Monday, April 18, 2011

Patrick/Murray clear as mud on MCAS

Okay, what's the catch?

That was my initial thought upon opening the Sunday Globe yesterday morning and taking in the first few paragraphs of the front page article titled "Rating teachers on MCAS results."
The state’s education commissioner proposed a set of regulations yesterday that would radically overhaul the way teachers and administrators are evaluated, making student MCAS results central to judging their performance.

The proposed regulations would reward teachers and administrators whose students show more than a year’s worth of growth in proficiency under the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System and on other exams, while educators whose students underperform would be placed on one-year “improvement plans.’’ Under the proposal, teachers could face termination if they do not demonstrate progress.

The goal is to fix a long-broken evaluation system that too often fails to provide constructive feedback to educators on how they need to improve and on what they are doing right, Mitchell Chester, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said in an interview.

Evaluating teachers and principals has become a focal point for the state as it tries to reduce high school dropout rates and turn around dozens of failing schools. If done correctly, state officials, business leaders, and educators believe, the job reviews could help advance the academic fortunes of a whole classroom of students or even an entire school.

“Currently, the evaluation system in the Commonwealth is inconsistent and underdeveloped,’’ Chester said. “Unless we have a robust evaluation system, we don’t have a strong understanding of who is excelling and who is lagging.’’
The more I read the better it sounded, and I chided myself sternly for my initial skepticism.  Have I become so politically jaded that I am unable to recognize and appreciate good policy if it emanates from the Patrick/Murray Administration?  After all, if Speaker DeLeo can turn on the union bosses, who is to say Patrick/Murray couldn't belatedly find religion on MCAS? Sure a few of the details set forth by the Globe set off alarm bells, particularly the requirement that districts "negotiate the changes with local unions."  But here is the Education Commissioner talking about test-based evaluation and consequences that include potential termination of failing teachers.  I felt it was wrong of me to quibble.

What's the saying?  It isn't paranoia if they are really out to get you?  Well, it seems when it comes to the Patrick Administration it isn't cynicism if they are really dysfunctional beyond all reckoning.

Just before I hit the sack last night, reality reasserted itself in a bulletin from the State House News (republished here by
The administration of Gov. Deval Patrick takes almost every opportunity to promote itself as transparent. While there's some evidence to back up that claim, the general public might be surprised at how secretive administration officials can be at times.

On Thursday, as word spread in the education community about the potentially imminent release of controversial educator evaluation regulations, the News Service placed inquiries with the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to find out about changes that might be in the works.

Calls and emails went unreturned for more than 24 hours until the department's director of media relations, J.C. Considine, responded at 5:33 p.m. Friday with an email saying only, "The recommendations are still being finalized."

But on Sunday, there was Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester explaining the regulations in the Boston Globe, which said Chester had proposed the regulations on Saturday, interviewed the commissioner, and reported the plans "would radically overhaul the way teachers and administrators are evaluated, making student MCAS results central to judging their performance."

After the story was published, Considine on Sunday released to the News Service a memo about the regulations but was not available to discuss the manner in which the regulations were released.

But in a later email, he wrote, "The commissioner finalized his recommendations late Friday night. We sent those to the members of the Board overnight Friday in their Board packets for Saturday delivery. To ensure that Board members saw this before any others, I did not immediately release the commissioner's recommendations. We also provided the Globe with an advance copy of the recommendations."

Considine did not explain the rationale behind the transparency-for-the-Globe-only policy, but it seems not to have quite accomplished the hoped-for objective; Considine on Sunday also released a statement from Chester intended to "clarify the headline and article in this morning's Boston Globe around the use of MCAS."
There's a little bit of journalist chest-puffing going on here. There are few worse things that an administration can do to a reporter than to deny him his scoop and then feed the story as an exclusive to another outlet.  But that is hardly the whole story.  It seems these education "reforms" weren't ready for prime time, and Commissioner Chester may have been off the Patrick/Murray reservation with some of his comments. Like, um, all of them.  Here's the statement Chester's office issues to "clarify the headline and article" run by the Globe:
"Both the headline and initial paragraphs of today's Globe story do not provide an accurate summary of my recommendations as they relate to the use of student performance measures. I have proposed that student learning be central to the evaluation and development of the Commonwealth's educators. My recommendations require that for every grade and subject, at least two measures of student learning gains be employed. At the grades and subjects where MCAS growth measures are available, they must be one of the measures -- but cannot be the sole measure. Further, I have not specified the manner by which the multiple measures of student learning are to be combined. Each district will develop and document the manner by which they will utilize the multiple student learning measures to determine whether students are making at least a year's, less than a year's, or more than a year's gain."
Now there's the kind of "clarity" - and the kind of policy - we've come to expect from Patrick/Murray.  "At the grades and subjects where MCAS growth measures are available, they must be one of the measures -- but cannot be the sole measure. Further, I have not specified the manner by which the multiple measures of student learning are to be combined."  Clear as mud.  I liked the Globe's version much better.

So to re-cap this sorry episode, the Patrick/Murray Administration (a) stiff-armed a reporter and fed an exclusive to a competitor; (b) rolled out and substantively retracted a major policy shift in the space of 24 hours; and (c) ordered its Education Commissioner (who it seems might actually be kinda reform-minded) to throw himself under the bus. Yet another illustration of an Administration approaching its sixth year in office that still cannot get out of its own way.

Sweet. Fancy. Moses.


  1. To understand why our children are underperforming, one need only look at the cirricula and lesson plans. How much is academic, and how much is geared toward brainwashing them with social issues opinions with which the children's parents do not agree? Once we hire new teachers whose real aim is to educate rather than brainwash, we will be off to the races again.

  2. Um... what does the previous comment have to do with the story?
    Well-written story, this is my first time viewing the blog and I think you're on the right track. I think there is a bit more to the story (actually, I know it) and I would suggest that you extend your journalistic reach beyond the "usual suspects" and start asking others, who may be lower-level but have much more information.


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