Sunday, November 28, 2010

Announcing . . . The Teachers' Rodeo! or, "If you fund it, they will come"

The other day, I was thinking . . . maybe, just maybe, Arne Duncan and the other high-profile education reformers (including the recently departed Michelle Rhee and the soon-to-be-departed Joel Klein) are right. Maybe it really is possible to identify the best teachers by looking at how much the test scores of the young people assigned to them improve.

If that is true, then surely we should have a competition to identify the best teachers at every level: school, district, region, state, the whole country. Just as the NFL and the NBA lure today’s schoolkids to spend their time practicing football and basketball, teachers’ rodeos would energize, identify, and glorify superstar teachers. President Obama should set aside a portion of the $4.35 billion Race to the Top (RTT) fund for the Race to the Top Rodeo.

My endorsements and prizes will bring
Big SUVs, houses, and bling.
Who cares for my pupils?
I laugh at your scruples.
Quantifiable achievement is king!

Forget for the moment that money and fame are not primary motivators for most teachers—or if they are, we definitely chose the wrong profession. The Race to the Top Rodeo (RTTR) will create a whole new category of teachers. Bolder! Cleverer! Faster and more efficient in every key area of student interaction!

Here’s how RTTR works. Each contestant chooses one or more events to enter. There will be . . .

  • Bull riding! Here, each teacher confronts a series of unmotivated students armed with state-of-the-art excuses. The winner is the teacher who can most effectively deflect all the excuses and persuade the students to listen attentively for a minimum of 9.00 seconds. If even one student sends a text message, shoots a spitwad, or asks to go to the bathroom during the 9-second window, the teacher is disqualified. Timing begins only after all excuses have been successfully defused to the satisfaction of the judges. Most observers agree that the 9 seconds that follow are even more dangerous than the 8 seconds allotted to professional rodeo bull riders.

  • Team roping! In this event, pairs of teachers, normally an idealistic rookie and a cynical old hand, compete to bring down a randomly chosen high school senior. Slacker students are preferred, with extra points awarded to any team that draws a student with a particularly “whatever” attitude. A functional MRI (fMRI) scanner reveals whether anything either teacher says or does manages to penetrate the student’s consciousness. Real-time monitoring by PETA ensures that no student is harmed by the scan or treated inhumanely. Any activity that resembles repetitive drill, even if it has educational content, is prohibited on the grounds of being old-fashioned.

  • Barrel racing! Here, randomly assigned students are dropped from the chute in classes of 35. Each teacher contestant has exactly 50 minutes to herd the group into part of the rodeo ring and teach them something they can remember long enough to increase their collective score on a standardized test by at least 10 points. (A proposed rule modification would reduce the time of the event to 12.5 minutes, which would not only improve audience focus but would also more accurately reflect the length of a real class period, after deducting for roll call, bathroom excuses, and general malarkey.) The winner is the teacher whose students achieve the greatest increase, and that teacher receives a generous raise for the next school year. Other teachers who meet the 10-point threshold are given the title of “minimally adequate teacher” and are placed on probation. The remaining contestants, those who fall short of the 10-point mark, are crushed by barrels, to the great amusement of the spectators. Students who participate in the barrel-flattening portion of the event are given iPods as a reward for good citizenship.

  • Whipcracking! Teachers are no longer allowed to compete in whipcracking. Contestants are now drawn exclusively from the ranks of top administrators and school chancellors. Students are removed from the arena during this event, lest their psyches be permanently damaged by the sound of a whip. Teachers who lost at earlier events are seated in the center of the rodeo ring and are forced to endure endless demonstrations of whipcracking prowess. (The losers from the barrel racing event are exempt, since most of them are too beaten up to sit.) Scoring in this event is generally ignored, since all whipcracking chancellors receive huge cash prizes, regardless of whether or not they have any ability. The most famous whipcracker in the arena is given the title of “Top Educator” and is allowed to take a ceremonial lap around the ring in a custom golf cart purchased with federal funds. This victory lap is called, of course, the Race by the Top (RBTT).

My biggest fear in listing these events is that someone will not realize that my tongue is planted firmly in my cheek and will get the idea of starting a real rodeo-style competition for teachers. It would not be that hard to pull off, actually—certainly less complicated than a conventional rodeo with all its horses and cattle and ropes and gates and gory injuries. Students could be randomly assigned to teachers and given safe, indoor competition events as part of their regular schooling.

And, to be completely serious for a moment, let’s acknowledge that spending a couple of billion dollars on local, regional, and national teachers’ rodeos would have a big impact. Big money works in professional sports, and a professional teachers’ rodeo could attract heavy bipartisan support. Just as students spend countless hours chasing stardom by honing their hook shots, teachers would vie to become extremely skilled in the various tasks that help their reluctant students accept what the government calls “education.” There would be some subjective scoring, just as in real rodeo, but the winners would be determined quantitatively, by competition. Remember, that is the absolute, bottom-line measure of goodness and effectiveness in a business enterprise.

What, you don’t think education is a business enterprise? Surely you have been under a rock for the last decade. Everyone nowadays knows (cough, cough) that K-12 education can and should use business-oriented measures of effectiveness, accountability, and achievement. There is no other way forward for America.

And the day that happens is the day that teachers’ last remaining shred of professional dignity wafts away on the breeze. We’re not quite there yet, thank heavens.