Tag Archives: evaluation

A Low Bar

Mitch Daniels will be leaving the Governor’s office next week, and the predictable “puff pieces” are popping up. Daniels will leave with a reputation for good stewardship, primarily because Indiana emerged from the recession in decent fiscal shape–at least if you gauge fiscal health by money in the state’s bank accounts rather than by the condition of its cities, towns and workforce. (By that measure, we don’t look so good…)

Which leads to a question none of these adulatory articles has bothered to address: how should we measure a Governor’s performance? What are the criteria for success as a state’s chief executive?

In Daniels’ case, those applauding his performance seem to set the bar pretty low. Yesterday, Matt Tully’s column celebrated the fact that Daniels actually made decisions. Granted, Tully has long exhibited what local political wags call  a “man crush” on the Governor, but he is not alone in suggesting that the mere fact that someone we elected actually did stuff is reason enough for praise.

So what “stuff” did Mitch do? Let me use Tully’s list: He leased the Indiana Toll Road. He led the fight for “Right to Work,” and was successful in adding property tax caps to the State Constitution. He was the moving force behind Tony Bennett’s approach to education reform. He revamped the BMV, and finally got Indiana on Daylight Savings Time.

Fair is fair: the BMV is a far, far better agency than it ever was before. It is efficient, user-friendly–I’d certainly give Daniels kudos for solving agency problems that defied his predecessors. I will also give him credit for Daylight Savings Time; it seems ridiculous that getting Indiana to go along with the rest of the country took so much political capital, but hey–this is Indiana, where one of our brilliant legislators worried aloud that an extra hour of sunlight would burn the crops. So props to the Guv for that one, too.

The rest of it, not so much.

The Toll Road deal was part and parcel of the conservative love-affair with privatization; it amounted to what one expert recently called an “intergenerational transfer,” meaning the state deferred expenses that will be paid by our grandchildren in return for quick and easy up-front cash that could be spent during Daniels’ term in office. (And spent it was–it’s all gone.)

Right to work was a payoff to the business interests that supported his campaigns.

The tax caps are strangling every urban area in Indiana–making it virtually impossible for Mayors to fund ongoing services, and forcing them into “rob Peter to pay Paul” deals to sell off public assets. Indianapolis is less safe, less clean, and less healthy; thanks, Mitch.

Whatever the merits of the education policies that Daniels and Bennett championed, it is hard to find anyone–education reform advocate or defender of the status quo–who has a kind word for their aggressive, slash-and-burn attacks on teachers.

I haven’t read all of the fawning articles, but the ones I’ve seen haven’t mentioned some of the other legacies Governor Daniels is leaving. There’s a state contract with a horribly expensive coal gasification plant in Southern Indiana, run by a company that employs Daniels’ close ally Mark Lubbers–a contract that ensures Indiana ratepayers will overpay for gas for the next 30 years. There’s the developing scandal involving the IEDC and Mitch Roob, another Daniels protege.

Tully and others acknowledge that there is “debate” about the consequences of many of his decisions, but they praise Daniels for the fact that he actually did stuff, that he “boldly” made decisions. That he changed things.

Apparently, that’s enough to earn their praise.

Talk about setting the bar low.

Test Results?

‘Tis the season.’ Classes are over for this semester, final exams are concluding, and college professors are drowning in piles of term papers to grade.

And griping.

Yesterday, I was talking to some of my colleagues about the disappointing performance of my students this semester. Although they’ve been reasonably diligent, this cohort has been stubbornly “stuck” at a superficial level. They can regurgitate material from the text or lectures, but they seem unable to get beneath the surface; for that matter, I’m not sure they know there is anything beneath the surface. They seem unaware of complexity or nuance. They skate along the surface, seemingly unaware of the big questions, or the deeper implications of the material–they just focus on finding out what I want on the tests and then giving it to me.

My experience has been shared by others, and not just in SPEA, where I teach. One of my colleagues has an intriguing–if disquieting–theory about the root of the problem: she thinks it is a result of the educational emphasis on high-stakes testing.

It’s now been several years since the education reform movement began its love-affair with constant testing. Students who have grown up in the resulting environment, students whose educational experience has consisted of sitting in a classroom where the instructor is “teaching to the test” are just now entering college. They come to us expecting to be evaluated in much the same way–that is to say, on the basis of their ability to absorb and recite back an assigned body of material.

And that isn’t education. It shouldn’t be what college is all about. College should be a time for probing, for questioning, for discovering–for considering the pros and cons and complexities of issues. Skill acquisition is part of that, but by no means the most important part. Skills can quickly become obsolete; the ability to think critically and analytically will never be outdated.

I don’t know whether my colleague’s theory that we are seeing the end result of teaching to the test is correct. Maybe next semester’s students will display intellectual curiosity, ask the hard questions and disprove the generalization. But I think she may be on to something, and if she is, then the critics of the current methods of “teacher accountability” will have been proven right.

I’m no defender of the status quo in K-12 education. I was once a high-school English teacher, and I am a firm believer in the importance of evaluation. But (as I try to explain to those uninterested students), how we do something is frequently more important than whether we do it. Unintended consequences are the bane of the policy process.

Maybe we should re-introduce elementary and high school students to art and music, test them a little less often and challenge them to think a little bit more.