Teachers can manipulate students in various ways -- they can coerce, cajole, coax, conspire, and a whole host of other words that don't begin with "c". Teachers can attempt to make learning easier. They can attempt to demonstrate the worth of their subject. They can try to make it entertaining. They can be the best teachers in the world, but the final decision as to whether there will be any learning of the subject at hand isn't up to the teacher.
So why would we expect a teacher to be "accountable" for student results, or the improvement of student achievement? Why would a teacher promise such a thing, even implicitly, and why on earth would any administrator accept such a promise?
I'm reminded of a former co-worker of mine, a gifted ballet dancer who had been trained by top professional teachers. He began teaching ballet in between performance gigs and quickly found himself tied in knots over his students- fretting because while they might master one step, they muffed the next arm movement, or because although many had perfect balance they still couldn't do multiple pirouettes.
Eventually a more experienced teacher took him aside.
"Roger," said the colleague, "you can't make them perfect."
And you can't.
Current dogmatic thinking on public schools treats all students like so many identical widgets just waiting to be molded into uniformly finished products. This industrial vision of students and schools holds that if the widget-students do not perform up to spec on standardized tests, their teacher-or maybe all the teachers in the entire school or district- is to blame. The teachers, say this vision, are shop managers responsible for molding identical raw materials into a uniform product that can be objectively measured by the bean-counters in charge of auditing the education factory.
It's an interesting thesis, but it's more concerned with punishing the floor manager/teacher than improving the education of the widget/student.
Many people want to find some reasonable way of holding teachers accountable, and that includes me.
(Believe it or not, that also includes many teachers.)
So here is my first suggestion: let's abandon the industrial/factory model for a moment and see what else we can do with the tools we already have. And while we're at it, let's put actual human students at the center of the equation.
Human beings are not identical. Some of us are good at math. Some of us can't memorize very easily. Some of us finding writing easy and fun. If we are honest with ourselves, most of us adults can probably write a fairly accurate list of our strengths and weaknesses. We could also compose a "wish list" to go with those weaknesses:
I wish someone had found a better way to teach me fractions in 5th grade.
I wish my middle-school English teacher had paid attention to my writer's block.
I wish someone had taken me aside earlier and showed me some of the mnemonic tricks I've had to learn on my own.
So- if we accept the thesis that individual human beings have a variety of strengths and weaknesses and if we are chiefly concerned with helping individuals achieve their maximum intellectual potential, what is the best use for testing?
Well, here's one thing we could try: tie the test scores to the individual student and use these scores as part of a sincere effort to discover and improve that student's unique strengths and weaknesses.
The current application of standardized test scores is both wasteful and ineffective. The resulting numbers are used only in the aggregate to judge the teacher and school. Student 'performance' is only measured in large groups, and those groups then used to demonstrate a school's 'adequate yearly progress' or 'not making expected growth.'
That's real handy if you want to demonize schools or teachers, but it doesn't do individual students a lick of good. And isn't helping students what this is supposed to be all about?
I propose re-imagining the entire testing regime. Testing should measure each student's mastery of skills and concepts in specific subjects and those numbers should follow the student throughout their public school career. Each year the previous testing results should be carefully analyzed by students, teachers and parents. This would set up an unique 'baseline' for each student. For example:
Janie scored very high in mathematics on the last test, but her reading scores were weak. Janie, the teacher and Janie's parents pick apart the scores, searching specific skills that need special work. They work together to address these specific weaknesses. At the end of the year, Janie's reading scores are compared to her reading scores from the previous test. Everyone's hard work has paid off: Janie entered her current classroom with a previous grade of '1' on the reading portion of the test, but re-testing at the end of the year shows her score is now a '3.'
Janie- and her teacher- get official credit for outstanding progress. She hasn't made a perfect score by any stretch, but her unique needs have been identified and the progress she has made- given where she started- is excellent.
Andrew, on the other hand, enjoys reading and year after year has made a '5'- a perfect score- on every reading test. Our current testing system demands that each classroom be filled with Andrews in order for a school to be considered 'good.' But that system totally fails students like Janie, who may never attain Andrew's reading prowess but who have waged a tough and successful fight to improve.
Isn't that fight to improve what good teaching is supposed to be all about?
If we truly want excellent schools staffed with brilliant teachers, we have to start measuring students' individual progress, not simply aggregate class test scores. Measuring how much individual students have improved under the tutelage of a particular teacher is a far better indicator of teaching success than simply lumping all student test scores into a crude teach-o-meter.
Best of all, it could become part of a system that gives students the mental tools to critique their own performance and take responsibility for addressing their own weaknesses.
And isn't that an ability that would delight most employers?