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Sunday, March 13, 2011

Outing Teachers

The Joy of Teaching...ouch! 

The world of public school education is finally getting the attention it should have been getting all along. After all, what could be more important that the education of our children and their children? Unfortunately, bad press is not better than no press -- and that appears to be all that public education can garner these days. Up to now, it has been taken for granted that our public schools would do their job, there would be good and bad teachers that our children would somehow deal with as we did, and they all would go off to college and find their way in the world.

But we live with a public educational system designed to produce compliant factory workers for jobs that no longer exist. It has continued without structural change for over 70 years and now the United States has fallen well behind other nations who have chosen to modernize and update their own educational institutions. The irony is that, as a society we work to maintain the stability of our institutions yet education, for which the knowledge base changes as rapidly as the changes in our technologies, needs to be fluid and innovative. How do we institute change when our institutions function best when stable? Whose responsibility is it to implement, evaluate and manage the change needed?  Who gets held accountable? 

Research conducted on how we learn and how the brain functions has provided so much valuable information for educators that it cannot be ignored. Countries like Finland and Cuba (!) have made dramatic changes to their schools and the results are in. Their students are better educated than ours because they have modernized and improved their schools based on this good research. 

One great example is the notion of looping.  In Cuba, students stay with the same teacher from first to third grade. This reduces the learning curve that every classroom teacher in the United States needs to make every September as they begin to understand where each student’s strength and weaknesses lie. This allows differentiation (the right level of challenge directed to each student) to commence effectively from the first day of school. The student and their families build a stronger and more comfortable connection to the teacher and the young learner has stability and understands the expectations and style of the teacher. By the end of third grade, each student is reading and writing up to his or her potential. Interesting, eh? 

But back here we appear fixated on what goes on in the classroom and not with what needs fixing with the system. Teachers are the new pariahs. Our Governor, the future President Christie, has proposed that teacher’s income be tied to their performance as measured, in good part by the results of standardized tests. So then I have to ask, who’s minding the standardized tests? Who is deciding what should be measured and how? 

Recently my son, a high school sophomore and my own favorite lab rat, spent several days taking the NJAsk and provided for his mother, the perfect illustration of why using standardized tests, as they presently exist, is a huge mistake.  Understand that I am not against evaluating and rewarding excellence. I am not against teachers, like everyone else in workforce, earning their raises based on individual performance, but I am against using the tools we have now for this purpose, no matter how you may configure the data. Here’s why: 

For the Language Arts portion of the test he was given two different writing prompts on two different days. The first was a photograph of a digital clock from which he was supposed to create a story. This is just the kind of challenge that my son likes and he came up with a crazy three-page story of international intrigue involving defective clocks that blow up if you set the alarm for 12:00. 

Smart Aleck Kid
The next day he had a prompt where he was asked to argue for or against mandatory after-school tutoring for students who earn below a certain grade. He’s a teenager, knows he has no control over what happens in school, is sick of taking these tests and thought the topic was “bullshit”. He wasn’t interested in writing a persuasive essay (which the test was presumably asking him to do) and only wrote one paragraph. 

Should his response upset me? Should I care that he knows that these tests have no bearing on his grades and doesn’t care about them? Should I want a child who just does what is asked without question? What will the results of these tests show about a student who responds to one prompt and not the other? How will his response potentially affect the evaluation of his teachers?

Most importantly, what do the test designers think this shows? How do you establish a baseline response for this kind of test? How might a good student respond to this versus a struggling student who may very well be angered or upset by the reminder that they would be affected by the adoption of this policy? 

If you think for one minute that responding to these NJAsk questions are all an exercise in intellect, you would be very mistaken. The brain of a teenager operates based in the limbic system, which controls our emotions. This is why so many teenagers make so many poor decisions and can be so challenging to teach. They feel before they think and how they feel affects what they think. 

So while teachers are being held to more exacting and demanding standards, shouldn’t the tools used to evaluate them undergo the same kind of scrutiny? 

Coming from years of corporate America I’m accustomed to performance reviews and believe individual teachers should earn their raises like everyone else in the world. Why should we allow poor teachers to continue inflicting their students? Research indicates that it can take up to 3 years to undo the damage inflicted by a bad teacher.                    
But if the annual NCLB tests (they have different names in each state) were created to determine the learning and skill level of a student as a tool for the teacher, why are teachers not demanding that the tests be repurposed as a tool to measure incremental learning year to year?  Educators all understand that assessments must provide valid measures that align with their purpose. 

So, using concepts discussed as far back as 1989 in Stephen Covey’s great 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, it is clear that the tests need to be designed with the goal in mind not measuring student learning but measuring teacher effectiveness. 

Educator Grant Wiggins, creator of Understanding by Design (UbD), an innovative tool to assist in creating dynamic lesson plans, asks to what extent do assessments provide fair, valid, reliable and sufficient measures of the desired results?  Can we really think that a test, that might take a day or two, can measure the impact of a teacher? What about the teacher who has a higher percentage of struggling students year after year? Do we hold them to the same standard and if not, what is measured?         

Christie’s changes including providing tenure by examining standardized test scores, classroom observations and school-wide student performance. But without proper oversight, this will just turn into another effort llke the dismal George Bush NCLB that only enriched the coffers of test writers and textbook creators. 

ETS which writes the GRE (for Grad School), Praxis (for teacher certification), TOEFL(to teach English to foreign speakers), AP tests (for high school students), and The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the largest nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America's students know and can do in various subject areas is currently working on The Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project. The objective is to determine what measures predict the biggest student achievement gains; the MET project will give teachers the feedback they need to improve. In addition, a greater understanding about which teaching practices, skills and knowledge positively impact student learning will allow states and districts to develop teacher evaluation systems that will help strengthen all aspects of teaching. 

The results of this study combined with another classroom observation tool will be publishing their studies in the winter of 2011/2012. 

So Governor Christie, what precisely are you proposing be used to measure teacher effectiveness when the country’s largest educational test creator does not yet have the answers?  

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