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Do You Understand My Job?

April 7, 2010

So here we are: teachers around the country accused of evading accountability, while lawmakers try to impose accountability and accept none, bemoaning the state of educational systems they’ve neglected for decades.

The people of Florida are witnessing the tragic emergence an education “reform” bill that threatens to compromise the integrity of the state’s assessment and accountability for years to come.  But it’s not just Florida.  Every time I hear a politician, pundit, or public citizen claim that they can tell from one test if a teacher is doing their job effectively, I know that they do not understand students, tests, or even the nature of my job.  I hope InterACT can become a blog that tackles those misconceptions, one or two at a time, in an effort to redirect public attention to measures that would actually improve teaching and learning.

Today’s question is “Do you understand my job?” It is directed to the test-loving lawmakers in Tallahassee, their brethren in Sacramento, and other legislatures around the nation.  It is directed to Barack Obama, Arne Duncan, and the cheerleaders raising their pom-poms for the Race to the Top.

If they offer the answer that my job is to teach my students according to the state standards for my subject and grade level, I agree.  How many of those people have seen those standards, or if they did see them, remember them?  Let me tell you about my job.  (And though I speak from the perspective of a California English teacher, I believe the arguments that follow can be generalized in some degree for other teachers as well).

I am charged with teaching English Language Arts to 9th and 10th graders.  The California English Language Arts Standards are divided into four categories, four modes of language use: reading, writing, listening, and speaking.  Out of those four, the California Standards Tests claim to assess a portion of the reading standards and a portion of the writing standards.  How about that?  The test provides a partial assessment of two of the four areas I’m supposed to teach.  Wouldn’t that be like assessing the work of a homebuilder based on floors, walls, and plumbing, while ignoring the ceiling, roof, and electricity?  You might assume that excellent or shoddy work in one area is likely to be replicated elsewhere, but you wouldn’t know.  And if you create an incentive – merit pay? – based on partial measures, aren’t you increasing the chances that the builder will cut corners in certain areas?  This type of thinking applied to teacher evaluation creates a perverse incentive to neglect teaching the standards that aren’t tested.

Pretty bad situation, isn’t it?  But I’m not done; it gets worse. The so-called assessment of writing is still a multiple choice test – not a writing assessment.  The state and the test publishers would like to believe that it’s valid to assess writing by presenting a student with flawed sentences or writing samples, and then asking questions about improving the writing.  But the standards say that students must be able to use, to develop, to synthesize, to revise – not to choose A, B, C, or D.  It is my contention that only a student’s writing can provide a valid assessment of that student’s writing.  (Otherwise, it must also be true that I am qualified to be a referee, coach, or point guard in the NBA, since I can answer a few multiple choice questions to show that I know the rules of the game, how to use substitutions to exploit a mismatch, and how to beat a full-court press or break down a zone defense).

The test publishers might respond that it is possible to use a multiple choice question to assess whether or not a student knows writing conventions (capitalization, punctuation, etc.).  Agreed.  But knowing and doing are not the same.  The standards say students write.  And here’s why policy makers need to ask questions in order to craft effective policy.  Ask any high school teacher, and most college instructors about student writing.  Ask yourself what you see in your daily reading.  Do writers who know the rules still end up writing with errors?  Of course they do.  Much of my effort as a teacher of writing centers around helping students produce writing that reflects their supposed knowledge of writing.  If you ask students to identify the proper usage of their, there, and they’re – no problem.  They will produce the correct answer on a test, and yet the error persists in their writing.  A multiple choice question about apostrophes may be simple for a student who still inexplicably writes that “most of the character’s in this novel feel alienated.”

Does the California Standards Test assess writing?  No.  Ultimately, we’re looking at a test that touches upon less than one-fourth of my job duties (see the red section in the pie chart), and yet some people would consider that a valid measure my teaching effectiveness.

What's covered by the CA Standards Test in English Language Arts?

In future posts, I hope to show you some of the standards along with some of the test questions (released items), and we’ll see if they really measure what they claim to measure.  I’ll show you some of the instructions on the test, and then show you how foolish you would be to follow those instructions.  Worse yet, students don’t actually need to read to excel at the reading test – kind of like there’s no writing in the writing assessment.  The ninth and tenth grade standards are identical, by the way, so I’ll compare the ninth grade test to the tenth grade test, and ask what exactly I’m supposed to teach my tenth graders to help them show growth in the event they excelled in ninth grade.

There are politicians and officials who will concede that state standardized tests are insufficient for teacher evaluations.  The test I propose for their leadership then is whether or not they operate according to political expediency and impose deeply flawed measures on us.  They have the option to look at alternatives, to adopt more robust and authentic measures of student achievement and teacher effectiveness, and provide systems and incentives that would constitute effective reform.

Note: Accomplished California Teachers, the network behind this blog, will shortly publish a set of policy recommendations to improve teacher evaluation.  Not limiting ourselves to pointing out the problems, we intend to lead the way towards solutions.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. April 8, 2010 4:43 pm

    That many people, including policymakers, do not understand the complexity or the real nature of teaching is painfully obvious. That part, I actually understand because good teachers (like anyone else who is skilled at what s/he does) make teaching look easy and natural. What I do not understand, is the resistance on the part of those who are not educators, but who are in charge of education policy, to listen to those who are.

    We are not totally clueless about what constitutes quality teaching. The National Board of Professional Teaching Standards, for one, has helped us define it and continues to sharpen that definition. But what is so hard about letting those who have demonstrated professional expertise be the ones to design curriculum standards, draft the laws, recommend policies. Isn’t that what we do in other areas of public policy? Why does it seem so hard to put people who have actually taught successfully into leading positions in the USDOE? The Surgeon General is a doctor; the Attorney General is a lawyer; the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is a member of the military–and usually none of those positions is filled by a novice in those fields or someone who does not have first hand experience. Duncan is closer to being an educator than Spellings was, but you still have to dig long and deep at DOE to find someone with real classroom experience.
    Sorry for the long rant…

    • Bill I. permalink
      April 8, 2010 8:35 pm

      Those who confuse good writing with what is simply good mechanics (spelling, grammar, punctuation) are both selling kids short and doing them a disservice. If you’re going to be testing writing, take writing samples and test what really matters most – generating, organizing, explaining and justifying original ideas. Even professional authors use editors to help ferret out mechanical errors of various types. One of my own students has atrocious spelling. But dismiss her to your own loss; when she reads her work aloud, the class is spellbound and each week happily summarizes for her what she read seven days previously so she knows where to start.

      Renee, I’m with you 100% of the way. And David, thank you for a great article. I look forward to the next!

  2. Greg DeKoenigsberg permalink
    April 21, 2010 2:01 pm

    Can you imagine any metric that *would* provide an objective assessment of your effectiveness as a teacher, with any kind of accuracy at all?

    If the answer is “yes”, it would be great to hear what that metric looks like to you.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      April 21, 2010 3:46 pm

      Renee and Bill, thanks for adding some complementary ideas in your comments, and Greg, thanks for inviting me to go a bit deeper into the topic. To be honest, teachers are in a reactionary mode right now. Most of us are neck deep in our teaching most of the day, then trying to find time to live a life, and it seems like every time I look up, there’s another assault on teaching that needs a response, and it’s hard to get out of that cycle sometimes and put forth a better vision.

      So, to answer your question – the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards offers an advanced certification for teachers that includes many components and principles that I would embrace. I am a National Board Certified Teacher, so I went through hundreds of hours of extra effort and work to document my practices, and analyze my students’ performance and my own strengths and weaknesses. I submitted a four part portfolio with two videos of my teaching, and sat for a 6-part examination on my content area and pedagogical knowledge. Each piece of this work was evaluated anonymously by at least two well-trained peer reviewers, meaning that my overall body of work, spanning five years of professional practice and one year with those particular students was evaluated by 20 or more people with expertise in my field. Compare that to a flimsy one day bubble test that covers only a fraction of my work with students, and overlaps considerably with the work other teachers do with the same students throughout their schooling.

      In some corners you might hear it suggested that National Board Certification is not “objective” enough for some people. I would argue that it’s a mistake to hold out some perfect ideal of objectivity that can be applied to a highly complex social and cognitive endeavor, involving dozens of people and dozens of “soft” variables. Furthermore, standardized tests are not objective – they are just standardized – uniform – and capable of producing lots of data that “objectively” reports the answers students gave, but does not objectively measure those students in any meaningful sense. I guess you could say that measuring the circumference of a cylinder provides objective information, but it doesn’t provide complete information, and the selection of that single measure to the exclusion of others is a subjective choice.

      Deb Meiers’ book “In Schools We Trust” is one of many sources that can explain better than I how standardized tests carry their own biases, and lack objectivity.

  3. Steve Davis permalink
    June 11, 2010 3:13 pm

    Hi David,

    Check out the conversation over on Larry Cuban’s blog.
    I cited your article “Do You Understand My Job.”


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