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Do You Understand My School? (Part One)

April 21, 2010

This blog entry continues a series, asking if the non-educators who advocate using state test scores to evaluate teachers actually understand my job, my students, or my school.  Of course, it’s not just my personal circumstances they need to understand.  I write from the perspective of a high school English teacher, one of many thousands around California and around the country.  Like our teaching brethren in other subjects and grade levels, we find ourselves facing a barrage of snake-oil salesmen, peddling a product that might have one legitimate use, but they promise it will cure all the ills in the teaching profession.  Enough already.  Today, I focus on what they need to understand about secondary schools.  If there are some elementary school teachers reading this post, I hope you’ll add comments sharing your professional perspective.

Governor Charlie Crist’s recent veto of Florida’s Senate Bill 6 was a victory for teachers in the Sunshine State, as their legislature had begun to lead them towards a dismal future of testing malpractice.  Sadly, the Race to the Top has created a frenzy of interest in linking student test scores to teacher evaluation.  The next step they promote is ending the use of seniority and tenure (ideas I’d be more likely to support if their advocates could better understand teaching and evaluation).  Teachers are supposed to be “data-driven” now, while the Department of Education and legislators throughout the country ignore the utter lack of data to support their “reform” efforts.  I think part of the problem is that they need to better understand schools – at least, I’d like to think that’s the problem.  Because, if they do understand schools and still promote these measures, one can only conclude that they are willing to sacrifice educational quality to score political points.

So, what is it that they need to recognize about schools?  I’ll focus on secondary schools, since that’s where I have experience – teaching in middle and high schools, public and private.  The first issue is that people outside of schools neglect to consider how much schools change from year to year.  We can find studies claiming effects of principals,school design, curriculum, scheduling, libraries, technology, counseling, and numerous other elements of schools.  If you change at least one or two of those elements every year, how do we isolate the effects of changes?  Is there any evidence to suggest that inherent instability in schools will have uniform effects on teachers?  Because if not, then you can’t compare our students’ test scores from dissimilar years.  It’s like running a chemical experiment in cold, dark, damp room, then outside on a hot, sunny day, and comparing the results without considering the conditions.

And how many factors are we dealing with?  Students in secondary schools have multiple teachers, all day long.  In effective schools, teachers often work together to support underlying skills that are required across subjects.  The mantra “every teacher is a reading teacher” is old news to most educators, but apparently unknown to policy makers.  If they direct us to use research-proven strategies, and we do, then we distribute the responsibility for reading instruction to every teacher, since every teacher can provide students with texts and the strategies to handle them.  There is no way to separate out the influence of different combinations of students and teachers in a school.  In history classes, students read, summarize, analyze, evaluate; they practice many of the skills that are supposedly the English class curriculum.  In science classes, students use a variety of mathematical skills and formulas, and practice mathematical operations.  If politicians want to use state test scores for evaluative purposes, I defy them to explain how they will distinguish the influence of individual teachers.  Furthermore, I question the wisdom of an approach that offers a perverse incentive to ensure that my students outperform my colleagues’ students in order to increase my job security.

Advocates of “value-added measurement” (VAM) claim that they actually can separate out the influence of different teachers and therefore identify the best of us – given enough test data linking students to all of their teachers.  In 2007, the late Gerald Bracey summarized research and analyses that reveal many of the deep flaws in VAM (citing the RAND Corporation and Educational Testing Services, among others).  A more recent study found that test scores were a volatile measure of teacher quality: those teachers who seem to be in the top or bottom quartile may move in unpredictable ways, with no apparent cause. Undeterred by the evidence, maybe unaware it exists, many politicians seem to rely on polling results, or maybe the strength of their feelings about what should work; no wonder I’m starting to see those efforts labeled as “education deform.”

Tomorrow, I’ll post “Do You Understand My School?  (Part Two)” – addressing issues of shifting teaching assignments, student mobility, data sample sizes, random distribution, and suggest at least one way that the current cadre of education reformers is pushing us towards the exact opposite their stated values.

In the meantime, please share your perspective on schools, especially elementary schools, and what policy makers need to understand better.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. April 21, 2010 6:14 am

    I appreciated reading your exposition on the complexity of education. It connects with what I read yesterday from Rob Jacobs on Extreme Problems and this YouTube video put together by Daniel Willingham. I look forward to reading more.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      April 21, 2010 3:23 pm

      Alan – thanks for reading, and commenting. I know the Willingham video, but will have to check out the piece by Rob Jacobs. Thanks for the tip.


  1. » Do You Understand My School? (Part One) « InterACT
  2. 2010: InterACT in Review « InterACT
  3. VAM Nauseum: Bleeding the Patient « InterACT

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