4C13 from afar: Be Careful What You Start

Anson: “In higher ed, we often think that if students are disconnected and unmotivated in class, it’s their fault.” Poignant call. #4c13 -@chris_friend via Twitter retweeted over 20 times

Chris Anson’s speech, live-tweeted by… well just about everybody at 4C13 with a Twitter account, was an inspiring speech that set a good direction for the field of Rhet Comp. I was, however, concerned by the above statement when considered in the context of similar sentiments expressed within K-12 education.

A Cautionary Tale

When No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was passed in 2001, we began an age of accountability for students and teachers in K-12 education. Students were accountable to educational standards in all states via standardized tests and, barring “flexibility” (will get to that in a minute), schools and teachers were accountable for student performance. If students did not make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) for a given number of years, state intervention could force the school to close and reopen under new leadership and faculty. Anson’s remark implied that FYC instructors were on some level accountable for students being “disconnected” or “unmotivated.” This seems in line with the move toward accountability in K-12. Since we know from research that teacher effectiveness is a predictor of student success, this is not unreasonable. The next step is, perhaps, more uncomfortable.

The next step in accountability has occurred in a number of states, including Indiana. In Indiana, the new RISE teacher evaluation system uses, along with other indicators, student test scores to evaluate teacher performance. These evaluations can affect teacher pay and employment. The analogue for Rhetoric and Composition is FYC instructors’ (e.g. graduate students, adjuncts) salaries and funding within the department. The next step in accountability is, perhaps, even more uncomfortable.

A recent bill considered in the Indiana Senate ties accreditation of teacher education programs to teacher evaluations. The bill states that “at least seventy percent (70%) of graduates must receive a rating of effective or highly effective on their evaluations.” As mentioned before, these evaluations, as a result of RISE, are linked to student test scores. Thus, student scores could determine whether colleges would be accredited. The analogue for Rhetoric and Composition would be its graduate programs.

Because the ultimate goal of NCLB was that literally NO child would be left behind, and therefore all students would move forward, the final standard at the end of 10 years was 100% student proficiency in tested subjects. This hasn’t happened. So many schools are on the verge of state takeover. As a result, states have been applying for waivers of flexibility to be allowed more time and opportunities to improve their schools. It is ironic that among these states is Texas, which is seeking a special waiver of flexibility. It was the “Texas miracle” that served as the model for NCLB in the first place. It should be disconcerting if the model for a program fails to meet the standards of that program. If Rhet Comp decides to begin a discourse linking instructor evaluation to student performance, the NCLB story–and in particular Texas’s story–should raise flags of caution.

This all happened in 12 years since NCLB started.

A Caveat and A Thesis

I don’t propose any answers here. And I am not even arguing against Anson’s proposition–because research supports the link between teacher effectiveness and student performance. In the tradition of critical theory, I simply wanted to “problematize” the issue. Because it’s not easy. And K-12 is an example of where such a discourse might lead. Where do we go from here?

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