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Today I read a very insightful article by Justin “Juice” Fong, the head of Internal Communications at Teach for America. While I do have my own… often critical opinions of his other pieces about TFA, he published something today that I found very insightful (and you should definitely check it out!) I took the time to write a reply, offering further thoughts on how we can change standardized testing and thought I’d post it here since I have done a bit more research/brainstorming on this matter and should probably update my blog with my ideas 🙂
So here it is!
I like the idea of making tests purely diagnostic. This is something Sir Ken Robinson, an expert on learning and creativity, has always suggested. I agree with all the points that you brought up, especially the point you made about how it will lower the high stakes currently put on testing and the high pressure put on teachers to teach to the test. But what are your thoughts on the tests’ effects on students still? Especially if this is how they are welcomed back to school at the start of the year?
Also, what kind of tests did you have in mind for the diagnostic exams? I would like to suggest that the tests be assessments of deeper learning that assess skill and performance with content rather than narrow assessments of multiple-choice that don’t fully encompass student ability and instead reduce student learning to meaningless metrics. Tests can provide useful data, so shouldn’t we give students the best tests that will provide the most useful data?
If it were up to me there would be none of the standardized tests that we currently have. Tons of research show the negative effects of the current testing model on students and schools (and I’ve seen the effects with my own eyes, even in my own family) and I think that we can do better by our students if we move further away from traditional multiple choice testing towards methods of assessment that are also productive, in that they encourage student learning simultaneously.
My current vision for “accountability” and “assessment” in school is portfolio and project-based, as standardized tests that are merely multiple choice tend to omit a wide range of skills and personal assets that are important to ensure in an education. I actually don’t see portfolios much as assessments, but more like educational tools, as students are able to learn, exercise their creativity, and demonstrate the interconnected mastery of essential skills (reasoning, research, argument, craft, etc…) as they are being evaluated for their progress. Portfolios can also give a more vivid picture of student progress while test scores show more outcomes. They are truly assessments of the deepest learning (see writings of Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond) that encompass student learning in a well-rounded and accurate manner. I think we can get a better picture of a student’s mastery of a skill through the work that student produces rather than his/her answer on question #46 of the state standardized test, right?
What’s even better: these assessments will not only capture student performance in a more holistic manner, but will also allow for teachers to foster student growth through many unrestricted pathways. What I mean by this is that these pathways can involve projects that incorporate skills and concepts across various academic disciplines, especially in higher grade levels, accomplishing a lot more with a lot less. On the other hand, test questions test skills individually and on a shallow level; they don’t allow much room for the application and connection of different skills like student-produced projects do. For instance, a project for a unit on the Civil War can include a research paper on an event/aspect of the war (this helps students develop research/writing/argumentation skills) paired with a creative piece (video, 3D design, poster, diagram, song, etc…) that perhaps connects the Civil War to 21st century society (this helps students sharpen the skills of application, connection, creativity, and critical higher-order thinking). The possibilities are endless! I think there is a unique opportunity here for students to get a layered, interdisciplinary, and multi-faceted education.
Now I’m going to go into the logistics of all this. These are ideas that I’m still developing as well, however, so feel free to comment on or question anything you see!
I’m envisioning that portfolios would consist of the highlights of a student’s work throughout the course of a school year and would be submitted for review at the end of the year. Teachers can be trusted to assess student work in written evaluations and a third-party can intervene every year or every few years to go over student work in schools (as well as observe classrooms like you mentioned… I really like that idea; it was something my own school had and it worked very well). This might take more effort (and perhaps time, although I do think it’s time that’s better-utilized than test-prep or test-scoring), but students are worth the investment and if it happens on a local level, it won’t be too tough.
Standards that portfolios will have to meet will build upon each other rather than be unique to a sole grade level (so perhaps we can improve upon Common Core, this time with more student/teacher/parent input). These standards can serve as sort of a flexible rubric for student work portfolios (flexible in that students can demonstrate mastery of a skill of concept in many different ways, but all will have mastered the skill).
As for the diagnostic part of this, teachers would be able to receive their students’ portfolios from the previous year during the summer so they can be able to look at their incoming class’s abilities. They can also do a diagnostic assignment at the beginning of the year, something perhaps a little more exciting and engaging than a test, and use that data to figure out the best paths to take for their class. (side note on this: I think it’s really important during the first week of school for teachers to not only lay down expectations but also listen to their students intently and figure out what they expect.)
Let me know what you think of this idea, and if I missed anything important! Always eager to hear different perspectives. Thank you for your insightful post!
I’ve pretty much heard all the arguments for and against high stakes testing, and feel pretty confident that I wholeheartedly disagree with it and can give a solid counter argument to any arguments for high stakes testing.
But recently I’ve been getting some new arguments that… kind of throw me for a loop.
Whenever I say that test scores shouldn’t be a factor in teacher evaluation or determining school progress (and likewise funding for schools making progress) because they are an unreliable source of data that can’t capture student performance, let alone teacher performance or school performance, I get either or both of these response:
- Why do you care so much about teachers/schools? This should be about the kids!
- Test scores are only [some percentage] of [something]!
These throw me for a loop because they’re kind of ridiculous. The first one is easy. Caring about kids means also caring for the teachers that are dedicated to educating them and the schools that are their learning communities. That’s how you care about kids. And don’t forget that testing hurts kids (not just teachers and schools) as well. If you don’t believe that, then you aren’t looking closely enough.
Now to the second argument. It’s a phrase that would be a fact without one word. And that word is “only.”
When I hear that tests ONLY account for a certain percentage of teacher evaluation or school progress reports in various states and districts, I hear a concession. I hear an acknowledgement that a lesser percentage would probably be more beneficial for students and schools. I hear a, “Chill out, Hannah! Yeah, it’s a problem but at least it’s only a percentage of a problem!”
And this is what I don’t understand. If people see the issues with testing, why do they still allow it to factor into pivotal decisions that impact students?
So last night, I decided to do something daring and send an email to my SFER chapter, voicing my opinions about the Vergara vs. California lawsuit. And I got a reply late last night, which I then responded to this morning.
I won’t publish his reply here, for the sake of his privacy but in a nutshell, he found me misinformed, asked ME to question both sides (and trust me I have been doing that before opening this blog which I only did after I took a clear stance), and brought up his personal experiences with teachers’ unions and working for Parent Revolution and how those pushed him to support the corporate education reform movement. He says we “need high stakes testing”, “accountability”, and basically ignored my points about a better more comprehensive solution to getting rid of “teachers” in favor of simply bashing teachers and tearing down unions.
I could go on, but you can glean most of what he said in my reply:
Hi [omitted for privacy],
Thanks for the prompt reply! I was really looking forward to hearing your thoughts on these issues.
Before I respond to individual parts of your argument I want you to know that I have looked into both sides, very carefully. I actually was once a fierce supporter of the corporate education reform movement. I felt change was necessary, and I had hope that ed reform leaders would create change.
It took a LOT of evidence for me to change my mind. After looking at not only the stagnant progress but also the dire consequences this movement has inflicted upon our public education system, I cannot bring myself or my conscience to support such a movement. From Chicago public school closings, to Philadelphia budget cuts, to charter schools “creaming”, to Atlanta cheating scandals, to student opting out of tests all over the country, to teachers having to form a Badass Teachers Association to get the point across that they actually want to teach (more on this later), to my students (who were from charter schools) asking me why the “rich white people” who partly fund their school can’t give them paper towels in the bathroom or a soccer field with grass (this isn’t even the full list). I know injustice when I see it. I’ve only started it voicing my opinions about education after I fully understood both sides’ arguments. I’ve thoroughly questioned both sides, actually questioning my current side much more than the corp ed reform side.
I recognize that you’ve experienced many things throughout your own educational activism journey. I appreciate you bringing those experiences to light and working hard to fight for what you believe in. That is something very noble. I have my story too, and very good reasons that fuel my passion against the education reform movement. I’ve stepped into classrooms, listened to what students are saying, listening to dedicated but frustrated teachers, worked with students and understood how incredibly difficult yet rewarding it is. I was also lucky enough to receive a high quality education, something I want every student in America to experience.
Now let’s start at the top: I know you’ve studied Geoffrey Canada, religiously. I’ve studied him as well (probably not religiously) but I know enough to know that I cannot side with him when it comes to his views on accountability. I only quote him because he is one of the few reformers who gives a damn about bettering the communities around schools, and that is something I can respect. I believe that that has been the key to his success. If it isn’t, then why does the high stakes testing model elsewhere do more harm than good?
High stakes testing and data-driven accountability are something I cannot support. This is one stance in education that I have held since the start of my high school career. High stakes testing puts too much emphasis on test scores, outcomes, stats and far too little emphasis on student growth, learning, and humanity. You can celebrate stats all you want, but I prefer to celebrate humans. Learning (we can talk a whole lot about education but forget to talk about learning… isn’t that the point of this all?) cannot be encompassed by a test number. Anyone who’s ever gone through the education system can tell you that. The corp ed reform movement, which promised change, just takes a broken model that hasn’t worked for 40 years and does it even more, using up more learning time and money for resources and inflicting more harm on the quality of students’ education. It’s ridiculous, terribly poor data analysis, and it needs to have stopped yesterday. Countless evidence shows that high-stakes testing is harmful to students, and if you don’t believe the evidence from professional psychologists and researcher-educators, then at least listen to what students are saying and DOING (walking out of tests, boycotting). Teachers aside, high stakes testing is doing the most harm to students in school.
Instead of reform, I support a learning revolution that builds a solution from the ground up, starting with students. We need to eliminate structural forces that hinder true learning, critical reasoning, creativity, classroom collaboration, active discussion, and a well-rounded education that includes the arts, humanities, and civic engagement. If you really want to put students first, think first about the purpose of education and then the purpose of high stakes testing. Do those purposes line up?
Can something else achieve the purpose of high stakes testing without dulling the quality of our students’ education? The answer is yes. I highlight more in depth my proposed solutions here, here, and here. Short answer: data is useless if it’s not accurate, even if it’s objective. Do we value our kids’ learning and development enough to put in a little extra time to get data that’s meaningful, holistic, and useful? You don’t need numbers to hold people accountable. There’s other kind of data that people collect, other kinds of data that have proven to be much more revealing and valuable than the objective data the corp ed reform movement funds so vigorously.
Now back to what we are discussing, which is teachers. I think you completely misread my point. I am NOT arguing to keep these protections. There is evidence, student, parent, and your testimony, that these protections are harming a number of students. That testimony is valuable and should be honored. What I have a problem with is the current method by which we measure teacher effectiveness.
Removing the protections but still tying teacher performance to test scores is what demeans the profession. Not only does high-stakes testing prevent student learning it inaccurately measures teacher effectiveness. And what really is the point of data that’s inaccurate?
Just as there are better ways to look at student performance, there are better ways to look at teacher performance. Schools are communities in and of themselves. They are not businesses. Corporate privatization never works outside the financial sphere and if you want to think of students as standardized products then I cannot support your goals. Teachers should be given respect and autonomy to teach and foster creative and thoughtful young minds. Students’ work should be valued FULLY, and their growth celebrated, rather than reduced to a chart. I said it before and I’ll say it again: Assessment is not a spreadsheet. It’s a conversation.
Now, I want these terrible teachers out of the system as much as you do. But is targeting the entire teaching profession really the answer? No, that causes way more problems than solutions. With the current implemented methods of evaluating student work, more truly effective teachers would be fired than truly ineffective ones. And students would continue to receive test-centered education. Is that a price we want to pay? Collaboration cannot be forced. You (not you specifically, but the whole reform movement itself) have angered countless people who truly care about children. How do you not expect people to fight back?
Believe it or not, teachers go into teaching to teach students! I know it’s hard to believe but teachers actually don’t go into their profession for a pension (you can get that in many other places), or to test students until their brains are numb, or to kill a child’s love of learning! They have been reduced to being defensive after many threats on their profession and many years of being trapped in a terrible system that works AGAINST the very people they’ve dedicated their lives to working FOR. We need to start with doing the right and smart thing, eliminate a system that harms both students and teachers.
[And if we’re going to talk about teachers and their pensions, how about talk about billionaires that fund the corporate education reform movement and their tax breaks? I’m not saying that every reformer ignores poverty. I’m saying that I’ve never heard a single billionaire who is funding the corp ed reform movement mention tackling the issue of poverty and working on building safer, healthier communities for students. Ask yourself why that is.]
You want accountability and for teachers to become more skilled. You want the terrible “teachers” who are completely unfit for the job to begin with to go. I completely understand that and I want that too. But you want to get rid of a problem without looking at the other problems tied with it. That’s not going to lead to any solutions.
You mention in your second email a process that I think should be implemented. “This is a job, if a worker isnt good at their job, you give their professional development, if that doesnt fix the issue, you fire them.” Sounds like a plan to me! Guess how we can get to this process and still do something that benefits students.
- Get rid of the system of high stakes testing and data-driven accountability.
- Let teachers teach and let students learn.
- Evaluate and hold schools accountable through student voice (testimony), student work (Student project portfolios are a great way to track growth. It’s a win-win because they also encourage and foster rather than prevent learning and student growth), and peer evaluations (teachers will work as teams, collaborating, helping one another)
- Work WITH (not against) unions to immediately fire anyone posing a danger to students. Continue to work with them to revise tenure and seniority laws.
- With new useful, meaningful, and holistic data, provide valuable profession development for teachers to improve and continue excelling at their job.
- If they don’t show improvement, move to fire.
All of this can be done before the Vergara vs. California case goes on trial in 2014. Seriously, it can. And if you don’t believe it can, than you’ve never experienced believing in the nearly impossible. That’s something that teachers do every day for their students.
The solution is not either unions or no unions. It’s looking at the system in which both teachers and students are trapped. If we wait for unions or union opponents to “do the right thing and work for kids, we will be forced to wait idly by as history will crucify us for failing to fight.” Your words ring true and that is why I am fighting. I am fighting against a system that puts everyone in danger.
Now for the other points that you bring up:
- Thank you for acknowledging that the corporate education reform movement is funded by billionaires. I don’t care if billionaires want to donate their money to helping education. That is a good thing to do! But what is happening is that they profiting from this system. SFER members, I really encourage you to look into this issue yourselves. Here’s a good place to start (but remember to always check the facts and question everything!)
- Finland wasn’t doing so well before. Their country was in economic turmoil and their education system was lackluster for decades until they put their differences aside and worked towards building economic inequity. It’s something everyone on the right and left agree on. Poverty was just as widespread as it was here. As a sociology major and someone who has studied the intersections of race and class tirelessly, I definitely understand the intricacies about how “we got here”. That’s why I understand the importance of working together as a country to eradicate poverty in children’s’ neighborhoods. The reason I bring up Finland is that they don’t have high stakes testing, and the professional educators over there scoff at our system for caring so much about scores and even tying those scores to teacher performance. They aren’t surprised that teachers over here are angry about this.
- Your last point about unions preventing fair discussion cannot be brought up until we systematically implement fairer ways of evaluating teachers and students. Once that happens, if unions still fight back, then I am with you that we need to “cut off [their] heads”. But I doubt they will because unions are also fighting for what I am fighting for: ensuring that every child has access to a quality education by eradicating a flawed model of high stakes testing. That is the real civil rights issue.
Thanks for reading! I hope we can continue this discussion.
Hope to hear more from the members soon! And of course to see how the president of SFER USC would reply to me.
Thanks for reading! As always, post your comments and questions below! 🙂
So first I want to say that I have the best best friend. She doesn’t only support my work and journey through the field of education, but she engages with my work, challenges my thinking, and helps me grow as an educational activist. Oh and did I mention that she’s a total badass advocate herself? She’s totally going places.
Great points, Hannah! Very well-researched and well-written. I wish Michelle Rhee could read this because I would absolutely love to hear her comeback (if she had any, that is…).
Some food for thought below, regarding some questions I’ve mulled over. I would be very interested to read how you address them!
1) As far as teacher unions go, I do agree that teachers themselves are not the problem. Most teachers willingly choose this noble career path to make a difference in the lives of their students. However, as a student myself, I can easily tell you that I had my share of horrible teachers along with the incredible ones. Any student will likely tell you the same. Unfortunately, for some teaching has become the ‘stepping stone’ to a better career later on or a last choice option that they reluctantly had to accept. For these few (emphasis on the FEW, they are the absolute minority) unmotivated teachers, I’m not sure if ‘helping’ them out will honestly benefit students. Why? Because these teachers may become comfortable knowing that they cannot be fired and thus, they may not heed the constructive criticism a passionate teacher would otherwise take into account. However, that being said, teacher unions largely protect the experienced and capable teachers who would do anything to fight for their students. How do we ensure that teacher unions remain intact such that the aforementioned experienced and caring teachers are properly compensated, while those who are clearly unmotivated and careless are removed from teaching altogether?
There are few (again, emphasis on the FEW) teachers out there in classrooms who are unequipped with the skillset and the nurturing mindset to teach… and these individuals do not deserve to be teaching in a classroom in the first place. (Michelle Rhee, based on her TFA stint, is exactly the type of teacher that should NOT be put into a classroom by any means. I don’t want to help ‘teachers’ like Rhee; they should be fired on the spot.)
I hope she read this… but something tells me she didn’t and even if she did, I doubt she’d reply. No one’s got time to reply to a little college student if they’re too busy raising money to destroy public education, right?
Anyway, I really appreciate your comment and I hope my response covers all your questions. If I’m missing anything or if you have any more questions, of course feel free to let me know!
Let’s start at the top with your first question about teacher unions protecting unmotivated, careless teachers.
I completely understand where you’re coming from (having been to the same high school with you). There are a few teachers out there who enter the field reluctantly (or with ulterior motives… cough cough Teach for America recruits) and don’t actually want to be teachers, teachers who abuse and commit unmentionable offenses against students, and teachers who engage in illegal activity with students. These teachers are a disgrace to the teaching profession and I don’t think the other dedicated and passionate teachers in a teachers’ union want to associate themselves with such “teachers”.
Now, there is a difference between teachers who enter the profession unmotivated, and teachers who become unmotivated and feel defeated by the destruction of their profession through high-stakes testing and budget cuts (and now privatization and personal attacks from billionaires who’ve never stepped into a classroom). But it’s hard to distinguish them.
But before I go into my proposal of what we should do about this predicament, I want to go back to something you said in your comment about properly compensating teachers who do their job. Currently, we have something in place that tries to do this.
Merit pay is a product of education reform and it basically gives higher salaries to effective teachers, essentially using incentive to motivate teachers.
This sounds like a great idea right? Incentive is a great motivator, and who wouldn’t want to be rewarded for doing a good job?
Let’s start by defining an “effective teacher”. Here is a great definition from one of my favorite articles on merit pay:
Effective teachers challenge students to pursue activities they never thought they could do—or would be interested in. Effective teachers stimulate their students’ natural curiosity about the world. Effective teachers develop free-thinking, inquisitive minds, eager and able to learn for themselves. Effective teachers inspire kids to succeed in life—to believe that they can succeed in life, and to be prepared to succeed in life.
So does merit pay actually reward effective teachers? The answer is no.
If you go to the article and find the paragraph I quoted above, you’ll see that the last sentence, is the simplest yet perhaps the most powerful of all:
Effective teachers don’t just cram kids’ brains full of information.
The problem with merit pay (as is the problem with most education “reforms”) is that although it has good intentions, it is poorly implemented and has unexpected counterproductive consequences. Merit pay narrowly assumes causation between teacher performance and test scores, and it ignores the many other factors that require attention in order to holistically assess a teacher. Sometimes teachers are evaluated based on the test scores of students that aren’t even theirs! This is an entirely unfair process that consequently quantifies and de-professionalizes the teaching profession and forces teachers to teach to the test. It sends a terrible message that teachers are only as good as the test scores they can produce. Teachers then feel even more disrespected and unmotivated. They also can’t do much about it because they’re trapped in a lose-lose situation.
And so I ask… how can we compensate teachers who do their job, if we don’t let them do it?
Before any judgments can be made on teachers, we need to bring respect and autonomy back into the teaching profession. We can do this through a variety of ways, starting with eliminating high-stakes testing and merit pay. We can then begin to develop an equitable evaluation system that encourages growth and involves student voice, student work, and teacher collaboration. This cannot be dictated by a few people in power (merit pay was the ingenious idea of a select few including Michelle Rhee and Bill Gates). Collaboration is key to create a truly democratic education. It’s time for politicians and bankers and billionaires and corporate reformers to step aside and for the voices they’ve silenced to speak up once again.
I also want to add as a side note that I don’t think we can buy a teacher’s respect. Yes, pay is important, and teachers should be paid more in general, but if we want to ever get to that point we need to tackle systemic attitudes and frameworks that attack and look down on teachers. We should value teachers the way we value doctors and lawyers and let them do their job.
Now, going back to your point about the “teachers” in our education system. I first want to point out that you yourself are a student, and that your voice is valuable and should be heard. Can your test score really indicate that your teacher is doing a poor job? No, you can tell a lot more about your teacher than your test score can, right?
Currently, student input is not valued when it comes to evaluating teachers and I want that to change. If more administrators listened to students about “teachers” working in their schools and worked with teachers union to investigate further and come to a fair and sensible conclusion, we wouldn’t have “teachers” that stay in schools and threaten the well-being and safety of students. So first we need to work on implementing FAIR methods of teacher evaluation that are fully collaborated on, that will justly distinguish teachers from a few “teachers”.
I think unions right now are more adamant about protecting their teachers because their profession is being completely disrespected by corporate reformers and their jobs are being threatened by very unfair and incomplete methods (if you can even call it a method) of evaluation. Once we revolutionize the system in which these teachers teach, and we actually let them teach and then evaluate them holistically (once again incorporating student voice and teacher collaboration/peer evaluation… I really cannot stress this enough), then unions can work on refusing job protection to teachers who simply are not teachers and are not willing to improve themselves. Together we can foster a force of revitalized, passionate, and committed educators.
Dennis Hong, a molecular biologist turned biology teacher, writes in this wonderful post about the profession that is the backbone of this country, but it still so disrespected and underestimated.
Here what Hong says is the reason why people have delusions that anyone can do what a teacher does, but doesn’t have those delusions when it comes to other fields of specialty:
Have you ever watched professional athletes and gawked at how easy they make it look? Kobe Bryant weaves through five opposing players, sinking the ball into the basket without even glancing in its direction. Brett Favre spirals a football 100 feet through the air, landing it in the arms of a teammate running at full speed. Does anyone have any delusions that they can do what Kobe and Brett do?
Yet, people have delusions that anyone can do what the typical teacher does on a typical day.
Maybe the problem is tangibility. Shooting a basketball isn’t easy, but it’s easy to measure how good someone is at shooting a basketball. Throwing a football isn’t easy, but it’s easy to measure how good someone is at throwing a football. Similarly, diagnosing illnesses isn’t easy to do, but it’s easy to measure. Winning court cases isn’t easy to do, but it’s easy to measure. Creating and designing technology isn’t easy to do, but it’s easy to measure.
Inspiring kids can be downright damned near close to impossible sometimes. And… it’s downright damned near close to impossible to measure. You can’t measure inspiration by a child’s test scores. You can’t measure inspiration by a child’s grades. You measure inspiration 25 years later when that hot-shot doctor, or lawyer, or entrepreneur thanks her fourth-grade teacher for having faith in her and encouraging her to pursue her dreams.
Maybe that’s why teachers get so little respect. It’s hard to respect a skill that is so hard to quantify.
Amazing article, definitely check it out for yourself. He brings up some other really great points.
This is a perfect segway into a piece I’m working on about Teach for America. All I’m going to say now is, people who think they are fantastic teachers after 5 weeks of training are not only embarrassing themselves, but also being incredibly disrespectful to the teaching profession.