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Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 06/28/2012

The Spruce Goose of education reform

This was written by David Gamberg, superintendent of schools in Southold Union Free School District in New York.

By David Gamberg

As educators throughout New York scurry to finish completing the behemoth of grand plans to “reform” education for the children of this state, one is reminded of the debacle in design known as The Spruce Goose.

Formally called the Hughes H-1 Hercules, the aircraft was an attempt to create an effective way to transport troops and supplies over the Atlantic during World War II. The colossal plane was made mostly of wood due to limitations on the use of aluminum during the war. The brainchild of Howard Hughes and Henry J. Kaiser, the Spruce Goose had the longest wingspan of any plane ever built but it was not a successful aircraft from a design standpoint.

Similarly, let us not be fooled that the overly cumbersome and complex formula and system for evaluating teachers and principals — which includes a big component based on student standardized test scores — will fly any better. Any sensible person who has had the misfortune of digging into the many nuances of our soon-to-be-implemented plan can attest to design flaws that are built into the system.

With too many moving parts and variables that no highly sophisticated, computer-based, market-driven system could possibly account for, the APPR teacher evaluation system will not render improvement in student learning and achievement. Lawyers from school districts and teacher unions across the state have been rendering one opinion after the other in a doomed attempt to make sense of the plan. Already seen as perhaps the most legally investigated piece of legislation in the world of education, the plan has not even hit the runway, let alone successfully flown numerous flights.

How do designers of aircraft or educational systems lose sight of the goals that should be embedded in any quality product or system? The sorry result of how poorly the Goose performed should be a cautionary tale for how we proceed with education reform.

The Spruce Goose flew only once on a test flight in 1947, 70 feet above the water. The flight lasted but a few minutes traveling for only about a mile. It now rests comfortably in a museum, a relic of the past with an ignomious track record. Bigger is not better. And the technocratic fix for all things wrong in schools will not yield the desired result. Too much seems to be invested now, too many egos, far too much in the way of corporate interests and political capital to see the utter insanity of the plan on the table.

The Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) plan creates a host of problems for those who seek to improve education in the state of New York. Using evaluation rubrics to monitor and reflect upon teacher practice is one thing, but to create a system that doubles down on the concept of high stakes testing and evaluation is another.

By punishing and rewarding a select few at either end of the spectrum we fail to follow what successful school systems throughout the world have discovered about teacher improvement.

Fullan and Hargreaves recently wrote about this when they called for the need to “revive teaching with professional capital.” They said it best when they stated, “We need to concentrate on moving the entire profession forward instead of obsessing about the extremes in the field by celebrating the stars and dismissing the duds.”

But instead of promoting collegiality, trust, as well as individual and collective integrity we become educational auditors seeking to provide merit and demerit points. APPR stands ready to pit educators against one another, invite gamesmanship, litigation, and divisiveness to a point where the profession as a whole suffers.

Faced with a July 1, 2012 deadline, hundreds if not thousands of educators across the state have poured over numerous documents, legal opinions, and countless proposals from third-party vendors eager to get a piece of the action as we gear up to prod, test, and retest children in the name of accountability. When Kaiser pulled out of the development of the Spruce Goose in the mid 1940s, he partially blamed Hughes’ “insistence on perfection.” Our pursuit of educational perfection leaves many casualties in its wake. Above all else it is misleading to think that we can test for educational efficacy.

Time will tell how we — who prepare to board the aircraft known as Race to the Top with a flight plan labeled APPR — will fare in the months and years ahead.

For me, I have seen enough and heard enough from a wide spectrum of thoughtful, dedicated educators to know that this maiden voyage will not result in anything approaching an enriched journey to an enlightened destination known as a well educated populace for our nation.


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