Saturday, October 19, 2013

Meaningful reform

One might think by my previous posts that I am against the Common Core, quarterly common assessments, SGO's, tenure "reform", the Marshall and Danielson rubrics. None of that is true.  Each are tools that, used in a atmosphere of trust and respect, could improve instruction, consistency, accountability, student learning, and teacher performance.  But any of these being used as an end unto themselves is not only dangerous and destructive, but ethically wrong.  Putting these as goals rather than tools pretends that teaching and learning is a science more than an art, and genuine learning can be "measured accurately" (rather than being viewed in context) and that improvement means the same to every class, teacher and student.

The view of these is affected by one's view of how individual teachers and schools are performing.  A couple of weeks ago I attended a training by Kim Marshall of the Marshall rubrics.  I liked him.  He was smart, sincere and concerned about how to improve teacher assessment.  His system of regular assessments and multiple operational rubrics is an improvement over the single yearly observation.  But I was deeply troubled about where he was coming from.  His first slide stated that "unfortunately" there is "uneven" instruction going on in schools.  I challenged him, asking him whether he is coming from a place where he believes most public schools have poor instruction.  I recommended that he start with "fortunately, most instruction is of high quality, but it should be a goal that all instruction be of that quality" or the like.  Also, the only two schools he mentioned as "good" schools in his presentation were a charter school (Northstar Academy) and a private school (Georgetown Day).

The Common Core is a valuable tool as a guide to instruction, certainly preferable to the content driven by textbooks approved by the Texas legislature now being used in most classrooms.  The Common Core is a road map to guide and inform instruction, not something that should blindly drive instruction.  The PARCC assessments, based on the Common Core, are admirable goals, but some (particularly in math) are simply too complex and sophisticated to realistically expect all our students to reach.  The present NJ test, the HSPA, is a realistic goal and sure, we would love every student to be able to have the level of analysis and synthesis required of the PARCC.  But there is and will always be a bell curve, and even if we move this bell a bit to the right, we will have many students, even in the best of schools, who will be successful, hard working employers or employees who cannot reach this level of analysis. My hope is that embracing the Common Core will push more students to think more deeply, but my fear is that expecting it of all students will leave too many students without a high school diploma, students who have tried their hardest, engaged in their learning and shown the requisite skills and knowledge to be successful in their careers and society.

Common assessments, whether they be by unit, quarterly or at the mid-term and final, are an effective way of encouraging similar demands and expectations from different teachers teaching the same subject to the same level of student.  As long as the assessments are realistic, they can be valuable in ascertaining whether students understand the material that is presented and whether there is common, high level instruction.  I coach wrestling, now to 2nd through 8th graders.  I have common assessments of all of them; it's called a wrestling match.  If I "teach" a kid to look away from a half nelson and in a match situation they don't do that, the result is that that student will be counting the ceiling lights soon. There are years that I have great natural athletes who pick up things easily and can win without very good coaching and years where there is not a lot of promise and success will be elusive even with the best of coaching.  Sure, over the long run, I will be judged by my wins and losses, and I am fine with that.  But I would not think it reasonable to be judged in a given year by how well I can uniformly turn that 97 pound weakling into a winning wrestler.

The same is true of Student Growth Objectives.  SGO's, are by no means inherently bad. In fact, when done properly, with the student in mind, they are much better than many previous methods we have used. They require teachers to expect every student to improve from where they started from.  But they have many drawbacks, particularly that they place much more emphasis on language arts and mathematics than the many other things that are learned in schools.  Instead of improving the richness of learning, they, in practice, become reductionist.  We know who the great teachers are.  We remember those teachers from our own schooling who moved us, who cared about us, who treated us with respect, who challenged us individually.  They were the creative, passionate, resourceful teachers who had the judgement to often move off the set curriculum or modify instruction to suit the needs of individual students or the class.  I don't think that giving such high priority to limited goals, particularly when limited mostly to the domains of language arts and mathematics, will encourage this kind of teaching. Again, as a guide, they are great.  As a goal, they are extremely limited.

I have not been shy about my feelings of the limitations of both tenure and union protection.  In an environment of mutual trust and respect, both of these can stifle cooperation and accountability.  For the last four years, I did not have a local union (I still joined the state union).  And I have given up tenure twice without hesitancy.  But in an atmosphere of hostility and false accountability, I am sad to say that both are a necessity to protect those who are judged not for their teaching, but for their loyalty and compliance.  It is folly that you can measure teacher performance as you would profitability in a business.  Great teaching is like great art.  You cannot measure it but you know and appreciate it when you see it.

Lastly are the rubrics that are being used to assess teachers.   It is productive to move to a model where there is thought and consideration as to what is being looked at, there is more standardization in how these things are evaluated and that there are more frequent evaluations and feedback.  But like all those things described about, one need to look at the level of trust and respect, and frankly, the motives of those who are doing the assessing.  In an environment of shared goals, these assessments can be valuable tools.  In an environment of hostility and suspicion, they can be just a more effective way of removing teachers who are seen as bad apples than as a true assessment of performance.

Systems are neither bad nor good.  Great things can happen as well in a school where there is little structure or oversight and in schools where there is an extensive system of routine, discipline and accountability.  The difference is in the purpose, philosophy and atmosphere.  Where there is a consistent, thoughtful and compassionate emphasis and a student centered approach to education, students will thrive.  Any system that takes into account the differences in what motivates individual teachers and students and what can get a community of learners to work together in the best interests of students will be successful.  But instituting a system without a soul is doomed to failure.

No comments: