School & District Management Opinion

Entering Next Year Prepared to Ignite the Hearts and Minds of Our Teachers

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — July 27, 2014 5 min read
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Evaluation used to measure performance against a standard isn’t, in and of itself, a bad thing. It can present a picture of how someone, or a group, accomplishes a stated target, over time. It is a form of accountability. Standardized tests are one way we evaluate students, and now teachers. In states where the scores the students receive on standardized tests contribute to the evaluation of the teacher, it is natural for concern to arise. What if the students had a bad day? What if a particular group of students are poor test takers? What if in that group of students there are parents who publically speak out about their concern, disrespect toward the tests, and its affect on the children? What if the tests themselves were poorly constructed, had mistakes in them, and failed to measure what was taught and learned? These questions raise real concerns. Students are required to receive helpful interventions based upon their results. Teachers may be considered in need of further support based upon the results of these tests, combined with other factors. The standardized assessments have come to hold a heavy hammer that causes angst among students, parents, and teachers.

Does Growth Matter?
When schools look at end of year standardized test results for the purpose of evaluating a teacher, a most sensible response to a set of low scores can be, “this group was not as high functioning as students in years past.” That may be a fair assessment of the group, but somehow may give permission to the teacher and his or her evaluator to dismiss the results. In places where standardized tests are given over the course of several years, there is another way to look at those results...it is the students’ scores over time. No matter where these students began, did they grow over time, including the year in which they didn’t score well? Was the score, albeit low, a leap from the year before?

Can We Trust the Assessments?
There are questions about whether the tests are aligned, truly valid and reliable, and able to adequately measure growth over time. It seems hardly possible, with the changes that have happened so quickly, that the tests designed to measure the Common Core Standards are without error. So, on a policy level, the question arises about placing such a high stakes value on this new and developing process. Why hold students and teachers accountable for Common Core standards and a new set of assessments all at the same time? Because someone ...or many...at the policy level thought those of us in the field would drag our feet if the tests didn’t happen simultaneously.

During the same season in which the standardized tests were administered, teachers received their evaluations. Although the results of the standardized tests were not in at the end of the school year, the bulk of the teachers’ performance over the year was written up and delivered. In the best of circumstances, a supervisor sat sit with the teacher and had a conversation about this assessment of his or her work. The feedback and professional conversation that took place became the foundation of growth and a developing professional, respectful and trusting relationship. In other places, it didn’t happen that way.

No matter the mandate, the mindset with which it is received and implemented will make the difference. This is not to say that we should not speak out against things with which we have professional disagreement. That most certainly has its place in our work. But the manner in which this standardized test and evaluation process takes place, the way it feels within our buildings and communities, is in the hands of the building leader.

Individual Solutions
The pull between being loyal to the institution and being loyal to our own beliefs has created an uneasy tension for many. Schools are engaged in responding to the demand for change while clinging to the successes of the past. Leaders need to inhabit both places. The push for change is fueled by awareness that it is time to move beyond old structures, old learning models, and old systems. Education is in the midst of the flux; it has been confusing and has raised fears and lowered morale. There are no simple solutions. But there are individual ones. Districts and schools are different and that is because although the structures may be similar, the people are different. Schools are in different neighborhoods, they are small and large, they are wealthy and poor, they have new staffs or seasoned ones. What they all have in common is the need for heart to be reignited. The years of shock have passed. This summer fatigue settles in and how we return to the school year...as a frame of mind...matters.

Schools Are Not Built on Standards and Skills Alone
To maintain an environment built upon teachers’ care and concern about the wellbeing of their students, care and concern need to return to the forefront. We have been called to focus energy on standards, assessments and evaluations. When the entire organization is placed in a state of flux, in which new learning has to take place, is measured, made public, and used to make important decisions, it is no surprise that something had to give.

Schools are not built on standards and skills alone. From ASCD’s Whole Child Initiative, the tenets are:

  • Each student enters school healthy and learns about and practices a healthy lifestyle.
  • Each student learns in an environment that is physically and emotionally safe for students and adults.
  • Each student is actively engaged in learning and is connected to the school and broader community.
  • Each student has access to personalized learning and is supported by qualified, caring adults.
  • Each student is challenged academically and prepared for success in college or further study and for employment and participation in a global environment.

Work That Stems From the Heart
Now is a good time to reconsider those aspects of our work that stem from the heart and think about how to make room for them again. There has been a hyper-focus, in many schools, on the academic changes as schools stretched to meet the demands of change. This is a reflection of our good work. “Don’t worry, it will all be ok” is kind of a disconnected statement especially when the entire year was spent on doing things “right” so all would be “ok.” But thinking about asking others, and ourselves questions like, “What will support you and your work as you think forward to next year?” seems a simple question, but it changes something important. It moves from the work, to the person. The work cannot be compromised but the people must feel heard and supported. This seemingly simple shift, not even a quarter turn, is one that can take us to a different place. As much as we must attend to the standards and assessments, it is important to attend to the human beings. We need a balance, and as the next school year approaches, it is a good time to think freshly about igniting the minds and hearts of teachers again so they can do the same for their students.

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.