Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Quick Thoughts on Canaries, Coal Mines, and #EdReform

This is (Maybe) not going to be a TL;DR blog post. I am in the last week of setup before teachers return and have two labs, 40 teacher computers, two renovated classrooms and more to finish.

Yesterday, AP reporter Tom LoBianco broke a story that Tony Bennett, then State Superintendent was heavily involved in reassessing the Indiana A-F school grading system on behalf of one particular charter school.

Late yesterday afternoon, State Impact released an article where Bennett justifies the approach:
But Bennett, now Florida Commissioner of Education, defended his actions, saying Christel House is one of four charter schools widely recognized as the best in Indiana. 
“Tindley, Signature, Herron and Christel House — I made many comments that by any measure those would be four A schools,” Bennett told StateImpact Indiana. 
Bennett says his department ran into problems when initial calculations indicated the school would receive a C under the statewide accountability system, which didn’t sit well with the then-superintendent. 
“So when we looked at our data and saw that three of those schools were A’s and Christel House was not, that told me that there was a nuance in our data,” says Bennett. “Frankly, my emails portrayed correctly my frustrations with the fact that there was a nuance in the system that did not lend itself to face validity.”
Now lots of people will be talking about this over the next few days (Ravitch's Blog is LOL funny), but the debater in me noticed something that may not be picked up in all of the gleeful shouting.

Tony Bennett is basically running a "Canary in a Coal Mine" defense (named for those brave little birds who sacrificed themselves so that miners would have a chance to escape carbon monoxide poisoning).

If we believe that a) The charter school in question is clearly on par with the others named and b) that all four charters are clearly what "we" mean when we refer to an "A" level school. Then for any of those schools to not receive an "A" indicates a flaw in the system.

That is a consistent pleading. But in debate world, it opens itself up for a dilemma style attack. Either:

1. The accountability system which impacts school grades, reputations, teacher evaluations, grants, and more is flawed enough that it was worth a quick-scramble fix to "get it right" before the powers-that-be got upset

or

2. Bennett and his team hold that a school in which only 1/3 of the 10th grade students passed the Algebra test can still be an "A" worthy school:
E-mail response from Joe Gubera, Chief Accountability Officer
What is interesting, is that neither of these positions seems consistent with the #edreform rhetoric that calls for strong, data-based accountability that is well-researched and not prone to political influence. Teachers have been arguing for YEARS that there were problems with hanging a school by a few data points, particularly when the analytics experts themselves haven't quite got a handle on the data (see last year's Educational Analytics post which was confirmed this year by the head of BlackBoard's Data division).

The response has been that "we" (being the whiny teachers who are against #edreform and the invasion of #EdBiz in our schools -- or, you know, are skeptical of amorphous data -- or, you know, that think) just need to get on board and trust the numbers. Of course, that would fly in the face of proposition 2. Because those numbers do not look good from an accountability standpoint.

Bennett's solution?

E-mail from Tony Bennett, Same source as above

What would "solutions" that are "not explanations" be? The idea that this school might not be up to "A" snuff is not even considered. The Canary died so it is time to fix the problem.

When a dilemma is revealed, the best thing to do is to take a deep breath and step back.
Analyze your presumptions and premises. Something is wrong.

The problem isn't that Tony Bennett discovered that something is wrong. The problem is that the thing that was "wrong" flew in the face of his deeply held beliefs in how teachers, schools, students and education should be measured.

Maybe now we can have that discussion on a larger scale.
Maybe Bill Gates can accept the consequences of his role on this world of high-stakes accountability. Maybe other states can join (hopefully) Indiana in stepping back from PARCC before we enter into that can of murky data and expensive investments in non-educational resources.

We have a dead canary on our hands. This is our chance to escape.
Let's make sure that the problem we fix is the right one.