Unintended Consequences

I read the newspaper almost every day. Would that make me an expert in running a newspaper? Some people regularly fly in airplanes. Would that make them an expert in running an airline? Most people would say that those assumptions are ridiculous but when it comes to education many people believe they know how to solve the problems because, after all, they were once a student. The truth is that assumption is just as ridiculous as the first two examples. Unfortunately, that fact is lost on most people, the media, and especially at the state legislature.

The latest folly centers around the legislature attempting to tell local schools how to evaluate their teachers. Amazing, the legislature in their ignorance and arrogance now believe that they know how to evaluate teachers better than the people who supervise these teachers and watch them in action in their classrooms. And make no mistake about it the decision making by legislators is driven by both ignorance and arrogance. “We know better” is their mantra despite their flood of unintended consequences that result in three steps backward for every step forward.

One of the center pieces of this new evaluation system is student growth data: Translation—student test scores. This might sound okay to the unknowing but what about the validity of these tests? For more than a decade schools were evaluated based on WASL results. Schools were remade, principals lost their jobs, and teachers were transferred all based on WASL results. Despite the legislature authorizing more than a billion dollars towards over a decade for improving the scores on the WASL, we never saw anything but mediocre results. Those who really knew what was on the WASL knew that the test did not measure anything meaningful and did not align to the kind of knowledge kids needed to be prepared for college, the workforce, or anything else. Still, the media, the legislature and OSPI continued to judge schools and teachers based on this bogus test. Even though many people still don’t understand what really happened, the new End of Course (EOC) exams that were given for the first time last spring unmasked the invalidity of the WASL. The EOC’s are more difficult than the WASL yet the state average score jumped more than 20 points, a 50% increase, in one year. This increase was not caused by improved teaching, standards, or curriculum. It was caused by giving an exam that more closely aligned to what students were being taught in high school Algebra. Even so, the EOC exams are deeply flawed and will not lead to improved learning results for all students but those who are outsiders, such as the legislature, have no clue why.

What is one of the unintended results of using testing to evaluate teachers? It is common knowledge that test results can be linked to demographics. Bellevue students outperform inner city Seattle kids by a mile. If a teacher’s career is going to be linked to test results then the only teachers who are going to be willing to teach in the inner cities or any low demographic area are those who have been there too long to start over, the young and naïve, or those who are desperate to find a job. Good luck on seeing any improvement no matter how much money is thrown at the problem.

Everyone of the education bills that I have seen from the legislature this year have unintended consequences that will keep our system going backwards. These bills may sound good to the uninformed but essentially they are a waste of money and will have no positive impact on our school system. That is what happens when decisions are made by the uninformed based on politics instead of sound educational practices. That is also what happens when education decisions are made far from the teachers who look kids in the face every day. Outsiders don’t understand that teachers have been almost entirely removed from the education decision process. Blaming those teachers for the unintended consequences of these decisions might be very convenient but it won’t lead to improving our system. Instead, it will lead to its continuing demise.

Bob Dean

Bob Dean

Former Math Educator

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