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. ”


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

  1. Dana Robbins says:

    wow! Very persuasive!

  2. NJ Teacher says:

    Your analysis is breathtaking. I stand up every day to my administration. I am emotionally and physically exhausted. No one hears what I am saying. It is a loosing battle against scripted curriculum and top down management business models.

    • You are amazing and I would love to hear more about what goes on in your school. It shouldn’t be a losing battle. Maybe I’m naive, but I think we need to advocate for ourselves and our students and expose the connections between school reform and business. The people with the real power are the parents- the voters, and I’ve been thinking about ways to organize with them in schools. Its tricky, but I really think if parents and teachers come together we can reverse some of these policies. Maybe if enough people start thinking about it we can come up with something. Keep in touch!

  3. Katherine says:

    I do miss hearing all of this from you daily :).
    I agree with all of what you are saying. There is too much pressure on the wrong areas of education. Not enough focus on students or the classroom and too much on testing and common core.
    It is only going to hurt teaching and education which ultimately hurts students. There is not enough emphasis on what students should be doing developmentally and too much on where non-educators think students should be doing.

  4. Rae says:

    Your passion is amazing and your students are beyond lucky to have you as their teacher!

  5. Steve says:

    Finally got a chance to read this post and comments. It is clear that you all are not alone in the effort to best educate our children. However, it is not enough to be against something ie. the common core; teaching to the test; or being evaluated based on test results. Is there a viable educational manifesto out there to replace the current top down system?

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