Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Cheering on Minnesota's education apocalypse

Is there anything more pathetically saddening than watching plutocrats take apart the Minnesota education system in one legislative session? The lies and misinformation that brought us the Teach For America Enabling Act earlier this session were bad enough when proposed by Republicans, but when they were embraced by Democrats and our "liberal" governor it signaled the beginning of the end of education as we know it Minnesota.

Now with the legislature set to pass bills that remove teacher tenure and tie teacher salaries and retention to their students' test scores the end is nigh. Good, experienced teachers will be leaving the profession in droves. Many are set to retire anyways - this will just hasten the departure of our most seasoned professionals, to be replaced by poorly trained and ill-equipped Teach For American recruits.

Education in Minnesota is being converted into a free-market paradise where instructors are no longer professionally trained careerists, but where they instead are turned into just another commodity, pushing the latest new fad, until they hustle onto real careers where they actually have a chance at making a living and being respected. Minnesota is already home to some of the worst charter school disasters in the nation, and inner city children of color have been disproportionally hurt by the movement.

Once - a long time ago - a Democratic governor called this the "Brainpower" state. That might have sounded a little goofy but it expressed our serious attitude toward education. Today's education discourse and legislation can only be described as insane, based as it is on numerous false premises, delusions, and outright lies. News stories that put the lie to the rationales given for education deform are by now routine. Everyone who cares to know has already learned that teachers are their least effective in their first few years, after which most TFA recruits leave the profession. We are literally getting the worst years of their lives.

Our best scholars have already shown that it is pure folly and statistical heresy to try and ascribe student test score gains to individual teachers, yet we are on the brink of doing just that. We're even going to be inventing all kinds of other ways to "rate" teachers whose subjects aren't amenable to standardized testing, from art to phys ed. Standardized testing, far from being a reliable way to even judge students, let alone their teachers, has become a racket, a big con.

Each day brings new stories describing inventive methods of test cheating. Whole states have made tests easier to pass, creating highly educated students out of thin air. Districts touted as demonstrating the success of intensive testing have proven to have changed answers on student tests on a massive scale. There is a reason for this: When test scores are elevated from being a diagnostic criteria for students into a policy tool they are utterly corrupted, as demonstrated by Campbell's Law.  When the pay and careers of education professionals are tied to student test scores, those scores will increase. But increases in test scores are not the same thing as increases in learning.

Amazingly policy makers - and education writers - in Minnesota seem immune to such knowledge, despite its repeated validation. There's a name for people who pretend to rely on numbers yet refuse to admit ones that don't fit their theories: hypocrites. When the outcome of their sophistry directly degrades the education of a state's students they are unforgivable.

The changes being made ensure a slow-motion destruction - it takes 13 years to educate a child - but when it hits the time will be well past to undo the damage. Meanwhile the plutocrats who birthed this destruction will be cheering it on, pretending like this is a great victory for the children, when it is the exact opposite. When did it become okay for leaders of the state's largest philanthropies, and I use that word lightly, to design and lobby for systems of education - using tax-exempt money -  that eviscerate teaching and schools? They are accountable to no one yet wield incredible power. Somewhere long ago we passed a hazy yellow line delineating the difference between what a quality education really entails and what suits the plutocrats.

Now in the public mind it is the teachers themselves holding back the students, not the grinding poverty and racial isolation experienced daily by the state's least fortunate citizens. It is insanity on a mass scale perpetrated by self-absorbed baby boomers who refuse to listen to logic, reason, and scholarly research. But what do they have to worry about? By the time the destruction is recognized they will be long gone with their golden parachutes and winter homes in Florida, and the future children will be left to pick up the pieces and try to rebuild a once-great education system in what used to be called the nation's brainpower state.

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