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NCLB Outrages

On Obama (and Jay Mathews) and teacher accountability

Reader Comment:

Here's something to consider:

Plenty of lousy teachers have students who score well on standardized tests. It doesn't take a great teacher to train kids to do well on them. And that's just what it is-it's TRAINING, not education.

It's possible for a child to ace the test without having ever read a book from cover to cover or without having produced a research paper. Great teachers understand the importance of these things they are unnecessary to do well on standardized tests.

It's one more very important reason not to tie teacher evaluation to standardized testing.

Reader Comment: This is a political plan, not an educational plan.

by Valerie Strauss

Really now, does anybody think teachers should not be held accountable for how they do their jobs? What professionals are not evaluated on how well they do their jobs?

The real issues are not whether, but how, the assessments are carried out, and how the results are used. And the way a lot of school "reformers" want to hold teachers supposedly accountable is wrong.

"Teacher accountability" is one of the central themes of President Obama's new vision for the post-No Child Left Behind era, and that two-word term, unfortunately, has come to mean something it shouldn't.

Today in the world of education the phrase has come to mean how well a teacher's students perform on standardized tests. If the students do well, the teacher is considered excellent. If the students haven't done well, the teacher is not excellent.

Here are just a few of the problems with this scheme:

If we had a test, standardized or not, that really was a complete measure of a teacher's performance -- or a student's, for that matter -- it would be hard to argue against its use.

But let's be clear: We don't. Our standardized tests are rudimentary assessments, still. They are nowhere near sophisticated enough -- if indeed any single test can be -- to be used as a real measure of performance.

Even if the test were an excellent assessment tool, some students will still wind up taking it sick, or hungry, or tired, or anxious, or depressed. What is a teacher supposed to do about that?

Another problem with basing teacher accountability on standardized test scores is that students don't take annual assessments in many subjects. Is it fair to subject math and English/language arts teachers to this sort of accountability and not everybody else?

In her new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, education historian Diane Ravitch discusses studies that evaluated whether teacher effectiveness, as measured by student test scores, is stable over time.

The conclusion was that "being an effective teacher is not necessarily a permanent, unchanging quality." In other words, the New York University professor wrote, the scores "reflected something other than what the teachers did, such as the students' ability and motivation, or the characteristics of a class or conditions in the school."

Now my colleague Jay Mathews, in his Class Struggle blog, took me to task for opposing this part of Obama's new vision for reauthorizing NCLB. Hereâs what he wrote:

"For now, I think it is important to note that my colleague Valerie Strauss's distress about the president's emphasis on teachers improving student achievement harks back to an earlier era that will never return. It is politically impossible to pass a plan that doesn't make teachers accountable for student performance. We will never return to the good old days (in the minds of some) when we ignored that factor. I agree with Valerie that there are better measures of schools, but for the moment they are way too expensive (like regular inspections) and way too complicated for voters to understand and trust."

I, of course, did not say that teachers shouldn't be evaluated. But test scores do not make an evaluation system. There are multiple ways to measure how much progress students have made. They require time and effort.

To say that better measures of achievement are "too expensive ... and way too complicated for voters to understand and trust" is no reason to institute an accountability system that will never work.

— Valerie Strauss, The Answer Sheet
Washington Post


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