were stacked in a corner. Supposedly a complete set had never been received. In any event, the program was unused.

    Not using SCIS did less damage than the experimental math program that was used for 2nd graders in Berkeley, CA in 1974. It was supposed to be used as a supplement to arithmetic. Instead it was a replacement. The teacher didn't actually understand it and had no idea of how to teach it. It did a lot of damage to my daughter.

    Another common problem was an experimental approach that might get state or federal funding for a year or two. After the outside money ended, the school was sometimes stuck with that program and/or stuck with people it had hired specifically for that program.

    In most fields, the leadership is made up of those most capable. That seems not to be the case in the field of education. Given his teaching experience, Bob Somerby could explain this phenomenon far better than I could.

    My explanation was published in a letter to the New York Times in 1998. I said that the problem is that bureaucrats' raison d'être is creating new programs, rather than improving educational results.