Help Wanted

So the teachers’ unions start the week with the simply devastating New Yorker story on New York’s “rubber rooms” and end with this sharp-edged Times editorial on Race to the Top and accountability that singles them out as a problem.

Time to either get some new PR help or, even better, get some new policies?

Update:  First they lose The New Yorker, now they’ve even lost Sherman Dorn?

Update II:  Tom Vander Ark says the ‘for sale’ sign is out.

11 Replies to “Help Wanted”

  1. I have noticed that very few non-teachers, even very intelligent ones, such the author of the New Yorker article, haven’t got the slightest idea why teachers don’t want to be evaluated on the basis of student test scores. Let me try to explain:

    Standardized tests, whether norm-referenced or criterion-referenced, are based on grade level subject matter. So a test that a fifth grader takes would have many items that are on a fifth grade level, with some items below that level and some above.

    If a teacher teaches in a middle class community where most of the children are on grade level, there is no problem, but let’s take a class in an urban district where at least a third of the students are significantly below grade level. This means that in a fifth grade class there might be as many as ten children who come to school in September at a second or third grade level. This is actually very common, especially where students speak English as a second language. Even if the students progress one or two years during the academic year, there will be very few items on the test that are at their level of achievement. Thus it might appear that they have learned nothing. This scenerio is very disheartening to teachers and might be the number one reason why teachers try to get transfers to “better” schools. I predict that once teachers are evaluated on the basis of these tests, very few will agree to teach in low-performing districts.

    That is not the only problem with standardized tests. Most of them are delivered to schools a week or so before they are administered. Principals often pressure teachers to “familiarize yourself” with the test. Teachers know that drilling the students on test items invalidates the tests and many are uncomfortable doing it. Scrupulous teachers are at a great disadvantage if they give the test correctly (i.e. without looking at it first). TEST ITEMS ARE SAMPLES AND ARE NOT SUPPOSED TO BE TAUGHT TO THE STUDENTS DIRECTLY. There is a lot of evidence that in “miracle” schools, teachers are just drilling on the test from September to May. Of course these results are totally invalid and don’t represent real learning. Any testing expert will support this. I find it interesting that some school superintendents think that drilling the students on the test is the same as teaching the curriculum!!!

    This is not to say that tests cannot be used to evaluate teachers. They can be, but they will have to be developed and administered carefully so they will be sensitive to the progress of each child in the class. Does such a test exist? Also, with the jobs of teachers at stake, these tests will need the security of the SAT and other high-stakes tests. That will prove expensive. Are citizens prepared to pay for that type of testing?

    It’s not that difficult to evaluate a teacher, but common sense should tell people that a single test isn’t going to do the job.

  2. The testing regime allows educators to rationalize a host of behaviors that they know are wrong. Think of the typical school year as it develops in many districts:

    1. Early in the year, the recent test data is not available for one reason or another, sometimes through sheer negligence at the building level, sometimes because the information is still in process. Either way, this vital data will not appear until weeks or months into the calendar.

    2. Instruction proceeds. Perhaps an alternate assessment is used. This assessment eats up a week of instructional time and is administered three times before spring. Now we have sacrificed seven weeks or so to the testing god.

    3. When the previous year’s data arrives, administrators panic and issue fiats about shoring up certain parts of the curriculum. Let’s say this micromanagement costs two weeks of coherent, integrated instructional time (conservative estimate).

    4. The tests start rolling around in March, April, and May. The bravest teachers will stick with their curriculum all the way up to the test day. This takes a lot of nerve as the leadership quakes. Most teachers start the drilling and test-prep at least a month before test day. The drilling and test prep is not instruction and it’s a crime that another four weeks, say, is used up.

    5. The tests nominally take three days, but they take a week of instruction away, at least.

    6. If the test is given in late April or early May, many teachers do little but show movies until the end of the year. This “winding down” is permitted as a reward for enduring all the testing strain. The cost is about four weeks.

    The testing regime makes weak teachers worse. It confuses and oppresses new teachers. It freaks out the leaders and provokes them into Charge of the Light Brigade commands. In June, the children watch Disney movies as the year ticks away. The books are already stored. Think of the boredom, the lack of purpose, the waste of time.

  3. Linda’s claims are easily addressed (and have been before). Even students who enter the school year at below grade level can and should show growth on these assessments. 1 or 2 years of growth will be hard to ignore when compared to past assessment data for the student. I taught a class which was on average 4% proficient when looking at past data. I didn’t throw my hands up in the air and give up. I worked with the kids to build up those scores by the end of my year with them. The kids were nowhere near 100% proficient, but there was still growth.

    That some tests have poor implementation on a school site does not render the entire concept of testing as also poor. Claims like “most of them are delivered to schools a week or so before they are administered” are disingenuous, unless Linda can provide evidence that most of all of the standardized testing done in America falls victim to these faults.

    I also enjoy claims against testing because they always mention “drilling” in some capacity. Most of you are teachers. When did “drilling” *ever* work for your kids, testing-wise or in general? Is there evidence that rote learning increases test scores?

    I’d also imagine rstanton exaggerates just a bit with the claim of losing “seven weeks” because of assessments in just the beginning of the year, or that these assessments cause teachers to show Disney movies for weeks at a time. Really, I hadn’t known.

  4. I’m a dues-paying member where my state is a merged affiliate, and that’ll stay. To borrow from Shimon Peres, my unions remain my unions, and a mistake remains a mistake.

    FWIW, I think the NEA-RttT dynamics are different from the UFT-NYCDOE dynamics. I am not a Secret Master of Union Relations Forever (SMURF*), but I can see at least two possible strategies behind the UFT positions on the rubber-room issue. Both are consistent with expressed values of UFT leaders.

    On the other hand, I have no clue what’s behind the NEA comments apart from pleasing internal constituencies at the expense of the forum’s possibility, and this was a bewildering time to make that choice. [Insert platitude here about Ted Kennedy’s being able to make compromises because liberals trusted he was getting the best deal in most cases.]

  5. While I have a problem with using testing as a sole indicator of teacher effectiveness, I can see how a clueless government bureaucracy would cling to anything it could possibly pass off as being an objective measurement. Nowhere on most of these tests is there anything to measure “student disposition at time of test.” Teach adolescents? When I was in high school, my best friend (who went on to graduate from Harvard) drew Bozo a-la Lite Brite on his bubble answer sheet. I’m sure he did wonders for his school’s/teacher’s test score averages.

    I agree that there must be more teacher accountability, I don’t want to be accountable for the apathy that pervades adolescent academic life. I teach in an “over-privileged” community, where kids have air conditioners, 50-inch plasmas, computers and game systems in their rooms. These kids have no reason to work for anything. Many of these students see themselves as put upon by standardized testing, and do not put forth an honest effort. Not too much activity on the radar in Washington to shore up this glaring lack of controls in the “experiment.”

    I’d like for unions to police themselves. I’d like for them to cut loose “bad teachers.” I’d also like to see thoughtful, objective criteria for what a bad teacher looks like. Or a good one. Sure, we’ve all had bad teachers. But what are some commonalities that we can pinpoint?

    I think one of the biggest problems is that teachers have to have a great deal of emotional/social intelligence, which isn’t easily measured by teacher certification programs. One can be a Rhodes Scholar, but if one cannot reach students…

  6. Chris Smyr

    Four weeks: the last year’s test results are delayed at the vendor, state, district, and building level.

    Three weeks: the school administers MAPS or some other duplicate assessment, in three or four separate sessions. The logistics are botched, delays ensue.

    The movie-watching binge after tests are shipped? Not going to happen in a well-run school, but many schools are poorly run. You should investigate this in the late spring. I’ll bet you’ll hear the sounds of Ali Baba.

  7. And so you can’t teach for four weeks because you don’t have the data yet? To claim that testing is inhibiting your instruction by a matter of weeks would imply that the kids are actually testing for that period of time, or doing something that prevents them from learning.

    It’s a mad world where we blame the tests instead of the teachers who choose not to teach their students.

  8. Chris Smyr
    You’re right. The teachers who don’t teach the students are the actual culprits. I’m saying that the testing regime, as it exists, fosters the kind of non-instruction you rightly object to. In my own situation, the test results won’t come in until November. You may think this is also an exaggeration, but I’ve got no reason to shade the truth. The information is nearly useless, since I will have taught most of the course by then (4 -block h.s.). I’m saying that testing, with all the weight that’s put on it, just doesn’t deliver much, and it has a huge downside. When the focus of the school year is testing, then the tail is wagging the dog. Any policy that gives testing an even higher profile should be seriously looked at.

  9. That some teachers refuse to teach is not fostered by testing in the slightest, so let’s draw some lines when we start listing causal factors here. If we want to go through that futile exercise anyway, go ahead and also lay the blame on standards, block schedules, professional development, the limited 24 hours in a day, Race to the Top, Obama, etc…. All of these excuses would “foster” bad teaching in the same way as testing does. Were there no tests, there would still be bad schools and teachers, perhaps showing Disney movies more frequently, maybe spreading them throughout the year, letting the teacher even show the same movie twice (perhaps more often; I saw Dragonheart 5 times in 8th grade math)!

    Your initial comment argued “we have sacrificed seven weeks or so to the testing god”, but you really just meant that you didn’t get the data when it should have been released. That doesn’t imply your situation is the norm, nor does it have any bearing on if you can instruct students or not in the meantime. It exaggerates your plight and falsely accuses testing of not delivering much when, really, its main purpose is still apparent: benchmarked, standardized data to inform future instruction/training/administration.

  10. Do students always try on the tests? Is there anything in it for them?

    One middle-school year my parents were called to the principal’s office. For some reason I had done uncharacteristically poorly on the standardized test we were given. Everyone was disturbed. They brought me in and asked if anything was going on that day, etc. “Oh. Well, I traded tests with Jolene,” I told them.

    I wonder if Jolene’s parents got a call to the office as well.

    I also used to not answer the reading questions if the text was too boring (common). I used to not answer the math questions if the test-writers didn’t provide enough information to solve the problem, even if I knew what they intended.

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