Monday, August 29, 2005

The S(H)MO Model

The annual AYP and API rankings were published mid-August--the annual treat--complete with aggregate and disaggregated test results for individual schools, districts and grade levels. If you teach, on day one or two of buy-back meetings you no doubt received giant packets of score results for grade levels, individual classes, individual items. Someone tries to read aloud the same reports on an overhead or using powerpoint. It can be migraine inducing. I used to imagine some poor schlub down at the district office having to make these thousands of packets and constantly running out of toner. There are so many pages now, though, we know these copies have to be hired out in district copy centers, sparing no expense, even in districts where teachers may still labor day-to-day under a paper ration.

Like the NYSE and NASDAQ reports, the bombardment of data can be impenetrable and intimidating. Those numbers suggest "authority," a final antidote for the unreliable "hysteria" of language, ambiguities, social contexts. (I'm sorry, was your observation research-based?)

But unless you've had a psychometric implant surgically installed, what you may be looking for as a teacher, parent, or student, is something more elusive than a number. Something a bit more desperate. Something we've been trained in the past ten years (at least) to be unsure that we deserve. We're looking for validation, any reason to let the air out of our lungs. To trust that the curriculum police won't come knocking at the classroom door, the house. To whisk our kids off to some brave new data-topia.

Sorry to say, the police are already here: kinder, gentler and comfortably inside. Corporate influence isn't relegated to Coke machines and Channel One anymore. It's implicit in the relationship between test publishers and textbook makers. It's been secured in the business move of financial and information giants to purchase textbook and testing companies in the past twenty years.

Just a few connections:
McGraw Hill--publisher of the CAT-6: Publishes the S&P Indexes.
Pearson--publisher of Prentice Hall/Globe Fearon: Publishes The Financial Times.
Reed-Elsevier--publisher of Harcourt/Holt & Stanfords 9, 10 et al: Owns Seisint Technologies, inventor of MATRIX software to track citizens for Homeland Security.

These people don't dress like surveillance experts or police. They aren't mean, either. When their marketers and salespeople come to districts and meet with teachers, they woo us with bags, free books, sometimes wine-and-dine evenings with prizes and lots of attention. At one meeting I attended as Department Chair, a district liaison with pink cheeks gushed, "These people really know how to treat teachers."

On the surface, yes. But corporate practices (including lobbying efforts) clarify two implicit convictions: 1. schools must serve as delivery mechanisms for products that sell political results; 2. public schools themselves can be a lucrative market, held captive by compulsory student attendance. Even a product that seems to fail can be marketed to justify the need for yet another product--another test, a new textbook series, a revised curriculum map, a revamped data management system. All at taxpayer expense.

A teacher's own knowledge, experience and questions get pitted as objects "in the way." Just as health maintenance organizations and insurance companies now tell the average doctor how and when to practice medicine, test and data management corporations have created a priority system that says teachers need to be told--by someone not a teacher, not interested in teaching--what will and won't work with students.

This model in policy and practice, which we could call an SMO model ("School Maintenance Organization" model), repeats one concept again and again--namely, that the teacher herself never knows what's really happening in her classroom. Despite the pretty or soft-sounding words, the candlelit dinners and other treats. Despite popular Orwellian euphemisms like Professional Learning Community or Collaboration or No Child Left Behind.

Last spring, I attended an industry conference for the Association of Test Publishers (ATP) in Scottsdale, Arizona. I attended as a grad student, and had to cough up the full $650 attendance fee--covered for many attendees by the test corporations they came to represent. God knows I couldn't exactly afford the expense, but I wouldn't trade what I learned there for anything.
[to be continued...]

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