Education Opinion

What do We Want Instead? (Part 2)

By Anthony Cody — January 07, 2010 5 min read
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Earlier this week I posted Part 1 in a series of responses to a list of education policy challenges posted by my friend Nancy Flanagan. Nancy publishes an excellent blog (Teacher in a Strange Land) Please join me in thinking about and discussing our response, as teachers, to the issues she raises:

Here are the next two Obama/Duncan policies she cites, followed by my suggestions:

Connecting teachers to their students’ achievement data, to fine-tune learning outcomes. How would we measure teacher effectiveness, instead of standardized tests?

This is a huge issue - perhaps the most important one we face. This goes to the heart of what we value as a society. Our conception of student learning has become defined by that which can be measured by a standardized test. Yet we have far more ambitious goals for our schools and our students than those revealed by these tests. Our first step here needs to be a step back to decide what, as a society, we want our schools to promote. Here are some of the things I think are important:

  • Creative and critical thinking
  • The ability to work with numbers and solve problems in a mathematical context
  • The ability to read and write fluently, and to enjoy reading and writing
  • The mental health or happiness of a child
  • A strong connection between the life of the student and that which they are learning
  • Physical health and knowledge of how to care for one’s body, including nutrition.
  • Knowledge of the history of the world, nation and community to which they belong.
  • An understanding of how the natural world works, and the process of scientific discovery.
  • An awareness of the student’s relationship to the democratic society in which he or she lives.
  • Compassion and respect for others
  • An appreciation for music, dance, and sports and opportunities to explore all three.
  • The ability to cooperate and collaborate as part of a team
  • The ability to ask really great questions

That is my own list - you may agree with some, or have some different priorities to suggest. We need to have some dialogue about this as a nation, because the decision to reduce school accountability to that which will show on tests of reading and math was made with very little public discussion.

Teachers should be accountable for their students’ learning, and we should be actively involved in the process of designing meaningful assessments that will reveal what has been learned.

But we must set these goals and figure out their relative priority before we decide on the means to measure a teacher’s effectiveness. It is not impossible to measure things like creativity, emotional health, and the ability to do real scientific investigations. But it DOES require a different set of measurement tools.

The other issue this raises is the desire to connect solid teacher evaluations to student learning, and I think that is a great idea. We just have to be careful about how we do this, to avoid the problems I described with test scores. It IS possible to measure how effective a teacher is using a clear set of standards. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards has been doing so for the past 15 years, and has strong evidence that NBCTs are indeed more effective on the whole, than non-NBCTs. What is needed are a good set of professional standards and an ability to take a close look at a teachers’ practice. That includes student test scores -- but needs to go deeper, to look at other authentic assessments of student learning, and teacher practices that may affect students in important ways but not be revealed by test scores.

In the National Board process, teachers prepare evidence of student learning -- videotapes showing student discussions, and compilations of student work showing growth over time. This work is accompanied by the teacher’s written reflections and analysis regarding how they were able to move their students forward. When I engaged in this process, I learned a tremendous amount about my own teaching, and discovered some major shortcomings in my own practices. This process allowed me to improve as a teacher -- and that is what a good evaluation system should do as well. We need to connect a thoughtful examination of our students’ work with a constructive evaluation process in order to not merely identify effective teachers, but to help us all grow and build our skills. Test score data can and should be part of this process, but not the beginning and end of it.

Common standards for math and literacy across the nation, tied to common assessments. Are these a necessary step to improving achievement in our lowest-performing schools and states? If we don’t think they’re going to “raise the bar"--then what strategies would address low-performing schools and students more effectively?

Schools are the most important democratic institution in every community across our nation. They reflect and serve the aspirations each community holds for our children, and as such hold a sacred trust. How is this best served and strengthened?
It may be useful for educators across the country to come up with a common set of basic academic standards. However, we need to keep in mind the many goals we have for our schools, and the fact is that different communities may set different priorities. Some communities may believe that creativity in scientific innovation is their most valued priority.

Student achievement in such a community will look different from achievement in another area. These schools are primarily funded at the state level, and should be accountable to their local community - not obliged to meet an arbitrary set of federally defined standards. We need to raise the bar by making sure our schools truly serve their communities and students.

National Standards are usually connected with the need for a national test so that students in all fifty states can be compared using the same yardstick. There is a fundamental problem with tests of this nature, as has been pointed out by principled experts like Daniel Koretz. (See my interview with Dr. Koretz last fall). By their very nature, they represent a limited subset of the knowledge and skills we value. And by attaching high stakes to them, we ensure that teachers will teach to the tests, which makes score inflation a huge problem.

Furthermore, the economics of standardized tests given to millions of students requires that they be primarily multiple choice tests. This greatly limits the intellectual challenge we can achieve, and encourages the worst kind of drill and kill memorization. We need to raise the bar by making sure students are challenged to think critically and creatively, and this will only happen when our schools and teachers are held accountable in more sophisticated and thoughtful means, and not simply by the current testing systems. National Standards double down on the failed strategies of NCLB, and will not work.

What do you think? How should student achievement be connected to measuring teacher effectiveness? How are National Standards likely to affect our schools and students?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.