The Teacher Voice in Data-Driven Accountability

We hear a lot these days about what I call “3-D reform,”—data-driven decision making and about using tests to improve teaching and learning. Sadly, in this respect, too often, testing has replaced instruction; data has replaced professional judgment; compliance has replaced excellence; and so-called leadership has replaced teacher professionalism.

What is really happening is that more than ever there is this industrial techno-centric view of teachers as interchangeable cogs in an education enterprise. This approach rewards their compliance above their creativity, and results in the denigration of teachers and disregard for their contributions to learning.

Consequently, and with good reason, teachers often say they feel they are the targets and not the agents of reform. Their “wisdom of practice” and real world experience with children is discounted or disregarded in policy-making deliberations and decision making.

Teachers’ voices must be an integral part of the conversation; they are on the ground, they know what works, they know what kids need to succeed, and we must attend to their experiences, suggestions and requests.

When faced with dilemmas of public education, the route of “least resistance” and, I might add, of least effectiveness, is the “teacher proof” road. Rather than invest in teachers, and capitalize on their knowledge, policymakers and administrators attempt to create systems that they hope will obviate the need for excellent teachers. They attempt to substitute cook book curricula, step-by-step instructional practices, computer-based instruction and bubble-in testing, instead of rich, student-centered teaching and learning.

What policymakers and administrators fail to understand is the role teachers might have, and the responsibility they ought to have, in improving the quality of schooling and raising the level of the performance of students. They often presume that teachers do not have the interest or ability to help shape a context for learning, including shaping the profession itself.

I believe that it is this failure to make teachers full participants in shaping school improvement that so limits reform efforts. In today’s model of teaching, teachers are given the responsibility for educating children, but not the authority to influence the education policies and practices necessary to get the job done. But without harnessing their experience, judgment, expertise, and professionalism, we will not succeed.

So what does this mean for the new, “data-driven accountability” that policymakers and more recently the public are calling for and that this conference would like to see? How do we incorporate the teacher voice? How do we create a school improvement model that values and respects teacher professionalism?

The focus on data has all too often been defined narrowly as standardized assessments, which has led to the unintended and unfortunate result that test scores, almost exclusively standardized multiple choice tests, have become synonymous with learning; and, regrettably, in all too many places, test preparation has been substituted for teaching.

Consider New York’s example. City schools are awash in testing.

Teachers want their kids to succeed. They hold themselves accountable for their students’ performance. One tool that teachers need and value is reliable data about student progress and achievement. Standardized tests can provide such data, but they are not the only evidence that teachers rely on to determine student learning.

In fact, even the test-makers acknowledge that. All agree that their assessments, especially just a single one, were not designed to be the basis of high-stakes decisions that determine students’ and teachers’ futures. Although they may be good measures for aggregate groups, they are too one-dimensional and simply not reliable enough in individual instances.

And teachers teach many important things in addition to skills and facts—complex problem solving, civility, aesthetic appreciation, moral values to name a few—and these are things that cannot be delivered in canned programs or assessed on a multiple choice, machine readable test. This evidence, along with standardized test results must be part of the mix in any responsible data-driven accountability system.

But this is currently not the case, In 2006, in response to widespread concerns of parents, teachers and students about the current testing regime in New York City, I formed a Task Force whose purpose was to make recommendations to policy makers about how to reduce the amount of high-stakes testing and make it useful to improving the quality of instruction. What did we find?

We found that test preparation and paperwork related to testing has replaced a big chunk of instruction in our schools. A survey of our teachers showed an average of one day a week spent on test-related work, and during the 7 or 8 weeks prior to each of the tests, a third of instructional time was devoted to test prep.

More important is that management has used the accountability systems and the data that support them in high stakes, punitive ways that demoralize children and their teachers.

It is important to stress here, that it is not testing per se that is the problem. The problem is the excessive testing and the inappropriate linking of the results to important decisions about a student’s or school’s future, without regard to other evidence that might give a more accurate picture of the situation and lead to more productive remedies.

We found that the city’s focus on testing and test-driven accountability puts inordinate pressure on schools, teachers and students. It skews the instructional environment and replaces a “culture of learning” with a “culture of testing.” As one teacher put it “Students are being taught to take tests, to figure out what the test wants one to say and then to say it. They are not being taught to be critical thinkers.”

This constant focus on testing narrows the curriculum by concentrating only on the skills and knowledge needed to pass the tests. Our survey also revealed that many elementary schools spent more time on test prep than on instruction in social studies and science combined!

In other words, the test score, not learning has become the goal of education. Worse still, the ceaseless focus on the test decreases flexibility in professional decision making regarding curriculum, student placement and promotion and the like. Many teachers bristle at this lack of respect for their professional judgment regarding the education and future of the students they teach every day. They say that principals and administrators prefer to look only at student test scores on a single test when making decisions about kids, ignoring teacher input.

So at the end of the day what do teachers experience as data-driven accountability in NYC? What do they see? They see a system managed by non-educators, under the guise of a business model—who impose a massive system of management, measurement and surveillance of schools, teachers and students largely to punitive ends. As Peter Sachs, author of “Standardized Minds,” has observed, in such a system “teachers are poised to become little more than production-line functionaries…who merely feed their students the correct data to pass the next test.”

In such an environment, teachers are told to increase student test scores but they are not given the time and resources to examine the meaning behind the test scores, investigate root causes, and propose viable solutions. Given their experiences, is it any wonder that many teachers and other educators are wary of calls for “data-driven accountability?” But it needn’t be that way.

So what do we Need? What might an evidence-based, data-driven accountability system look like and what role must teachers play in such a system?

Let me say first, information is important, but alone it won’t make us free. More data does not always add up to useful data.

We do not need another hammer with which to beat educators into submission and compliance. A rigid compliance mode does not foster creativity, nor does it exploit talent in the search for solutions. Rather we need a different orientation to school reform, one that shifts from compliance to capacity building; one that encourages creativity and risk taking in lieu of obedience and intimidation; and one that increases teachers’ knowledge and skills and uses that expertise to improve achievement.

The data-driven decision making system that I envision moves school districts and schools away from continually reorganizing to solve poorly understood problems and instead causes them to deliberate collectively with teachers to identify and focus on the “right problems,” ones over which the schools have control, problems that are clearly and narrowly defined, and that have a high potential for affecting student effort and learning.

Creating such a system requires leadership, new roles and responsibilities for educators, a collegial environment focused on finding solutions. In short, it requires recognizing the professionalism and contribution teachers can make to reform. Such a system is developed with teachers, not imposed upon them.

In my system, the central role of the principal is not enforcer, but rather facilitator. The principal is the individual who creates the environment in which collaborative problem solving and the hard work of teachers as researchers and instructional leaders can occur. Doing that work requires restructuring school time so teachers can analyze data, examine alternative hypotheses, explore best practices and help their colleagues improve practice and implement new instructional methods.

In such a system, teachers are not cogs in a delivery system but partners in planning and delivering instruction and improving performance through continual evaluation of data—test scores, student work, teacher, student and community attitudinal and satisfaction data, program and process data—against academic standards and organizational goals.

In my proposed accountability system, data are a means to reform; they are not the reform itself. I am talking about creating an environment in which teachers routinely and collaboratively study the data, ask questions, call for different presentations of the information, look for patterns, and examine the inconsistencies and gaps in the data sets that must be understood or resolved. They need to be able to formulate hypotheses, to look behind the data and ask “why?” and they need to devise strategies to deal effectively with the “whys” when they discern them.

This model requires understanding that teachers are not restricted to the box called the classroom, but rather that they must have a say in school and district decision making, and that their voice must be informed by data that they can interrogate to find causes and solutions to the problems that have plagued schooling for too long.

Einstein said, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” We need to figure out what must count in education and how to measure it.

  • First, we need to develop a range of student outcome measures —behavioral, cognitive, civic and attitudinal—that are essential if students are to function successfully in a democratic society and in a global economy; and
  • Second, we need to create valid and reliable methods for determining teacher and school contributions to that achievement.

We will not solve the problems of education by creating data driven accountability systems where data becomes our enemy and not our ally—or eats up so much instructional time that teachers’ creativity and ingenuity are snuffed out. It is time to think differently and act boldly. The union is ready; will others be as well?

–Guestblogger Randi Weingarten

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