Sunday, February 13, 2005

Accountability and testing...

In a piece in today's SF Chronicle, Davy McClay takes on what he calls "Pseudo-accountability."

(UPDATE -- 2/14/05: I have a new proposal on teacher pay. Click here to read it.)

The first part of the article brings up the fact that many teachers devote all their time to teaching to those subjects tested.

My reply is this: If 30 hours per week with students is not enough to teach basic reading, writing, and math skills, like those on the tests, then teachers aren't doing it right. Odds are that most teachers are using time-consuming progressive teaching techniques, including group learning, which can take many times longer to impart the same knowledge than direct instruction techniques. Moreover, these progressive techniques have little emperical evidence to show that they work. No wonder instructors who use them find it necessary to focus solely on subjects that their students will be tested on.

Just as fast-food entrees are bland accommodations to the masses, so is our test-preparation curriculum. We're not producing gourmet thinkers; we're churning out one-size-fits-all test-takers. And the "one size" is pathetically anemic.
McClay talks about the "one size" on the tests being pathetic. The tests represent minimum standards of competency. Educators focused on producing "gourmet thinkers" should teach well above the level represented by the tests. Teachers should teach in such a way that the minimum skills tested are presented early in the year and built upon as the year progresses. That way, come spring, their students will be handed the test and be able to complete it without too much effort.

So far, McClay seems like a typical progressive educator who thinks tests and basic skills are barriers to creating well-rounded, thoughtful people. They are wrong on this. Basic skills are called basic for a reason--they form the basis for what progressives call "higher-order" thinking skills. Basic skills must be well-drilled and automatic before they can be employed in higher-order operations like critical or creative thinking.

It's not a dichotomy as McClay presents it, rather it's a progression from basic to higher-order skills. McClay seems to want to focus on higher order skills before the basics have been mastered, as shown in the following quote:
In 2001, writing was added to elementary grades' multiple-choice tests. But teachers, so busy preparing students for testing, no longer have time to work with students on creating original literature.
What "original literature" should students in the early grades be creating? Should they be allowed to use incorrect spellings and sentence structures in the name of creativity? Should they be creating original literature before mastering the basics of writing at grade level?

My reply to the above statement is that students shouldn't be creating "original literature" until they have mastered grade-level writing and are able to perform comfortably on the state tests. Further, teachers should not have to spend the entire school year teaching those basic skills. If they do, they are using ineffective techniques.

Now, on to McClay's suggestions for "true accountability":
-- Classroom delivery skills, including firsthand/hands-on deep knowledge for students in all content areas. Hold us accountable for our delivery. If we can't perform, don't sign our checks. Likewise, if we're doing well we'd love some tangible appreciation. But please do it with significant within-our-ranks input.

Also, gauging how well students "receive" our deliveries and translate them into test scores is limited. How much of those test scores are attributable to moodiness, hunger or, especially, home influence? Nobody really knows. Statisticians can only render "probability," based on their mix of variables. So don't hold us accountable for student receptivity until you can determine an unbiased, exact measure of the extent of our impact.
If you read my last post on merit pay, (or my new post,) you'll find out that I think this is a good idea. Teachers' performance in the classroom matters. It should be part of the equation for determining what educators should earn on the district level, where fellow educators are in a place to observe them. This would, however, require the scrapping of the pay-for-seniority system now in place.
-- Following the mandates of my heart: Our most powerful teaching skill is what and who we are deep inside. That takes place without saying a word. We must each find the real truth within ourselves, accompanied by daily self- reminders and refocusing, and with unselfish love and concern for the well- being of each student. This mandate also includes being creative and teaching to the needs of individual students, even when our beloved curriculum silently yells, "No. Don't you dare!"
Unlike McClay's last suggestion, this one is worthless. He speaks of teaching to the needs of individual students. The first thing every student needs to be successful in a grade are the basic skills upon which that grade's curriculum are founded, which are (usually) what the tests cover. So the curriculum isn't saying, "No. Don't you dare!" It's demanding that you help every student get what he needs.
-- Helping parents hold themselves accountable: There's a cultural gap between the values that drive education and urban families. All socio-economic classes share identical beliefs and attitudes about education. But less-than- affluent families often haven't been through "the system" and thus tend to lack experiential knowledge for translating those beliefs into actions. They must know what behaviors are required. We must teach those critical behaviors and provide parents with cultural capital to buy into the system. I use a first-day-of-school meeting with parents, at least one home visit per year, monthly evening trips to public library, and a few extra phone calls when they aren't needed. Teachers should be family and parents should be teachers.
This suggestion has some merit to it, though the fluffy, meaningless language makes it hard to find. The good idea here is to make it clear to parents what they need to be doing at home to help students succeed at school.

I have a few simple suggestions on this front. First, parents should ensure that their child completes his homework on his own. Second, parents should support teachers when they employ reasonable disciplinary measures. Third, parents should ensure their child is in school as much as possible. Fourth, parents should make it clear that good grades are expected, and should attach consequences to grades. That said, this suggestion has nothing to do with merit pay at the state level.

Once again, I invite readers to look at my last post (or my new post) on merit pay to see my recommendation on how merit pay should be structured. As I say there, merit pay on the state level should be confined to state level measurements. Districts should also employ merit pay into their pay structures, and McClay's first recommendation is quite applicable to that. His second and third recommendations should be dismissed when considering merit pay since they add nothing of value to the debate.

TOPIC: Education