Monday, May 9, 2011

Why You Should Care

Bad things are happening in Virginia.  As a public institution, our schools are part of a system "for, by, and of" the people.  Increasingly, the public has allowed too much distance between themselves and the decision-making that drives policy in our schools.  I can't help but feel that political and educational leaders are fine with this.  It makes the hard work of having to justify and take responsibilities for making decisions a little easier.

The Virginia State Board of Education recently announced a Pilot Program that was conceived as a plan to earn Federal "Race To The Top" incentive money.  The state did not receive the grant, but they've moved ahead with the plan.  The plan is easily framed in language such as "performance pay" and "measured by student growth" which sound perfectly sound on the surface.  Launching this program as a voluntary pilot also minimized potential backlash, so much so that the real news seems to have been lost.

According to the Virginia Department of Education, the essential elements of this Pilot Program have already been approved for statewide use.  Districts are encouraged to adopt them early, but the new Guidelines for Uniform Performance Standards and Evaluation Criteria for Teachers will take effect for the entire state by July 1, 2012.  I suppose that since they've adopted the guidelines already, there is no need to evaluate the efficacy of the pilot to determine the guidelines' worth.

Essentially, I see no genuine public discourse of the merit to this system and similar systems across the nation.  It is easy to promote such a plan in today's political climate.  Teachers have become a target, a scapegoat even for society.  A plan that supposedly rewards the good teachers sounds great.  The idea that you earn more pay based on better performance is quite an American ideal.  To measure performance on how much a student improves over the course of a year instead of a final absolute score sounds pretty fair as well.  This is why the public discourse is needed.  As good as this plan sounds, it is terrible.  We need more public awareness of this plan because I for one would appreciate a better explanation from our leaders about why this plan is good.  I would also like for the public to be more aware of the pitfalls of this plan so that leaders would have to address their critics and constituents.

I encourage you to read our previous post "Taking A Stand in Virginia and Texas" if you haven't yet.  But don't think that we at the Underground are a couple of lone nuts speaking out agains the system.  Mary Tedrow wrote a piece for the Washington Post "Answer Sheet" blog today specifically addressing problems with the Virginia system.  She articulates the issues much better than we are able, so we strongly encourage you to read "Virginia's Ill Advised Assessment Experiment."  Also on today's Answer Sheet you can find an article by John Ewing, president of Math for America, explaining the pitfalls of Value Added Measures.  The article "Leading Mathematician Debunks 'value-added'"is a little longer, but if you're interested in a more academic discussion of the problems with the metrics used for 'value-added' it is worth the read.  Both articles do an excellent job of moving beyond the effect on teachers and describe the negative effect on students and learning arising from this movement.

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