Monthly Archives: April 2009

Rotisserie Teaching: Tests, Stats and Teacher Tenure

In a few years, teaching will be a lot like fantasy baseball.

Principals will be selecting their draft picks, organizing their order to fill difficult slots, like math, science and special education.  As for myself, the stats show I’m a solid .700 hitter, with an 80% pass rate last year.  I’m a good pick for power and distance, although I may fade down the stretch into June.  As long as the bullpen comes through in the clutch, I should be alright.  God help those teachers on the waiver wire.

It would be incredible if every aspect of our professional lives can be effectively reduced to a number.  Classifying and ranking would be much simpler.  A simple graph would tell who was pulling their weight and who couldn’t hit out of a paper bag.  How many principals would love to shove a chart into a failing teacher’s face, bellow out “the number’s don’t lie!” and give the unfortunate loser the boot.

If education were only that simple.  It isn’t.

Recently, the New York Post ran a story about the teacher’s union, the UFT, allegedly obstructing efforts by Mayor Mike Bloomberg and schools chancellor Joel Klein to include student test scores as a factor in determining teacher tenure.  The State Assembly recently killed any hope of even creating a commission to investigate how test scores can fit into the process–a commission supported by UFT president Randi Weingarten and the larger umbrella group New York State United Teachers.  The commission was seen as an olive branch in the feud between the Department of Education and the Union over the test scores issue, and was even included in this year’s controversial budget.  Yet the chair of the Education Committee in Albany, Catherine Nolan, refused to even allow a vote on the matter.

Teacher tenure is an issue that really bothers me.  On the one hand, many teachers who have long since proven a disservice to students are protected by the tenure system.  I won’t name names, but i’m familiar with a number of teachers in various schools that probably do more harm than good, yet are protected by the system.  Even if they are excessed by a principal, these teachers are guaranteed a salaried position by union contract.  While this is helpful to most, it can also be detrimental by keeping bad teachers in play.  Just like the Yankees who are obligated to keep and pay for useless players based on contract (Randy Johnson, Carl Pavano, etc.), the system of tenure, when abused, can create a class of benchwarmers that drain resources for next season.

However, tenure is also an important safeguard for teachers against the lesser natures of administrators–especially those with no experience in the classroom.  An administrator without classroom experience can quickly turn into a bean counter.  Statistics, numbers, charts, graphs–the quantifiable data that is so useful in the business world makes little sense in education.   If your supervisor had no experience handling children in a classroom, he/she will probably not be sympathetic to your terrible class forged by Lucifer.

Like baseball, teaching also has those “intangibles” that cannot necessarily be controlled.  Who knows if Ted Williams would have hit a .406 batting average in 1941 had there not been a ridiculously shallow right field in Fenway ParkSandy Koufax, the great Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher of the 1960’s, had the benefit of a concrete monolith in Dodger Stadium, where home runs were few and far between.  In public schools, we cannot cherry-pick our students.  Nor can we adjust the facilities.  Our schedules are often held hostage by meetings, workshops, common planning periods and the like.  Test day is also stressful; not everyone is a great test taker, even the really bright children.  There’s also the home to consider: not everyone lives in an environment conducive to achievement.  If Daddy is playing Grand Theft Auto with his son during homework time–which is sometimes the case–you can be sure that school isn’t much of a priority.

So let’s assume that test scores will play a factor in determining tenure.  How much weight should they carry?  Will the criteria include just tests, or a basket of assessments (portfolio, written work, observations, etc.)? Should all tests be used, just State assessments, or a selection of subjects?  How will one set of scores compare to another?  Should the raw score be used or the scale score?  Are we looking for set targets, or windows of progress over time?  Can we adequately assess a teacher’s skills based on the work of previous teachers in previous years?

Test scores may be numbers, but the factors surrounding them are anything but tangible.  This is why using them to determine teacher tenure can become a volatile issue.  If student work is to be used in assessing teachers, then that assessment should be done within a framework that fellow teachers can understand.  Test scores must be viewed in context to a holistic learning experience that includes various assessments, observations and data.  Scores alone cannot determine performance, since it is but one indicator of a complex process.

Let’s return to baseball for a moment.  If Alex Rodriguez were to be assessed based on cumulative, one-shot annual state exams, he would be considered a failure.  Look at his record in October and see if you doubt me.  However, he is not judged merely on his October stats (though maybe he should be) but rather on a season-wide scale.  This would include slumps, tears, injury periods and the like, producing results that look good on a stats sheet, even though he can’t perform during the playoffs.

I was actually looking forward to a commission studying how test scores can be used.  It would have provided some form of closure to a contentious issue that mistakenly blames teachers as being against student acheivement.  It would have also provided some real data to see how reflective are test scores to actual student learning.  For now, I guess we will have to live with tenure as it is.

Funny, I would’ve gotten a kick seeing my principal watch some kindergarten teacher getting swamped, then make a call to the bullpen.  Make sure you’re loose.

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Musings on the Buffet line: Las Vegas in the American Psyche

035Did you miss me? Be honest.

I must say I missed the Neighborhood, even from the sunny confines of Las Vegas.  I would’ve posted earlier had there not been a ghastly fee for internet access.  On the whole, I can’t complain–Mr. D would like to thank the nice folks at the MGM Grand Resort and Casino for their excellent attention.    Just as a note: stay away from Yoshe at the blackjack tables.  She can fleece you with a string of 21’s in no time flat.

No matter how many times I go, Las Vegas continues to amaze me.  It epitomizes the best and worst of American society.  I will have skeptics, but I truly believe that to understand the America of the early 21st century, look no further than a once-barren truck stop in the Mojave Desert, now one of the fastest growing cities in the United States.  If ever there was an America in miniature, this would be it.

Like early American cities, Las Vegas’ sprawl is due to the relentless drive of unbridled capitalism, in this case fueled by the gaming and tourism industry.  In an area where the original meadow (Las Vegas means “the meadows” in Spanish) was long since swalled by the desert, there exists an explosive energy of constructive and destructive forces driven by innate passions and desires.  Much like the New York of the 20th Century, Las Vegas is driven by the future.  Modernity means bigger, taller, faster, more exciting resort destinations that take up every inch of available real estate.  The main drag, Las Vegas Boulevard, or “The Strip”, is now so choked with development that hotels must now reach higher and higher, eventually to dwarf the 1,149-foot Stratosphere tower, the tallest free-standing tower in the United States.

Another similarity to early America is both the use of unique design and imitation.  If visitors think that the faux-landscapes of New York-New York, Paris Las Vegas or the Venetian are simply elements unique to Las Vegas, they are sorely mistaken.  Nothing is more American than the imitation of elements from the European past: look at Washington’s neoclassical buildings if you don’t believe me.  Furthermore, sometimes design imitation is taken to new levels of innovation, such as the Luxor, an Egyptian-themed hotel shaped like a gigantic black pyramid.

Who inhabits these glass and steel monoliths?  Apparently, all of America and a good part of the rest of the world, too.  The “Oceans 11, 12, 13” movies have done much to spread the Vegas myth.  Las Vegas’ mystique is driven by a uniquely American mindset that anything is possible.  The biggest mistakes were telling “Bugsy” Siegel, Howard Hughes, Kirk Kerkorian, Steve Wynn, or the Maloof brothers–all pioneers in the Vegas story–that it couldn’t be done.  The casinos, restaurants and nightclubs today are monuments to possibility.  The possibilities themselves are as American as the buildings–anyone can be treated like a king.  Anyone is one slot machine pull away from millionaire status.  This is where the small can feel like a big shot–at least until the plane ride home. 

Things aren’t always so rosy in Sin City.  It’s nickname is part of the mystique–and part of the problem.  In an America where more and more families are driven to vacation together, Las Vegas’ “adultness” can be very off-putting.  The city’s casual attitude toward malfeasance, vice, gluttony and general indulgence is not exactly fodder for family entertainment.  Countless times, I’ve seen a happy family walking down the strip, and seen Junior looking down in astonishment at the cards of undressed women advertising their “services.” Like I’ve said in previous posts, I’m no prude.  However, Vegas is not for families, enough said.

The downside of unbridled development is that you get what you pay for.  Las Vegas’ transportation infrastructure is woefully inadequate for the city–try driving south on the Strip between Treasure Island and the Bellagio and you’ll get my point.  As you go north into the city proper, tourist meccas often collide with appalling squalor, as I witnessed in the shantytown located just north of Charleston Boulevard, if memory serves.  Indulgence, especially Vegas indulgence, is ultimately self-destructive–doesn’t this sound like our own America and its consumer-driven culture.  As Las Vegas grows, it faces problems many American cities have already faced at least a century ago: crime, poverty, corruption, transportation, civic infrastructure, and environmental concerns.  Priority one is the last one: Las Vegas is in a desert, after all, and water is scarce.

Yet if you see it for what it is, then Las Vegas is certainly an enjoyable experience.  It’s a place I love to visit, though I doubt I could ever live there.  After all, who can subsist on half-price buffets and comped rooms all their life?  Well, not for lack of trying.

I’ll try to get a Flickr account going to show all the pictures from our trip.  For now, enjoy the view from our suite.  Awesome.

This was the view from our suite.  You can see New York-New York, the Monte Carlo, and the new CityCenter project, a joint effort of MGM-Mirage and Dubai World.  Jealous?

This was the view from our suite. You can see New York-New York, the Monte Carlo, and the new CityCenter project, a joint effort of MGM-Mirage and Dubai World. Jealous?

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Vegas, Baby! Vegas!

2932092800_bd620bfb96Well, I’ll be off to Las Vegas tomorrow morning. 

Between now and Sunday, the Neighborhood may not be updated as often as I would like, due either to my enjoyment or to the fact that I lost my laptop in a hand of baccarat.

Here’s hoping that my sojourn will be enjoyable and relaxing.  And if I do lose my laptop–I hope to get comped for it.  Just make sure that the pit boss is watching.

Hopefully the weather will comply, although I heard that rain is in the offing for Wednesday when I fly in (only when I come does it rain in the desert!).

Anyway, I’ll be back in the Neighborhood soon, I promise.

PS: If I see you hit on a 14 with the dealer showing a 5, I’ll cut you.  I mean it.

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