We can blame teachers for low test scores, or we can learn from successful schools

OlympianDecember 16, 2013 

Go ahead and fire all the bad teachers — search high and low and find a handful in our state that are incompetent. Then what?

The Washington Legislature will soon debate whether student statewide test scores must be used as a factor in teacher evaluations. Federal pressure to do so flies in the face of local school board control of our schools. And it begs the question: When did we start to buy into the ludicrous idea that a student’s test scores are actually the teacher’s scores?

Imagine the eighth-grade teacher who administers the state test in reading to one of his classes. All of his students have already experienced several prior years of schooling. Due to mobility, the 30 students who began the class in September may not be the same group being tested in May.

The teacher may be happily teaching a class with a high number of non-English speaking and/or special needs students, but may question the fairness of comparing his results to the gifted class down the hall. Any teacher may be penalized (i.e. losing one’s job is a pretty serious penalty) for low test scores. And while the consequences of below standard test scores may be dire for a given educator, there will be no thought of requiring a low performing student to repeat a class (let alone a full year) and no consequences for the student’s parents/guardians.

As we eliminate seniority protections in education, we make the job less appealing to the bright and talented people we hope to attract to teaching. How would the Legislature function if committee appointments were based upon “merit” rather than the present system of seniority? Since many lawmakers are proposing an end to seniority recognition among teachers, they themselves should model this brave new world.

One simple and inexpensive way to improve the graduation rate in our state is to change how attendance is recorded. Every school could be required to show both current year and cumulative tallies of missed days, going all the way back to kindergarten for each student.

And, while we are focusing on our own state tests, we might miss the bigger global picture. The findings of the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) were recently released. More than half a million students, ages 15 and 16, from 65 countries, took the test.

Since the last exam in 2009, U.S. teenagers slipped from 25th to 31st in math, from 20th to 24th in science, and from 11th to 21st in reading. Shanghai students came out on top. In a CNN interview, educator Andreas Schleicher stated that nine out of ten Chinese students believe that, “It depends on me. If I invest the effort, my teachers are going to help me to be successful.”

The PISA report stated that, “Practice and hard work go a long way towards developing each student’s potential.” Imagine that. According to Schleicher, the outstanding performance by Chinese students contradicts preconceptions about rote learning. “The biggest surprise from Shanghai … was not that students did well on reproducing subject matter content but that they were very, very good in those higher order skills (that reflect) what you can do with what you know.”

According to historian Diane Ravitch, “If they mean anything at all, the PISA scores show the failure of the past dozen years of public policy in the United States. The billions invested in testing, test prep, and accountability have not raised test scores or our nation’s relative standing. … No Child Left Behind (under President Bush) and Race to the Top (under President Obama) are manifest failures at accomplishing their singular goal of higher test scores.”

We can continue to misidentify teachers as the problem in education. We can explore charter schools, preschools, open concept schools, and schools of fish. Or we can place the emphasis where it belongs: on the student behaviors that either promote or sabotage academic success.

Pamela Boyd has a master’s degree in elementary education. She is a member of The Olympian’s Board of Contributors and may be reached at harbortalk@comcast.net

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