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Education in Two Worlds: Mirabile Dictu! State Departments of Education are Political!

Brad McQueen is a teacher in Tucson, Arizona. He’s suing the State Superintendent of Instruction. I’ll try to make a long story short.

McQueen was appointed to the Department of Education standardized testing committee. The State Board of Education adopted the Common Core in 2010. But McQueen spoke out against the Core in a book entitled The Cult of Common Core. And he followed that up with some negative comments about Common Core in a podcast on a Tucson radio station and in an article in a Phoenix newspaper. This proved to be a little too much insubordination for the Superintendent’s office, according to emails flying around between Associate Superintendents: “FYI regarding a teacher named Brad McQueen. He is on a roll criticizing AZCCRS [Arizona College & Career Ready Standards]. … just thought you might want to check your list of teacher teams [from which teachers are selected to serve on committee].” The Deputy Associate Superintendent to whom the email was addressed replied that a note had been placed in McQueen’s file. Shortly thereafter he was uninvited from Department of Education committees. McQueen wants a) the negative notes purged from his file, b) to be reinstated to the committees on which he served, and c) attorney fees.

McQueen’s case struck a resonate chord in my memory. Back in the 1990s, I was invited to serve on an AZ Department of Education committee. Our committee was to advise the Department on a test that would be given to persons seeking a teaching credential in the state of Arizona. The contract for test development had been let to a company in New Hampshire. The test was a paper & pencil multiple-choice test in which the examinee was presented with a classroom situation and asked to pick the best action to take. We warned to company about the arbitrariness of cut-score problem, to no avail; they assured us that the Angoff Method would be used. That this assurance gave us no comfort was passed over with no comment.

But let’s back up. There were 6 or 8 of us on the Technical Advisory Committee. The Chairperson was a professor from the University of Nevada Las Vegas who specialized in measurement. He flew into Phoenix in the morning for the meetings and flew home that evening; round trip air-fares between Phoenix and Las Vegas in those days were about $70. Two or three representatives of the New Hampshire company were present at every meeting of our committee.

Our committee eventually arrived at the point where we said that we could not vouch for the technical adequacy of the proposed test unless a validity study were done. In other words, let’s have observers spend some time in the classrooms of certified teachers, rate their performance, and then see if the paper-pencil test can distinguish the better teachers from the poorer one. This position taken by the committee did not sit well with the people from New Hampshire. It would cost money — money not written into the contract. But our committee stood firm, for a while.

Before the next meeting of the committee could be called, we members received a letter from the Associate Superintendent of Instruction. Our services would no longer be needed. We were being dismissed. The reason? The Department could no longer afford to fly the Chairperson into town from Las Vegas. In point of fact, the Department was spending more money on bagels and coffee for the committee’s breaks than they were spending on the chairperson’s plane ticket.

Shortly thereafter, word spread that the Department had reconstituted the technical advisory committee under the chairmanship of a professor from East Lansing, Michigan. None of the previous committee members was serving on this new committee, and this new chairman’s views on high-stakes testing were known to be much less critical than ours.

No one sued. Life went on. I suspect that most of us simply accepted the fact that this is how things are done in an office in which the head is the third highest elected position in the state government. Maybe we should have reacted how Brad McQueen has done, twenty years later.

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Gene V Glass

Gene V Glass is a lecturer in the Connie L. Lurie College of Education of San José State University. He is also currently a Senior Researcher at the National Educ...