Monthly Archives: June 2012

A “Bar Exam” for Teachers Misses the Point

In an interview with Walter Isaacson at the Aspen Ideas Festival, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten suggested that we establish a “bar exam” for public school teachers in America. This exam–which would be rigorous and would emphasize the teaching of critical thinking skills–would help to assuage growing concerns about the quality of teachers in America.

I respect and appreciate Weingarten’s intentions here. Ensuring that every classroom has a great teacher should be perhaps the primary goal of any education reform proposal. But I fear that another test will just be another hoop for potential teachers to jump through, further insulating the profession.

What we need to acknowledge is that, despite the emphasis on credentials in education, you learn how to teach by teaching; on-the-job training, experimenting, and adjusting is what makes great teachers great. I passed three PRAXIS exams before I started teaching, and I will be the first to admit that my high scores in no way correlated with immediate success in the classroom. (To be honest, closer to the opposite is true.) I’m not denying that learning key ideas and strategies before teaching can be beneficial for teachers. But creating a national exam for teachers and pointing to it as evidence of teacher quality falsely implies that teaching is akin to following an instruction manual–that we follow a set of clearly prescribed steps. It cheapens the art of effective teaching.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I fully support constant evaluation of teachers in order to ensure their instructional effectiveness. But evaluating teachers more before they step into a classroom only serves to further entangle the certification process in needless bureaucracy.

Ravitch on School Choice

On her blog today, Diane Ravitch writes on the broader implications of school choice. But she ignores a key fact: our public school system already has choice. Relevant quote from her:

The basic compact that public education creates is this: The public is responsible for the education of the children of the state, the district, the community. We all benefit when other people’s children are educated. It is our responsibility as citizens to support a high-quality public education, even if we don’t have children in the public schools.

But once the concept of private choice becomes dominant, then the sense of communal responsibility is dissolved. Each of us is then given permission to think of what is best for me, not what is best for we.

But the reality is that choice already does exist in the public school system: families that have the means choose to live where there are better school districts, usually away from urban areas. This is very common in Philadelphia, for instance, where the surrounding suburbs have excellent schools. Kids in Philly without the money to move, however, don’t have that choice and are forced to attend failing, unsafe schools. So let’s not sit here and pretend that the current system is somehow equitable.

Cheating Scandals and Disrespect of Teachers

According to a report released today, three schools in Washington, D.C. cheated on 2011 standardized tests, while 20 others were found to have some degree of testing violations. These test results were intended to be used for teacher evaluation and hiring, further raising their significance.

This is not the first case of cheating on standardized tests, and it won’t be the last. Indeed, when employees in any industry are expected to meet certain goals, there is a pressure to act deceptively or flat out break the rules (just ask Enron shareholders). When these incidents happen they should be dealt with firmly, harshly, and consistently.

What puzzles me about cheating scandals, though, is that there is a tendency to shift the blame from the perpetrators to the test. As a 2003 Harvard University study claims, high stakes testing actually leads to cheating. From that assertion it is not far to make the next leap: we shouldn’t have these tests.

As an educator, I find that argument deeply offensive. The implicit claim is that teachers will cast all legal, moral, and pedagogical obligations aside when there is pressure to perform. As opposed to blaming the institution, we should blame the cheaters. Any teacher or administrator who willingly contributes to cheating on a standardized test is disrespecting themselves, their profession, their community, and (most importantly) their students. The potential pressure of bonuses, promotions, and contracts is no excuse.  Though I teach at a school where teachers are held accountable for student performance on tests, I have no sense of empathy or solidarity with the accused teachers in D.C. Their actions prove that they should not be in the classroom–nothing more. The teachers I work with have more pride in their work and their students to be so blatantly dishonest. We should do what we can to improve monitoring on tests to prevent this from happening, and of course swiftly remove guilty teachers from the classroom. But let’s not frame this as a problem with testing. Teachers deserve more credit than that.

Problems with a Test vs. Problems with Testing

In the NYT this weekend, Michael Winerip details the fiasco in Florida stemming from bad scores on the state standardized writing test. This past summer, the state toughened standards but did not change the required passing score, resulting in plummeting proficiency levels statewide: only 27% of fourth graders scored proficient, compared to 81% just one year ago. Concerned about reactions nationally and from parents, the state scrambled to improve their results, ultimately lowering the score required to pass from a 4 to a 3. Suddenly, proficiency rates were right in line with past performance. All was right again (not). Excuse me for a moment while I bash my head against my desk.

Winerip is right to mock and malign the incompetence here. A couple points:

1) Radically changing the rigor of a test designed to measure longitudinal growth renders the results useless. It is fine to modify a test, and I appreciate the intent to raise academic expectations for students; making these changes at the expense of useful data, on the other hand, is misguided.

2) Fudging the numbers after the fact ultimately makes the problem worse. It is deceptive and unprofessional; I see it no differently from the state filling in bubbles for all of their students. The goal of testing is to highlight deficiencies to help guide instruction while holding schools accountable. Florida was apparently more concerned about its reputation, cheating the students and taxpayers while damaging the legitimacy of all state testing. If the state doesn’t have even have faith in their tests, why should we?

Though this case demonstrates the dark side of testing, we need to be careful about our conclusions. It is clear that there is something wrong with this test and test administration; Florida clearly needs reform in those areas. But it doesn’t mean is that holding schools accountable through testing is a bad idea. As I’ve said before, we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Standardized testing as an institution is so young that we should not be surprised that the tests aren’t perfect; it will take time before they are where they need to be. Just as we give any other invention with great potential time to mature–computers, cars, planes–testing deserves the same patience. So while Florida fully deserves our ire and frustration, let’s remember what this incident is: a speed bump and valuable lesson on what not to do as we establish accountability as a tenet of our public education system.

Thinking about Tenure: The Nichols Case

In the Sunday WaPo, Emma Brown discusses the case of Fairfax, VA sixth grade teacher Violet Nichols, who was recently recommended for termination by Terry Czarniak, her principal. Czarniak provided several pieces of evidence of Nichols’ incompetence and unprofessionalism, including leaving insufficient work for students when she was out of school, not taking feedback well, wasting class time, and leaving emails unanswered.  Nichols, a 21-year teaching veteran, claims that she was unfairly singled out, pointing to her lengthy record as a strong teacher and valued member of her school community. She suggests that she was targeted because of the color of her skin or her leadership role in the local teachers’ union.

I’m not going to comment on the specifics of this case, simply because I have never met any of the parties involved, been to the school or school district, or seen any official documentation. Maybe Nichols’ practice and professional comportment have deteriorated; maybe Czarniak has a vendetta against unions. Ultimately, it obscures the more important point: tenure battles tarnish the reputation of the teaching profession.

The reality is that in any industry, hiring and firing is not entirely based on rubrics and foolproof data. When we interview for jobs, we are told of the importance of silly conventions that are irrelevant to our qualifications or future job perfomance.  Arrive early. Wear a well-pressed suit. Don’t forget a breath mint.  And while data can certainly be used to measure perfomance–particularly in fields like sales–anyone who works in an office knows that intangibles can be just as important in determining whether you remain employed. Are you a positive influence in the office? Are you ambitious and eager to improve? Even if they aren’t quantifiable, those factors matter.

So how does the system work? Ultimately, we assume that bosses have the best interests of the business in mind and so want the best team. They collect all of the information they can about an employee and make a decision about whether they are a good fit. Do bosses make mistakes and fire the wrong person sometimes? Sure. But it’s safe to assume that a boss who makes arbitrary decisions and gets rid of his strongest employees will not remain a boss for very long. The risk remains, but in general the right people end up in the right jobs.

Tenure changes the equation. Principals generally do not have the authority to make decisions about personnel, and if they decide to move to revoke tenure, they are usually in for a lengthy, expensive legal battle. While it is unfortunate that Ms. Nichols may lose her job, I think we need to ask ourselves a simple question: why should teachers be treated differently from other members of the workforce? Judging from Czarniak’s complaints, it seems that Nichols’ actions would have led to her termination in most other jobs. As I’ve previously discussed, if teachers demand unique privileges, we also have to accept a negative reputation and lack of respect. Regardless of the specifics of Nichols’ case, this battle only serves to hurt public views of our profession.

Even Teachers Think that Tenure Means Nothing

The Quick and the Ed has a story on some new data on what teachers think about tenure and the prospect of meaningful tenure reform. The basic conclusion is fairly unsurprising: teachers want to keep tenure, but are willing to consider changes to it. 75 percent of teachers would support unions simplifying the process of removing ineffective teachers; most teachers do not think that tenure should function as a shield for bad teachers. These numbers represent a substantial increase from when the survey was given 5 years ago.

I’m glad to see that teachers are growing more receptive to the idea of tenure reform (though it is mildly terrifying that 1 of 4 teachers think that tenure should remain a barrier to taking ineffective teachers out of the classroom). But that wasn’t the only data presented:

And there is some evidence that tenure is becoming a more meaningful signal of teacher effectiveness than it was just a few years ago. In 2007, only 23 percent of teachers said that awarding tenure meant that a teacher “has proven to be very good at what s/he does” as opposed to just a formality; in 2011, the number increased to 28 percent. A small increase, but a significant one that bodes well for fair and effective tenure reform.

I almost spit out my coffee when I read this. In other words, our system is designed to give essentially lifetime employment to teachers, and even the teachers don’t think it is earned. Even if you support the idea of tenure, how can you justify a system that awards it without effective consideration of quality? I understand that there are benefits of having career teachers; stability in the faculty is great for schools and communities. But if we’re using our tax dollars to employ people for their entire working life, it is reckless and irresponsible to not be sure that they are doing their jobs effectively. And if the employees themselves don’t think that’s happening, we have a major problem.

The Truly Scary Part of the Trayvon Martin Case

The Trayvon Martin case was back in the headlines on Friday after a Florida judge revoked the bond of accused killer George Zimmerman. Apparently Zimmerman misled the court by not disclosing the $200,000 (!)  that he has managed to raise for his legal defense through a website. He has been ordered to surrender to authorities within 48 hours.

The horror of the murder itself and Trayvon’s personal story have been prominent in public discussion of the event; hoodies and Skittles will forever carry a heavier, darker symbolism. And I will not attempt to compete with the many excellent pieces on that theme. But what is truly frightening to me about what happened is not that it happened, but that it may have been legal.

Now, I’m certainly not defending Zimmerman’s interpretation of the “Stand Your Ground” law in Florida; I haven’t read enough about the law and its interpretation to give a fair opinion. (Though I find little to dispute in this analysis of my former boss Ladd Everitt of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.) The scary thing is that there is actually a legitimate debate about whether the murder–on its face such a horrible, indefensible act–is sanctioned by law. Though Martin and his family fully deserve our support, compassion, and empathy, we should not cast aside the urgency of changing these types of laws throughout the country.