Siding with the powerless: What happens when you tie teachers’ careers to test scores

Thinking about so much this week. I am so incensed reading about the collapse of the Philadelphia school system due to Corbett starving the district, while at the same time, finding out how the new teacher evaluation system will actually play out in my school. (Check out this great article about Ravitch Vs. Rhee and Philly schools. )

As a quick reminder: 20 percent of teacher’s evaluations are now based on test scores. 60 percent is based on observations. The remaining 20 percent is based on a “local measure”. It turns out that contrary to what we were led to believe, our school has almost no say in choosing our local measure ( 20 percent of a teacher’s rating), and that as a result, 40 percent of our rating will be tied to both third grade test scores and to reading levels in each class. This has already led some teachers to consider assigning students lower reading levels so that they show enough growth by the end of the year, because both special needs students and high level readers are less likely to jump many levels over the course of the year. And, as I mentioned last week, even teachers who do not teach third grade math or ELA will get rated based on these scores. This is clearly unfair, and more important, is not at all constructive. That the union let this materialize is a travesty and makes me wonder if the UFT is surrendering in the wrong battles. Giving principals more leeway in hiring and firing is much more appealing to me than the havoc this system is going wreak in classrooms across the city.

In doing some research, I found this post by Carol Burris about yet another way that the new system lacks common sense. To summarize, new and developing teachers and extremely likely to be terminated as a result of this system, which could lead to extremely high turn-over and instability in schools.   The real flaw in this new system, however, goes beyond the clear lack of thought that went into creating it, beyond unfairness and impracticality.  Rather, the real flaw is that the new system is tied to test scores in the first place.

Why is it such a problem for teachers to be evaluated based on standardized test scores?

First, the tests are developmentally inappropriate for elementary school students. It is a rare 8 year old that can sit and focus through almost ten hours of testing over three days. On top of that, any parent can tell you that kids develop at different rates, and what one child is ready for at 8, another won’t be able to do until 10.  And then, of course, the actual tests are developmentally inappropriate and removed from any real life experiences kids have had or will have. One section from the third grade ELA test last year, the test that kids tanked on, involved close reading of an absurdly long and  boring story about going fishing and then answering at least 10 questions about it, including remembering specific kinds of fish mentioned in the passage. Successful, employed adults I know had a hard time answering the questions. This also illustrates how tests are often biased against urban students: it is a rare Brooklyn kid who has heard of trout, pufferfish, pike and whatever else was included in the “story.”

Second, tests are created for adult ease of use, not to allow kids to truly show what they know. It requires much more thought, creativity and organization to address an open ended math or writing prompt than to select one of four answers and color in a bubble. Teachers who observe and conference with their students daily know so much more about their strengths and weaknesses than a test could show. But it is easier to grade bubble tests than assess open ended work or talk to students. On top of that, pencil to paper tests only evaluate a fraction of the skills and knowledge that students possess and simultaneously devalue the artistic, musical, kinetic, and creative talents of students and teachers by prioritizing linguistic and mathematical intelligence.

Third, tests and consequently, the new teacher evaluation system, are biased against low-income urban students. Think lots of questions about farm animals and going fishing. Also, and most important, the main determinant of a child’s test score is family income level: AKA poverty. So by tying teacher ratings to test scores, the new evaluation system is punishing teachers who choose to work with low income students, and may keep teachers from even applying to these schools in the first place. It’s already difficult working in a Title I school because the students demand so much more work and attention than their privileged counterparts. Now, teachers in low income schools may be forced to grapple with tremendous job insecurity from year to year. Likewise, low income children can be expected to experience more instability as well, with new and developing teachers being terminated and then replaced again and again.

And why can’t teachers in low income schools just work harder to boost test scores? Well because that is test-prep, not teaching. We want students to be happy, successful, productive problem solvers and innovators- you don’t get that by spending all day writing reading responses and completing math worksheets. And sadly, that is already happening across the city in both charter and DOE schools. Here is just one example: the new, untested, not NCTM approved Haughton Mifflin Go Math curriculum that NYC recommended this year for elementary schools features lots of circling and bubbling in, and very little actual problem solving or mathematical reasoning. More on this curriculum later- I’m only two weeks into teaching it, and already tearing my hair out, especially when I think about how much money it cost and all the things that those funds could have gotten into schools ( social workers, art supplies, trip funds, parent outreach?)

So what should be done? Forgetting the possibility of opting out of the common core and testing all together,(ah the dream) here is what Carol Burris suggested:

“First, get rid of the points and move to a professional evaluation rubric system, like the one adopted by Massachusetts, which does not insist that test scores trump all.  That system was approved by Race to the Top. Their system is designed to improve teachers, not fire them. “

There are of course some bad teachers out there, no one is denying that. There are less than competent people in every field. But tying their futures to test scores won’t make them any better. Doing so might even make them worse. Instead, evaluations and assessments should be tools for learning and reflection. Evaluators should be looking at classrooms and in student portfolios, meeting with teachers, children and administrators. That is how you find and cultivate exemplary teaching.

Moreover, if you want better teachers, put the pressure on the institutions that train and certify teachers, rather than scarlet lettering poorly trained first year teachers with a demoralizing ‘ineffective’ rating. Hire people with masters degrees from good schools, who student taught in multiple classrooms for a year and wrote critical theses about issues in education today, people who are in education because they are passionate and hard working, because they want to grow as educators and have a love of learning, not because they weren’t sure what to do after college.

What else can we do?

Well, in an article about teacher courage, Alfie Kahn wrote: “It pains me to say this, but professionals in our field often seem content to work within the constraints of traditional policies and accepted assumptions—even when they don’t make sense. Conversely, too many educators seem to have lost their capacity to be outraged by outrageous things. Handed foolish and destructive mandates, they respond only by requesting guidance on how to implement them. ”

It is painfully true. I’ve seen so many teachers shrug their shoulders and hunker down with each new absurd decree or system, including this one. No one wants to lose their job, but at the same time, no one goes into teaching for the money or the glory. We do it because we believe in ideals, because we care about children and the future. We need to start thinking more universally and critically and act on our principles.  Teachers need to start standing up for themselves and what they believe in. We need to start standing up for our students. I believe that teaching is a political act, and teachers and parents need to take action together to fight for what children need and deserve, including making it clear that schools need more than good teachers to be effective- we need funding, and resources, spaces, social workers, art, music and PE, science labs, literacy and math specialists, community outreach and support, better housing policies and so much more.  We need to recognize that there are countless amazing educators out there who have knowledge and experience of how kids learn, and instead of devaluing their experience and ideas, we need to lift them up and use what they know.

It takes courage to speak the truth to parents and administrators, to be open about what we know and believe. We need to shed the mentality of passive acceptance, of thinking about our own lives and our own jobs and that’s it. We can’t rely on the union anymore to address all the issues we hold dear. This isn’t just about teachers, it is about children and the heart and soul of education, about making sure that low-income students don’t lose their teachers every year.  Big things are happening.  SPEAK UP.

Freire quote of the day:

“Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral. ”

There is, in fact, no teaching without learning. ~ Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Freedom

It’s been a week, and such a relief to be able to worry about children instead of politics. I am never so focused as I am in the first weeks of a new school year. I put everything else in my life aside, because I know I will be working 12 or 13 hour days and forget to do anything that is unrelated to my classroom. This year, my first week was lovely.  For the first time I felt calm and confident in what needed to happen. Its only been a few years, but I feel I am at least at the point where I know what I need to work on, whereas in previous years I was trying to survive.  I was able to actually enjoy the kids, to delight in getting to know the strange and wonderful little people I am going to spend my year with. It already feels like we have a little community and we’re in a groove. Of course, I can already anticipate a multitude of challenges; in my second grade class we have students who don’t even know the alphabet, and students reading at a third grade level. We have students with supportive parents and a student whose mother seems to forget to bring her to school every few days. But so far, its been nice.

Lucky for me, the school I work at endorses the responsive classroom approach to the beginning of the school year; heavy on community building and teaching routines and social skills, rather than diving into academics. Instead of addressing behaviors as they arise due to frustration, stress, or attention seeking throughout the year, we work proactively to at once create a learning community in collaboration with the students, while also explicitly teaching all the non-cognitive skills that our students will need to handle the challenges that academics will bring.( For example: how to be a good partner, what to do when you feel upset, what kind of voice to use to help a friend)  We’re learning what they’re good at and what they are excited about- whether it is sharks, sunflowers, animals, field trips, the forest, jet planes, trains, singing or dancing. We’re making them feel important and heard, so they know they belong and can loosen up and take risks.   I am all about it. Of course, their are many policy makers who would rather I stand in the front of the classroom on day 1, give a variety of commands and have my students copy something off the board.  And in fact amidst this first week honeymoon, impacts of the inanity of New York education politics have managed to rudely tarnish my excitement about a new class and a new year. We found out yet another absurd manifestation of the new teacher evaluation system, and I voted in a mayoral primary election with a dearth of meaningful education platforms.  But before I eventually tackle the absurdity of the new teacher evaluation system, I need to lay a little groundwork.

This week as I was thinking about how to create a productive community in my classroom, while meeting my students and already seeing their strengths and where they need support, I thought about what students and teachers share. Teaching is a learning profession. Freire again- “Whoever teaches learns in the act of teaching, and whoever learns teaches in the act of learning.”  No matter how experienced you are, you can always get better, no matter how much you know, you can always know more, no matter how many students you’ve worked with, they should all feel brand new and revelatory. Kids’ and teachers’ needs are not all that different. And sadly, the new teacher evaluation system in New York  is a mirror image of what ED reform is imposing on our kids- top down, narrow, inappropriate and arbitrary assessments to as a way to improve “performance.” When really, teaching and learning is not a performance, but a process. Nor is it something that improves merely by virtue of being assessed, ( particularly when the assessments are developmentally inappropriate and only serve to breed frustration, dissatisfaction, and disengagement on the part of both teachers and students.) We are all learners. We are all in process. We learn through each other, we learn by being supported and empowered, by having colleagues or friends we respect notice what we do well and offer suggestions for what we find hard.

Teachers don’t need to be evaluated, they need to be cultivated. Any good teacher knows that when a student is struggling, you don’t put them on probation, and you certainly don’t do so when they’re actually doing great, but had a hard time with one test.  Good teachers, good learners and good colleagues are reflective, they consider the whole person in context, they problem solve, they offer encouragement and support.  The new teacher evaluation system does the opposite. And of course, the people it will hurt the most will be children, especially, as with this whole movement, low-income and minority children. Who’s going to want to teach them? Either you spend years adhering to mind numbing and developmentally inappropriate test prep curriculum, or you strive to inspire and cultivate and you get booted and diminished when your students struggle with the dense 10 hours of testing they are forced to endure each year.

In the new system, every teacher gets a rating that is based on a score out of 100. PE, Art, Music and Science teachers get their rating in part based on 3rd-5th graders scores on the ELA test. So, even though they don’t teach ELA, a part of their rating derives from those scores. There’s more. Early childhood teachers, ( pre-K to 2) also are rated in part based on performance on the 3rd grade test. I know. Fortunately for the advocates for this system, the monster they’ve created is so weighted with jargon and provision within provision, that no one understands the process enough to oppose it. I’m going to do some research and then present a fuller picture soon. How does this thoughtless means of evaluation serve teachers and learners? How does it help teachers to be reflective and critical, to grow professionally?

I hate to end with negativity so here is a counter snapshot: A guided discovery in my classroom of plants and natural objects like shells, feathers, pine cones etc. One special needs student with memory and aggression issues, sitting quietly by herself and petting a blue rabbits foot fern while quietly singing to it to help it grow. At another table, a student who didn’t realize until the boy sitting next to him mentioned it, that pine cones originated in trees. The huge smiles on my kids’ faces as they jumped up and down when we sang the popcorn song for the first time during morning meeting. POP!

That’s all for now.

Why I teach/ Why I post

I am a teacher. I taught in a private school. I taught in a Charter school. Now, I have entered the NYC DOE to teach second grade in a public elementary school. I want to teach in a public school because I want to teach kids who need it; who are climbing over a mountain of obstacles to grasp on to an elusive education; a promise of success, fulfillment and happiness, to grow and thrive. But, throughout, and now more than ever, I feel mired in a daily battle for what I believe. Each day I go to school and interact with my students, I am fighting against far reaching, indiscriminately implemented and applied federal, state and city policies. Decisions made by people who are politicians, consultants, leaders in business but not educators, by people who send their own children to elite progressive private schools. I  still hope that a good school led by passionate and knowledgeable educators could serve as a buffer against the onslaught of education reform policies, but the truth is, these policies impact me, my students and all teachers and learners in public education on a daily, even hourly basis. And of all students, it is of course, low-income, minority students who are unfairly bearing the brunt of these botched politics because the playing field is anything but even. Education needs change. But the reform movement is regressive and reactionary, it looks to the past rather than the future. What we need is transformation and empowerment, not reform.

I am writing and will continue to write not because I am tied to one party line: I think there are pros and cons to the teacher’s union and to charter schools, even to tests. I am writing because of children whom I love and don’t yet know, who I desperately want to empower and inspire, and who instead are being dehumanized, ignored and almost forgotten in the grand debates and financial exchanges that have become the world of education. Education has been hijacked by politicians, corporations, testing companies, and even well meaning reformers who are creating a system that serves adults with power rather than the children. It is time for teachers, children and parents to fight back.

For my first post, I wanted to paint a real life picture of what learning is and can be in schools. Start with the dream and build from there. I am lucky to have had moments of educational bliss already- those moments when everyone is engaged and excited, when students and teachers are collaborating and you see the fruits of your labors suddenly manifest in another corner.

Before the picture, the ideas. When I teach and think about what I want to give my students, I think big: I want to help them to be good people- to be compassionate, altruistic and productive, to be able to sustain themselves and participate in communities. I want them to be open-minded and curious, ever critical and thoughtful, responsible and honest, reflective about themselves and their place in the world, creative and empowered. I want them to love the learning process, the questioning and expansion of self. I want to give them tools to handle anger, frustration and stress, to express their ideas, needs, and emotions, to solve problems of all kinds, to be flexible and innovative. In short, I am thinking of qualities, intellectual and emotional, academic and social. We don’t know what the future will hold, but I want them to be able to dive in, while caring for others and themselves. This big picture informs how I teach every day- to acquire these qualities, to become these people, students need to be active, engaged, agents of their own learning, and they need to learn a multitude of cognitive and social-emotional skills. A gaping hole in our education system is the absence of emphasis on social-emotional skills. Research has shown that it is these skills: problem solving, being able to handle frustration, resiliency and self control ( much harder to acquire for students who experience stress in early childhood due to let’s say, poverty) that actually determine success. (Check out Paul Tough)  And kids don’t learn these skills from filling in multiple choice worksheets. But let me return to the dream.

Some dreamy moments from teaching my wonderful first graders last year at a title-1 charter with an amazing vision of environmental learning in Brooklyn: We used Responsive Classroom, which I am sure I will write more about in future posts. One tactic I learned from our school’s coach was called conflict corner. It is a method in which children( and adults why not) can resolve conflicts by taking turns sharing and listening in a very structured way. And boy did my kids need it. My students’ social emotional needs were through the roof, with aggression and fear escalating the smallest of conflicts into full blown fights. Only 5 or 6 years old,  many had already experienced so much stress, trauma, sadness and instability that at the slightest frustration they would run away, shut down or explode. So we taught them conflict corner. We modeled it, and discussed it and the kids practiced it, giggling away. And for many kids, it worked. We had of course done lots of other work to build their social-emotional skills, with morning meeting, community building games and songs, collective problem solving, positive reinforcement and so much more. But conflict corner they could do all by themselves. The aggrieved child would tap a friend on the shoulder, they’d find a good spot and go from there. During choice time one day, ( expect future posts about the desperate need for more choice and play in schools) a few girls at the science station were looking at the snails. As I walked closer, I could hear them acting out the phrases for conflict corner. The snails were resolving an argument apparently.  Aside from being adorable, this was also an affirmation of how kids learn: with each other, through play, over time, and in an integrated and interdisciplinary context.


Daisy and Tree-Tree, our classroom snails resolving their issues.

2nd dreamy moment and then I’m done for the day. At the same school, we were fortunate to go on trips almost every week. As a result, we did a lot of teaching into trips and springing from what we discovered. On one of our last trips to Prospect park, we had been thinking about birds in spring. After observing some lakeside bird life, we ( ideally it would be they, still working on that!) decided to look for a place where we could pretend to be birds and build birds nests. The class settled on a grove on pine trees with lots of building materials: pine needles, sticks, leaves, wet soil. And they started building all kinds of amazing nests, each with it’s own manner of bird inhabitants, food sources and family history, acting out concepts they had learned in science and social studies, making connections to our studies of bugs and plants, and fluidly collaborating to figure out how to make their structures hold and stand. And they were SO engaged. It had taken a whole year for them to be able to do this, to be productive and collaborative spontaneously, to be able to work with every kid in the class, to draw on so many things they had learned about, and then take it back to school and build on the experience even more. People think progressive education is  loose and easy, but for kids to get to the point where they can make choices, be independent and create things and ideas for themselves requires a tremendous amount of structure, thought, practice and explicit teaching of many non-academic skills, all of which I hope to  hone in my own teaching. I want moments like this every day.

Next up: Teacher evaluation; Empowerment vs. Standards and Assessment