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Monday, March 21, 2011

Education as a political prop

From the Washington Post's Answer Sheet

By Valerie Strauss
The news out of Washington D.C. offers evidence that calls for test-based teacher evaluations persist, ironically against the weight of evidence: “Sen. Joseph Lieberman is drafting a school reform bill that would tie a portion of federal education dollars to a requirement that states implement robust teacher evaluations, with student test scores being a major factor in rating teacher performance.”

Politicians have long used funding to mandate policy–often with little logic (consider the use of highway funds to force raising the drinking age to 21 under Ronald Reagan). In short, politicians often fail us because the power of the purse strings allows inexpert politicians to drive public policies regardless of the available data or the expertise of those practicing the fields impacted.

What frustrates and even angers educators the most about the current calls for accountability and teacher evaluations based on student outcomes–specifically test scores–is that those calls come alongside praise the school system in Finland and other countries that in fact have succeeded without increasing testing or linking teacher evaluations and pay to student test scores.

PISA international comparisons show that poverty is the primary distinction between U.S. outcomes and outcomes in other countries. Further, when Finland’s education system and practices are examined, they are unlike any of the current calls for education reform coming from our corporate or political elite:

“Teachers in Finland can choose their own teaching methods and materials. They are experts of their own work, and they test their own pupils. . . . Our educational society is based on trust and cooperation, so when we are doing some testing and evaluations, we don’t use it for controlling [teachers] but for development. We trust the teachers. It’s true that we are all human beings, and of course there are differences in how teachers test pupils, but if we look at the OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] evaluation–PISA, for example–the learning differences among Finnish schools and pupils are the smallest in OECD countries, so it seems that we have a very equal system of good quality.”

These comments from Henna Virkkunen, Finland’s Minister of Education, are dramatically different from anything coming from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan or the other self-appointed reformers such as Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee.

I spent the first 18 years of my career in education as an English teacher in a small, rural high school in upstate South Carolina. From the beginning, I considered myself an evidence-based teacher who used student outcomes (primarily essays and journals) as data to drive my instruction.

When student outcomes were weak, I often felt responsible and immediately wondered where I failed and how I could do better. I was driven by my own sense of professional accountability.

Once I had written extensive feedback on students’ essays, I held conferences with those students and started with a simple question: “Did you try on this essay?”

If the student said no, I followed up with: “OK, then this is just evidence that you didn’t try, which doesn’t do us much good. Could you submit a work and try so I can help?”

But if the student said she or he did try, I followed up with: “Then let’s look at where I failed you.” And we talked through the essay, leading to the student being allowed to revise as often as possible. We were there for the student to learn–not to give that student a grade or to raise any test scores.

Another element of my profession from the beginning was my commitment to best practice. I was diligent about knowing my field and then just as diligent about making those best practices real in the classroom.

Ironically, the course in which I had the greatest professional autonomy–similar to what Finland affords all its teachers–was Advanced Placement (A.P.) Literature and Composition (including the students who were already advantaged over many of their peers). In A.P., I eventually implemented a choice component to the texts those students read since decades of evidence show reading choice to be powerful.

I should note that I was fortunate to teach in a school that encouraged as many students as possible into our A.P. program. We did not implement any gate-keeping policies, and I was not held accountable for my students’ scores on the A.P. test.

What happened the first year I implemented choice in my A.P. course? The lowest scores my students had ever produced–a mere 25% scoring 3 or above (most years the 3 or above percentage was in the high 40s with the high being just over 60%).

If I were Gates, Duncan, or Lieberman, I would have concluded that choice had failed these students–that my professional autonomy to implement this practice had failed the students. But test data are not that simple.

I was fortunate that I had gathered extensive qualitative data from those same students–asking questions about what they chose to read, why they made the choices, and how the experience had impacted them. From those surveys I discovered some powerful patterns that helped me as a teacher far more than the A.P. scores:

• Students who have had little or no choice in their schooling struggle when afforded choice. Several students admitted in their responses that they had randomly chosen works because they didn’t believe their choices would be honored. I learned that students needed to be taught how to make choices.

• Students afforded choice find the learning experience more valuable and are likely to embrace habits of learning that will benefit them throughout their lives. Students overwhelmingly expressed having the best reading experiences they had ever had in school, and noted they had discovered writers whose works they planned to read by choice outside of school. I learned that affect matters as much as cognition.

• Standardized tests are necessarily narrow, thus rendering their value for informing teaching and learning extremely limited. Their validity for labeling students and evaluation teachers is just as misleading. I learned that assessment that supports teaching and learning trumps assessments that label.

Choice had not failed these students, and neither had I. If plans such as those promoted by Lieberman or Gates had been in place, however, I would have been labeled a failure–despite that experience being pivotal in raising my quality as a teacher over the coming years, despite the experience clearly producing unique and deep learning for my students (learning masked by the test scores).

Teachers and students working in low-stakes environments that honor their autonomy are likely to thrive academically and personally, but they are also benefiting from the exact conditions that the U.S. claims to value. High-stakes, authoritarian, and punitive environments are the antitheses of the life conditions we assert public education is essential for supporting (and unlike anything being practiced in Finland).

Evidence from student outcomes provides a rich opportunity to examine what a student knows and whether or not that student was engaged (or even had the opportunity to be engaged–many students answered my question about trying with: “No, I didn’t try. I had to work late every night this week”), but calls for accountability and teacher evaluation tied in any way to test data can only accomplish one thing–failure for students, teachers, and our society.

The only self-serving winners are the politicians who fail to use evidence themselves and persist in using education as a political prop.

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