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Monday, May 23, 2011

What teachers need

From the Washington Post's Answer Sheet

By Horace B. Lucido

Sports referees make split second decisions. Judges and doctors do too, sometimes decisions that are life changing. Despite the subjective nature of their judgments, they are given respect and trust because of their training and experience, and we most often accept their decisions as valid.

This was once the same type of respect given to our public school teachers, the professionals who work in the classroom. But since the onslaught of state and national high-stakes testing regimes, too many teachers have been relegated to mechanized assembly line workers who have little say about the process but are required to follow the company line.

This is in direct conflict with the national Model Core Teaching Standards, which give the teacher responsibility to adjust, modify and pace the lessons according to the needs of their individual students. In today’s classrooms, though, teachers are taken out of the equation, becoming functionaries in a system of rigorous “manufacturing” controls by local, state and national directives.

High-stakes tests are said by proponents to provide “objective” truth whereas teachers’ opinions are classified as subjective and, thus, believed to be less trustworthy.

But test scores aren’t really objective. Who writes the test questions on these tests? People. Who chooses the test questions, the number of questions, the time allowed and when the test will be given? People. Who chooses the cut scores that decide where proficient or passing is? People. Who determines the meaning of these scores? People. These are all subjective not objective processes and most of these people are not even educators.

Teachers are trustworthy, trained professionals. Throughout the year they have a long sustained contact with their students. They know their students’ strengths and weaknesses. Their judgments are based on multiple sources of information over the entire school year and are more valid than the results of a few hours of annual high-stakes testing.

Why else would some states, like California, in their Testing Report to Parents, contain a clear disclaimer on the reporting sheet:

A note on using this information: A single test can provide only limited information. A student taking this same test more than once might score higher or lower in each tested area in a small range. You should confirm your child’s strengths and needs in these topics by reviewing classroom work, standards-based assessments, and your child’s progress during the year.

California’s Department of Education thus admits that assessments, assignments and progress provided by the classroom teacher should be the place to assess the real meaning and accuracy of standardized test results. But it doesn’t act like it really believes it because schools and districts are judged almost entirely by standardized test scores.

Which is a more valid predictor of student success in college: “objective” SAT and ACT college entrance scores or “subjective” teacher grades? Several studies have found that high school grades more accurately predict academic college achievement than any other factor. But still the standardized test remains dominant in admissions decisions.

In many detailed analysis of international tests such as the PISA and TIMSS, as well as our own national report card, National Assessment of Educational Progress, what is clearly evident is that poverty and the gap between the wealthy and the poor are the major contributors to test performance.

Our top-performing students far outnumber other nations. They come from schools that have less than 10% poverty. When we compare these students to the other participating nations we are among the leaders. No analysis in any of these studies points to poorer teaching in America than elsewhere.

So what are some key elements in teachers regaining the professional respect and trust they deserve? State, district and site practices and policies should:

1. Allow our teachers to use best practices in lesson design and pedagogy rather than canned programs that require rigorous adherence to step-by-step procedures without flexibility.

2. Permit teachers to adjust and modify their lessons to fit their students’ knowledge and skills rather than prepare them for high-stakes testing. Forgo all site and district high-stakes testing that is not required by state or national law. Do away with site and district tests used to prepare for more tests.

3. Test score ‘data’ can only become relevant when interpretation for individual students is corroborated by their teachers — individually or groups — who have evaluated said students using multiple sources of information. No judgments, placements or qualifications for individual students should be made solely on the basis of annual high-stakes testing.

4. Abolish all goal-setting based on annual high-stakes testing scores. This includes targeting students, teachers and schools for score improvement. Each should be evaluated using multiple sources of information before making plans for any corrective actions. Teams of educators, parents, psychologists and community members should be employed in developing helpful strategies.

5. Eliminate both scripted and paced lesson mandates. It is not in standardizing our classrooms that students learn to be creative and innovative-attributes that are highly prized in the world of work. Just as the diversity of plants and animals is the strength of the Earth’s ecosystem, our ‘edusystem’ should model that diversity in the manner in which teachers provide unique lessons using a variety of methods. Standardized sameness is not conducive to how students learn nor is it an attribute valued in our culture — otherwise we would all be driving only Fords and wearing only Levi jeans.

6. Eliminate all punitive policies that pronounce harsh judgments on students, teachers, schools and districts based on unchallenged interpretations of student test scores. Teacher evaluations of their students’ knowledge and skills should be the hallmark and cornerstone of valid conclusions about what students know and are able to do. They are the professionals in the classroom.

7. Codify regulations against administrative use of direct and/or implied threats of repercussions to those teachers who follow their State Standards for the Teaching Profession rather than curricular and/or pedagogy directives which utilize a script-like pacing without allowing for teacher modification and adjustments to fit the classroom clientele.

8. State Standards for the Teaching Profession should be the guiding principles for all teacher evaluation protocols used by administrators. Terminate ‘walkthroughs’. Thoughtful classroom visitations that respect the context of the lesson with pre and post discussion is vital to proper evaluation. Otherwise, walkthroughs become nothing more than “big brother” in a formal setting, keeping a critical eye rather than a supportive stance.

9. Teachers should have the freedom without fear of recrimination to express their professional opinions inside and outside of school sites regarding school practices and policies. Fellow teachers, parents and the larger community need to hear from the classroom professionals regarding the educational programs at their schools. This will provide open forums for discussion and the enhancement of the school environment.

10. Develop an enhanced parent-teacher communication protocol complete with translators for second language learner parents who are not fluent in English. Ongoing and frequent parent-teacher communication will both improve understanding and appreciation of the role each plays in the education of their students and also foster a greater mutual respect.

It will take a coalition of educators, parents and community members to take this agenda forward. Seeking changes in existing local, state and national educational mandates from school boards, legislatures and congress should be the focus of our actions. This should be of the highest priority. If we want the best for our students, then we need to have the best for their teachers. When they again have the highest community respect and when classroom autonomy is returned to them, students will then be able to experience the creativity of revived and energized instructors.

Stopping the culture of high-stakes testing will be the key step in initiating this process. How long will it take? That is up to us.

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