I recently attended a very discouraging meeting with a group of dispirited school teachers. These are well-qualified and long-experienced professionals who are being forced to ignore what they know about how children learn, how children and adolescents develop, and how inspiring teachers must take the time to know students and help them learn. Instead, the teachers talked about satisfying the demands of administrators who are terrified that scores will drop further. Some of these teachers talked about being shamed by administrators if scores didn’t rise quickly enough. Teachers described implementing a curriculum mapped day by day and week by week to cover all the standards to be tested. These teachers who were well-trained in inquiry-based, progressive education theory are being told to pour in and drill the lessons according to a rigid schedule with classes at each grade level across the district covering the same material at roughly the same time. Inspiring curiosity? Sparking imaginations? Enjoying learning? The teachers at the meeting I attended described closing their classroom doors and quietly slipping in, whenever they can find a spare moment, the kind of teaching they know is so important.
As part of its annual meeting last weekend, the Network for Public Education (NPE) released a national survey of school teachers that traces the very same trends I recently heard teachers describing: “Many survey responses detailed frustrations of teachers expected to use scripted curricula and/or expected to teach directly to the test. Teachable moments are viewed as wasted time if they do not improve test scores, even when these moments are often the lessons most meaningful to students. In communities where test scores are low, test prep may be emphasized at the cost of art, music and even academic subjects like social studies and science.”
NPE’s new survey data track the impact of standardized testing on children and teachers, the implications of states’ incorporating students’ standardized test scores in teacher evaluations, and a wave of of state-demanded, rubrics-based evaluations that require teachers to spend hours documenting the standards they have taught:
“Since President Barack Obama took office in 2009, most states have implemented new teacher evaluation systems that include student academic performance. (The) National Conference of State Legislatures reports that more than two-thirds of states enacted legislation to qualify for incentives offered by the U.S. Department of Education that required that standardized test scores be a significant component of teacher evaluations in order to qualify for $4.35 billion in competitive Race to the Top (RttT) grants, or a waiver from No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Forty-eight states and the District of Columbia applied for at least one round of RttT grants; 34 states and the District of Columbia received NCLB waivers.”
“Under the new teacher evaluation systems, a significant portion of evaluations is tied to multiple measures of student performance, as determined by the state or district, including statewide standardized tests and interim assessments using complex Value Added Model (VAM) formulas. The use of VAM has been highly controversial. According to statistician Henry Braun, ‘These models require data that track individual students’ academic growth over several years and different subjects in order to estimate the contributions that teachers make to that growth.'”
Then there are rubrics-driven observations of teachers by their principals. The rubrics “are intended to ‘objectify’ the observation process, which by its very nature, is subjective. Fifty-six percent of our respondents report using one of two widely used evaluation frameworks. Of these respondents 67% are in schools using the Danielson framework, while 33% are using the Marzano framework.” The frameworks are designed to break down teachers’ styles, their language, their interactions with particular students; principals must then combine all the checks on the rubrics to compose the teacher’s formal observation: “The mechanical implementation of frameworks is nothing new, but because the new frameworks are more complex, the checklists have become longer.” As part of their evaluations under the rubrics, teachers are being asked to “justify their practice and instructional choices.” Everybody is spending hours and hours every week documenting each step of the process. Teachers report that the massive focus on evaluation is undermining not only collaborative relationships with administrators but also with their peers, and that what remains of “teacher collaboration is driven by data analysis focused on test score improvement. Inquiry teams have changed from studying instructional practices to data mining….”
The Network for Education worries that the constant pressure during observations of teachers by administrators along with the obsessive tracking of teachers’ every move on the rubrics-based evaluation checklists ironically ruins the opportunity for administrators to support teachers’ professional growth. The fact that more and more visits to classrooms by principals is for evaluation ruins the opportunities administrators may have to support professional development: “Teaching is highly skilled, intellectually challenging work. A skilled teacher makes thousands of decisions a day, employs dozens of strategies to assess student needs, orchestrates productive group work, provides opportunities for feedback, taps prior knowledge, and inspires students to engage.” Evaluating teachers by students’ test scores and by administrators’ checking off desired teacher behaviors on the rubrics has little relevance to the complexities of the work undertaken by teachers. The constant focus on documented evaluations discourages teachers from trying new ideas and taking risks.
The survey concludes: “One factor reported in almost every story is the discouragement teachers feel from a reform movement that is increasing pressure to raise student test scores, while reducing support. The pressure dramatically increased with the inclusion of student test scores in teacher evaluation, with some states using them to account for as much as 50% of evaluation scores. When combined with frameworks, rubrics, and high-stake consequences, the nature of teacher evaluation has dramatically changed.”
Arne Duncan is gone, but test-and-punish is still very much with us in the laws passed and school evaluation methods adopted across the states to comply with Race to the Top and the NCLB waivers. Even though the new version of the federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, eliminates demands by the federal government that states tie evaluation of teachers to students’ test scores, the Network for Public Education reports: “only eight states have either rejected the use of test scores in teacher evaluations, or temporarily suspended their use.”
At the same time, states are punishing the poorest and lowest scoring school districts through so-called “competition”—by giving students in these districts the chance to escape to charters and vouchers for private schools, and to carry desperately needed state and even local funding away from the neediest schools. While it is unlikely the general public will master learning theory and educational psychology, we must figure out a way to expose how test-and-punish policy continues to degrade public education generally and how it increasingly undermines the professionals we expect to nurture and educate our children. And we must find a way to recapture public support for adequate resources for the schools in our poorest communities. School teachers serving our nation’s poorest children need our support, not punitive evaluation policies. No amount of threatening teachers can close the achievement gaps in students’ test scores.