Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Reflections on "teacher evaluation," an issue in the Chicago teachers' strike

In the midst of the Chicago teachers' strike, is the conundrum of how to evaluate teachers.
And, with  accounting, accountability, and demonstrated "value for investment" in the corporate world having subsumed the whole culture, who is surprised that several quarters are arguing for a certain percentage of the evaluation to be based on student test scores. The percentage figure ranges from a low of 25% to a high of 50%. And both figures are far too high.
First, tying "my" salary to the level of "achievement" by students on specific tests means a number of things to me:
  1. It means that my family's budget is also now tied to those scores.
  2. It means that I insist on taking as much time as needed in class, from the rest of the curriculum, for practising those tests, for assuring that students in my class are going to do as well as I can possibly help them to achieve.
  3. It means that my "performance" is going to be graded "socially, politically, culturally and economically" by everyone who knows me personally, professionally and barely at all.
  4. It means that if my students do not do well, in the tests this semester, my timetable for next semester's teaching assignments will be tailored to my perceived failure, at least in my mind.
  5. It means that all enthusiasm for both teaching and learning that have supported and sustained me for the X number of decades I have taught, will drain considerably, with this new perspective on my "teaching" credentials, where it counts most, in both the pocketbook and in my professional reputation.
  6. It means that curiosity, creativity and subjectivity will be sacrificed on the altar of objectivity, science, math, statistics and I will be categorized by my level of ROI (Return on Investment).
  7. It also means that on the day I receive the notice that my teaching performance will be graded even partially, like as low as  10% on student test scores, will be the same day, or at least the day before, I submit my resignation from the teaching profession.
These are not negotiable items for me. My union, my teachers' professional association, and my twenty-odd years of successful teaching in the classroom, by all reports at least, will not mean a thing, should those test scores put a  negative ranking on my performance, considering all the variables that go into a student's perfomance on those tests. There is the home situation, the level of hunger, the respect for learning in the home, in the community, the reading levels at home, in the school and in the community, the place where my students sleep, including the comfort of the bed, not to mention the intellectual aptitude, capacity and level of interest and motivation of each student, generally and specifically on the day of the test. If a student is harbouring a "grudge" against me, and has been feeling ill-disposed to the way I marked his or her last assignment, that will show up on the results of the test, especially if s/he knows that my professional reputation will be bruised by his/her negative performance.
And then there is the testing instrument itself. For grading purposes, it will likely be a type of multiple choice test because they can be submitted to a computer for grading, eliminating the need for extra "pay" for marking those tests. Also multiple choice tests have earned a reputation for objectivity, and hence reliability, and validity, all requirements of a statistical model, without meeting the specific learning goals of, for example, an English language and Literature curriculum which requires the production of words, sentences, paragraphs, and extended themes in order to demonstrate some command of those aspects of language, including the normal and expected use of interesting and captivating metaphors, and all of the other literary devices, including some mastery not merely of the content and context of their deployment by respected and published writers, but their deployment in the writing of the students themselves. And multiple choice testing will not "cut it", as the vernacular expresses it.
If we want to pour facts and equations and definitions into our students, perhaps a multiple choice test will suffice to demonstrate whether or not the contents of those "pourings" have  been assimilated.
But learning is much more than the assimilation of facts, equations and definitions and a testing instrument worthy of the challenge, especially when both the student's performance and my performance as an instructor are "on the line," must include the integration of facts, definitions, equations in their support of both oral and written communication.
I always considered "education" and the learning that constitutes the process as being from the Latin root, e-ducere, to lead out of or out from...meaning that we were to bring to consciousness what was already hidden and uncovered in the students' minds, not merely to attempt to attach some new concepts to a portion of the brain, for the purpose of regurgitation come exam time.
And that extremely complex and sensitive and human interaction needs highly sensitive and complex and reliable measures to test the effectiveness of whatever processes are being engaged in the classroom.
Most politicians know literally and metaphorically nothing about teaching and learning.
And the level of the rung on the political ladder that the politician has reached has no bearing on that opinion. In fact, there is clear evidence that politicians have been misguided in their apprehension and appreciation of the learning process in North America for decades, considering their worship at the altar of both dollars spent and numbers of students in a class, including numbers of graduates, as a percentage of enrollment.
We have created, by our hubris and the complicity of several groups, including politicians, at the provincial and state level, and at the local level, the teachers and the administrators, a system that refuses to accept, acknowledge and face head-on the question of student achievement, including the need to examine student failure. We have students being "pushed through" to the next grade level, because the political climate demands that because their parents are paying taxes, they are entitled to a graduation diploma, even when, in many cases, that diploma means less and less each year, and not only because of the rising demand of higher education among graduates at all levels, in the workplace.
We have also, together, through both overt and willful manipulation combined with lethargy, apathy and silence,  generated a "business model" for governments, including schools, libraries, hospitals and even roads and bridges that is inappropriate for the work involved, and the kinds of results it expects.
By reducing students to numbers, teachers to numbers, administrators to numbers and a societal model of organization to the corporation,(itself based exclusively on the manipulation of numbers) including civic governments, and thereby taxpayers as well, we have sucked all the gas out of the shock absorbers needed for the societal "car" to move smoothly through the pot-holes, and the floods and the windstorms and even the hurricanes of our collective lives.
Such a model requires "products" and "sales" and "profits" and ROI (Return on Investment) and the people making the laws are virtually in charge of how those equations are both designed and met.
Teachers, nurses, doctors, librarians, social workers and even lawyers and clergy...all those whose work provides the oil, grease and the kind of roads and bridges and the exciting of the hearts and minds and bodies of the people they serve, must never be reduced to the numbers of their successes and failures and regardless of the current "political fashion" must push back against a profit-and-loss reductionism of everything they have learned and everything they do.
And sometimes push-back requires drawing a red-line in the sand and refusing to co-operate with expectations that are incongruous to the ethics and the professional demands of the exercise.

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