Sacrifice your family or flip a burger

Last week, when the New York State legislature debated and passed Governor Cuomo’s budget bill–which included details for a revised teacher evaluation system–Carmen Arroyo, 84th District Assembly Member, said something curious.

Those teachers that are responsible and are doing their job, those teachers that sacrifice their families and themselves for the children they serve are going to be protected. Those that are not good, better get a job at McDonald’s.

I watched part of the video with hopes of seeing this quote in context–but alas, I did not have time to trudge through the six hours if it, nor did spot-checks offer any help.

So, keeping in mind that this was probably an off-the-cuff statement, I will take a look at its rhetoric.

There’s a misleading apposition, of course, of “teachers that are responsible and are doing their job” and “teachers that sacrifice their families and themselves for the children hey serve.” You can be responsible and do a good job without sacrificing your family or yourself. (Much depends here on the meaning of “sacrifice.”)

That leads to the next problem: a false opposition (is it false?) between honoring your family and yourself and serving the kids at school. To what degree are teachers expected to give up one good for the other? Arroyo implies that they are indeed expected to do so, but why, how, and to what extent, she does not say.

Finally, she implies that those who are not good at their jobs (or not willing to make the sacrifices) have few other prospects besides flipping burgers (or possibly working the cash register, if you can read the keys). I wonder what she means. Is her point that teachers are unqualified for anything else? Or that any serious profession requires sacrifice? I suspect it’s the latter and would respond that the sacrifices vary widely in degree and nature. If you work as an editor, for instance, you may have long hours and deadline pressure, but you are not typically responsible for the well-being of 150 children, nor are you typically on your toes and presenting at 8 a.m.

In short, Arroyo’s statement needs a lot of elucidation. Its logical lapses are nothing novel; one finds them in education discusion at large.

Note: I am currently away from the computer, so this commentary is briefer than it would otherwise be.

What is a typical sixth grader?

According to Meredith Kolodner at Insideschools, many principals and teachers have been raising concerns over the rubrics and scoring procedures for this year’s standardized tests in New York State.

Sometimes the rubrics (for the written portions of the tests) are ambiguous. Sometimes they work against good judgment. Sometimes the writing prompt itself puts students and scorers alike in a quandary.

Here’s an example of the last of these:

In addition, a listening passage about a kid who loved music asked students to write about how the child in the passage is like and unlike a “typical 6th grader.” Teachers debated what would lead to a high score: does a typical 6th graders really like music? Does a typical 6th grader attend after-school? Take the bus? There was not consensus on what details would be considered “meaningful and relevant examples,” as dictated by the scoring guide.

Assuming that the description is accurate, I wonder what the test makers had in mind. What is the point of asking students to compare a character to a “typical” sixth grader? Is there such a thing? Are children supposed to know (or care) what a “typical” sixth grader is?

In order to receive a high score, a student must fulfill all the requirements of the task. Here an intellectually advanced student could easily get sidetracked with definitions of “typical” and fail to write the essay as required.

Rubrics have inherent limitations; you can’t standardize good judgment. When applied on a massive scale, they become more limiting still. But they are here to stay, at least for now. Given that state of things, it’s all the more important to create good test questions. This, apparently, is not one.

I scored tests this year but signed a confidentiality agreement. I am not allowed to discuss what I saw on the tests or in student writing. Thus I am limiting myself to commenting on what others have reported. In the past, New York State tests were released to the public after they had been administered and scored. This is good practice; we should all have the opportunity to see and comment on them. After all, they presumably reflect what students are expected to learn.