April 27, 2011

Now that I’m retired from teaching, I feel grateful I can actually attend one of the Board’s public hearings about teachers and teaching.

In responding to the deficiencies of some of our public schools, this Board–with apologies to the minority–has rarely thought to use our best public schools as models, whether the issue was curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, or teacher evaluation. And so a false impression has inadvertently been created that our many successful public schools don’t exist and the whole system is a failure. Are teacher evaluation procedures in the state uneven? Yes. Do we have observation-based models that work? Yes. Has the Board checked them out? Possibly not. Nor can I recall that this Board–as a Board–has spoken out with indignation about the poverty that handicaps 20% of our–your–students in this wealthy nation of ours. Instead, teachers and their unions are blamed for the disgraceful disparities between Dover and Dorchester.

Regrettably, the Board has responded to this distortion with deafening silence. The commissioner has responded with a teacher evaluation proposal based partly on student standardized test scores, which many of you insist–research to the contrary–are scientifically valid measures of student and (now) teacher performance. The initially modest linkage between test scores and teacher evaluation would be but the next logical step in an education reform vision that defies more than logic.

Indeed, the highest price for this proposal will not be paid by teachers, not even those who work in zip codes so disparate they might as well refer to addresses in different solar systems. Nor those teachers within the same school who happen to work with the learning-disabled rather than the Harvard-bound. Nor those who happen to teach MCAS subjects or grades. No, the highest price will be paid by students.

By further tying students and teachers to these standardized exams, in a manner unsupported by research or practical experience, you will be abandoning the belief that that education can be inspirational and broadening. That the test-centered approach is joyless, narrow, and punitive helps explain why reform advocates so often choose private schools for their own kids.

Yes, reformers want their own children to experience more than test prep, relentless worksheets, memorization, and regurgitation. They want teachers who aren’t bound hand and foot to lifeless state frameworks...who have the time to spark the imagination, pique curiosity, deepen critical thought, cultivate relationships, and inspire interest. They want what our governor received at Milton Academy or what our president seeks for his kids at Sidwell Friends or even what our education secretary has found in the Arlington, Virginia, schools. Ideas! Discussions! Art! Music! Experiential learning! Field Trips! Not test bubbles to fill in.

Let’s listen to an official at Sidwell Friends: “We don't tie teacher pay to test scores because we don't believe them to be a reliable indicator of teacher effectiveness.”

Or to Michelle Obama: “If my future were determined by my performance on standardized tests I wouldn't be here.”

Do we need to rigorously evaluate teachers? Absolutely. But doing it right takes time. “No shortcuts” as we say to the kids. Come into our classrooms. See what we do. Come as often and whenever you like. But please do what the word evaluate calls upon you to do: to “find the value of”...that is, to find the value of teachers in promoting the growth and development of children. That’s a heck of a lot different than an MCAS score.

Bill Schechter
History teacher (retired)
Lincoln-Sudbury Regional H.S.


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