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Monday, October 29, 2012

Teacher Evaluation and Students' Progress

Teachers in Chicago, Newark (NJ)  and all across America are being asked to accept new systems of evaluation.  Here in New York City the use of standardized tests for this purpose will constitute forty percent of their total evaluation, with principal observations and other data comprising the remaining sixty percent.
Part of the impetus for such use of these kinds of measures stems from President Obama’s Race-to-the-Top competitions where there have been certain criteria specified in order to succeed in this process, one of them including a most appropriate emphasis on improving education in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM programs.  Another criterion has been the desire to show how we will hold teachers (and I trust administrators) accountable for their work. 
Teachers are not protesting the need nor logic for their being held accountable.  No, they justly protest having from twenty-five to forty percent of their professional evaluation based upon measures scored with a one-time, bubble-test or Scantron sheet.  Why?
These tests were not designed for the purposes assessing teacher competence. They are all-too brief snapshots of students’ knowledge at one moment.
And, what they measure is important but it’s not the be all and end all.
No, what we should be looking at are ways of assessing students long-term growth in what schools say they are all about.  Each school mission statement contains statements like these:
“We hold high academic standards for all students and expect each will become a responsible citizen of our American democracy.
We want all students to dream, achieve and contribute to a global society.”
On a more specific basis there is one school district (Greenwich, CT)  that paints a portrait of the graduate that calls for her, assuming content knowledge, “to pose and pursue substantive questions” and then engage in the problem solving, critical thinking and ethical behavior required.
To become responsible, active contributors to our society we need students to exhibit what we now call 21st century skills and capacities--inquiry, problem solving, critical/creative, reflective thought, leadership, collaborative skills and skillful use of technology.  
Also within the Race-to-the-Top program Secretary Duncan is his much needed call for alternative means of assessing students’ growth, ones that do not rely upon standardized tests.
Isn’t it reasonable that we should as educators develop these alternative means of observing, monitoring and drawing conclusions about students’ getting better at posing good questions, engaging in scientific reasoning, thinking critically and creatively and using technology?    Knowing Newton’s three laws of motion, themes within Charlotte’s Web and how to prove triangles congruent are important, but we need more than this kind of declarative and skill knowledge to become responsible citizens who can think, discern fact from fiction and create a plan for their own and others’ improvement.
How do we do this?
We use all of the long term, reliable and direct means available through teacher observations; students’ journals posted on  Google Docs, Groups/Plus, Moodle, Edmodo, wikis; performance tests; traditional assessments, interviews and metacognitive reflections.
We can observe Lorraine Radford’s kindergarten students in West Vancouver, BC, growing from making statements about fish--”That’s a clown fish”--in September to asking in April during a unit of The Oceans--”Do you think that anglerfish think humans are fish sometimes?”   Notice the growth from observing and stating facts (as most kindergartners do) to being able to ask a question that puts the questioner into the mind of the anglerfish.  Lorraine monitors students’ asking more and increasingly complex questions using tried and true means of keeping accurate notes during class and posting them to each student’s spread sheet on her computer.
We can observe eighth grade students in Catalina Foothills (AZ) growing from being what their teacher Patricia Burrows calls a “Cookie Cutter A” student, one who recites what the teacher wants to hear, to one who can critique  Animal Farm using analogical reasoning in written essays by comparing Napoleon in the story to Stalin and Hitler.  Critical thinking involves this kind of reasoning together with asking good questions about sources, evidence, definitions and bias.
Educators across the land know how to do this by using their own and district frameworks like those within Project 21 schools (like Catalina Foothills), focused as they are upon critical thinking as one element in educating for 21st century skills. (See CFSD  rubrics:  http://www.cfsd16.org/public/_century/centMain.aspx)

The key will be to convince educators that these skills are indeed necessary, that we can observe and monitor students’ performance progress therein and then communicate such results to parents, use them for our own teacher inquiry study groups and for our own professional development .
Having background knowledge about plate tectonics, the Civil War and Shakespeare’s major characters is important.  But students need to know how to apply such information in our globalized world that changes with ever increasing acceleration.  And we need to know how well they are doing at becoming active, responsible citizens who can contribute to our American democracy and the globalized society.
There is, indeed, “value added” in being able to establish alternative, reliable and valid ways of assessing students’ development and academic progress.

John Barell
Author: How Do We Know They’re Getting Better?  Assessment for 21st Century Minds, K-8.