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Friday, November 23, 2012

Let's Grade Teachers and Other Accountability Nonsense

For more than thirty years the government has used the same strategy to fix academics in America's troubled schools. And, what would that be? Legislators believe in the power of competition to internalize academic achievement. They have passed measures that rely on standardized tests scores and strict accountability to insure better performance and better instruction. Then, despite the vast differences in schools, schools are graded and ranked according to their scores on various state assessments.

Be it through No Child Left Behind, the government's flagship aid program for disadvantaged students that had bipartisan support led by President George W. Bush and Senator Edward Kennedy or through Race to the Top, President Obama's United States Department of Education sweepstakes created to spur innovation and reforms in state and local district K-12 education, schools have been forced to modify academics and conform to ever-changing standards. U.S. schools have become dizzy and disoriented in the process of just trying to understand what exactly the government demands

Overwhelmed with the tasks of "teaching to the test" and providing scads of documentation on every measurable trait of every student all the time, classroom teachers are paying an enormous price for "staying competitive" through state assessments. The added stress and work to "be the best" school according to state standards is not necessarily conducive to keeping the best teachers or to improving overall instruction.

This work required for the “competition fix,” you must understand, is added to teachers' regular duties and requirements without a raise in pay, and, usually without any grace of extra time for completion. The increase in lesson planning, remedial work, one-on-one tutoring, record keeping, and student tracking are stressful enough. Add the demanding schedule for reporting state standards, which is managed by administrators who evaluate each teacher every step of the way, and you can see why many are now considering changing careers.

The best teachers concentrate their precious time on actual teaching and improving their own methods of instruction, not on keeping endless records that trace student performance based on minimum standards and observable deficiencies. They teach class with the understanding that learning requires the students to use a wide range of thinking strategies to understand material. They also instill the need for initiative and a quest for knowledge, not satisfaction for achieving mediocrity.

Children who are reduced to being little more than statistics on paper instead of being encouraged to become unique, self-driven human beings learn many detrimental lessons. The all-important state evaluation becomes their holy grail of achievement as they begin to understand creativity and scholarship are secondary to passing proficiencies. I agree with Chuck Grassley, senior United States senator from Iowa, who once said, “What makes a child gifted and talented may not always be good grades in school, but a different way of looking at the world and learning.”

The students who merely want to pass assessments learn many ways to satisfy a false system. And, education, to them, becomes formulaic and rote. They expect their instructors to "give us the answers that we need" not to "give us strategies we canuse to think and reason on our own." Many become too dependent upon objective evaluation in a very subjective world when, in truth, they should possess the skills to reason through uncertainty and pride themselves on their accomplishments.

It is nearly impossible to rate the real educational achievement of a student. Any evaluation is based on certain standards pertinent at the time of the testing. And, tests of achievement do not measure emotional development and attitudinal characteristics. Besides, students' levels of maturity when taking any single state exam vary greatly.

So much goes into the impressionable student mind that any lasting, beneficial results from a class, a teacher, a curriculum, or an eduction often take years (decades) to emerge. Believe me, the business of education is often light years behind the latest research and technology due to restricted budgets; old, antiquated beliefs and standards; and slow, slow state interventions and programs that are often ineffective when finally legislated and mandated by the system.

Michael Brick of The New York Times writes the following assessment of the competition mindset in schools:

So far, such competition has achieved little more than re-segregation, long charter school waiting lists and the same anemic international rankings in science, math and literacy we’ve had for years.

And yet now, policy makers in both parties propose ratcheting it up further — this time, by “grading” teachers as well.

It’s a mistake. In the year I spent reporting on John H. Reagan High School in Austin, I came to understand the dangers of judging teachers primarily on standardized test scores. Raw numbers don’t begin to capture what happens in the classroom. And when we reward and punish teachers based on such artificial measures, there is too often an unintended consequence for our kids.”

(Michael Brick, “When 'Grading' Is Degrading,” The New York Times Opinion, November 22 2012)
Brick tells about the year (2009) he spent reporting on Reagan High School in Austin, Texas. He watched teachers raise test scores to stave off a closure order, working against a one-year deadline. Brick saw many teachers “teaching to the test” and trying many other strategies to raise scores, but here is what impressed him the most:

Most of all, though, their efforts focused on something more difficult to quantify. I watched Coach Davis revive the basketball team, dipping deep into his own paycheck and family time to inspire the school with an unlikely playoff run. I watched the principal, Anabel Garza, drive around the neighborhood rousting truants out of bed, taking parents to court and telling kids their teachers loved them. I watched a chemistry teacher, Candice Kaiser, drive carloads of kids to cheer on the basketball team, attend after-school Bible study and make doctors’ appointments. I watched the music director, Ormide Armstrong, reinvent the marching band as a prizewinning funk outfit that backed Kanye West.

Together, they gave families a reason to embrace a place long dominated by tension, violence and the endless tedium of standardized test drilling. They improved the numbers. Mostly, they did it through passion, intelligence, grit and love.”

(Michael Brick, “When 'Grading' Is Degrading,” The New York Times Opinion, November 22 2012)
Reagan High is no longer “Academically Unacceptable” and is continuing to rebuild its reputation as being the pride of the city, as it was when it was opened in the 1960s. Brick commends some fine teachers who have been there from the start and continue to build “a sustainable public school for the neighborhood.” To close his editorial, Michael Brick says the following about grading schools:
Still, the most significant obstacle they face is the very same myopic policy suggested by Mr. Obama’s erstwhile opponent, Mitt Romney, in the weeks before the election: we grade our schools, he said, so parents 'can take their child to a school that’s being more successful.' As for the parents, teachers and children who can’t make that choice, they’re left to salvage what remains.”

(Michael Brick, “When 'Grading' Is Degrading,” The New York Times Opinion, November 22 2012)
I wonder if parents would mind being graded on their participation and their interest in a child's education? We all know they play an important part in the academic success of their children. Yet, I know this idea sounds ludicrous. Did you know this is a proposal that has been made in a house bill from a Florida legislator? Imagine the consequences of publicly revealing these scores. Let's just evaluate everyone and everything about students -- this will surely improve things. Give me a break. 
Toledo schools have used a system called peer review for many years. In Toledo public schools, new teachers have "intern" status. They are mentored by experienced educators, who help them refine their skills - while evaluating their work. Then, a special Intern Board of Review, including both administrators and classroom teachers, receives the mentors' recommendations for whether interns should be retained. The board must agree to them unless at least six of its members vote against the mentors' recommendations on whether to retain interns.

Imagine the weight of the mentor's evaluation. And also imagine the stress placed upon them to assure only good teachers are retained. What happens when a clash of personalities occurs or an honest disagreement about an intern surfaces? How much power does the administration hold in the Board of Review? What if the decision rides on office politics? And, why is the administration shifting so much evaluative control onto classroom teachers?

I don't know the answers to these questions, but from my experience, I do know that I hate all of the pressure school politics, school relationships, and useless busy work can put on a dedicated teacher. We are running many good teachers out of the profession because they simply don't have the time to satisfy state requirements that support this unfair competition and teach their classes, too.

I have absolutely no problem with firing or not renewing bad teachers. They do exist, and unless they improve significantly, they should be sent packing. My problem rests with the enormous burden placed on excellent teachers who just love to teach. It is evident that government educational reform is causing those who have proven their worth to be subject to more and more duties of accounting and justifying their place in the faculty. I think successful teaching is an art and in order to master this artistry, a teacher must be given time and room to bring it to fruition.

I know of no other endeavor that works so hard to uphold a ridiculous principle. That is the idea that “failure is not an option.” Failure can be a great teacher and a great motivator. I certainly have learned from my failures. I know some students do deserve to fail despite the best efforts of teachers. Author and motivational speaker Leo F. Buscaglia said, “ We seem to gain wisdom more readily through our failures than through our successes. We always think of failure as the antithesis of success, but it isn't. Success often lies just the other side of failure.”

When the future of many potentially life-changing, dedicated educators rests with a poor grade – one that signifies the performance of the school in which they teach or one that signifies the grades of some of the students they instruct or one that signifies a so-called “objective evaluation” of their teaching skills – something is sorely missing.

I believe what is missing is the human element of understanding. We must understand that good teachers are made, not born. With initiative, help, and guidance, most will grow into their potential and discover how to use the best of their talents to contribute to the academic and social growth of their students. If teachers refuse to accept the challenge of bettering themselves, I expect them and their school to agree upon their dismissal.

God knows I was scared shitless my first couple years of teaching. I had everything I could possibly handle just managing my class and keeping a page ahead of my students. I could not have completed extra duties and busy work at that time. I continually saw things within the classroom I needed to improve, and I was determined to get my classes not only to learn but also to think. And, thanks to my students, my peers, and a lot of invention, I hung in there. Every year I taught I believe I strengthened my abilities and added to my repertoire because I wanted to improve myself, not because of a grade someone had assigned me.
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