An archive of articles and listserve postings of interest, mostly posted without commentary, linked to commentary at the Education Notes Online blog. Note that I do not endorse the points of views of all articles, but post them for reference purposes.
New York State tests, going on now in middle and elementary schools,
have always been high stakes for students, particularly in fourth and
seventh grades, when their scores determine whether they end up in the
very awful school they are zoned for or the very attractive magnet
school that draws from a larger and more competitive pool. But the
stakes have recently become equally high for teachers, whose ability to
teach is being determined by their ability to improve students’ test
people think it’s about time. Teachers need to be held accountable for
the work they are being paid to do, and many, many teachers need to get
better at teaching.
But tying teacher performance to student test scores is having an opposite effect: It’s producing worse teachers.
all know the old needlepoint saying, ‘children learn what they live.’
Well, it turns out that adults learn what they live, too. And now that
teachers are living in a system that evaluates their performance based
on the test scores of their students, they are learning that all that
matters are test scores.
see this every day in my work as a staff developer. It’s my job to make
sure that teachers continue to learn and grow so that their students
can learn and grow.
This year, I have seen more and more teaching that is about answers. No inquiry, curiosity or study. No thinking. Just answers.
a third grade class, for example, the teacher goes over a practice
test. Students compare their answers and tally their scores.
of them high-five each other; others erase and put the correct answer
on their papers. No one, least of all the teacher, is interested in how
or why those answers are the right ones.
a fifth grade class, the teacher is attempting to get his students to
understand a non-fiction article. He asks students what the main idea of
the piece is, a common test question.
no one gives the answer he’s looking for, he coaxes, “It begins with a
T.” Students started calling out words that begin with T, most of which
have nothing to do with the passage.
teacher finally gives the answer, students copy it on their paper and
move on to the next question. Again, no explanations given; no thinking
the past when I have worked with teachers in scenarios such as these, I
would demonstrate lessons where students would be challenged to uncover
and construct answers rather than copy or guess; I would help plan
units with skills embedded in authentic reading and writing rather than
test prep workbooks that cover a skill a day; I would assist in
designing curriculum around questions requiring study and inquiry rather
than prompts that teach rephrasing and repeating.
year, many of my attempts have been met with replies along the lines
of, “Oh, I’d love to do that, but this is the only way my students will
be able to pass the test.”
bodes very poorly for our students. The tests have gained an outsized
influence on what happens in classrooms. They are not measuring student
learning, as any good test should, but rather determining it. And in so
doing they have shut down the most important quality of a good teacher —
the ability to learn.
is because teaching doesn’t consist of passively transferring knowledge
from one receptacle to another — from the teacher’s brain or the
textbook to the student’s brain — but rather actively facilitating a
process that allows students to construct knowledge. And to do that,
teachers have to simultaneously know and learn.
have to know the content of what they’re teaching — the causes of the
Great Depression; how to solve for x; how a writer organizes an idea for
a reader — but they also have to know how to help students access that
is constant work requiring constant learning: What is Troy’s brain
doing as his eyes scan a page of text or look at a column of numbers?
What sparks Judith’s curiosity? What makes Maria shut down? How does
Alex respond to feedback? What part of this concept does Jamie get? Why
is William suddenly missing so much school?
also have to teach students how to learn; they need to be the model
learner in the class. Unfortunately, by the time the students in those
third and fifth grade classrooms get into eighth grade, they will have
learned the following lessons about learning:
the right answer matters more than thinking;
the right answer is inside the teacher’s head but not theirs;
once they are the kind of student who doesn’t get the answer, chances are they will always be that kind of student;
the right answer is not connected to anything the student does, then
it’s not connected to anything they’ll do in the future, so why bother?
we want our students to learn, we have to enable our teachers to learn.
We have to provide them with a vision of what to work toward and allow
them to approximate that vision through practice.
We have to allow them to take risks, to extend effort and to fail, if that failure can allow for reflection and self-evaluation.
we want our students to value learning, we have to enable our teachers
to value learning. We need to look at how administrators support teacher
learning and facilitate professional conversations.
teachers urged to attend conferences and read professional books,
articles or blogs? Are they participating in lesson studies with
colleagues to work through teaching conundrums? Are they allowed to say,
“I don’t know” or “Let me try that again”?
we believe that schools are places where learning is taught, we have to
reestablish the role of the teacher as the one whose job it is to teach
students not just what to know but how to know.
conditions that allow for teacher learning have been replaced with
humiliation and fear in New York City schools. Teachers’ rankings have
been published in newspapers and used by administrators to threaten
dismissal or deny tenure — never mind that they are based on what is
widely considered to be a flawed statistical model.
attempt to get schools to value learning will be in vain unless we
first divest teacher evaluations from test scores. Only then will
teachers be able to take the risks necessary to learn and grow.
they do, our students will surely learn and grow — and maybe then we
will truly be able to measure a teacher’s ability to teach.
Dorothy Barnhouse is a literacy consultant who has worked in the New York City public schools for the past two decades.