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Sunday, June 5, 2011

How testing is destroying education

From the Tempered Radical

by Bill Ferriter

Back in April, I spent a few minutes with one of my professional heroes: Dick Sagor—whose work on action research has been a direct attempt to raise the professional status and credibility of educators.

Our conversation was anything but optimistic, though. Dick was convinced that the teaching profession in America was at a turning point and that our nation was going to head in one of three directions:

(1). We’re going to completely abandon formal teacher preparation programs and rely on TFA style staffing patterns—kind of like Switzerland’s volunteer army or the Peace Corps.

(2). We’re going to completely strip down teaching and script the crap out of it so that we can hire warm bodies instead of professional educators to staff our schools.

(3). We’re going to reinvest in education to make it a true profession, paying teachers richly, but at the same time, expecting them to be well-trained and capable.

Considering the miserable direction that conversations around education have taken in the kill-em-all-right-wing world we live in, which of those scenarios do you think we’re likely to see play out?

Things got worse for me this week, though.

You see, I ran Dick’s thoughts past an AMAZING teacher and good friend of mine—let’s call her Jill—who happens to live in New York—a state that is sucking hard from the testing teat.

Check out her reply and tell me that our blind faith in testing as a tool for evaluating teachers isn’t destroying educators—but more importantly, education—in America:

Boy, I am living, breathing and eating this thinking right now.

New York's Board of Regents just made it impossible to be an "effective" teacher under its new evaluation system if your test scores are too low.

Districts are now also allowed to count state scores as 40% of a teacher's evaluation. This is using the value-added methodology (25-36% error rate) on tests not designed for growth in the first place.

16 first tier education professors, including Linda Darling Hammond, and 8 former NY State Teachers of the Year, have contacted the Board with their grave concerns.

They were ignored.

I teach the neediest cohort of kids on my grade level in my building.

Fully half of my content is standards-based and crucial to kids-- and untested.

There's a strong argument that the critical thinking skills I *do* teach actually *depress* scores based on multiple choice.

I have been a teacher for 13 years. A year ago, my struggle was "How long should I stay in the classroom in order to make a education Ph.D. worthwhile?"

Now, the danger to my family's security is so great that I'm thinking about getting out of education completely.

How can I, in good conscience, live year to year hanging my pedagogy on my test scores so I don't lose my job?

How can I even justify a doctorate, when all I wanted to do with it was get back into schools? Academia? Where are the jobs there, without dragging my family all over creation?

You know, I'd make a great nurse.

And I'd get paid for my teaching and research in that field. Along with a little damn professional respect.

Too bad we'd go fifty thousand into debt to retrain me and lose my salary for a year.


Jill’s thinking is at once valid AND heartbreaking, isn’t it. Systems of teacher evaluation that are built around testing—which the Shanker Blog recently described as “designed to fail”—hold teachers accountable ONLY for content that can be tested.

In subjects like language arts, that leaves out huge swaths of critical skills—crafting persuasive arguments, engaging in collaborative dialogue, making critical judgments based on information—that are included in the required curriculum.

Which forces teachers into an almost untenable situation.

We can choose to protect our jobs, crafting every lesson around the small handful of simple skills that ARE tested or we can protect our students, focusing our time on the kinds of skills that matter—and that are a part of our curriculum—but will do us no good when it comes to our own evaluations.

I call this walking the moral tightrope.

What choice would you make if you were in Jill’s shoes?

Would you push your principal to fill your classes with easier kids so that you could worry less about test results and more about teaching and learning?

Would you walk away from challenging schools completely, settling in the suburbs where you knew you could count on having kids who have spent a ton of time in museums and on educational vacations with their parents?

Would you strip down your lessons, focusing only on those skills that you knew were on the test even if it meant ignoring the kinds of skills that would matter to your kids later?

Could you live with yourself if you made any of those choices?

More importantly, can we live with ourselves as parents, as community leaders, and as elected officials knowing that OUR choices have forced teachers into these kinds of corners?

Is this REALLY what we want education in America to become?

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