Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Some common sense

The reform movement has focused so far on  student testing as a way to evaluate the quality of teaching.  Through the use of value-added methodology, teachers can be evaluated based on the "additional learning" they contribute to a students overall progress.   It controls for out of school factors such as family income and race in order to try and isolate the teacher effect on student learning.   While still imperfect, the process is able to "rank" teachers' effectiveness, albeit with a rather broad range of uncertainty.

This testing based approach has so far been received with a rather wide degree of skepeticism from many teachers and their unions who represent them.   And increased reliance on testing is indeed laced with problems.   States often don't have the quality of resources to make high quality tests.    Testing takes time- often at the expense of instruction.    And high-stakes testing also has the effect of narrowing the focus of instruction.

However, as I read this article from the value-added proponent LA Times, it struck me that if teachers and their unions were able to come up with their own system for determing teacher quality- this testing fetish would likely go just as fast as it came.   The fact of the matter, is that the public, as well as many teachers, are ready to consider the quality of teaching that is going on inside of school buildings.   Too many parents have had bad experiences with ineffective teachers.   Too many teachers know that not every teacher works as hard as the next.   And too many administrators know what teachers and parents know but are unable, or unwilling, to do anything about it.   Testing takes these stakeholders out of the equation.   Testing provides an "objective" approach for evaluatiing teachers.

If teachers want to avoid the testing wave, they must embrace their own systems of reform.   We must embrace evaluation systems that offer more than a dichotomous satisfactory/unsatisfactory rating system.   We must encourage and strive for excellence in the classroom- and reward those who are not only the highest quality, but who take on extra responsibilities.    We can no longer simply ignore teacher quality, unless that is, we want our quality to be determined by student performance on a test.   We do so at our own peril.

Quality teaching matters- much more so than new programs or initiatives.   So the question is, do we want to recognize this quality or have someone else, or something else, do this for us?  From the LA Times:

Since 2003, Markham has had dozens of the district's least effective instructors, as measured by the analysis of their students' progress on standardized tests. Seventy percent of the school's English and math teachers have ranked well below the Los Angeles Unified School District's average in effectiveness. Fewer than 10 Markham teachers have been in the district's top 20%, and most left the school within three years.

There are thousands of Markhams across the country, schools whose low test scores have triggered wave after wave of reform efforts over decades, mostly in vain.

"It's not a lack of new initiatives, it's too many initiatives, and no sense of what's working," said Robert Manwaring, a senior policy analyst at the Washington, D.C., think tank Education Sector who has studied turnaround efforts at Markham and other schools. "They don't use data to inform those decisions — they use a gut feeling or get marching orders from higher up."

 The LA Times, rightly or wrongly, can make claims about teacher quality in a way that teachers can't.   It is time for this to change.  It is time for teachers to decide what quality teaching is.   And when we do, not only will teachers be better off, but the public and the students we serve will be better off.   The choice is ours.

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