Monday, January 18, 2010

Tom Emmer: modern-day Polonius

You remember Polonius, of course:

Father of Ophelia and Laertes, and Lord Chamberlain to King Claudius, he is described as a windbag by some and a rambler of wisdom by others. It has also been suggested that he only acts like a "foolish prating knave" in order to keep his position and popularity safe and to keep anyone from discovering his plots for social advancement. It is important to note that throughout the play, Polonius is characterized as a typical Renaissance courtier, who pays much attention to appearances and ceremonious behaviour.  . . .

Our modern-day Polonius had an op-ed in the StarTribune today where he wrote, inter alia, that the state could not “live on credit.” Of course it can, Tom, Governor Gutshot has been budgeting to do that as long as he’s been in office. Accounting shifts, thieving from “dedicated funds” like the Health Care Access Fund, and payment delays are Gutshot’s stock in trade.

In fact, in recent days, we’ve learned that Governor Gutshot is going to borrow another billion dollars from local school districts, that is, delay — and some question whether they’ll ever be made up — appropriated funds to the districts. Many of these districts are going to have to borrow money which will end up on the property taxpayers’ tab. But Gutshot will say with a straight face that he didn’t raise taxes.

Emmer’s specific complaint was about the size of the bonding bill, but his pontificating about the credit card mentality is just a general, transparent windbaggery.

And while he has your attention, or thinks he does, Emmer can’t resist taking a swing at the conservatives’ favorite whipping boy: public school teachers. Why those crafty teachers, getting paid for steps and lanes, and not for student achievement!

Emmer doesn’t stop to explain what steps and lanes are, or how they work; he may not understand them himself. But this is it in a nutshell:

An ordinary public school teachers’ contract has a new or beginning teacher level of compensation, and for each year of experience in teaching, the teacher receives an incremental raise. But the sky is hardly the limit, after several years of teaching, a teacher maxes out and only receives a raise if the district negotiates a new contract with a higher level of compensation. The raises this go around of negotiations have been for a freeze, or maybe a one or two percent raise.

Emmer and Gutshot and others want you to think that teachers who just stick around can make more and more forever. That isn’t the way it works.

The other way to earn more as a teacher is to get more education, that is, to improve yourself as a teacher. Teachers with Master’s Degrees make more than teachers with the basic bachelor’s degree and a teaching certificate. When you get more education, you can “change lanes.”

Now, that doesn’t sound so sinister, does it?

But Emmer thinks that students’ test scores should be the only way — or certainly the primary way — we compensate teachers.

Jaron Lanier, sometimes called the “father of virtual reality,” and the author of a book just out called You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, Alfred A. Knopf (2010), discusses this very issue. There is an article excerpted from the book in the February issue of Harper’s Magazine, entitled The Serfdom of Crowds. There was one passage, well, there were several, that caught Spot’s attention:

. . .  Education has gone through a parallel transformation [to Facebook’s transformation and degradation to the concept of “friendship”], and for similar reasons. Information systems need to have information in order to run, but information underrepresents reality. Demand more from information than it can give and you end up with monstrous designs. Under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, for example, U.S. teachers are forced to choose between teaching general knowledge and “teaching the test.” The best teachers are thereby often disenfranchised by the improper use of educational-information systems. [italics are Spot’s]

What computerized analysis of all the country’s school tests has done to education is exactly what Facebook has done to friendships. In both cases, life is turned into a database. Both degradations are based on the same philosophical mistake, which is the belief that computers can presently represent human thought or human relationships. These are things computers cannot currently do. Whether one expects computers to improve in the future is a different issue. In a less idealistic atmosphere it would go without saying that software should be designed only to perform tasks that can be successfully carried out at a given time. That is not the atmosphere in which Internet software is designed, however. When technologists deploy a computer model of something like learning or friendship in a way that has an effect on real lives, they are relying on faith. When they ask people to live their lives through their  models, they are potentially reducing life itself.

Harper’s Magazine, February, 2010, page 18.

Test scores appeal to the bug-eyed control freakism of Tom Emmer, Governor Gutshot, and their faithful, but as Lanier suggests, high-stakes test scores tell you little or nothing about actual learning, or even further removed, teacher performance.

Rewarding teachers for becoming more experienced and better educated is the traditional way for a reason. Systems are in place to supervise, discipline, and fire teachers, too.

What the kids bring to school is vitally important, and it isn’t fair to teachers to make them responsible for that. It’s a theme worth exploring, and Spot intends to do that over the next several days.

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