Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Grading Teachers By Testing Students

The New York Times is reporting today the following:

New York City education officials are developing more than a dozen new standardized tests, but in a sign of the times, their main purpose will be to grade teachers, not the students who take them.

There are so many problems with this plan to grade teachers by using student test results that it’s hard to know where to begin.

At some level, schools have brought this on themselves by producing students lacking basic skills. When failure of students is seen as a failure of teachers – a highly problematic and simplistic presumption – teachers have a vested interest in passing students regardless of their level of achievement. The increasingly reported incidences of cheating on standardized testing evidences such pressures. Moreover, when parents pressure schools to pass those same children, often while criticizing them for the work loads they place on their children, chances increase that children will be awarded diplomas which increasingly mean less and less.

Clearly, there are some teachers, albeit a rather small minority of the total teaching force, who are not competent to be in classrooms. They are there by virtue of a cabal of their own lack of preparedness, often coming from the same kind of schools in which they now teach, plus an often less than demanding curriculum at the college level where instructors long ago threw up their hands about trying to remediate deficiencies arriving at their doorsteps, and finally school districts willing to hire them because their pay and working conditions cannot attract anyone competent enough to go somewhere else.

It is also true that unions sometimes protect teachers like this. But the role of unions is to protect its members, often from highly arbitrary treatment by administrators who have themselves most often been promoted out of the ranks of teachers – often coaches. Too many teachers can tell stories of principals who were barely competent themselves and often feel threatened by competent teachers. Without unions, such teachers are at the mercies of philistines.

Tenure is often blamed for protecting poor teachers. And in some cases, that may well be so. But if a case can be built against a teacher for incompetence, even districts with tenure in place have policies and procedures allowing a case to be built against them for incompetence leading to dismissal. Of course, that places the burden on school districts to demonstrate that incompetence and their own efforts to ameliorate it. But, given the deleterious effects of such proceedings on the teacher and his/her career, that is where the burden should be – on the district which ultimately has the resources to either improve the performance of a substandard teacher or, failing that, to fire them.

None of these factors can be adequately diagnosed or dealt with through the NY plan. Indeed, NY is deliberately misusing standardized testing by this action. Standardized tests are designed to identify competencies and weaknesses in student performance (emphasis mine). Their original purposes were to diagnose areas needing remediation in student learning. When used properly, such tests can be very valuable to teachers in constructing pedagogies and methods of addressing learning deficiencies.

But such deficiencies may or may not have anything to do with the performance of the teacher. While a causal link is presumed by this action between student performance and instructional competence, that is a very questionable presumption. The burden of proof of the causal nexus cannot simply be presumed. It must be demonstrated. And here, the NY school system has completely failed in its duties to the public.

Student performance exams test student performance, not that of their teachers. Whether a student performs well on an exam turns on any number of factors including their own efforts in preparing, their own native intelligence brought to bear on the preparation, parental educational attainment and resulting attitudes about the value of education, cultural understandings regarding the value of education and socio-economic conditions in which the individual student is being raised. None of these are within the control of a given teacher.

If, on the other hand, we wish to know if teachers are doing their jobs in teaching students, what we must do is much more demanding than a simplistic use of student standardized test scores. We must observe teachers in action. We must look at their preparatory materials. We must talk with their students. And we must talk with the teachers. Only such an approach actually provides an informed basis upon which to assess teachers’ – as opposed to students’ - performance.

Of course, a misuse of student test scores is a lot easier and cheaper. It is instructive to note that such cheap measures occur in the context of an ever-increasing defunding of public schools. But one gets what they pay for. And in NY, what they are paying for is a defrauding of the public and the demoralization of the public educational system. This may have major political appeal for those within our society who carry an onus against public education. And there are many of them, American culture often taking on an anti-intellectual hue. It may also be a means of conservatives striking at unions, often by means of incredibly distorted caricatures about teachers getting rich off the public till for little work in return. (Clearly, anyone who would believe such nonsense has never been a teacher).

Whatever it is about, it is ultimately not about an educated public, the goal of public schools. How sad to see a state as advanced as NY fall into such stupidity.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

No comments: