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

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Guest Column: Evaluations ignore education factors

Jim Horn 
Saturday, November 5, 2011 

Surely everyone can agree with Mike Edwards' core idea in "Grading teachers vital to education" (Oct. 29) that "every student needs to be well prepared for life and the work force" and that education is a critical factor in every citizen's quality of life. However, almost no one, especially researchers, would agree with Edwards' contention that teachers are the most important factor in a child's education. What the research consistently shows, rather, is that teachers are the most important school-level factor in student learning, and that other non-school factors including family income, parental influence, health, poverty and safety combine to shape a child's school achievement in ways that even the greatest teachers cannot account for.

Other important factors influencing student achievement that Edwards does not mention include the quality and quantity of resources, human and otherwise, within school organizations. Research consistently shows, for example, that well-resourced schools with effective school library programs, up-to-date facilities, solid professional development, and socioeconomically-integrated school populations have overall higher student achievement than segregated schools that operate out of run-down buildings with old books and inadequate technology. Efforts to improve student achievement must take into account these organizational factors, too, rather than diverting attention away from these factors by placing the entire weight of accountability on the shoulders of teachers.

Research, too, shows consistently that schools with high levels of trust and collaboration have higher student achievement and teacher satisfaction than schools where measuring, policing, punishing and test security have replaced learning environments nurtured by professional and personal integrity, team-building and commitment to community.

Unfortunately, the State's new teacher evaluation plan based on student test scores and narrowly-prescriptive checklists encourages competition, manipulation and avoidance of the most challenging and needful students, rather than development of healthy learning organizations built on mutual support, vertical coordination and group challenge.

Sadly, the state has chosen to rush ahead of common sense and the best scientific advice in claiming its part of the Race to the Top funds. In ignoring the warnings by the National Academy of Science regarding the premature use of value-added test scores for high-stakes decisions regarding teacher job security and pay, the state has shown itself more attuned to the political and business agendas of the U. S. Chamber of Commerce and its Business Roundtable than to the children, parents and teachers of Tennessee.

I agree with Edwards in that today "great teachers are more important than ever." Unfortunately, the byzantine system of constant testing and monitoring that the General Assembly and the state education commissioner have put in place assures that many of Tennessee's greatest teachers will go elsewhere or retire before they are subjected to a system set to demoralize, disempower and further damage professional responsibility and autonomy, without the benefit of any clear improvement strategies or even any evidence that such a system improves student achievement.

Half of the nation's teachers are over 50, and a third of our 3.2 million teachers are retiring now and over the next few years. In light of these facts, some of the questions that should be asked are these: Does the new Tennessee Teacher Acceleration Model (TEAM) increase the likelihood that Tennessee will recruit more highly-qualified, competent, caring child advocates into the teacher corps of the State? Or will the TEAM approach accelerate the loss of the most caring teachers whose professional ethics will not be held hostage by the singular focus of grinding out higher student test scores in order to keep their jobs?

Will TEAM attract new teachers looking to be regarded as valued professionals in charge of our most valuable resource and our only future hope to a sustainable and democratic future?

Or will TEAM ramp up the race for ever-diminishing returns whereby, in educator and author Art Costa's words, "what was once educationally significant, but difficult to measure, has been replaced by what is insignificant and easy to measure. So now we test how well we have taught what we do not value."

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