Its Not *That* the Wind Blows…

Written by: Mitchell Robinson

Primary Source : Keep Talking, September 13, 2015

One of my favorite comedians is the brilliant Ron White, and one of my favorite “bits” of his is one that has to do with his bitingly funny critique of “storm watchers”–that intrepid breed of daredevils that speeds around the countryside following tornados and hurricanes, disregarding their own safety and well-being for the (dubious) thrill of getting “up close and personal” to extremely dangerous winds and weather systems.

White wonders what these folks are doing when they risk life and limb to careen around in beat-up pick-up trucks in search of dangerous storms, and if they realize the power of the winds they are playing with. The punch-line to the joke goes like this:

“It’s not *that* the wind blows; it’s *what* the wind blows.”

White’s point here is that the real danger inherent in a powerful storm is not the wind itself, but the objects that the wind can pick up and blow around with reckless abandon, like cars, trees, and other heavy things. But even relatively innocuous objects, like a sheet of plywood, when propelled with sufficient force, can become instruments of destruction–as evidenced in the photo below of a board of plywood impaling a tree courtesy of Hurricane Andrew…

I believe that there’s a parallel here to our current situation regarding the use of data and standardized tests to make high-stakes decisions about children, teachers and schools. To paraphrase Mr. White:

“It’s not *that* data and tests are bad; it’s *how* data and tests are used that’s bad.”

As teachers know better than anyone, assessment is a necessary and valuable tool for improving our practice in the classroom, and helping our students improve their learning. And contrary to public opinion, teachers are not at all averse to assessment strategies that help their students learn, and are not “afraid” of being evaluated on their practice. They just want the evaluations to be fair, and to make sense.

For too many teachers, their evaluation ratings are being based on test results in subjects that they do not teach, and on scores from students they don’t even know. And with the percentage of these ratings now at 50% in many places (i.e., New York, Michigan), that means that outstanding teachers are receiving ratings of “minimally effective” and “ineffective,” based entirely on test scores unrelated to what they do or who they teach.

So, to all those parents and policy makers out there defending tests as “the only way we will know if kids are learning, and if teachers are doing their jobs,” I’d gently suggest that there are plenty of better ways to figure these things out. Such as…

  • attending parent nights and parent-teacher conferences
  • asking your child’s teacher for regular progress reports
  • going to your child’s concerts, plays, and sporting events
  • attending school board meetings and reading school newsletters and other communications
  • helping your child with their homework, practicing and other school projects
  • volunteering to help in your child’s school as you are able
  • talking to teachers about what they know works in the classroom
  • getting teachers involved in designing the evaluation systems that will be used to assess their practice–as is common in every profession

The “storm chasers” in our analogy here are the self-appointed policy “wonks,” hedge fund managers and investment bankers behind corporate reform groups like Teach for America, StudentsFirst, the EducationPost and the charter movement (KIPP, National Heritage Academies, Success Academy Charter Schools). Instead of weather-related thrills, the “reform chasers” are after big investment returns on their money, and aren’t concerned if their actions result in school closings, teachers losing their jobs over invalid and unreliable evaluation systems, and horrifying examples of educational malpractice in service of the holy grail of the reform movement–higher test scores.

But where the real storm chasers risk injury only to themselves, the “reform chasers” take no risk in their reckless quest to remake our schools to suit their own agenda. Those at risk in their “chase” are our students, teachers, and the system of public education that we have invested in as a society for 200 years. Left to their own devices, the “reform chasers” would destroy the public schools, build a parallel system of for-profit charters to redirect the public tax base to private bank accounts, and pocket the profits.

If we want to make sure that our children have strong public schools in the future, we need to carefully monitor both the winds of reform, and what those winds are blowing our way. The storm is coming our way, and it’s up to us if it picks up steam, or fizzles out and drifts out to sea.

Stand up, speak out and keep up the fight.

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Mitchell Robinson
Mitchell Robinson is associate professor and chair of music education, and coordinator of the music student teaching program at Michigan State University. Robinson has held previous appointments as assistant professor and coordinator of the music education area at the University of Connecticut; assistant professor of school and community music education at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.; and director of wind activities and wind ensemble conductor at the University of Rochester. Robinson’s public school teaching experience includes 10 years as an instrumental music teacher, music department facilitator and high school assistant principal in Fulton, N.Y.