Monday, February 21, 2011

A teeny, tiny glimmer of hope for our schools

With anti-teacher sentiment the highest I've seen it in my lifetime in this country, I humbly submit for your consideration...

Why it's not enough to appraise a teacher's performance solely on student test scores:

I think back to the year I spent as a social worker for the Child Welfare Division of DHS.  That was probably THE hardest job I'll ever have in my life-- not because it was such an emotionally gut-wrenching job, but because the sheer volume of the work was completely overwhelming.  I was responsible not only for sixty-four precious children who clearly did not ask to be born into dangerous and abusive situations, but I was also responsible for making sure their parents and other various relatives were putting a good faith effort into being rehabilitated and learning how to create a safe environment for their children in the event their children were able to return home.   I think about my job performance and the appraisals I received by my boss during that time.  She read the court reports I had written, she checked my calendar and my visit logs to review the weekly and monthly visits I had made with the children, their foster parents, and their biological parents.  She reviewed the referrals I had made to various service providers for both the children and their parents.  She looked at general work related things like the fact that made it to work on time every day and that I completed my work in the office in a timely manner.  And then she looked at the progress of my cases, and the progress of the parents on my caseload.

I cannot imagine what it would have been like if my job performance as a social worker was solely judged on the results of the many times drug-addicted, abusive parents on my caseload.  But isn't that partly what we're doing to teachers now in our educational system?  I don't mean at all to compare my students to drug addicts or child abusers, in fact many of them are victims of those types of crimes, but we are placing the worthiness and value of our educators squarely on the shoulders of children, who in many cases, especially in our urban school districts, have learning disabilities and do not test well.  Many of them come into the classroom already at a huge disadvantage.  Most times that disadvantage is entirely too much to overcome in one year, in two years with even the best teacher.  However, we can make progress.  And progress is something that is sometimes hard to measure.  Tests are unreliable.  The majority of the global educational establishment agrees on this and has FOR YEARS, yet we still used standardized tests as the gold standard.  Why?  It's because we're either 1) too lazy to invent a more effective method of assessment or 2) we're not creative enough to think of and implement another solution.

That said, there are a plethora of things that contribute to and show teacher effectiveness outside of standardized test scores.  A teacher's job is to provide instruction, is it not?  So when we're evaluating the effectiveness of a teacher, shouldn't we specifically look at the instruction, not just the results of that instruction?  Does the teacher plan lessons that align with the curriculum?  And more importantly, can you get your hands on those lesson plans?  If not, if the teacher does not plan, or if the same lesson plan has been used for the last ten years, the teacher should not be considered to be planning effective lessons.

Is the teacher delivering the instruction effectively?  This is a big one.  And there's NO way to answer this question without physically being present in the classroom.  I think it's important to define "effectively".  Does effectively mean that every child "gets it" 100% of the time?  Does "effectively" mean every student masters the content during the lesson and passes the subsequent test?  A more effective definition of "effectively" would be one that means each student is given the best chance possible for success through proper classroom management and differentiated instruction.  These are very teachery words for those not in the industry, but basically it means, if you are a good teacher, your classroom will be one where the environment is conducive to learning and that you are doing everything in your power to reach each of your students at whatever current level they may be.  You are giving them the best possible chance of success in mastering the content you are presenting.  Now.  Do they master it all each and every day.  Never.  (Well, at least mine don't.)  But part of differentiating instruction is evaluating, knowing who's struggling, and giving extra or different support to those students.  That is a mark of an excellent teacher. Will these children totally master the content even after extra support?  Some of them will, some of them won't.  But every one of them will make progress.

These are things we should include in evaluating teacher effectiveness.  Just as we cannot expect all of our students to learn in exactly the same ways, we cannot simply apply a one-size fits all teacher evaluation system by looking at numbers on a graph and saying this person is a good teacher or this person is not. 

And as much stress, nausea, and general anxiety I have about the current state of education in the United States, and about the thousands upon thousands of teachers who are currently losing their jobs across the country, if handled effectively, this economic crisis could become a catalyst to making sure the best and most effective teachers are staffing our schools.  And that could be the beginning of an educational revolution in our country.  And as much of me that can be excited at this point is excited about that possibility.

Even if I'm one of the ones that gets the ax.


Kimberly said...

I agree with this! I think the evaluation of teachers needs to be based more on effectiveness, instruction, and the other things that make a good teacher great. The greatest teachers never seem to know they are great until 15 years later when a student comes back and attributes his or her status as a world-renowned surgeon to that person's instruction. Sometimes a teacher's job is to prepare and engage students so that even if they don't "get it" now, that seed of interest or knowledge is there. (Wow...I apparently feel strongly about this!!)
Haha...great post! I found you through BlogHer and loved reading!

Ashly said...

Thanks so much, Kimberly! :)