One of my favorite conservative bloggers is Matt Johnston, who writes over at Going to the Mat.  Matt tracked down my recent post on the impact that testing has had on teaching and learning in my classroom and asked the following question in the comment section:

Bill, I think your rant (well grounded as it is) raises a couple of very difficult questions. I will have to assume that all teachers of subjects on standardized tests have experienced the same frustration as you. That leads to the question, should teachers who teach in subjects tested on standardized tests (i.e. math, science, English, etc) be evaluated in terms of professional development and annual reviews differently than those who teach non-standadized tested subjects, art, music, social studies, etc. If so, how would that be done so that it is equitable? Could tested subject teachers be rewarded more for success? Should they be disadvantaged for lack of success (as defined by your students’ peformance)? What impacts would you see for the recruitment/retention of teachers in both tracks?

Interesting questions, Matt—especially because they operate from the basic assumption that we’ve made the right decision by using standardized tests as an effective indicator of “success” and “failure” in schools.  While I think that you’re right to assume that standardized tests are the “indicator du jour” for the forseeable future, I’m personally holding out hope that we’ll become more sophisticated in our assessments of children in the upcoming decade.

That being said, I think that teacher evaluation is completely ineffective as it currently exists for all teachers!  Administrators—who are often completely overworked and under prepared—are asked to provide “instructional leadership” to teachers who span incredibly diverse curricula and ability levels.  It’s an impossible task, to say the least.

The results:  No one is evaluated particularly well.

And that’s actually quite shocking to me as an “insider.”  Let me give you an example:  I’m a pretty reflective guy who has a solid understanding of what I do well and where I struggle.  My personal weakness as a classroom teacher is providing differentiation for students of different ability levels.  Considering how academically diverse our classrooms are becoming, that’s a HUGE weakness.

But I’m not sure that any of my principals or supervisors have ever noticed that weakness.  Why?  Because they simply can’t effectively judge my entire skill set in the two 20-minute observations that they do “on me” each year.  Instead, they typically come in my room, look to see if objectives are posted on the board, decide whether my instructional plans are appropriate for the grade level I’m teaching and then move on to another room.

It has always been a surface-level evaluation of my performance at best—and in 15 years, no one has ever mentioned the lack of differentiation in my room.

Now, when it comes to evaluating tested v. untested teachers equitably, I’d argue that it’ll never happen.  Tested teachers have numbers attached to their names—and right or wrong, we seem to put a lot of weight in those numbers.  In fact, I’d argue that most administrators tend to trust those numbers more than their own observations when determining who is an “effective teacher” and who is an “ineffective teacher.”

The numbers just seem so darn reliable, don’t they?  After all, we live in a “data-driven world.”

But non-tested subjects will never have numbers attached to them.  Instead, their performance is always going to be judged by performances—How does the teacher look in action?  How do the students perform in the upcoming band concert?  How does the artwork look in the hallway?  How does the dance performance go off?

Don’t get me wrong:  I truly believe that those kinds of assessments are more reliable—and more reflective of effective assessment.  When you can actually see a child applying skills from the standard course of study in performance based situations, you can truly begin to understand what they’re capable of.  It’s a more sophisticated measure of ability, don’t you think?

But those kinds of performance measures are never extended to teachers of tested subjects.  No one comes in my room and watches my students interact in meaningful conversations with one another.  No one ever sits down and challenges their thinking about a particular novel or piece of text to see if they can analyze an author’s purpose or notice elements of bias.

Instead, they count on the test to do those things—which I’d argue is simplistic at best.

In many ways, this dichotomy between the ways we’re willing to evaluate teachers of tested and untested subjects is almost ridiculous!  If a test is an effective method for judging English and math teachers, why haven’t we developed standardized tests for dance and drama teachers too?  Why don’t we have tests for the band teacher or the media specialist?

And if we’re willing to admit that testing in those areas is ineffective practice, then why aren’t we willing to embrace the idea that testing in ALL areas is ineffective?

As far as compensation goes, I am a firm believer that it is time for us to begin to reward teachers differently based on “performance.”  Honestly, as a young-ish teacher who works 90 hours a week, I’m completely burned by the fact that I get paid based on years of experience only.  To know that there are teachers sprinting to the parking lot at 3:30 every day while I’ll be plugging away until 7:30 or 8:30 is probably the biggest “hurt” there is in teaching.

This recurrent pain is easily one of the biggest barriers to teacher recruitment and retention.  Do you have any idea how hard it is to encourage young teachers to stay in the classroom when they are making barely $30,000 a year—and when they know they’ll get a 2% raise every year until they die regardless of how hard they work?  Worse yet, imgaine trying to stay positive when you know there are people in your building making twice as much as you are even though they make no meaningful contributions to teaching and learning.

Where’s the motivation to improve?!

Somewhere I read a statistic that the average young adult today will have held 13 jobs by the time they are 32.  That willingness to move flexibly between positions is a part of the professional fabric of today’s worker—and it means that teaching has to change dramatically in order to compete for the best employees.

New teachers aren’t going to be as satisified with the “perks” that earlier generations embraced.  Tenure and job security mean nothing to today’s employee.  Guaranteed raises over time and a “retirement” account don’t either.

What new teachers want is the chance to be rewarded for accomplished practice in the same ways that their peers will be rewarded in other professions.  The vision of the altruistic teacher who embraces the “I don’t do it for the money” mantra is a thing of the past.  Today’s teacher loves kids as much as their predecessor—-but they expect to be paid for performance as well.

The never-ending barrier to this entire conversation, however, is that we have yet to effectively define what “accomplished performance” means.  Complicating matters is the fact that our nation is constantly changing the outcomes that they expect schools to produce.  Some people want higher test scores.  Others want improved graduation rates.  Still others want “kids of character” or “twenty-first century learners.”

Perhaps the first step in any attempt to establish alternative compensation packages for teachers should be a focused conversation about what exactly we want schools to produce.  Once we’ve got that vision established, we can start to “measure” the contributions of educational professionals and reward them appropriately.

My thinking in this post feels incomplete—but I’m due at the gym in 10 minutes for a workout.  I suppose I’ll continue to polish this thinking in upcoming entries, but I’d be interested in hearing feedback from readers.

Does anything I’ve written here make sense to anyone besides me!

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