"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

An English Teacher Responds to Ed Dis-Ttrust's Camile Esch

By Pamela Felcher
March 26, 2008
In her Op-Ed article, "Put teachers to the test," Camille Esch writes that "the old evaluation system that ignores student achievement and finds virtually all teachers 'satisfactory' simply sets the bar too low." Although I agree with her, and with all writers who feel that cynicism and ironclad backward thinking pervade public education, I also find that these essays, usually theoretical rather than practical, resonate with the same platitudes that have calcified the public school teaching profession. Evaluating teachers using punishing criteria helps no one.

To evaluate teacher performance, one must examine what "standardized" tests really test and whether or not one should give them any credence. Unfortunately, standardized tests and teacher evaluations are constructed and conducted primarily by people who have opted out of classrooms. And because the only forward thinking in public school seems to occur in the alchemy between individual teachers and their students, our reliance on such instruments to determine student and teacher success truly baffles me.

I have taught for 22 years, and though I have spent most of that time in the public school trenches, I have also taught in prestigious private schools in Los Angeles and at a local university in an effort to better my "practice." Yes, teaching, like medicine and the law, is a practice. But unlike those practices, teachers remain isolated in their classrooms, and their habits and methods are rarely, if ever, intelligently examined or supported. There seems to be no time or desire for this kind of thoughtful work in public school, particularly when those in charge think that examining "data" should be the priority at all meetings.

Recently at an English department meeting at Hamilton High School, where I serve as department chair, I was allowed to lead without a data screed in my hands. I asked my 30 colleagues to read a John Keats fragment and discuss how they would explicate it and how they would get their students to construct theses for the same exercise. Just add water -- or in this case, a genuine discussion of literature -- and watch English teachers come to life and find the motivation that makes their next step into the classroom a little happier. At this meeting, I aimed to ensure that my colleagues were respected for what they know and treated as though what they teach matters.

What a concept.

Recently I ran into a good friend from the progressive private school where I had taught for a few years. He sent me their teacher self-evaluation form, which was divided into key criteria. Teachers must rate these elements by importance and discuss how well they are performing in these areas. For example, if a teacher thinks being current in one's field of expertise is most important but does not take classes or engage in learning more about the field in some way, he or she needs to find a way to bring balance into his or her teaching practice.

Another novel concept: planning based on deep individual reflection.

The evaluation form also asks teachers to evaluate their students' level of engagement, participation in active learning, and persistence. How would standardized tests translate these important measures of success? Unfortunately, when I brought up these ideas, some of my colleagues found them more humorous than useful.

But how useful are standardized tests? The ones we administer to high school students are often written for eighth-graders (and some would say by eighth-graders). On these tests, students are asked to read mind-numbing, ersatz essays, letters and other "informational texts" and to assess them. The students' contempt for these tests is palpable and righteous, especially after reading Shakespeare Chaucer, and essays and poetry and plays written by other esteemed thinkers and writers.

After testing, all my students -- no matter what level -- felt they learned things in my class that were not pertinent to the tests. Does this mean I did not prepare them? Even though they had read and written extensively about heroism as we evaluated it in "Beowulf" and in fiction they read outside of class? Even though they had read many recently published essays about race and gender as they relate to heroism, to say nothing of the current election? Even though they had written essays about the "exquisite suffering" evident in Petrarch's paradoxes? These are a few of the things all my students, honors and regular, do in my classes. Why is this not considered "proficiency"?

On the most recent test, several students were appalled by a question that asked them to identify the literary device in the phrase "the frowning forest." The answer choices included "alliteration" and "personification." Because both are right, one has to wonder which answer would exhibit "proficiency." During another test, one student asked me how to bubble her answer since the choices were lettered (a), (b), (d), and (c). Then, when reading a piece about a village where everyone politely referred to an elderly man as Grandfather, my otherwise savvy urban students thought that he was really someone's grandfather and answered incorrectly what turned out to be a set of culturally biased questions.

Blaming the tests, however, is not my goal, even though they are imperfect instruments and can't reveal proficiency proficiently. Instead, my goal is to suggest that teachers be evaluated thoughtfully and that those who say they value education figure out a way to provide opportunities to do this right. Teachers should be asked to consider how they value goals and how they would evaluate themselves using key criteria: Are they knowledgeable and current in their fields of expertise? Do they have high expectations of their students? Does the teacher build a classroom community and foster student dignity in the classroom? Is the teacher flexible and willing to reflect and make changes where necessary? There should be deep conversations about these goals and others, and teachers should be supported in their efforts to find balance in the chaos that is public school.

Only when we truly respect the people to whom we give lip service by saying "you do the most important job there is," when we eradicate old ideas and their limits, and when we foster growth and exploration will teachers and their students approach the success everyone craves.

If those in charge ran the system the way the best teachers run their classrooms.... I'll let you fill in the blank.

Pamela Felcher chairs the English department at Los Angeles' Hamilton High School.

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