Will Rating Teachers Really Improve our Schools?

 

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The Boston Globe published an opinion article* that decries the “disconnect between Boston’s teacher ratings and how the schools are performing”. The author, Lawrence Harmon, asks “why only about a third of Boston’s third graders in district schools read at an advanced or proficient level?” …if only 5.8 of Boston teachers need improvement and just 1.2 percent are unsatisfactory. He implies that teacher ratings are grossly inflated. Yet, there is no consideration for exactly what these numbers measure.

To suggest that teacher ratings should correlate to how schools perform is a huge oversimplification. Standardized test scores are not normalized for effects of poverty, parental education, first language, disability, transience, class size, availability of educational materials, etc. We have already done a huge amount of harm to our students and our schools with data that labels them under-performing. Our public schools are actually improving and the majority of teachers are very dedicated, and take responsibility for student learning. No one should give media attention to our public schools until they have read the book Reign of Error by the noted Columbia University professor, Diane Ravitch.

Our public schools and teachers have been degraded and demoralized using standardized test data. Granted, there are a small percentage of incompetent employees in all organizations, public and private. Schools are no different, so why do we single out the teaching profession? No one has defined what truly makes a good school or a good teacher. Pompous policy makers, data crunchers and think tanks ignore the true purpose of education: to build on what students know with instruction that is relevant to their lives in order to prepare them for successful futures. Standardized test scores do not reflect the quality of schools in the context of their true purpose. Similarly, teacher rating systems do not attempt to measure the most important component of good teaching. As evidenced by the students themselves in a video on the state’s web site, this is ability to motivate, interact, relate and care about their students.  Student Video

Publicly rating teachers, professionals (with as much college education as attorneys), is truly demeaning. To claim that the variables that impact student performance are excuses is ridiculous. Mr. Harmon states that “great urban police departments…take responsibility for the crime rate…” Yet, we wouldn’t dream of evaluating police departments and officers based on a comparison with the average crime rates for the entire state. This makes about as much sense as evaluating public defenders on the percentage of guilty clients they are assigned, or doctors based on the percentage of their patients who die.

* Boston Teacher Ratings Don’t Add Up by Lawrence Harmon,  The Boston Globe, November 30, 2013.

Time for a New Paradigm: A Model of Education for the Future

Education is not about test scores. It’s about preparing students for a productive life. It’s about helping all students find a purpose, a passion, and a meaningful way to make a living. It’s about teaching students:

  • Reading in English to open countless doors;
  • Math to solve problems logically and to have the tools for financial literacy;
  • Writing to communicate effectively,
  • Social studies to understand the meaning of good citizenship, our place in the global economy, and world politics;
  • Science to understand nature, health, and spark innovations for the future; and
  • Fine and performing arts to find beauty and to appreciate expressions of culture in our world.

Education should foster child-like curiosity and creativity, key ingredients of life-long learning. If we are spending billions on creating standards, tests, accountability systems, and a myriad of curricular materials, we are not spending this money on educating our students. Our current system demands that one size fits all. Our students are not all alike. They have distinct talents, diverse backgrounds, and very different needs. Future engineers need four years of high school math; future landscapers, artists and chefs do not.

What a costly, horrific mess we have made of public education in America. It has perpetrated a whole industry of test makers, consultants, statisticians, and curriculum developers, costing us billions of dollars. In the name of accountability, we strive to preserve an ineffective system, where educating the student is not the priority.

We urgently need to stop, re-examine education, and create a new vision before it’s too late. As Buckminster Fuller said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

An example of a geodesic dome based on Fuller's design

The geodesic dome based on Fuller’s design at Epcot Center http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Epcot07.jpg

This new model needs these elements:

  • Dedicated, visionary leaders and respected teachers who focus on the students;
  • Unlimited, organized curricular materials in all subject areas;
  • Student leaders who are rewarded for their efforts and recognized for their talents;
  • A parent, guardian or involved adult; and
  • A system that makes this possible.

Successful schools build a leadership team that understands what their students need and finds ways to meet these needs; this includes students with language, cognitive, emotional and social issues as well as those with abilities and talents that require nurturing. Leaders need to understand the mission and be able to implement all aspects of making a meaningful education a reality for all their students.  In James C. Collins’ book From Good to Great, the author starts with importance of “getting the right people on the bus.”

All curricular materials should become part of a national repository, available to all online, coded to essential standards, vetted for accuracy, and keyed sequentially to depth of understanding. Wikipedia has made encyclopedias obsolete; similarly, this repository would make textbooks a costly thing of the past. The power of technology vastly improves curricular resources with embedded videos, assessments, hyperlinks, text-to-speech, ease of access, and lack of printing costs.

Grade levels would be based upon student mastery, not chronological age. In the early years of schooling, students would work on basic skills on the computer, in small groups with the teacher, whole class activities, and in pairs, as appropriate. Skill mastery would be measured by the computer assessments. Students would progress, as in martial arts or scouts, by earning their badges or belts for completion and then moving to the next level.  Students demonstrating proficiency and a desire to tutor may be paired with others needing more help.  More mature students can be formally developed as tutors to assist struggling students. Groups of students with similar interests can work on projects that foster creativity, apply knowledge, and develop collaborative skills.

The teacher’s role will be one of a good coach. Teachers will be expected to:

  • Have in-depth knowledge of and a passion for their subject;
  • Know their students, their strengths and weaknesses;
  • Schedule class and group activities;
  • Monitor each student’s progress;
  • Encourage students’ talents and keep them challenged.

The school leadership will set a culture of high expectations with all students and teachers working to realize their fullest potential. Collaboration among teachers, peers and parents will be the norm. Every teacher and student in every school will have a portable electronic device with access to the repository. Instead of one mass of marginally meaningful data that our present testing scores provide, computer systems will set standard competency levels in all subjects and then include multiple paths for students to pursue until they have met sufficient requirements for graduation with a marketable set of skills or preparation to pursue advanced studies. Parents will be able to access the repository as well as their child’s progress electronically.

The need for legislation, policies, and earmarked funds for specific groups of students would no longer be necessary. This new model would meet the needs of all students and truly provide an appropriate education for each and every one. It’s time for this new paradigm.

Life is like a game of Pac-Man: Priorities in Education

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Life is like a game of Pac-man. It’s hard to remember that the objective is to clear the board of dots when you are busy running from the monsters. Take education, for example, we are busy with school security, gun control, bullying policies, teacher training, standardized testing, evaluating teachers to name just a few of the monsters distracting us from the real task of education. Because of an obsession with data, we label students, schools and districts underperforming. When the true significance of the data is questioned, the response is to collect more data, to slice and dice it longitudinally, and to try to justify it.

We have forgotten that the real task is to clear the dots, to prepare all students to be self-supporting, contributing members of society, to be educated to make their life’s work something they are passionate about, or at least interested in.  Education involves such life skills as the ability to plan ahead, to problem solve, and to work with others. To achieve this goal, it is essential that we recruit and train good teachers and provide them with the resources to teach. They will be able to build self-esteem through high standards, hard work and encouragement. The monsters of false fairness, unearned praise, social promotion and fear have kept us running for too long.

To clear the board, we need to find the talents and abilities of our students and to encourage and build on these. The more we try to make the future Isadora Duncans into scientists and the gym class klutzes into athletes, the less likely we are to succeed.