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“Incidents And Events Can Tell Us A Lot”: The Teacher Commitment That Cannot Be Evaluated With Tests

Teachers, parents and students are pushing back against high-stakes testing, over-testing and the fantasy that education is made better by preparing for, conducting and evaluating tests.

As American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten says: “The current accountability system has led districts to fixate on testing and sanctions, has squeezed out vital parts of the curriculum that are not subjected to testing, and has sacrificed much-needed learning time. That is not what high-performing countries do, and it is not what the United States should do.”

That’s an increasingly common sentiment, even among former advocates for testing-obsessed initiatives such as George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind and Barack Obama’s Race to the Top. Diane Ravitch, who served as Bush’s assistant secretary of education, now says: “I had never imagined that the test would someday be turned into a blunt instrument to close schools—or to say whether teachers are good teachers or not—because I always knew children’s test scores are far more complicated than the way they’re being received today.”

How then should we “evaluate” teachers and schools?

The truth is that many measures exist, some structural and some practical.

America asks a great deal of teachers. And while carefully developed and cautiously implemented testing can tell us a little, incidents and events can tell us a lot.

Take, for instance, the response to the winter weather that last week brought the Atlanta area to a standstill. State and local officials—led by Georgia Governor Nathan Deal—neglected warnings and failed to respond appropriately. Thousands of children were stranded overnight in schools, on buses and in firehouses and stores. Teachers and school employees were faced with an unexpected, and in some cases overwhelming, new demand on their time, their energy and their ingenuity. And they rose to it.

There are plenty of tales of humanity and heroism from last week. A cafeteria manager at an Atlanta-area high school made it home and then learned that hundreds of students were stranded at the school. Unable to drive a car on the gridlocked roads, he walked back to the school and prepared 800 dinners. The next morning, he prepared 800 breakfasts. Bus drivers cared for and comforted children.

All the stories mattered. But this one from an Atlanta Journal Constitution article published the morning after the storm stood out:

At Centennial High School in Roswell, about 33 students—most of them with special needs—slept in classrooms or on wrestling mats in the school’s media center after only five out of 50 buses arrived and students relied on their parents to get home.

Fifteen teachers and staff members that work in the special needs program stayed with the children, some of whom are in wheelchairs or require special medication.

For some of the children, it was their first night away from home, and teachers kept worried parents informed through cell phone calls and text photos. One group of teachers walked through the snow to a nearby Kroger to get emergency prescriptions filled, including seizure medication.

Few of them got any sleep, and they’re not sure when or if they’d be able to get home.

“I’d love to go home,” said teacher Traci Coleman. “But this is where I need to be right now. This is like my second family.”

All the students made it home, thanks to teachers and bus drivers and cafeteria workers and custodians.

“That no children died or were even seriously hurt is testament to the caring and resourcefulness of those frontline workers,” noted the Journal Constitution’s Maureen Downey.

That is right. We will always expect more of teachers than just getting children home safely. But the response from teachers like Traci Coleman when the storm hit offers a measure of an essential commitment that will never be measured by standardized testing.

 

By: John Nichols, The Nation, February 5, 2014

February 9, 2014 Posted by | Educators, Teachers | , , , | Leave a comment

“The Deadly Policies Of Red States”: Lots Of Students Are Being Left Behind

Last week, 35 former Atlanta educators were forced to take a perp walk, reporting to law enforcement authorities for arrest in connection with the nation’s biggest (so far) academic scandal. It was a disturbing spectacle. Once among the pillars of metro Atlanta’s middle class, they’ve been reduced to pleading that they don’t belong in jail.

And that may be true. The charges of a widespread conspiracy to cheat may represent the ambitions of a local prosecutor rather than any top-down plot carried out by a confederacy of criminals. But I don’t waste sympathy on the defendants: They deserve the ignominy of association with thugs.

I’m reserving my pity for the students in Atlanta’s public schools. They’re the victims of this massive fraud, the helpless pawns of adults who callously overlooked the needs of their charges and focused on preserving their careers.

Unfortunately, that’s been a recurrent theme in 40 years of school-reform efforts across the country. Whether represented by unions or organized as a powerful voting bloc or both, public school educators have put their paychecks front and center, discounting the needs of their students. Even good teachers — dedicated, hard-working and inspiring ones — have rallied to protect their peers, some of whom don’t deserve their support.

Atlanta’s scandal has reinforced long-standing criticisms of widespread testing in schools, a strategy that was exalted by George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act. The critics are right: The overdependence on standardized tests has calcified instruction, failed students and encouraged fraud. Educators in poor neighborhoods, where students are more likely to score poorly, are singled out for official reproach.

Conversely, teachers, principals and superintendents who show miraculous results — turning failing students into suddenly brilliant ones — are showered with praise, promotions and, frequently, money. It’s no wonder, then, that some Atlanta teachers had after-school “parties” where they erased students’ answers and replaced them with the correct ones.

While Atlanta may have the best-documented case of test-related fraud, it’s by no means the only one. In an exhaustive investigation published last year, USA Today found evidence of fraudulent test scores in six states and Washington, DC. Even the vaunted Michelle Rhee, who led a reform effort in Washington, has been implicated, accused of turning a blind eye to suspicious test results.

But for all the problems associated with No Child Left Behind, Bush deserves credit for this much: He recognized the failures of public schools that are not doing very much to educate children from less-affluent homes. He described a culture freighted with “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” a phrase that still rings true.

For years, too many teachers in low-achieving schools have blamed their failures on children and parents, describing homes in which discipline is poor, mediocrity is lauded and failure is acceptable. If those teachers believe there is nothing to be done to improve the academic standing of those children, why teach? If the children are too “dumb” or too deprived to profit from their instruction, why do they stay?

Reams of research bear out the complaints of educators who say teaching poor kids is challenging: Children from less-affluent homes are more likely to read below grade-level, to need special help, to score poorly on standardized tests. But that hardly means they can’t learn.

They need teachers who believe in them. Those who believe they’re being unfairly tarnished by unworthy students don’t fit the bill. As psychologists point out, kids pick up those signals easily enough and behave as the teachers expect them to. In other words, they learn little or nothing.

In addition to dedicated teachers, those children need a community that’s also committed to them. That includes the politicians, activists and church groups who spend an inordinate amount of time defending educators rather than demanding good schools for the kids.

As Atlanta’s disgraced educators surrendered last week, a group of activist preachers — Concerned Black Clergy — assembled to suggest that racism was involved. “Look at the pictures of those 35,” said the Rev. Timothy McDonald. “Show me a white face.”

Would that McDonald and his allies were as concerned about Atlanta’s public school students, 80 percent of whom are also black.

 

By: Cynthia Tucker, The National Memo, April 6, 2013

April 6, 2013 Posted by | Education Reform, Educators | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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