Student thoughts on accountability for teachers

​”Ms. Sacks, where are you going tomorrow?” a student in my small group tutorial asked. I had told them earlier that day I would be out at a conference tomorrow. (See this post for more information.)

“I’m going to be at a conference for education writers about teacher effectiveness,” I said, realizing how garbled that probably sounded to my students. I went on to explain that there were many big arguments going on about how school systems can tell if teachers are doing a good job.

I now had all ten of my students’ total attention. They looked pensive or confused, trying to wrap their minds around the idea. It was still pretty abstract for them.

“Do you know one way that many people in education are deciding if a teacher is good or not?”

“How?!” they asked, excited to know.

“By how their students do on state tests,” I said.

Immediately, the entire group of students let out groans, actually surprising me by their unified negative reaction.

“Oh, man, really?!” one student asked, wrinkling up his face in disgust.

“Why would they do that?” another student asked, incredulously.

I was, at this point, a little puzzled by the strong reaction. “Well, I said, can you explain why you don’t agree with this?” I started taking notes on my laptop.

One boy answered, “Because if a kid doesn’t have a good score on the test, you can’t really blame the teacher.”

“Yeah,” another boy added, “Like if a kid doesn’t care, it’s not the teacher’s fault.” They were turning on all their seventh-grade-passion-for-fairness, and evidently none of their seventh grade tendency to place responsibility on others.

“If you get a low score on the test, and then you have to be in a lower group, you feel left out, so you really don’t want to do the work,” another boy said. He was commenting on the way that tests are used to rank and sort students and the effects this has on student motivation.

“Teachers can’t do much about kids’ effort. The teacher could be teaching you a lot of stuff, and you are learning, but on the test you just decide not to do 100%. I know people who just guess on multiple choice tests. That wouldn’t be the teacher’s fault.”

“But doesn’t a good teacher motivate students to do well?” I asked.

“Yes, but that’s only a little part of it. Kids aren’t always putting full attention on the teacher. When a teacher does good, some kids still just don’t want to pay attention. There are other things, distractions…”

They were really drilling this point, and puzzling me in the process. I believe a teacher is a huge influence on student motivation. I’d even wielded my influence recently with students as they took a practice standardized reading test, encouraging them to beat the test and show what they know. The results were very good. But my students were passionate about their argument. What were they trying to tell me?

One of the messages I took from their comments is that in students’ minds, testing is about a lot more than the teacher. (And students are correct in thinking this way). Students have been acquainted with standardized tests since early elementary school. They already have a relationship with these blunt instruments of assessment. Their motivation is colored by past experiences, as well as the boring, often inane, nature of the tests in relation to their vibrant development and struggles as individuals and thinkers.

Students are also keenly aware that that the standardized test is not the same animal as a teacher-made classroom test–one that directly connects to their current learning experience–and they don’t treat it as such. That is why, I believe, they were fairly shocked and disappointed that their teachers would be judged based on their performance on these tests, that are alien in a way their teachers are not.

[This reminds me of a conversation with another class about testing itself. One student commented that the test often seems to have little to do with the class itself or things they care about. Another student suggested, “Teachers should be able to input their curriculum to, like, a central system. Then the system could create a test based on the curriculum the individual teacher says the class is learning.” With a little tweaking, this idea could be an interesting direction!]

“So,” I asked, “if not by test scores, how should people judge whether a teacher is doing a good job or not?” Hands shot up.

“They could determine who’s a good teacher if they come up to the school and maybe listen to your lesson plan or–” one student started.

“They should send people to the school and view them teaching to see if they’re doing the job they got hired to do, if they’re doing the job like they should be,” another added.

“But they should, like, surprise-come, because the teacher might just be good on one day if they know they’re coming,” the first student qualified.

“Yeah.”

Finally, I asked, “And what makes a good teacher? What should they look for?”

“Elements of fun,” one student, who’d been quiet thus far, contributed.

“Yeah. Humorous, and a little bit strict.” Nods of agreement.

“They understand your problems. They don’t just assume you don’t wanna do your best if you don’t do well.”

Hm… here was an admission that a good teacher believes he or she can help students do well, doesn’t judge students superficially or give up on them, does not see student achievement or effort as out of his or her locus of control.

BUT–this admission came from the student in the context of evaluating teachers through classroom visits, that is, based on the daily practice of learning that happens inside the classroom. An assessment of a teacher based on this practice contrasts dramatically with an abstract test created by outsiders, which students understand is for the purposes of ranking them, and now their teachers too.

I’m not arguing that there is no value to standardized tests and that students should never encounter them. I am pointing out that they are often used in a way that is not productive.

“Good teachers–they are nice and strict and funny.”

“They have patience.”

In my school, though students don’t explicitly know this, they do have a voice in assessing the quality of their teachers through annual anonymous student surveys. Test scores and other student achievement data gathered by the teacher also play a critical role, as do classroom observations and debriefs, parent surveys and peer surveys. Teachers play a role in our own evaluation, by setting goals for our professional development, against which we are assessed at key points throughout the year.

Grading itself is very tricky, and any system has its flaws. (Teachers know this.) But if we need to have a system for grading teachers, then this seems like a pretty fair way. The important thing is that every one of these pieces of feedback from all of the key stakeholders (360 degrees, it’s called) is valuable and should have weight. When we rely on one source of information exclusively, the picture we get is just that limited, and the side effects of blowing one voice out of proportion are damaging to everyone involved. Talk to students for five minutes about this, and quickly get schooled.

For another take on testing as chief accountability measure, check out this short animated video on Dan Brown’s blog, or this searing analysis of what shared accountability really means by Renee Moore, or Bill Ferriter’s post about holding administrators accountable for creating conditions for teachers to be innovative and successful.

[image credit: secure5.softcomca.com]