Opinion
Education Opinion

Lowering the Board

By Emmet Rosenfeld — November 16, 2007 5 min read

“Are you nervous,” asked my 3-year old son, with all the right emotion but maybe the wrong words as I sat on the couch in the depths of post-blast blues last Friday.
“Nervous about what?” I asked.
“The board went down,” he said, repeating more or less what my wife had explained to him and his brother in the car on the way home.
“Yes, pal, I’m nervous that the board went down.”
“Okay, I’ll fix it,” he said confidently, and went off to find his red and blue plastic hammer. I’m pretty sure he was picturing a seesaw that had fallen off its fulcrum, a not entirely inaccurate image.

The half-life for fragility and self-pity for a teacher is one week-end, because you have to get back up in front of the class Monday. For dads, it shrinks to a single evening pass good for skipping bath time while madly typing away the pain on the laptop.

I’d be lying if I said I was entirely over the news that a year’s worth of work will not be rewarded with the cash money I had hoped would make this a special Chrismahannuka. But in a relatively compressed time I’ve moved through a remarkable outpouring of grief, affirming emails, and professional dialogue that has made this experience, in ways that NBPTS never imagined, one of the richest in my professional life.

I can’t possibly thank everyone who has reminded me that my worth as a teacher is not the sum of a Very Hard Test. But I can and will keep blogging this thing, because even though I was unable to link my own writing to student achievement to the satisfaction of NBPTS, I am still convinced that putting myself out there and giving other teachers a place to talk is one of the most important things I do as a professional.

Bemoaning the lack of feedback is a common refrain amongst us almosts, but there is a party line, ably presented by a colleague on a listserv who has allowed me to reprint her responses to my criticism of this aspect of the program. She articulates it with more clarity and compassion than anyone I know:

[Emmet] I find that the “no feedback” policy walks a line I didn’t know existed between Zen and sanctimony. I like the idea that there are many ways to get it right, but I also would NEVER in my own practice with students give a huge year-long assignment, or any significant assignment for that matter, without providing a lot of chances for coaching, low-risk practice, and improvement. If we claim to be master teachers, why are we creating an assessment that flies in the face of what we know about real learning? Maybe we should be honest and say that there are too many tests to grade and we couldn’t possibly get through them if we had to tell everyone where they gained or lost points.

[Nancy] There are three reasons why NB doesn’t provide feedback to candidates:
#1) It’s a professional assessment. When someone doesn’t pass a bar exam, they don’t get feedback, they get numbers. It is assumed that the applicant will figure out what needs to be improved, as an aspiring professional. When we give our students feedback, that’s
aligned with the purpose of teaching. The NB Assessment has a different purpose: identifying, not building, accomplished teaching.

#2) Although most (over 90%) of teachers who go through the process feel that their teaching has improved as a result, it is not a professional development experience (like NWP). If NBPTS were to give feedback, the discovery process of figuring out what missing--evidence—would be short-circuited. Teachers would be “fixing” what the NB specified needed fixing (i.e., hoop-jumping) rather than uncovering what might be missing on their own. And we all know that discovered learning is better than drill-and-spill.

#3) The scoring process does not provide any product that would tell candidates what was missing or wrong. There are no points or checklists. The evidence presented is scored holistically. The rubric for scoring is given to candidates in their portfolio materials. The
question is the same for every entry: is the evidence provided clear, consistent and onvincing proof that the candidate is meeting the standards? A good candidate support program will let candidates know--in advance--that they will not be receiving feedback, and why.

With due respect to Nancy, who went to lengths that only a master teacher would in responding to me on list and off, for me the argument that Natty Boards is not professional development and therefore shouldn’t give better feedback is specious. It demands the commitment of a graduate program, and its advocates claim that certifying is a transformative experience. What’s more, a common piece of encouragement heard by me and other almosts is: Stick with it-- this is a three-year process. Many do pass on their second or (god bless ‘em) third try. How can a test last three years?

Another common consolation I’ve heard is: You’re a great teacher, and you foster lots of student achievement. You just didn’t show it in your entry and your evidence. This begs the question, of course, about what the test measures: my teaching ability or my ability to show them my teaching ability in a certain way. Since getting better at the latter will make me sixty grand (and because I’m more stubborn than hurt) here’s what I plan to do.

Go for it. But bass-ackwards.
No more worrying about core propositions or standards or (pshaw) good writing. From here on in, it’s all about Student Achievement. I will rebuild Entry 4 not based on the professional achievements outside the classroom that are truly the most meaningful to me—building the canoe, my association with the writing project, publishing this blog-- at least, not simply because they are meaningful to me.

Instead, I will include accomplishments only based on examples of student achievement that I know can be documented in convincing NBPTS fashion. If I can still include my work as a writer, great. If instead I have to keep a communication log of the hundreds of parent contacts that I make without a second thought during the course of a normal school year, so be it. I’ll make the stinking list. It isn’t sexy, it isn’t the above-and-beyond that makes me Teacherman. It’s just the job. I wish I’d figured out earlier that lowering my expectations for what this Test-and-not-a-process can be is what it takes to summit.

The opinions expressed in Eduholic are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.