Tuesday, July 31, 2012
Measuring Teacher Excellence--AGAIN!
Why do we think we can quantify and measure everything?
I read in the New York Times yesterday that some states--New York among them--are moving toward teacher assessments that involve less paper-and-pencil testing (link:Measuring Teachers). That's a good thing. It's obvious that someone can score well on a written teacher-competency test and do poorly in the classroom. (Someone in the article mentions the difference between the written and practical parts of a driver's test.)
It's equally true--though perhaps not so obvious--that someone could earn a mediocre score on the test and dazzle in the classroom. Some of my greatest colleagues were not always the former honors students. The same is true among kids: Some of the best writers I ever taught, for example, sometimes did poorly on standardized writing assessments. I remember one gifted girl who found something in the prompt that interested her, and off she went into the wild blue yonder having the best old time. She failed. "Off topic," said the judges. I'm guessing the people who scored her paper could not in their daffiest fantasies have written something nearly so fine.
Good writing is something complex, even mysterious. But when we decide we're going to test it, we must reduce it to things we can measure--easily and quickly. And so we must remove all the complexity, the mystery. At one school where I taught we had a writing test for all eleventh graders. The students wrote all morning; we graded their papers all afternoon (each paper had two readers). And there we sat--looking for thesis statements and topic sentences and blended quotations and the like (things we could see)--and not really having the time for (or the interest in?) the mystery--the things we could not see.
This new teacher-assessment approach, called "Teacher Performance Assessment," was born at Stanford University and involves, report the Times, "a teacher's daily lesson plans, handouts and assignments ... in addition to their logs about what works, what does not and why." Teachers will also submit videos and "be judged on their ability to deepen reason and problem-solving skills, to gauge how students are learning and to coax their class to cooperate in tackling learning challenges." So ... less paper-and-pencil but still many, many things that are difficult if not impossible to reduce to numbers--at least in a sensible way. We can always put numbers on things--but do those numbers mean anything?
So can we measure teacher excellence in this new system? No problem. The Times reports that "trained evaluators" (that's code for poorly paid people employed by a company that will make a fortune) will handle the tricky stuff--the videos, the lesson plans and such. Trust us.
It must be very frustrating for the we-can-quantify-and-measure-anything folks to encounter something so densely complex and even ethereal as teaching. Something so ... so ... artistic. For teaching is very much like an art, and, like an art, it is so hard to quantify and measure.
The Trained Evaluators fill out their checklists. Submit the data to their company. Where minimum-wage workers scan and/or keyboard the raw data into some sort of database. The hard drive whirs a bit; the printer hums. And out come reports with ... numbers! And graphs and charts and lists of "strengths" and "weaknesses" and "commendations" and "suggestions for improvement." An administrator sits down with Picasso, goes over the numbers. Shows him how he can do a better Old Guitarist next time ...
Okay, we're not all Picassos in the classroom. But I do believe that teaching is principally an art, that teachers are artists. Much of what they do is simply not the sort of thing we can reduce to a number, despite the demands of politicians that we do so.
Just think: the differences between a great kindergarten teacher and a great AP Calculus teacher ... the wonderful lesson plan that fizzles ... the day there really wasn't much of a plan (things were chaotic at home last night, you know?) yet magic flowered in the room ... the bright kid who came to school angry, who couldn't focus ... the quiet child who rarely speaks but inhales all ... the kid who talks all the time, says little ... the boy who's so in love he hears nothing but the sound of her voice, playing and replaying in his imagination's iPod ... the teacher who's feeling a cold coming on (but is in the room today anyway because, well, it's where he'd rather be) ... the kid who hates to read and never does ... the kid whose parents have no hope for him ... the classroom that's too cold (Can't they turn the heat up?) ... the girl who forgot her lunch money ... the boy who's afraid to go to gym today ...
.. and on and on and on and on ...
I guess what I'd really like to see in all of this is some more humility. Some folks just seem so certain that tests are the answer to every ill in education. Test the kids, teachers, administrators--but not, of course, the Board members or the parents, who, obviously, have nothing to do with student success. Or the politicians, who mandate all of this madness.
As I've grumbled here before ... it seems to me that the current atmosphere in public education--test, test, test--leads us away from the kind of broad, general education I believe in and takes us toward that horrifying place where all kids in the country are doing the same (measurable) thing on the same day in the same way. (Hey, we homogenize milk--why not kids, too?) This sort of uniform educational environment does far more than narcotize children; it discourages bright, creative young people (our artists) from entering a profession that more and more resembles assembly-line work. (Check out Chaplin's Modern Times for some footage on the wonders of that enterprise! MODERN TIMES, 1936, factory scene)
Of course we want knowledgeable people in our classrooms--skilled people with capacious minds and hearts. People who feel most liberated when they're working hard. People, in other words, who are artists. And they are out there, believe me. I taught with scores of them in my forty-five-year career.
But it will be hard to attract new ones into today's classrooms unless we once again acknowledge (and value) the mystery of good teaching, until we do something to dissipate this thick miasma of standardization that now threatens to pervade all.