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Thursday, December 23, 2010

Teacher experience does matter

By Monty Neill, interim executive director at The National Center for Fair & Open Testing, known as FairTest.

According to Bill Gates and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, teacher experience does not matter very much. Duncan says we should not "pay teachers based on their educational credentials and seniority" -- that is, knowledge and experience. Gates also recently denigrated teacher experience and masters’ degrees. He cited Jennifer R King’s literature review, which shows that experience does matter, but mostly that which they gain in their first five years of teaching.

But here’s the rub: They rely entirely on standardized test scores for evidence, even though the tests fail to provide adequate evidence for drawing these conclusions.

Even Duncan agrees that currently existing state tests over-emphasize basic skills and do not assess many essential aspects of learning. (Duncan’s proposed "solution," the multi-state consortia tests, is not likely to help very much, nor will “little value to the addition” uses of those tests.)

The tests are beatable with test prep schemes, for which a teacher does not need deep subject knowledge or an understanding of how each of her students best learns. A revolving door of minimally-trained, low-paid new teachers delivering from a script may be able to boost scores on low-level tests nearly as well as more experienced teachers. Is that what we want from our schools? Is it OK if it mostly happens to low-income children, where teaching to the test is most common?

Surveys have found that parents, communities, even legislators want far more from their schools than only academics – never mind academics reduced to test prep. Their goals for schools include basic skills, critical thinking, arts and literature, preparation for skilled work, social skills, citizenship, and physical and emotional health. (See Richard Rothstein’s Grading Education, Ch 2, for one example). Teachers must help our children develop these areas of knowledge, skill and competence.

Unless the U.S. educational goal is merely to boost scores on low-level tests, we need answers to more important questions before we evaluate the worth of teacher experience or degrees.

These questions include: Are teachers with more experience better than novices at ensuring deep understanding, critical thinking, and the ability to apply knowledge? Do their capacities grow beyond the first five or ten years of experience?

Do more experienced teachers help students acquire the full range of outcomes Rothstein listed? Do they work more effectively toward comprehensive education goals with students in poverty, those with disabilities or limited English proficiency? Do they better help students become more engaged with their learning? Are they more successful in classrooms with a great deal of social, cultural and economic diversity?

Can they better provide the ‘soft’ skills that research increasingly finds are essential to later success in life? I expect in many cases the answer would be yes, significantly so.

Since test scores don’t tell us what we need to know, we need studies that look carefully at actual student work, as well as the long-term results of schooling. This can be done, but policymakers have shied from doing it, content to rely on inexpensive low-level tests.

Finally, the attacks on experienced teachers seem more motivated by politics and budgets than by research evidence. In a period of sharp budget cuts, the claim that teacher experience does not matter is increasingly used to justify the hiring of under-prepared novices to replace experienced teachers. The novices are expected to use scripted curricula to train, not educate, their mostly low-income and minority-group students, in order to boost test scores. If test scores rise like hot air balloons, that will be presented as “evidence” of success.

These issues raise broader questions about the goal of schooling. Is it to be merely employment driven functionality, for many students just to fit requirements of jobs with little cognitive demand? Or does this nation want educated students who can participate thoughtfully in civic and social issues and be lifelong learners? Those questions are not technical and cannot be answered by changes in standardized test scores. They require the consideration and actions of an involved citizenry.

Taken from the Washington Post:

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