for the FairTest Report
June 2011

The question of how teachers can best be evaluated has become just one more highly contentious topic on the education reform agenda. But the issue is not a technical one, despite the “objective” data-driven approach advanced by some would-be reformers. Rather, models of evaluation reveal our own understandings of what teaching is, and, in a larger sense, what education should mean. All evaluation plans seek to make teachers accountable. But accountable to what and for what?

Teachers, unions, and university scholars have had little difficultly in demonstrating why it is impossible to create an equitable evaluation system for teachers based on student standardized test scores (or linking such teacher evaluations to so-called Merit Pay).  Leaving aside the skepticism about the validity of the tests themselves, consider:

• Not all public school educators teach grades or subjects that are being currently tested.

• Not all educators have the opportunity to teach classes of reasonable size
• Not all educators teach heterogeneous ability groups, and some even teach students with significant learning disabilities, because public schools turn no one away.

•  Not all educators teach students from the same economic class, with poorer children often attending schools with fewer resources and receiving less family support from parents who are themselves less well educated than their middle class counterparts. Putting it more plainly, in many poor neighborhoods, students are more preoccupied with their own survival in the face of crime, drugs, and other symptoms of social distress.

If particular variables can adversely and unfairly affect the evaluation of those who teach poor or learning disabled children, the converse is also true: the high standardized test scores of children from affluent areas who receive minimal test prep at school tell us little about the effectiveness of their teachers.

More profound, however, than these practical obstacles to fair “data-driven” evaluation is the way that test-based evaluation narrows the meaning of being a teacher. To be sure, teachers impart knowledge, whether the alphabet or calculus. But because they are involved in a human enterprise, they have other responsibilities in their job description, some tangible, some not.

Henry Adam did not say “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops,” because he believed that high school students would forever remember their trigonometry. Adams understood that the influence of a teacher in a child’s development is far-reaching. Yes, teachers must explain the Pythagorean theorem and the Hay-Paunceforte Treaty, and give homework that helps to consolidate academic skills. But teachers must also must inspire interest, help build character, simulate curiosity, challenge assumptions, ask thought-provoking questions, model the pleasure and excitement of learning, exhibit and impart organized habits of mind, demonstrate critical thinking, ignite the imagination, deepen the virtues of responsibility and self-discipline, encourage compassion, foster citizenship, community, and respect for all in a democratic society. And in all of this, they need to create classrooms where students can believe in themselves and find the courage to try, even where failure is a possibility. This is why Adams believed a teacher “affects eternity.” This is what Walt Whitman described in Leaves of Grass when recalling his own years studying and teaching in the public schools:

“And these I see, these sparkling eyes,
These stores of mystic meaning, these young lives,
Building, equipping like a fleet of ships, immortal ships,
Soon to sail out over the measureless seas,
On the soul's voyage.
Only a lot of boys and girls?
Only the tiresome spelling, writing, ciphering classes?
Only a public school?
Ah more, infinitely more...”

And so we return to the question of how best to evaluate the effectiveness of a professional who bears all of these responsibilities. By student standardized test scores? No. That would be as unimaginable as the attempt to evaluate musicians purely on the basis of how many notes were hit or missed, or to evaluate parents on the basis of their child’s GPA and future salary. We would dismiss such evaluations as silly. For the musicians, we would have to listen to their entire performances and consider several criteria. For the parents, we would have the watch the life of the child unfold, and see if potential had been realized, independence attained, happiness achieved, and respectful relations with others established.

In evaluating the teacher, there are no shortcuts. We need to observe the way they discharge all of their responsibilities and “influence” to the children they are educating. Their daily performances are held in a concert hall called the classroom.

Teaching is a sacred responsibility, so the rigorous evaluation of teachers is essential. No child should be consigned to a second-rate classroom by an incompetent teacher. Nor should a child be condemned to a second-rate education based on little more than drill and regurgitation, as in the case of tests that began as assessments but morphed into the entire curriculum.

Those who advocate a shallow evaluation for teachers or superficial test-based education for students would do well to reflect on these words of Edward Young so beautifully painted on the walls of the Library of Congress: “Too low they build who build beneath the stars."

Bill Schechter
Brookline, Mass.

June 2011


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