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The NEA and Our Absurd National Debate

Down here on the ground in public schools, what school children, parents, and teachers are experiencing are the first tremors of what will likely be seismic shifts in the reality of our nation's education system. As teacher layoffs start to roll-out in Milwaukee, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, and elsewhere in the country, report after report warn us of the massive cutbacks in teaching staff and funding that will severely restrict instructional time for school children, even though "virtually everyone involved in education" thinks this is the exact opposite of what we should be doing.

However, faced with this widespread calamity, people in the lofty circles of government and punditry are less worried about the destruction than they are about the current obsession with supposed innovations such as testing four-year-olds and using reams of bubble tests as a "lever" to lift, believe it or not, "school spirit".

This week's absurd focal point in the education debate shifted back once again to the notion of using standardized test scores to evaluate teachers. In a report from The New York Times on the annual meeting of the National Education Association, the reporter chose to emphasize the news that the largest teachers' union in the Unites States now "affirmed for the first time that evidence of student learning must be considered in the evaluations of school teachers." But, as the Times story quickly pointed out, "the union also made clear that it continued to oppose the use of existing standardized test scores to judge teachers." In other words, while the theory of using student "outputs" to evaluate teachers may be relevant, the fact is that standardized tests currently in use and under development can't deliver on that theory -- which has also been the conclusion of numerous, in-depth studies.

In the current tit-for-tat that characterizes dialogue about our nation's school policy, what appears to be a reasonable conclusion by the NEA was quickly spun by those in favor of so-called reform as a"diversionary tactic", a "meaningless" gesture, and a suck-up to the Democratic Party.

Coincidentally, while these pundits were having their say about the importance of test-based evaluations, the internet exploded with the news of a massive new cheating scandal in Atlanta.

Indeed, no matter what the NEA proposed for teacher evaluations, it probably would have been dismissed as either caving in or flip-flopping. The views of teachers are so frequently either held in contempt or dismissed outright that the education debate has come to resemble this famous skit from Monty Python's Flying Circus in which the comedian Michael Palin earnestly seeks the service of an agency providing arguments. As you watch, consider the hapless Palin to be a teacher trying to have a voice in our current education debate . . .



This really is what the education "debate" has come down to, isn't it? Rather than an exchange of coherent "propositions," what teachers get first is abuse ("bad teachers"), followed by contradiction ("poverty is no excuse"), then complaints about the "budget crisis, until they're just getting beaten on the head. And when those who've been anointed with "authority" attempt to intercede, they accuse educators with legitimate complaints of being"nasty, personal, and petty."

Surely this is no laughing matter. While the nation's public schools head toward the brink, what we're getting from those who should know better is cognitive dissonance: test-based accountability that produces widespread cheating, "miracle" schools whose successes are achieved by getting rid of low-performing students, and "high expectations" that actually influence more students to drop out. While at the same time school budgets are being slashed to the bone. No wonder educators sometimes respond with anger.

But the NEA's resolution on teacher evaluation is not an outburst from "angry teachers." It's an attempt at clarity. And those who claim that it doesn't go far enough need to not only prove that tests which were never designed to evaluate teachers in the first place will somehow miraculously do this, but also explain why, at a time when resources and time for essential instruction is being cut back, we should even be talking about this.

And those who profess to want to"make a difference in the lives of children" need to shift their focus away from this absurd debate about force-feeding public schools with a "basket of reforms" and instead put forward a coherent proposition for how our country can better support and fund the schools our children deserve.

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Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging cen...