Determining student needs. . .

My recent post on the recommendations made by our Nation’s TOY team has generated a pretty interesting conversation between two of my favorite readers, Parry and Matt.  Both writers are brilliant and make points that are legitimate in both theory and practicality. One early comment from Matt left me thinking.  He wrote:

Two centuries of experience in American education clearly indicate that the answer is yes. In fact, if we were principals, would we hire any teacher we knew to be incapable of effectively determining individual student needs and individualizing instruction throughout the school year? Would we hire any teacher whose only means of teaching was to teach to a middle of the road test for all students, and whose only means of evaluation was the scores generated by the single test? Do I really need to answer?

Mike’s comments left me thinking because I’m not sure that I’m capable of effectively determining individual student needs or individualizing instruction throughout the school year. I’ve always questioned my ability to assess student learning and to have confidence that the measures of learning that I’d developed were reliable indicators of performance. In fact, I would say that I have little faith in my ability to accurately quantify what my students do and don’t know.

And I’m considered to be a highly accomplished teacher!

What’s even more disconcerting to me is that I’ve been open about my assessment weaknesses with administrators for years and yet my concerns are always dismissed. “Of course you can assess your students’ ability,” my evaluators always say. “And we see you tailor instruction appropriate for individual learners all the time. You don’t give yourself enough credit.”

Despite their confidence, I know my own abilities and can quickly recognize the gaps in my professional training. Few–if any–of my college courses focused on developing high quality assessments of student learning at all, and the professional development that I’ve been exposed to in the past 14 years has never addressed measuring student learning.

Sometimes I wonder if the coercive accountability movement and the deprofessionalization of educators contributes to my lack of confidence in my ability to assess. After all, I’ve spent the past 14 years being bombarded with messages of failure. Scripted curricula and standardized tests are given great credibility while thousands of under-trained “professionals” are given positions in classrooms. Working in such conditions inevitably opens the door to doubt.

And I know that the lack of time is an almost insurmountable barrier to effective practice. Identifying individual student strengths and weaknesses and then tailoring instruction to meet these needs requires more time that teachers generally have access to. Even when I develop an assessment that I have great confidence in, I find myself rushing through the grading process and too overwhelmed to tailor follow up lessons based on the data that I collect. Because there is no time structured within the school day to provide enrichment or remediation and because simply keeping up with basic planning and grading consumes all of the short planning that I have available to me, I almost always end up teaching to the middle of the pack.

But in the end, it is my awareness of my own weaknesses as an “assessor” that is cause for concern to anyone who cares about education. If a widely recognized educator who invests no less than 12 hours a day living and breathing school is unsure of his own ability to measure student achievement, what can we expect from new teachers or those new to our profession?  How can we ensure that every teacher has the skills that Matt rightly asserts should be givens?

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