Appeal to Education Writers: Evaluate Opinions
The Education Writers Association has gathered its members in New Orleans for their 2011 annual seminar, and thanks to their Twitter activity, it’s possible to gain some sense of the conversations going on there. They have been, and will continue to be, deluged with information from all sides of any debate in education today, and I know they have a challenging job sorting through all of the noise and trying (almost all of them) to offer accurate and balanced reporting. I’m not writing to them today to offer an argument on any of the issues of the day, per se, but rather to encourage them to view all of the claims critically.
I’ve written about this concern in the past (“What’s the Story?”). I was interviewed for an article about the use of test scores for teacher evaluation. The reporter spent a considerable amount of time seeking my point of view and asking some excellent clarifying questions, and I appreciated her time and her thoroughness in our conversation. What troubled me in the final article was that, despite my pleas to the reporter to look at the evidence behind my opinion, it was still reported as my opinion – without the evidence behind it, or the much stronger corroborating opinion of experts in the field. (Teacher evaluation is a topic of great interest to us here at Accomplished California Teachers: see our policy report from last year).
It happened again, in a way, a couple months later. I was interviewed for this article on teachers and master’s degrees. I have a master’s degree in education, and I shared with the reporter a variety of ways in which that degree had improved my preparation to enter teaching, and my subsequent practice. The reporter next spoke with a colleague of mine, only moments before this colleague taught a lesson almost directly related to coursework she’d completed for her master’s degree in English. Don’t bother looking for us in the article, however. We didn’t make the (editors’?) cut. Instead, readers were offered an article about teachers and teaching, citing Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, and various researchers and economists – and no teachers. Is there another profession where the practitioners are at the bottom of the list of people to talk to about the profession? Do the opinions of these non-educators stand up to scrutiny from within the classroom? Upon what (simplistic) assumptions do their (limited) methods depend? Upon what (narrow) data have they based their (broad) claims, and what is the relevance of that data in various teaching contexts?
Round 3 – back to test score misuse, and an article I had no part in. Last week the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the National School Boards Association has backed the use of test scores to evaluate teachers. The article explains the rationale for the NSBA’s position, but does not evaluate that rationale, nor does the reporter suggest any distinction between the terms “test scores” and “student performance” in general. There are quotes from a teacher and board member of our state union, but again, the story is that the teacher and union oppose the idea, based on their view of the research. Would it be too much to ask a reporter to question both sides, to analyze and evaluate the debate rather than just show the two sides?
So I wrote a letter to the San Francisco Chronicle. They haven’t published it there, so I offer it to you here as my final thought for the day, dedicated the good folks at the Education Writers’ Association.
Friday’s article about the use of student tests in teacher evaluations should do more than report the claims made in this debate. The past few years have seen many iterations of articles like this: politicians want to use tests to evaluate teachers, while the teachers’ union opposes the idea.
It would be helpful for all concerned about this issue if your reporting would include the underlying evidence, and the opinions of neutral experts.
On one side, politicians, school boards, and others have the intuitive sense that standardized tests provide useful evidence of teacher effectiveness. They ignore their inability to distinguish the effects of everything else in a school or in a student’s life that might influence performance.
On the other side, the following organizations have issued policy statements or reports stating that standardized tests that haven’t been designed and validated to measure teacher effectiveness should not be used for that purpose: The American Psychology Association, The National Council on Measurement in Education, The American Education Research Association, and The Economics Policy Institute. The U.S. Department of Education has also found error rates in excess of 25% when attempting to determine teacher quality by student test scores.
It’s been said that everyone is entitled to their opinion, and you’re entitled to report it. But they’re not entitled to their own facts, and it would help if you would report which side has an opinion backed by facts.