Thursday, November 8, 2012

Indiana Education Politics: Explanations & Predictions, Part I

I'll preface this by saying that I am stripping out sources from this article, particularly the predictions section (which I will post in part II). I don't feel comfortable naming people who talked to me as a friend and I don't want them in hot water with politicians. I’m aware this hurts the overall credibility, so apply grains of salt as needed.

Tuesday night was a great night for classroom teachers.

Glenda Ritz, a veteran classroom teacher and financial underdog, was able to oust Tony Bennett, a nationally known advocate of the #edreform movement that is characterized by high-stakes testing of students, evaluation of teachers based in part on those same tests, and school choice in the form of one of the strongest voucher programs in the nation.

As I watched the early results and continued watching through the night, the various local political pundits were scrambling. Despite their claims of social media savvy and clear understanding of the minds of Hoosier voters, not a single one seemed able to explain what was happening or why. They went to stalwart cliche's involving words like "grassroots" or "union-influence" depending on the side of the aisle from which they were stammering.

It was a lot of fun.

Now it is two days later. Educators: You had a win, and it was the first when you’ve had in a long time. That victory is going to leave a bitter taste in your mouth if you think that this battle is over or that you can go back to teaching your students, secure in your Tuesday night victory. I hate to say it, but your work has just begun.

Interlude: Setting the Context
Parents: Does this make you feel informed?
The other night, Undivided Middle, my 8 year old, brought a stack of papers home to review.
This is a frustrating time as a parent. The majority of the week's "work" does not look like traditional homework as pre-test-craze adults might remember it. There were few pages with spelling words or math problems. Few red X's that could be discussed with the child to begin remediation.

The majority of the work consists of printed pages with a single column on the left hand side. The column is numbered 1-17 and next to each number is a circle (good) or an "X" (bad) -- 3 Xs is a C+. 4 is a D. On the left hand side of this paper is a list of key words, presumably the content or skills that were tested by this mysterious computer program with a hyphenated name. The words might be "Setting" or "Plot" or "Simple Division". -- There are no problems to work through. There is nothing to correct. There IS an expectation that we, as parents, sign the sheets so that we can acknowledge that our child has been adequately tested and that her knowledge (or lack thereof) is well documented and communicated.

Welcome to modern education.
End Interlude

I have talked about these issues a lot, most recently discussing parents getting tutors for their kindergarten children and analytics/data experts admitting that the field is in its predictive infancy and not the great evaluator that is claimed by charter-school/textbook sponsored educational reformers. While Indiana is not as bad as some other states (a friend of mine describe 40+ days of standardized testing complete with audits from state officials - cringe), the entire enterprise of education is now dictated by A-F ratings for schools, standardized outcomes on assessments, dehumnaizing software that "individualizes" for students while removing that messy contact with other human beings, and using the disparate systems to pass judgement on the effectiveness of individual educators without much care toward the impact of poverty, parents, or other causality.

When I was able to meet Tony Bennett at a parent education meeting, he was open to discussing teacher evaluation by student test score, but ultimately ended the discussion with "well, we have to do something" -- it was an odd acknowledgment that there were flaws while simultaneously holding onto this particular idea as the last hope.

What happened? An Outsider's Explanation

Bennett had more name recognition, more money, and was a republican incumbent in a Republican state. Simply, this was no contest. And for the better part of the election season, that is how Ritz played it.

There were no TV commercials. Few ads in general. Just a teacher visiting schools. Meanwhile, Bennett played a completely positive in-the-spotlight campaign right out of the front-runner playbook.

What I noticed was that about two weeks before election day, teachers began flipping profile pictures to the "Ritz4edu" logo. The other thing that I noticed was that teachers were talking about what was happening in the classroom. They were sharing the pressure of a looming school letter grade that led administrators to remove project that encouraged collaboration or critical thinking -- those things aren't on the standardized test. They shared the evaluation systems that looked less at how a teacher interacted with a struggling student and more about whether the state standards of the day were written on the board. They shared the obscure use of single-data-points to draw conclusions about students as if they were scores in a video game and not snapshots of the responses of a human being.

They shared with friends and family, people who had kids in school and people who's kids went to school before test-prep had become the watchword.

...and people listened.

The conservative pundit on WTHR quickly fell to an attack on the Indiana teacher's union. "They want this bad," he grimaced. But this wasn't a movement of union drones -- public and private teachers, union supporters and people who had burned by the unions' classic last-hired/first-fired policies, even conservative teachers -- it was a compelling stand. Because of the timing of this move and its truly grassroots, social media nature, there was neither the time nor the inclination to bring more outside money to bear. Even news stations who were all too willing to proclaim the number of tweets-per-minute the election generated seemed absolutely unaware that this ground campaign was being conducted.

When the final numbers came in, it was clear that this was not just a teacher revolt (although, to be fair, if there were THAT many teachers, we would not have any issues with class size). People who voted for Romney, and Pence, and maybe even Murdock were splitting off the ticket to vote for Ritz.

Tuesday night was a great night for classroom teachers.

But three days have passed...

(Part two will be posted tomorrow with predictions, warnings, and a call to action)