Sense And Nonsense On Education (UPDATED)

Our guest blogger is Robert Gordon, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

classNew York has just approved a budget that reads in part as follows: A “teacher shall not be granted or denied tenure based on student performance data.” This blocks a New York City effort to consider students’ gains on tests as one factor in the teacher tenure decision.

Consider what this law means (keeping in mind that I am also an advisor to the City’s Department of Education). This means that in deciding whether to give a teacher a presumptive right to teach for 30+ years, a principal may not consider evidence of whether the teacher is helping students learn. The principal can consider whether the teacher maintains neat bulletin boards, whether the teacher attends meetings on how to pay for pencils, and whether the teacher is sufficiently deferential in the hallway. But the principal may not consider, based on achievement data, whether children are learning.

Test scores should not count for everything, but this law says they may count for nothing. The law broadly bars consideration of “student performance data” at all.

A prohibition on using relevant data is something out of the Bush Administration’s EPA. It is, to quote a progressive editorial page, “an absurd ban that does a disservice to the state’s millions of public school students.”

Contrast that nonsense with the common sense coming from, well, John McCain. To be sure, McCain has little education record to speak of. He is pressing a pointless detour into private school vouchers, at a time when supporting high-performing public charter schools could do enormous, bipartisan good. And he now favors massive tax cuts for billionaires over needed funding for pre-school.

All of that said, here’s what McCain is saying about education these days:

“Because we all know that if you are privileged and grow up in a certain area then you have access to a pretty good education…We also know that there is a dramatic difference between that level of education and say the inner cities in America. Look at the drop out rates, look at all of the test scores. So it’s a fundamental unfairness….

And here’s an excerpt of his take on teaching:

Teaching is among the most honorable professions any American can join. After our parents, few people influence our early life as profoundly as teachers. Theirs is an underpaid profession, dedicated to the service of others, which offers little in the way of the rewards that much of popular culture encourages us to crave — wealth and celebrity…. We should reward the best of them with merit pay, and encourage teachers who have lost their focus on the children they teach to find another line of work.

I would call it “performance pay” rather than “merit pay,” but if you ask me, this is basically good stuff.

McCain is a Johnny-Come-Lately to education, but for the moment, the contrast between his sensible speech and the absurd action in one of America’s bluest states is enough to make a progressive wince. The shame of New York is an opening for Senator McCain.

UPDATE: “Eduwonkette” asks why I worry that New York has forbidden the use of “student performance data” when other forms of evaluation “provide lots of information.” But to support the use of other forms of evaluation, the blogger cites a paper whose central conclusion is as follows:

We find that subjective principal assessments of teachers predict future student achievement significantly better than teacher experience, education or actual compensation, though not as well as value-added teacher quality measures.

If New York attempts to build a meaningful tenure review around the measures Eduwonkette is now touting, we will hear that subjective evaluations have problems too. We will probably see citations to the very same paper. The citations will be more logical then than now.

Prior to New York State’s action, nothing would have prevented critics from bombarding principals with reasons not to use the data. What we have instead is legislatively-enforced ignorance, a ban on using “student performance data” in any way in a decision of utmost importance to the students that schools are supposed to serve. The legislation is every bit as reactionary as it sounds.