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May 4, 2007

What makes me angry

I rarely get angry on the job. Other people’s and my own errors don’t bother me much; I find the institutional quirks amusing and generally acceptable; human conflict seems natural and sometime entertaining. However, this week I got really angry, to the point of fuming. What gets me angry are the large, blunt, and completely irrational policies that know not what they are doing. A bad policy is a like a blind elephant that crushes everything on its way, without really having any ill intentions; it’s just very powerful, and cannot see.

OK, Carolyn, our Assistant Dean and I have met about the incoming State Reauthorization reports. The first news is, the two state agencies, CDE and CDHE, ask for separate reports. They do not get along that well, so they were unable to come up with a unified way of reauthorizing teacher education programs. But CDE is also very proud of its standards, and it will never just switch to NCATE standards like some other state did. As if being a Colorado teacher is somehow dramatically different from being an Ohio or Maryland teacher. So, we’d have to align out curriculum with State standards and the NCATE standards. It gets better: there are four sets of standards the state of Colorado would like us to consider:
1. Endorsements Standards (Program standards in Educator Licensing Act of 1991, 8.0-12.0)
2. K-12 Model Content Standards (What kids in schools supposed to know)
3. Performance-Based Standards for Colorado Teachers
4. Colorado Reading Directorate Literacy Standards

You’d think they all are different, won’t you? Well, the K-12 are different because they are about content knowledge, but 1, 3, and 4 cover the same ground. For example, look at just one standard for elementary school teachers:

Endorsement standard: 8.02 (4) (b) effectively utilize assessment results and related data to plan for appropriate student instruction
Performance-Based Standards: 3.5 Use assessment data as a basis for standards-based instruction.
CRD Standard: Select, administer, and interpret progress-monitoring assessments to evaluate students’ progress toward an instructional goal and determine effectiveness of instruction / intervention and regularly articulate progress to students
ACEI: Candidates administer assessments (i.e., formal and informal) to inform and to make decisions about objectives and materials

Or, as a Russian saying goes, horseradish is no sweeter than radish. Those are the same ideas, some more snottily expressed than others. CRD language is the snottiest, but completely unoriginal.

The State wants us to develop matrices for each set of standards, showing which courses meet which standards. Then they want us to align all our syllabi to meet these largely overlapping standards. And, they want the syllabi, clearly marked with the standards. Imagine a course syllabus of, say an undergraduate Reading course for elementary teachers. It would have a list of course objectives, and each with a mysterious line like this: ESS 8.2 (4), PBS 3.5, CRD 8.1.1, ACEI 4.1. None of our students will ever ask what these things mean. None of the instructors will take the time and pain to explain this to students. No human being can teach a class while constantly thinking about meeting four sets of standards.

The State examiners will look at the matrix, then randomly pick a syllabus, find the code of the standard there – and voila, we are reauthorized. This somehow passes for evidence that we do a good job here at UNC. What makes me angry is that this work is completely useless, and does not help to improve the quality of our programs. The work is wasteful, because we will spend hours upon hours compiling matrices no one will even look at with any degree of seriousness. It makes me angry because we will do this instead of doing something really important, like talking about improvements and program development. But what makes me especially mad is that there does not seem to be any realistic way in fighting the madness. And mind you, ours is a small State where our Dean can pick up the phone and speak directly to most CDE and CDHE officials. It is not a huge faceless bureaucracy; all these people from CDE and CDHE have faces and are well-meaning and generally pleasant. They just have too much power and cannot see.

And it is madness. The very notion of multiple sets of standards is oxymoronic to the point of being simply moronic. You need a standard as long as there are no other standards; that is, roughly, an idea of a standard. If you have both a VHS and Beta, one should be on its way out, because they do essentially the same thing, so one must be better than the other. There should be just one short, clear set of standards, easily measurable by outcomes, not by inputs. And the State should be interested in evidence of whether our graduates can actually perform in the field, not whether we put the stupid codes in the syllabi. Don’t they realize it just does not change anything? Taxpayers should complain bitterly when the accountability process starts damaging the very work for which we are supposed to be accountable. This is wasteful and unethical. It is also horrendously inefficient, and does not serve the purpose. So, the public is interested in how well we spend the dwindling state support money? Well, let us show that our graduates teach well, but don’t pretend the few characters on syllabi mean anything other than our willingness to comply, comply, and comply. The State’s Education Deans for years have asked to find a way of identifying teachers by a college from which they graduated, so kids’ performance can be traced to their teacher’s college. This is too complex, apparently, and has not been done. Yet it is easy to ask for four matrices (multiplied by our dozens of programs) and hundreds of coded syllabi, because the regulators don’t have to prove they actually have read all of this stuff.

As a friend pointed out, this is done by a political party that argues for less government interference. Where are the good fiscal conservatives when you need them? So far, they seem to out-regulate the liberal regulators, at least where education is concerned. Why do they believe the whole economy has to be efficient and driven by the markets, while education must remain state-run and state-regulated to the extreme degree?

Picture a third grade teacher who tells her students: “And now, class, we are going to see how well you can add and subtract. Please write down when did you learn how to add, how did you learn it, how did you feel when you learned it, and finally, tell me if you did learn it and how well, OK? We will do this for the next two weeks. I will expect every one of you to write a book titled How I learned arithmetic” She never asks them to solve any problems, and they skip two weeks of math instruction. Well, this is what the State is, essentially doing with its teacher education programs. The regulators are unregulated, and only interested in maintaining appearances, with total disregard for efficiency or cost of compliance.

Who is going to regulate the regulators? Can we put limits on how much reporting and what kind of reporting the State can demand? Can the regulators be held accountable for following the best practices of regulation? Does anyone actually check their review process for integrity? Can someone ask them to prove that their specific way of authorization actually does ensure quality of programs? How about some validity check here? After all, the standards demand that any elementary classroom teacher understands the concepts of assessment validity. Yet the very people that demand it, do not seem to demonstrate any knowledge of the concept.

Can you tell I am still mad? I think we should sue the State for imposing unreasonable reporting expectations. Their case will withstand no court test, and perhaps a law suit can generate some public interest.

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