Teacher evaluation rules: Welcome to the pressure cooker
Kids are, by definition, not adults, and they’re not interested in grown-ups’ measures of quality. And yet, the N.M. Public Education Department wants teachers’ jobs to be based on tests taken by kids for whom there is no personal consequence. What will it mean for them when the weight of our careers rests in their little hands?
Editor’s note: This is Part 2 of Agranat’s commentary. Read Part 1 here.
Teaching to the test is a sad fact these days. Schools narrow curricula to make “progress” on standardized tests. Reading and math scores on high-stakes tests in grades 4-8 and 11 are used to calculate school A-F ratings. Kids enter middle school lacking science skills and social studies knowledge. The focus on test scores has done serious harm.
The new teacher evaluations from the N.M. Public Education Department will only make it worse. A full 50 percent of every teacher’s evaluation will be based on student standardized test scores.
Parents in North Carolina demanded a change from this system when their kids were constantly subjected to high-stakes tests. This spring, “In Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, officials jettisoned 52 end-of-the-year exams last month that were created to measure teacher effectiveness after parents complained… The exams were used for only one year before being scrapped.” The money spent on tests was enormous, and completely wasted.
Instructional practices will also change, not according to the needs of students, but in alignment with the tests. Teachers will focus on what can be assessed with a #2 pencil, and cut time-consuming activities that expand thinking, encourage exploration, inspire students and enrich lives.
We can say “so long” to the science lab, and “farewell” to the class play.
Measurable, agonizingly dull activities
The best things about school cannot be measured with standardized tests. Kids work with friends in science labs, explore water density and build mechanical toys from rubber bands and popsicle sticks. They make scale models of the solar system running the entire length of the hallways. They have CSI workshops, and dissect creatures great and small.
Students put on plays. They act out predators and prey in the animal kingdom, perform scenes from favorite novels, and put on fake beards to recite the Gettysburg Address. These highly enriching, interesting, and I dare say fun activities are in jeopardy because the skills gleaned from those projects can’t, and won’t, be tested.
When jobs are at stake, creativity gets sidelined. As much as teachers want to inspire students, self-preservation is human nature.
Students will still learn the animal kingdom and the Gettysburg Address, but will regurgitate testable material with fewer exploratory opportunities. Classes will consist of measurable, agonizingly dull activities.
Hands-on courses will require standardized tests, too, though before they are developed or purchased, elective teachers’ evaluations will be based on other subjects. In Tennessee, P.E. teachers’ evaluations are absurdly based on their students’ reading scores.
Even course-specific pencil-and-paper tests are problematic in performing and visual arts. Instead of making art, students study facts and analysis. Drama students bubble in how many plays Shakespeare wrote, Band students write a D-minor scale, but the heart of the class, the kids’ acting and playing skills, are ignored.
On Colorado’s first grade art test, 6-year olds are asked to ”Write three colors Picasso used to show feeling or emotion.” They should instead be experiencing and enjoying art.
Taking time away from actual learning
When we realize that we are killing creativity, we may decide to evaluate elective teachers with student portfolios instead. Then, teachers of different subjects would be evaluated on different scales. If language arts and math teachers’ evaluations are based on test scores while arts teachers use portfolios, there will be conflict, jealousy, resentment and possible undermining of each other’s work.
This should never happen in a school. The team of teachers who support a student’s experience must be cohesive and collaborative. We know what is best for kids, and division between teachers is not it.
Morale will sink and we could drive our best teachers away. Washington, D.C. was the first to model this new evaluation system. They now have a turnover rate – among good teachers – that is nearly twice the national average.
School reputations, letter grades and penalties are already contingent on test scores. The stakes are high and students feel tremendous stress around testing season. The anxiety level at schools is palpable. Adults are on edge, and kids get confused and inconvenienced by test security measures. The test preparation is tedious, and the testing itself is brutal.
Preparing for testing, kids learn how to fill in bubbles, how to write a paragraph within a box, (rather than on lined paper), how to narrow down a multiple-choice answer, and how to get to the testing room. We spend weeks “inspiring” kids to do well through pep rallies, speeches, slogans and motivational films.
All of these activities help kids get ready for testing. All of these activities take time away from actual learning.
Welcome to the pressure cooker of teacher evaluations. The already high stakes will reach an extreme. Students who like their teachers will panic about their performance. Students who dislike their teachers will find an opportunity for revenge. Teachers may avoid disciplining students because angry kids could lead to poor evaluations. Teachers may resent the kids who don’t test well, avoid those with special needs, are easily distracted, struggle to learn English, or are not interested in the subject.
Washington, D.C. is considering waiving teacher evaluations in low-income schools because teachers are leaving in droves to avoid getting fired for poor ratings. According to the Education Policy Analysis Archives, “A teacher who teaches less advantaged students in a given course or year typically receives lower effectiveness ratings than the same teacher teaching more advantaged students in a different course or year.”
The lowest grades routinely go to the schools and teachers serving students with the greatest need.
PED released the new A-F grades this week. The Albuquerque map clearly shows that schools in high poverty areas received D’s and F’s while those in affluent areas got A’s and B’s, despite the fact that the formula ostensibly accounted for poverty. It is illogical and insulting to say that all of the teachers working in affluent neighborhoods are terrific, and that the high poverty schools employ nothing but losers. But this is what test score based evaluations will show.
The N.M. Public Education Department wants teachers’ jobs to be based on tests taken by kids for whom there is no personal consequence. There are serious flaws in any system that determines one person’s worth through another person’s actions.
Parents know that kids don’t always do their best, and don’t always follow (or understand) directions. Children and teens are subject to strange and irrational motivations and react to pressure in unpredictable ways. Kids are not interested in grown-ups’ measures of quality. They are not motivated by our values, only by theirs. They are, by definition, not adults.
What will it mean for them when the weight of our careers rests in their little hands?
Hearing being held Wednesday
The PED hearing on the proposed teacher evaluation changes will be held Wednesday in Santa Fe. Their newsletter says they “encourage everyone to attend and express (their) views.” I hope we all take them up on this offer.
Alyssa Agranat is a teacher with Albuquerque Public Schools.
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