Perusing the periodicals: Informative assessments

As the New Year begins, your pile of 2007 periodicals has suddenly aged a year and you’re more behind than ever! We can’t solve the problem entirely, but maybe we can put a dent in it. Here are highlights of two recent articles we think are worth pulling out of the heap.

Democracy, a nascent ‘journal of ideas,‘was named Best New Publication of 2007 in the Independent Press Awards — reason enough to drop by the website. While you’re there, read the review of Tough Liberal, a recent biography of union leader Albert Shanker who “embodied a noble strain of liberalism that deserves a second look.”

Reviewer Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale, writes:

Albert Shanker, the combative leader of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) during the 1970s and 1980s, should rank with Horace Mann and John Dewey as a great champion of American public schooling. The first strong leader of New York’s United Federation of Teachers (UFT) in 1964 and, from 1974, leader of the million-member AFT for 23 years, he fought tirelessly for both public schools and teachers’ unions (upon whose electoral clout schools’ funding and regulation depend). He fought against ideologues left and right, adversaries high and low, and dangerous social undertows. More than a power broker, he was at times a visionary reformer of trade unionism itself and of the nation’s understanding of what’s at stake in its public schools.

Sleeper, who says Shanker is “little remembered” today, describes how author Richard Kahlenberg’s new book seeks “to repair Shanker’s reputation and shore up his ‘tough liberal’ faith, which for 20 years has been sitting, punch-drunk, at the edge of a ring taken over by meaner ideological combatants, particularly on the right. It’s a daunting challenge, but Kahlenberg’s efforts to vindicate that faith can only strengthen current attempts to plumb liberalism’s prospects.”

In “Learning to Love Assessment,” an article much closer to classroom practice,teaching expert Carol Ann Tomlinson describes her own insightful journey toward “informative assessment” — from judging performance, to guiding students, to shaping instruction to, ultimately, informing learning. (Educational Leadership, Dec-Jan 2008)

Tomlinson begins by recalling her own early days of teaching:

The one element I knew I was unprepared to confront was classroom management. Consequently, that’s the element that garnered most of my attention during my early teaching years. The element to which I gave least attention was assessment. In truth, I didn’t even know the word assessment for a good number of years. I simply knew I was supposed to give tests and grades. I didn’t much like tests in those years. It was difficult for me to move beyond their judgmental aspect. They made kids nervous. They made me nervous. With no understanding of the role of assessment in a dynamic and success-oriented classroom, I initially ignored assessment when I could and did it when I had to.

Now, more than three decades into the teaching career I never intended to have, it’s difficult for me to remember exactly when I had the legion of insights that have contributed to my growth as an educator. I do know, however, that those insights are the milestones that mark my evolution from seeing teaching as a job to seeing teaching as a science-informed art that has become a passion.

Tomlinson offers “10 understandings about classroom assessment that sometimes gradually and sometimes suddenly illuminated my work.” Teachers ready to take a deeper measure of what happens in their own classrooms will appreciate the voice and the insights of this colleague and mentor.