In so many of the movies that I’ve watched over the past 25 years, a common trope is apparent. Anytime there is some new technology or innovation introduced into our society, it is almost always co-opted by some form of bureaucracy, and in most cases, weaponized.
The movie that really drove this point home for me as a child was “Short Circuit,” a quintessential 80’s flick starring Steve Guttenberg, Ally Sheedy, and of course, the sarcastic robot, Johnny Number 5. As anyone my age will tell you, the idea of having a robot like Johnny 5 around would have been, in the parlance of our time, radical. This was an amazing technology, an artificial intelligence capable of independent thought, with a thirst for knowledge, and a desire for fun as well as social justice.
The main crux of the film was that Johnny and his creators were trying to save him from being turned into a mindless killing machine. Of course they succeed, and evil is punished accordingly.
A more recent and, in retrospect, way cooler, example of this is the plotline in the latest installment of the Batman franchise, “The Dark Knight Returns”. At one point in the film we learn that Bruce Wayne and the R&D wing of his company have constructed an experimental energy reactor capable of delivering free power to all of Gotham (read, NYC). The only catch is that he refuses to turn it on, because he is afraid that the introduction of the technology will call for, wait for it, a desire from others to turn it into a weapon.
Eventually, it IS turned on, subsequently weaponized, and used as a bludgeon to bring the city to its knees. Batman’s only solution is to drag it out to sea, where it can explode without hurting anyone.
Over the past few weeks, the hazy details of the State of New Jersey’s plan to enforce the development of Student Growth Objectives (SGO’s), also known by their alter-ego, Student Learning Objectives, have begun to emerge. As the Instructional Leader in my building, I’ve been tasked with helping the staff through this process.
We are currently developing the Objectives themselves, essentially the skills that educators will target in their classrooms as a way of gauging the progress of their students.
On it’s face, a Student Growth Objective is a great idea. The concept is that teachers will create assessments that will check a student’s level of understanding of specific concepts multiple times over the course of the year. The teachers will look at the data that has been collected on each child, and use that information to guide the instruction for EACH INDIVIDUAL CHILD BASED ON THEIR SPECIFIC LEVEL OF NEED.
If you are at all familiar with the blog, you know what a high value I place on Individualized Instruction, and this appears to be a great tool that we can use to start actually altering the types of instruction that are considered acceptable in a 21st Century Classroom. The more I have gone through the process with the staff in my building, from Math teachers to the In School Suspension teacher, the more I have come to realize how innovative and valuable this exercise has the capacity to become.
But here’s the problem, and isn’t this always the problem? They want to turn it into a weapon.
The SGO process is tied directly to the state legislation known collectively as EE4NJ (Excellent Educators for NJ), an acronym that begs two initial questions:
1. By what measure are the educators in NJ, a state that consistently over the last 40 years has been ranked among the top 5 performers in the country, not excellent?
2. How can we strive for excellence when the bill itself substitutes the word ‘for’ with the letter ‘4’ in its own name; did they write it through text message?
All joking aside, the bill calls for the SGO’s to make up 50% of a teacher’s evaluation each year. While this may not seem problematic, there are many troubling reasons this should not be tied to keeping your job.
The first is that teachers, in order to guarantee that they can keep doing what they love, will be reluctant to make the SGO’s as rigorous as they should, or can, be. By holding the bar as high as possible, you are potentially shooting yourself in the foot.
In addition, the student populations in individual schools will now be consistently called into question within that school. Since the ability to show growth in your students is the measure of success, a teacher with a different classroom make-up compared to his or her colleagues may be at an advantage or disadvantage. Students with strong work ethics and supportive families will be a hot commodity for teachers. In some schools, however, the strongest teachers are sometimes syphoned students that struggle in various ways, because of their previous track successes with such students. Unfortunately, a class full of struggling students competing against a more heterogeneous grouping may hurt these high quality teachers.
Finally, those that teach Math or Language Arts are considered teachers of a “Tested Area”. In addition to their SGO’s, these teachers will have up to 35% of their retention evaluations linked to Standardized Test scores alone. Aside from keeping potential Math and Language Arts graduates away from those subjects, and the lack of job security linked with pay that they offer, current teachers in those subjects have a distinctly different level of anxiety when compared to their colleagues in the “Non-tested Area’s”.
The culmination of the building-wide anxiety that was created by this law, and its intended effect of essentially ending tenure, brought the tension in our building to the forefront the past three weeks.
And it didn’t have to be this way. They took a great, innovative idea, and used it to create a cudgel, a weapon.
This is nothing new, the influx of high-stakes testing as an evaluative tool is in and of itself a very similar story. What we need to ask ourselves as we move forward, not just as educators, but as a society, is what do we truly value in the education of our children. Do we hope to make them into critically thinking innovators, or simply an army of test-taking, institutionally bullied imitators.
The state has it half right, looking at students as individuals is key to unlocking their potential as students and learners. The problem is taking that good idea, and using it to intimidate and threaten the very people responsible for creating the type of students we all want to see in our society.
I think back to the way this is handled in the films that I’ve seen. The only way to stop the potentially damaging weaponization of quality innovations is simple, you have to fight back, and you have to let everyone see you doing it. If we do it that way, we can retain the value of the innovation, and shame those who would use it inappropriately into the background. That, or we’re going to need a talking robot or Batman to save everyone.I think I’m more comfortable relying on us.