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Posted at 05:00 AM ET, 03/27/2012

Education Department’s own Etch-a-Sketch

This was written by Elaine Weiss, national coordinator of the campaign for a Broader Bolder Approach to Education .

By Elaine Weiss

Policy is complicated, and context-sensitive, so policymakers and other influential actors who change their positions should be excused, even congratulated, when it’s clear they’ve learned from prior mistakes. This does not apply, however, in instances in which the change of heart seems motivated by political calculations. Unfortunately, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s recent statement in Education Week criticizing New York City’s publication of individual teacher “value-added” scores falls clearly into the latter category.

Duncan is spot on when he says that “there’s not much of an upside there, and there’s a tremendous downside for teachers.” And his point that “we’re at a time where morale is at a record low. ... We need to be strengthening teachers, and elevating them, and supporting them,” would have been a useful one, had he not waited, conveniently, until after even Bill Gates had joined the chorus of voices protesting the test-score fiasco that was.

It’s discomfiting enough that warnings from respected researchers – including RAND and Princeton’s Educational Testing Service – that value-added measures are far too unreliable to be used in high-stakes situations, haven’t resonated. They didn’t prevent the secretary from promoting the release of Los Angeles teacher scores in 2010. Even more so that he continues to defend his stance there and seems not to notice the clear damage to California’s teachers’ reputations and morale that followed.

Most troubling of all, however, is his convenient failure to acknowledge that this recent about-face on Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s high-profile battle with New York City’s teachers is just that.

Duncan’s support, until now, for Bloomberg and former New York City Schools chancellor Joel Klein’s position was public knowledge – it was reported in Gothamschools and elsewhere. As recently as March 2, he sat next to Bloomberg at American University and nodded as the mayor angrily defended the decision against Gates’ criticism of it.

So the problem is two-fold. As the nation’s education policy leader, if Duncan foresaw what so many of us did – that the use of unreliable and potentially botched test scores to rank teachers would do serious harm and little, if any good – his failure to say so when it would have mattered represents a serious lack of leadership.

And if he is, indeed, engaging in the “Etch-a-Sketch” bait-and-switch that this recent article seems to suggest, it is much worse. He would be better off spending his time enacting policies that prioritize the development of and sustained support for our nation’s teachers, rather than continuing to focus the bulk of his attention on eliminating the minority who aren’t doing their jobs well. Otherwise, he risks being marginalized going into the upcoming election.

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