Dateline: Laredo, Texas. Estranged husband stabs his ex to death in front of his children, nieces, and nephews and flees, leaving the children, who already were under psychiatric care and having behavioral and learning problems, alone.
How do you evaluate performance? And when are children more than numbers on the most recent test they took?
Writing about performance is a challenge—knowing where to start isn’t easy. Tragedy simplified this installment of Why Teachers Whine, because a colleague and I taught those students—or at least, had them in our classes. One of us might still have one of them on Monday—it’s hard to say.
This ugly episode points to one of many issues in putting performance first. In fact, the problem may be in using the word ‘performance’ at all, because educationally its definition is: ability to pass a standardized test.
When teachers raise the question of performance, they’re seen as whiners, incompetents who are afraid of the test, and saboteurs of the public educational system. Politicians, lobbyists, and testing companies have billions of reasons to preserve that image—each of them profits hugely from promoting it.
Parents and teachers have to wonder. If a first grader, for example, comes to school not reading—and is reading with comprehension by the end of the year—isn’t that performance? Although the child will probably take local, state, and national tests (during what once would have been instructional time) the child’s teachers are not necessarily considered in discussions of performance-based pay. Because the child does not take the TAKS/STARR/FILLIN NAME, the argument is that performance either does not occur or cannot be assessed.
The same is true of pre-K and K, except that they start with students who have even fewer academic and social skills, and begin laying a foundation meant to guide those students towards—all together now—passing the test. You can bet money that no district or school publishes a mission statement admitting that, though.
We all have noble goals like providing a world-class education to productive citizens of a global community. Good teachers—and there are mediocre and bad teachers, too—pursue that objective come high or hell water—but they’re seldom allowed to succeed, because a standardized test has taken the place of learning in most places.
Even upper-level teachers who actually administer the test try to go beyond just the test. Take, for example, the most creative teacher I know—a writing teacher with a 100 percent passing rate on TAKS writing. He’s an exceptional individual with a passion for the arts, and his students pick up on his enthusiasm. Doesn’t hurt that he uses popular songs for grammar lessons. But even he expresses frustration with the formulas, the paperwork and stress, and the benchmarks. Benchmarks are mini-standardized tests to see if students will fare well on the major test. The problem with benchmarks—along with weekly tests, end of unit tests, and local tests—is that they leave little time for teaching. Or learning.
Assessments can wait though, so back to performance. Why shouldn’t teachers have to meet standards?
They should. No incompetent teacher should be left in a classroom. And in any profession, there are competent employees who simply don’t pull their weight. When teachers could, but don’t, kids and the profession suffer.
So, why not evaluate performance based on a test?
Think about doctors. Doctors base their diagnoses on tests. Increasingly, they have the latest technology. They make good salaries and usually take 3 or 4 days off a week. (Like teachers, those days are not paid days; they’re just days.) But how many times have you or someone you known gone through test after test without results?
If a diagnosis of a particular disease or illness is made, shouldn’t every doctor be able to achieve the exact same outcome with every patient?
What’s that? Patients are people, and people do not react the same way to medication. Doctors can’t always be successful because of the nature of human physiology, ability to follow treatment instructions, an appropriate environment to foster recovery…
Those are excuses. Why can’t every doctor have success?
None of us, of course, would attack doctors over what some would argue is a dismal failure rate. So why isn’t there an understanding that teachers are doctors, and their students are patients? That’s a closer analogy than the one that says education is a business and students are the clients. Students are not nuts-and-bolts units that can be run into school in pre-K and out after 12th grade and every one of them is a perfect model with no missing parts.
So why do politicians and lobbyists for testing products insist that any one test can judge performance? Or that teachers should be rewarded or penalized on that basis alone?
Performance, it seems to me, should be holistic over time. Mastery of skills is the ultimate objective, but mastery doesn’t necessarily come in isolated little jerks along the benchmark-strewn path. What if a student comes into a third grade class, as some do, without previous education? (Why that still happens is an outrage that cannot be addressed here.) The student has some background knowledge, but no academic foundation. He goes from not reading to reading at a second grade level, but he does not pass the state-mandated test. So he needs to stay in third grade and take the test three or four more times…
What if that particular student didn’t have to take the 3rd grade test? What if he were excluded until the 5th grade test, but continued to receive special help on all those basic skills he missed early on? Possibly, during some of those endless tests, he could be excused to sit in on lessons in lower grades, not as punishment, but as an opportunity to develop while helping younger students. Couched in those terms, self-esteem wouldn’t be a problem, and if he learned from the little ones instead of vice-versa—everyone might benefit.
What if pedagogy, practice, and assessment dove-tailed? Many teachers who started when I did were told that you had to seize the teachable moment, ignore the affective domain and its concern with morals and ethics, and concentrate on core subject reading and cognitive development into those areas.
Now the affective domain is back, making global connections is encouraged in theory—but not on multiple choice tests—and many subjects have a script that teachers are supposed to read—just as they read the instructions on a standardized test. Teachable moments are not included in a teacher’s performance, yet latching on to something like the catastrophe in Japan or walking outside and asking kids if bark is living or non-living will develop more knowledge than another test drill. It’s just that if it’s not on the lesson plan, a teacher risks being reprimanded, and clearly is not highly qualified.
Consider, too, that as previously mentioned—not all students are equal. They’re not all equally prepared, well-behaved, interested, able in a given subject—or even equally intelligent. Even though I know that statement is true , I cringe, because teachers are not supposed to admit that. Genetically, we know it’s true . As family members, we all know someone we love who just isn’t going to be the person we go to help us with math problems or chemical formulas.
A teacher’s class is a family, for a school year. There are the brains, the clowns, the introverts, and the kid you scrape off the ceiling twice a day. You love them, they drive you crazy, you work with each of them—but they’re not equal in academic ability.
Yet your family as a teacher will be judged against the neighbor’s family on the basis of one measure, instead of growth, effort, beginning and ending points. And the neighbor might have 22 G/T students. She might have that dream class. The kind I had eight or nine years ago, when the 5 kids I nominated for G/T qualified. Even the kids who’d moved a lot tried. In fact, one of the girls who came in that year was 8 years old, lived, according to her mother “between Houston and San Antonio,” so the mom hadn’t ever enrolled her in school—but she could read and write by year’s end. Even the little boy called “burro” by the grandmother who was his only family wound up writing poetry.
Sometimes the neighbor has that class; sometimes you do.
But you’re only successful if all your kids meet a prescribed standard that completely ignores the human factor.
Maybe teachers should still be the judge of their students’ abilities and readiness for the next step along the educational road. Test—but test less frequently. Use diagnostic tests that are designed to help, that are not meant primarily to enrich politicians, lobbyists, and test-makers.
That system worked—most of you reading this probably were passed by a teacher’s assessment of your academic ability rather than a test, at least until college. But if teachers are no longer trusted, how about a committee at the end of the year—teachers from the current and next grade who look at daily work, reading ability, and intangibles like effort over time, attendance, and desire as well as test scores.
And, as to evaluating teachers on performance? How about real walkthroughs from administrators, instead of forced, sometimes imaginary walkthroughs from overburdened administrators with an arbitrary quota of visits to squeeze in? Needless to say, but harder to achieve—administrators would ideally be professional, objective, and not have agendas, but that’s true in any profession. Walkthroughs could be as frequent or infrequent as circumstance required, without overly zealous central office demands. Think there’s a bad teacher? Walk in several times a day. Know a teacher has a 100 percent on the writing TAKS? Go in to enjoy—once in a blue moon when time permits.
Evaluate student performance over time, and apply that assessment to teacher performance. One year’s class can be exceptional, average, or struggling—why not look at three years? What’s consistent in growth, success in subsequent years, and yes—even in test scores. (Throw in the doctor factor, though—has the student had a parent jailed? Complained of being abused? How many of the students are truant, and have parents been held accountable?)
Some would argue that long-term evaluation exposes 3 (or more )classes to bad teaching. Not if administrators and parents are doing their jobs. Obviously, if problems present themselves, closer scrutiny might be needed to verify that teaching is taking place. But evaluating over time instead of year to year would be fairer, since class differences might even themselves out to some extent. If “merit” pay were involved, there would be no panic over the results of one test. Concern, yes—but that’s always present. Panic and pressure would be reduced, and teachers could focus on their students day-to-day performance rather than one week’s performance that would label an entire year as successful or a failure.
It’s ironic that performance used to be applied to race cars and stage actors. Students didn’t perform—they learned.
Will the two first graders mentioned in the newsflash at the beginning of this piece perform in third grade? I don’t know, but I hope they can learn that life isn’t all ugliness and pain, that out there are books that can pull us through, and numbers can be magic. Maybe some day, a hundred on a spelling test or a paragraph on friends will matter. They will have learned, even if they cannot perform on a standardized test for years to come.
Students should be afforded opportunities to learn at the highest possible levels. Teachers should encourage them to go far beyond minimal state standards and basic skills tests. Maybe we just need to bring the idea of learning back into the world of education.