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Newbie teacher allowed to spew nonsense in the Washington Post

June 20, 2010

Note: The following appeared recently in the Washington Post. I’ve responded to it. Excerpts from the article are in bold, my responses are in italics.

I’m a first-year, second-career high school teacher, a “highly qualified” teacher of math, English and social science, a standing I achieved by passing rigorous tests. I’m not a union fan, nor am I in favor of pay increases based on seniority or added education. Like many new teachers throughout the country, I was pink-slipped and am looking for work, so I don’t have a cushy job to protect.

I’m not your typical teacher. But I believe I speak for many teachers when I say I’m willing to be tested on student performance, provided certain conditions are met. So let’s negotiate.

I propose that:

(1) Teachers be assessed based on only those students with 90 percent or higher attendance.

Without the missing students, the tests won’t yield a complete picture of learning. But the tests’ purpose is to yield a picture of teaching, which isn’t the same thing as learning. Teachers can’t teach children who aren’t there.

Results will reveal that many students miss this attendance requirement. Put that problem on the parents’ plates. Leave it out of the teaching assessment.

I agree; teaching isn’t the same thing as learning. I frequently tell my students that “If you’re not here, I can’t teach you.”

However, I’ve got to disagree with her stipulation of 90 percent. I’ve had former students pass state-mandated standardized tests who were my in my class less than 90 percent (much less, in fact). Is that a reflection on me? That when they were in my class, they did well because I force-fed them the information on the test? Or perhaps they came to the class with prior knowledge that allowed them to do well on the test?

Maybe a parent/ caregiver passed during the year, one or more of the wage-earners of the family lost their job and they were bouncing from friend’s house to friend’s house, but wanted them to continue attending at the school they were enrolled in. I’ve had numerous variations on that theme as of late.

I think students provide a bigger challenge at times when compared to the students that are already there. What will be the unintended instructional effects on the students who are not there 90 percent of the time? Will teachers, afraid about their evaluation results, divert time and needed instructional resources that could be well-spent on the students who don’t meet the attendance criteria to those that do? Wouldn’t that be a version of sanctioned educational neglect?

(2) Teachers be allowed to remove disruptive students from their classroom on a day-to-day basis.

Two to three students who just don’t care can easily disrupt a class of strugglers. Moreover, many students who are consistently removed for their behavior do start to straighten up — sitting in the office is pretty boring.

Yes, teachers could misuse this authority. But if teachers are evaluated by student learning, they must have control over classroom conditions. Then the administration can separately decide what to do with constantly disruptive students or those teachers who would rather remove students than teach them. But keep the issue away from measuring student performance; leave it as a personnel call.

I am allowed to remove students from my class on a day-to-day basis, but I rarely do. I’m generally able to establish the teaching and learning relationship with them from the beginning that allows me the instructional latitude to do what I need in class. I feel that I do have control over the instructional atmosphere in my class; in fact, I think I’m quite the control freak when it comes to that.

Sitting in the office is not a deterrent to student misbehavior; I don’t know what is. I think that if a student is going to honestly misbehave in a low-key or large-scale way that they’re just going to do it, period. And where will you put the students who “sit in the office”? Who will watch those students? More importantly, who will pay the adults that watch the students? And when they’re “sitting in the office”, will that count for or against the 90 percent rule? They’re not  in your class, so they’re not being taught.

We used to have time out at my school. During my first year or two of teaching, I thought it was a solution to the immediate problem of discipline. If a student misbehaves, send them to time out. No write-up involved, minimal paperwork, but the problem is out of your room. A mentor teacher of mine who I have great respect asked about my use of time out. I explained my thoughts. He said “It’s just a temporary fix, another way for students to game the system. And when they come back to your class, the problem is unsolved and both of you don’t want to deal with each other.” He was right.

(3) Students who don’t achieve “basic” proficiency in a state test be prohibited from moving forward to the next class in the progression.

Students who can’t prove they know algebra can’t take geometry. If they can’t read at a ninth-grade level, they can’t take sophomore English — or, for that matter, sophomore-level history or science, which presumes sophomore-level reading ability.

Not only is it nearly impossible for these students to learn the new material, but they also slow everyone else as the teacher struggles to find a middle ground. By requiring students to repeat a subject, we can assess both the current and the next teacher based on student progress in an apples-to-apples comparison.

If Race to the Top is to have meaning, we have to be sure that students are actually getting to the top, instead of being stalled midway up the hill while we lie to them about their progress.

First, what is “basic” proficiency? On a state-by-state basis proficiency standards are all over the place when you look at state achievement testing data when compared to national tests like the NAEP. I’m not against the Common Core State Standards Initiative. I think “educational nationalism” (as I called it in a post many months ago) is a good thing. Students who come to me from another state have received a vastly different curriculum, and there’s no forgiveness for that when they take the state achievement tests.

Second, when invoking the “basic” proficiency mantra to define matriculation to the next level in coursework you’re setting up the system for educational apartheid. The scheduling effect of this idea will be the wholesale movement of students who are low-income, ELLs or have some sort of disability into the “repeater” classes. The classes where students have met the basic requirements will be disproportionately non-minority and affluent. That sounds a lot like tracking to me, and I don’t like it. I don’t like NCLB’s punitive aspects, but I do like the fact that it does take a look at the performance of all students.

Third, as a teacher, I don’t like it when another teacher says “this student is slowing me down.” What teachers should think instead is “How can I accelerate this student’s learning?” I think this idea will promote a throwaway attitude when it comes to the students. What effect will this version of tracking have on graduation rates? Will this increase the dropout rates? The effects of this proposed change (at least at the high school level) wouldn’t be known until at least four or five years after implementation. If the end results of this experiment are negative, what kind of collateral damage will have been inflicted on students, teachers and schools? How will that be undone? How much will that cost?

 (4) That teachers be assessed on student improvement, not an absolute standard — the so-called value-added assessment.

I suspect that my conditions will go nowhere, precisely because they are reasonable. Teachers can’t be evaluated on students who miss 10 percent of the class or don’t have the prerequisite knowledge for success. Yet accepting these reasonable conditions might reveal that common rhetorical goals for education (everyone goes to college, algebra for eighth-graders) are, to put it bluntly, impossible. So we’ll either continue the status quo at a stalemate or the states will make the tests so easy that the standards are meaningless.

Yes, some students are doing poorly because their teachers are terrible. Other students are doing poorly because they simply don’t care, their parents don’t care, their cognitive abilities aren’t up to the task or some vicious combination of factors we haven’t figured out — with no regard to teacher quality. No one is eager to discover the size of that second group, so serious testing with teeth will go nowhere.

That’s too bad. We need to know how many students are failing because they don’t attend class, how many students score “below basic” on the algebra test three years in a row, how many students fail all tests because they read at a fourth-grade level. We need to know if our education rhetoric is a pipe dream instead of an achievable reality blocked by those nasty teachers unions. And, of course, if it turns out that all our problems can be solved by rooting out bad teachers, we need to find that out, too.

So if we’re going to evaluate teachers based on student results, let’s negotiate some reasonable terms — and let’s not flinch from whatever reality those terms reveal.

I like Race to the Top’s idea of measuring student growth, and I like the fact that it is loosely prescribed by RttT’s language through the methodology of “multiple measures”. Implementing a student-growth component in teacher evaluations makes sense (and is easy) in states where their achievement tests currently use a value-added component. The majority of states don’t incorporate value-added data.

Furthermore, what about non-tested areas? Art, music, health, physical education, foreign languages, and computer science are classes that are offered at secondary schools throughout the country. Yet those teachers cannot be judged using a value-added component simply because there are no standardized tests on which to base their students’ results.  

In conclusion, these are not reasonable conditions. They are the ideas of a first-year teacher who entered the profession from another career. The conditions they prescribe are narrow, restrictive and provincial. I wince at the idea of having a conversation with myself following my first year of teaching. I would probably come off as this individual has; pious, preachy and ill-informed.

Without a doubt, I think that teacher evaluation systems need to be improved. However, any teacher evaluation systems that utilize student performance data (be it value-added or test scores) must first prove that data is credible. Until we can truly measure the academic achievement of students, we will never be able to assess the academic impact of teachers.

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 27, 2010 1:37 pm

    Dr. Homeslice is back–life is good again! 🙂

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