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Punish or Empower? A Case for a Shift in Academic Systems

by Michelle George on Apr 12, 2016

  • Assessment
  • General Education
  • State Standards

Recent conversations in my faculty lounge have drifted to the sentencing of educators in Georgia who were convicted of tampering with test materials. How did people who presumably care deeply about children end up breaking laws and serving prison time?

We as educators are trained to look beyond the results of a failure and analyze the cause. So what happened in Georgia, and is threatening to happen all over the country? Perhaps the problem is that an assessment is being used for purposes beyond its scope. I contend that if we as educators want to improve our discipline’s professionals, we need to use tools that are proven to do just that.

Novel idea, right?

It’s not that testing is inherently evil. I am a big fan of formative and summative assessment, and I believe the Common Core State Standards help all of us focus on the most important element of a sound education: the process. As professional practitioners of the discipline of education, we need to assess student progress in order to be sure our students are achieving the goals we have identified. Inevitably we are responsible for creating curriculum, systems, and environments where our students can successfully achieve those goals. That is why many intelligent, thoughtful, and educated people collaborated and came up with the CCSS.

Assessment: Wrong Tool for the Job

The problem as I see it is that we are using this assessment that monitors student progress to measure teacher success. We are using the wrong tool for the job. It is like giving a teenager a blood glucose test, and from the results determining whether the guardians of that teenager are fit parents. Now I realize the analogy is a bit of a stretch, but the inherent truth in it is valid. This assessment is not designed to test teacher effectiveness.

The blunder was predictable. I understand the desire to tie teacher success with student test scores. It’s easily collectable, measurable, and reportable. The problem is that it isn’t necessarily correlative. One test on one day for one student cannot embody the growth and learning experience of multiple classes over an entire year. There are just too many external variables. A test score cannot account for sickness, morning drama, or multiple absences. Just as a parent can’t always control the Snickers bar a kid might share with his friend on the bus or the healthy lunch that was dumped in the school garbage can in exchange for a bag of chips and a pop.

Another issue is that a standardized test cannot adequately measure the teaching skills of all teachers equally. I’m heartened by the idea that teachers should be responsible for teaching reading, writing, and math, but the reality is that the burden is not equally divided. How will teachers outside of the core classes be fairly assessed? And how does this assessment make for better teaching? Perhaps we need to look at the challenge in a new way.

Creating Explicit Expectations

The three-tiered pyramid concept for both response to intervention (RtI) and positive behavior interventions and supports (PBIS) provides powerful models for building success. Instead of focusing on documenting and punishing failure, perhaps we could work to ensure widespread success. In the PBIS model, the majority (80 percent of the learning population) fills out the base. The concept is that educators must first develop a system of clear and consistent expectations, and clearly communicate those expectations to their students. Educators explicitly teach expected behaviors, revisit them throughout the year, and check for understanding regularly.

This consistent practice has been shown through extensive research to effectively allow approximately 80 percent of the student population to be successful in the learning environment. These students are empowered to be successful because the standards of success are clearly identified and understood by all. Students know what it looks like to be successful, and they know how to achieve success. We’ve done that for student learning goals with the CCSS. Why couldn’t we do that for teaching standards as well? With clear standards for teaching excellence and explicit training in techniques to achieve that excellence, we could build a powerful teaching base. We can look to the teacher training system in Finland for a working model. To achieve this clear standard of excellence, we need to provide rigorous and continuous training for all teachers. Systematic programs could empower 80 percent of our teachers to be successful. Teacher training programs begin this process, but that support ends right when many teachers need it most—when they enter their own classrooms.

Designing Effective Teacher Training

Class management is relatively simple in a college classroom or a supervised hour or two, but it’s a totally different challenge in an autonomous classroom filled with flushed fourth graders the hour after lunch break. And training must be continuous in order to remain responsive. Education researchers know which strategies are most effective, but most school systems have no way to consistently and efficiently share that valuable information with practicing teachers. In fact, most teachers are so busy keeping up with the daily details of teaching that they have little time to explore new methodologies and technologies.

All states require continuing education, but that training is hardly consistent. We need to design learning systems for our teachers that are as complete and clear as those we design for our students.

In the PBIS structure, 15 to 18 percent of the average student body require additional supports in order to be successful (Tier 2). It seems logical to assume that professional educators might have the same distribution.

Developing systematic and focused mentoring along with effective professional learning communities (PLCs) could potentially enable another 15 to 18 percent of teachers to succeed. In the student model, the final 2 to 5 percent requires intense individual programs in order to achieve success. This is without a doubt the most difficult challenge for our discipline. But as in every profession, some individuals are not willing or perhaps able to master the demands of the job. The top tier of our educator pyramid may not be suited to a teaching career. A strong system would be able to quickly identify those individuals and help them find careers that better fit their strengths rather than embedding them in ineffectual positions.

A paradigm shift like this could facilitate real positive change for teachers and ultimately students. Real change requires that we, the experts in this profession, take responsibility for positive changes and help restructure our own systems. By focusing on building for success, we can achieve just that. After all, I think we’d all rather read headlines that celebrate educational programs with successful students rather than reports of penalized professors.

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