I checked my professional ranking the other day. Can you guess what I do? Here is a hint, in case you haven’t read the papers or listened to the news lately. Later this month, my job performance will be published, and I will be publicly ranked against my colleagues. Give up? I am a teacher — fifth grade, to be exact.
After reading the recent stories in this newspaper about “value added” evaluations, which look at whether individual teachers raise or lower their students’ test scores, I requested a link that would allow me to look at my scores in advance of their publication. I had no idea where my ranking might fall. Heart pounding and palms sweating, I clicked on my name, and when I looked at the graph, I was relieved — momentarily. My scores were high. But almost immediately I felt terrible, like a fraud. I felt more removed from teaching than I had in my 15 years on the job. This was my value as a teacher?
To have my worth measured by a tool that I do not trust, and then to have that measurement published to show how I rank against my peers and colleagues, racks my nerves, and I am not one who rattles easily: Remember, I teach fifth grade. But I know how arbitrary those scores can be, and the idea that they alone can identify which teachers are most and least effective is absurd.
Consider this: A teacher at my school taught a student last year who had always scored a perfect 600 in math. Last year, the student scored 569. What happened? The student missed one heavily weighted problem on the exam, and that alone caused a 31-point drop. And yet that student’s drop will be figured into the teacher’s final score.
I am lucky; my scores are respectable. I talked with a fourth-grade teacher who was not so fortunate with her ranking, yet I would still be happy to have my child in her classroom. She and many other exceptional teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District will be tarred as “less effective.”
So what happens when the information is released? Parents in the know will bombard principals with requests to avoid the “less effective” teachers’ classrooms and plead to crowd into the classrooms of those deemed “most effective.”
Will principals, consciously or unconsciously, see the rankings when they look at their staff? How will the information affect teachers who are working to build collegial working environments?
Experts are still arguing about whether value-added measurements are at all reliable, but the published rankings will starkly declare that they can reveal which teachers are more and less effective. The scores give no clue as to why one teacher scores high and another low, but with this kind of public scrutiny, many teachers are likely to spend more time on test preparation at the expense of more meaningful instruction.
There are test-taking strategies that help students score higher on tests, rote drills on the kinds of things likely to be on the exams. But as a parent, I would rather my children learn to think critically and participate in lively discussions that delve deep into subject matter. I want them to learn why, not just how. Like most parents, I do not want my child’s value as a student measured only by a standardized test. I want my children to have their curiosity heightened, to feel an insatiable desire to know more. While teaching, I frequently ask myself, “Would I want my child to be in my classroom right now? Is it engaging? Are the kids excited about what we are studying? Are they developing inquiry that will drive them to want to know more?” Test preparation tends not to be that kind of teaching.
I am also concerned that data-driven evaluations will suck the life out of teachers. At my school, professional development is often hugely creative. We collaborate on planning lessons, bouncing ideas back and forth enthusiastically. We talk about how to fully engage students. But sometimes we have professional development sessions devoted entirely to data. I don’t feel as if I’m in the teaching profession during those times — I feel panicked about keeping scores high. I find myself tempted to trade a field trip or the experience of putting on a play for test prep. I feel like a fraud when I find myself almost buying into the testing frenzy. Focusing on the test is not best for my students; it is not teaching.
This summer, I participated in a Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad Program in Morocco with 12 other teachers. We met with Moroccan educators, and we returned eager to share our experiences. In the spring, my class will Skype with middle school students in Fez who are learning English. There are so many things I want to share with my students, but I will have to use a shoehorn to fit them all into the year’s curriculum. I will, because I know that when I am enthusiastic about what I do, my students are more engaged. Poring over data gathered from a multiple-choice test does not inspire the same feeling of success.
I know our profession is only as strong as its weakest link, and we have some weak links. But most teachers I know are itching for authentic evaluation. We want to know what we do well, and also where we need to improve. Crunching test scores can only give a tiny bit of the picture. A few years ago, I completed the National Board Certification process, and going through that kind of rigorous reflection, and meeting with colleagues to discuss teaching techniques, benefited my teaching tremendously. We supported one another, shared ideas and strategies, collaborated on projects and gave honest, direct feedback when reviewing work. Never once did we discuss data, yet I credit this process with improving my teaching more than any evaluation or training.
Testing is big business, and school districts spend millions of dollars on it. Meanwhile, we lose excellent teachers each year because of budget cuts. Perhaps we need to focus our resources on more effective ways to evaluate teachers, ways that would actually improve what we do. After all, as The Times states in the teacher FAQ section of its database, “teachers are the single most important school-related factor in a child’s education.”
Kim Jones teaches at Ivanhoe Elementary School in Silver Lake