You Can’t Have Standardization and Excellence from 8-25-11)

Perhaps this cartoon from earlier this year says it all. But I feel a need to go more in depth. I haven’t seen anyone else deal with this topic.

Florida passed Senate Bill 736 this year, which says that half of every teacher’s evaluation, and eventually every teacher’s pay, will be tied to the FCAT, the state’s standardized test. I’m merely going to mention in passing here that the absurdity of art and music teachers having their evaluations based on Math and Reading standardized test scores: It is absurd. But that absurdity is not the main one I’m going after. There is a larger absurdity afoot.

If I am in charge of the end result– in this case, test scores– I need to be given autonomy as to the process which achieves that result.

Let’s look at the world of business, since we keep wanting to run everything like one. If I work in a factory, adding wheels to widgets, and I am given the freedom to figure out the quickest, most efficient way to put those wheels on, then I am responsible for the end result, which is lots of wheeled widgets. I might come up with an inefficient system and only put on half the wheels that other workers do, in which case, I get paid less. When there is autonomy, there is the possibility of “merit”– as in “merit pay.” If there is autonomy, I might be able to do something better than you. I might also fail to do better than you. There is risk involved. But the end result is in my hands.

If, on the other hand, World Wide Widgets sets forth a standard procedure and pacing guide for Widget Wheel instillation, which they are entitled to do, they are essentially taking autonomy away from the workers. If World Wide Widget Compliance Officers walk around making sure that no one is deviating from the standard procedure, and everyone is following the same procedure, there really can’t be any merit. Everyone should, in fact, get the same exact results, in which case any kind of merit-based evaluation system is, again, a moot point. Because if you are telling me exactly what to do, and I am doing it, then I am not really responsible for the results. You, the Standard-Setter, are responsible. If I can’t go above and beyond, then there can be no merit.

Of course, there may also be hidden factory factors that influence my widget wheel effectiveness. For instance, what if you get used widgets, or damaged wheels? Doesn’t that influence my results? What if my assembly line machine is older and runs widgets by me more slowly? Those things will also influence my results. But again, if you are giving me a standard procedure for every possible widget situation, I don’t have the power to change the result. You, the Standard-Setter, are responsible.

Of course my analogy with schools breaks down, I think, if you view teaching and learning as something more than putting wheels on widgets. I think it is.

The same effect is at work in school, though. I almost long for the days when standardized tests and school grades were all we had to contend with. As long as I’m free to be innovative and creative, to tap into students’ interests and do whatever it takes to help them learn, then I can promise you some pretty good results– even test scores, if you want.

But now with scripted curriculums, and, coming soon to a classroom near you (yours, to be precise), the Common Core PARCC assessments and assignments, teachers are being told exactly how to put wheels on the widgets. Fifty percent of your evaluation is based on test score results. That’s absurd enough. But when you are also told exactly how to teach, it goes beyond absurd. If you are telling me exactly how to teach, then I am not responsible for the results I get. You are.

Let me repeat that: If you are telling me exactly how to teach, then I am not responsible for the results I get. You are.

Here is what great teachers do: set goals for learning, get to know their students, select and create materials and activities that will help those particular students sitting in their particular class become engaged so that they will learn. Great teachers adjust their approaches when things aren’t working. They are willing to throw out the idea that worked last year, even if it was a “favorite thing,” if it isn’t going to work with this particular group. They research new techniques and new theories of learning. They think about the nature of what they are trying to get students to do. I guess that’s what it boils down to: great teachers think.

But if all my thinking is done for me, if my materials and activities are all selected for me, if I can’t adjust my approach because I am supposed to stay “on script,” if I can’t throw out what doesn’t work and add in something new that I’ve created or researched that will work– if every instructional decision has been made for me, how am I supposed to excel? Talk louder in class? Present with more enthusiasm? What enthusiasm could I possibly have left?

If you tell me exactly how to teach, then you are responsible for the results. If you tell everyone to teach exactly the same way, then there can be no merit, no excellence, no progress or innovation. I find it ironic that the Common Core Standards curriculum is called PARCC, and acronym that implies sitting still.

We are creating classrooms populated by characters from Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron”– all differences covered up to create an illusion of equality.

Arne Duncan wants a “great teacher in every classroom.” You will not get great teachers by asking them all to be the same. I’ll repeat it again: if you tell me exactly how to teach, then you are responsible for the results. You can’t have it both ways. If you want to tell me how to teach, then you should take the blame, or the credit, for student learning. If you want me to be responsible, then please leave me alone and let me teach.

I know what I’m doing.