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I’ve been looking at the comments over the last couple of days and thinking that you’re all talking past each other.

So let me start with a few things.

First, I find it very odd that when we talk about testing these days, we talk about using those tests to evaluate teachers.


Traditionally, we use tests to evaluate students. 

And that’s as it should be.  The best teacher in the world can’t make her students learn.  What tests tell us is what the students know.

And I think that if failing those tests have serious consequences for the students–not being able to go on to the next grade, not being able to graduate from high school, not being able to go on to college–students and parents will make sure that any teacher not bothering to teach anything gets an earful.

Second, I don’t have much patience with the ‘all testing tells us is how well students take tests” approach.

But that may have something to do with something else I don’t share, and that is with the idea that the point of school is “teaching students how to think” or “instilling a love of learning.”

For one thing, I don’t think those things can be taught to begin with.  For another, I think they’re beside the point.

What I want from schools is to make sure that the students who end up in college classrooms–or on the job in the outside world–possess a certain set of facts and skills. 

And we CAN test for those. 

I don’t like mutiple choice tests, but we could certainly run short answer tests with pre-determined value levels (the correct answer must contain these 5 parts, etc) that would adequately tell us whether the students were in the possession of a set of facts. 

We could find out, for instance, if they knew what the branches of government were and what those branches did, or the wars fought by the United States from the Revolution on with their relevant dates, or the principle points in the philosophies of Karl Marx and Adam Smith.

With English composition and reading comprehension, the tests would have to be more elaborate–but it isn’t true that there are just a whole lot of competing ideas about what is right or wrong in grammar, for instance, or sentence structure, or the order and composition of paragraphs in an argumentative or informative essay.

A test for those things would start by requiring students to write the essays–and the big danger is in falling for the “holistic” version of grading them, where a bunch of different people read them and just sort of get a “feel” and then we look to see if the grades all match.

The grading of such a test would have to be down strictly, with so much off for mistakes in grammar, punctuation and spelling, for incomplete sentences, for ideas out of order, and the rest of it.

For reading comprehension, it would require getting rid of multiple choice entirely and going to short answer in which we ask not only about vocabulary words–and we should ask about those–but about the ideas in the piece. 

A student who reaches the end of an essay by Richard Dawkins on science and religion by concluding that the author is trying to say that “we all have different ways of looking at things and what’s important is that we believe what’s right for us” is not proposing an “interpretation” of the piece.  She’s just plain wrong.

Once we’ve gotten students past all this, we can start thinking about getting them to think about it–but only AFTER.  UNTIL they have this stuff down, they have nothing to think about.

As for tenure–it is certainly true that there are administrators who fire at will because they don’t like some of their teachers, or who would if they were allowed to get away with it.

But why shouldn’t they be allowed to get away with it?

That’s the situation with every other job on earth–why, exactly, should teaching be different?

I work, after all, in academic circumstances where not even tenure protects you if you’re on the “wrong” side of such issues–it would not help any teacher who came out against affirmative action, for instance.

What it does do is simply protect people on on particular side of the political divide from the wrath of the legislature.

But the business of public schools is to teach what their communities want taught–and if teachers are not doing that, they should not continue to have jobs in that district. 

Any more than I should have a job with the PR department of BP if I spend my time telling the press how everything they do is deliberately to screw up the environment.


I’m having a very bad day on all subjects academic.

Written by janeh

August 23rd, 2011 at 5:34 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Hmmm….'

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  1. Hmmm. Largely in agreement. One hedge:

    Yes, of course, the test evaluates students. That’s primary. But it’s also the way we evaluate methods. Give me a huge test score database,and the first thing I’d do is try to isolate statistically identical groups who were learning well and poorly, then find out how each group was taught–not who taught them: how. Successful methods should be encouraged, and unsuccessful ones discouraged. In everything but teaching, that’s elementary.

    The default position of the teachers unions seems to be that the important variables within the control of the school system are classroom size, terminal degree of the teacher and years of teacher experience. It may be so, but surely these are things easily determined by testing? Forget individual teachers: as a group, do teachers with 10 years in the classroom advance their students further in a year than those with five years experience? Are teachers with MA’s more valuable than those without? The steadfast resistance to standardized testing leads me to suspect many “educators” don’t want to know the answers to these questions. And that mskes me suspect they already know.

    If we determine that the individual teacher counts for more than the method of instruction, then by all means, let’s find out who’s best and pay them better, but I don’t know that we’re at that point yet. It’s the strident opposition to having information which I find distressing.


    23 Aug 11 at 6:08 pm

  2. People do this kind of research – at least the methods stuff – but it’s incredibly difficult to do well, so a lot of the studies, at least those back in the day, had holes you could drive a truck through, at least in my opinion. Just to mention one of the most obvious – you’ve managed to locate two pretty similar classes and gotten all your permissions straightened out. Class A is the regular one. Class B is taught using your new method by a teacher who is really enthusiastic about it (because that’s the only person who volunteered to do it). What results would you expect?

    I suspect teacher personality is important, although methodology is too. And since students have personalities, no teacher is going to have the right personality to reach all the students in a class. Good teaching methods can minimize the effect of this, but I don’t know how you allow for it in a study – and many, many education studys are small and poorly funded so.

    Other things being equal, I would expect the expertise of teachers to reach a peak with experience, and then maybe gradually trail off. They say the best surgeons are the ones not long out of their residencies, but not yet old enough to have lost much of their physical skills or gotten out of touch with their field. Maybe it’s the same for other people in other fields.

    I vaguely remember a study of counselors that revealed that once they got a certain level of training, more didn’t produce better outcomes in their patients – that is, a counselor with a PhD wasn’t generally better than one with a MSc or MSW. I don’t know how good that study was, but I don’t see why PhD studies necessarily produce better classroom teachers – although it often ups the pay scale. I knew a system with LOTS of classroom teachers who had master’s degrees in educational administration. They had absolutely no interest in administration, and didn’t claim the additional education made them better teachers. But it put them at the top of the pay scale. And if you do have some good teachers among them – as I think they did – and you want to keep them, why shouldn’t they be at the top of the pay scale? It just seems silly for them to get there by doing barely relevant academic work.


    24 Aug 11 at 6:39 am

  3. It’s probably not helpful to reminisce that a psychiatrist once commented that he got a lot of visits from his patients who were teachers right at the beginning of the academic year. He was the husband of a friend actually; I didn’t consult him professionally, but I could certainly understand those who did.


    24 Aug 11 at 12:32 pm

  4. At our present levels of education spending, I am at a loss to understand how anything can be underfunded. But forget visiting classrooms. Find me 1,000 kids in two different school systems, with roughly the same home situations but seriously different scores on the same test. Then start looking at textbooks and assigned methodology–shorter or longer blocks of instruction, team or individual teaching. If any of these things makes a serious difference, it shouldn’t be hard to tell. They may not. And knowing they don’t would be very useful.

    Same thing with collective teacher traits. Forget individual teachers. Look at 20, 50 or 100 teachers with MA’s or 10 years in the classroom, and the same without. Compare them with measured student performance. If you can’t find that further education or years of experience make a difference in student outcomes, then we shouldn’t pay as though there were one.

    Surely just determining and implementing best practice would help, and maybe help substantially. But if the most important variable turns out to be the skills and enthusiasm of the individual teacher, I don’t know how we can prove it and pay the best of them more without some sort of standardized testing.

    What we need here are facts, and lots of them.


    24 Aug 11 at 4:01 pm

  5. Maybe people don’t want what they think the answers will be. Getting enough money for research also seems to be a perennial problem too. Money spent on education doesn’t have to go to research, after all.

    In spite of all the barriers to educational research, there have been libraries full of reports on educational research. Some of it is good stuff. A lot isn’t. Sorting out what, exactly, causes the difference in outcomes among your two similar group of students or teachers is difficult. Lots of effects have been identified. Most of them aren’t very big (one researcher once told me that the best predictor of achievement was previous achievement!) Other things – various proxies for socioeconomic status and home life like the number of books at home, the family income, the family structure; genetics etc – influence learning both directly and through each other. Sorting it all out is going to take generations.

    And moving from the group to the individual is tricky. Maybe in general experienced teachers are no better at teaching than novices – but that would include some who were a lot better and some who are a lot worse. If you can’t reliably identify which INDIVIDUAL teachers are doing a bad or a good job, you can’t really justify not paying a good teacher with a PhD more that average because on average, a PhD doesn’t influence student acheivement. I tend to think myself that years of experience is a better proxy for teacher quality than education (obviously assuming a basic standard in both the subject matter and education). Then I run into a teacher who has somehow managed to miss out on some basic ideas like the one about not putting a disproportionate number of marks on your final test on a question on a topic you spent twenty minutes on while not testing the topic you spent a month on. That’s when I think they need more education courses.

    We do need facts. We could do better with the facts we do have, but of course some people in educational circles are firmly committed to various philosophical positions that I think get in the way of teaching. The conviction that all education should be ‘child-centred’ in the sense that the children choose what they want to learn comes to mind, as does the low expectations many teachers have for students. When my younger siblings moved to the US with my parents, their US teachers thought they were taking a heavy course load in high school – it was the standard academic one back home, a bit wider in scope because they went to bigger schools, so for example, my sister could study Latin in the US.

    US educational trends tended to reach Canada after a 10 year delay or so. I don’t know if this is still the case.


    24 Aug 11 at 4:40 pm

  6. With all due respect, Jane, you are not getting a cross-section of students in your classes.

    You are not getting the illiterate and functionally illiterate students who dropped out of high school — or who graduated from high school without being able to read.

    You are not getting the bright students who went on to good four-year colleges.

    You are not getting the bright students who dropped out of high school because they were bored out of their minds.

    When you talk about the importance of a “core curriculum” that your students are lacking and then you jump to the conclusion that that is the most important problem facing American education today, you are missing the point.

    I say (expletive deleted) the (expletive deleted) core curriculum. Let’s start by focusing on teaching all our students to read and then worry about the core curriculum.

    When I started kindergarten in 1948, the cut-off date was December 31. You had to be five years old by that date in order to go to kindergarten. In kindergarten we learned the alphabet. Period. Reading instruction started in first grade. But then people decided that the kindergarten year was being “wasted” so they started pushing more and more reading instruction down into kindergarten. And they found that more and more students hadn’t reached the age of “reading readiness”. So they started moving the cut-off date for starting kindergarten to October 1st, and then to September 1st.

    A lot of the kids in our schools who are having reading shoved down their throats in kindergarten aren’t at the age of reading readiness yet. Some of them aren’t even ready by the time they are in first grade. It used to be that these students were held back a year, which gave them an extra year to reach reading readiness. But then the psychologists decided that being held back damaged children’s self esteem, so today all students are being shoved along through the school system whether they learn the material or not.

    Once when I substituted in a sixth grade class, I had to hand back some social studies tests. About 40% of the students had flunked it flat. I was also supposed to start the new unit of social studies. What were we teaching the students? That the tests didn’t matter. That flunking didn’t matter. That they didn’t need to study. If they flunked every test in sixth grade, they would still be “promoted” to seventh grade at the end of the year.

    You think it is hard to get rid of a bad teacher who has tenure? That’s nothing compared with trying to hold back a student who has failed an entire school year.

    For those of you who have never had any classes in Child Growth and Development, and who have never read any books about it, let me explain. When a child’s brain hasn’t developed enough for them to learn to read, they can’t learn to read no matter how hard they try. And children’s brains don’t all develop at the same rate. And the parts of a child’s brain don’t develop at the same rate. Which means a child can be really advanced in one area and really behind in another, all at the same time. One child can teach himself to read when he is three, another may not be ready to learn to read even when he is six.

    When they are born, infants are able to grasp objects. Their brains are not able to tell their hands to let go of things. That comes later.

    It’s the same way with reading readiness. The age of reading readiness doesn’t even have anything to do with intelligence. Some brilliant people have been late readers. But we’re determined to shove all our students through a program that fits only those students who have a reading readiness age that matches the age when we have decided all children should learn to read.

    In Russia they don’t start teaching reading until the children are seven, because they have found out that 99.9% of their students have reached the age of reading readiness by then.

    I don’t know how many people on this blog have had any experience inside a grade school or a high school classroom since they were children themselves. Based on what everyone is saying, I suspect not many.

    Everyone is so ready to say, here’s what the problem is. I feel like I’m at a cocktail party where everyone is talking about how to solve problems they don’t know anything about either from personal experience or from seriously studying the situation.

    Come on, guys! Where is your credibility?

    How many of you (other than Cheryl) have been involved in any significant way with education in grades K-12 in this country or in whatever country you live in?

    Do you have any idea what problems the teachers in our public schools are facing? The whole concept of the NCLB Act is “Let’s identify the schools where students are not doing well so we can punish those schools by withholding Federal money so that then they’ll do better.”

    Does this make sense to any intelligent person? The bill was authored in a large part by Senator Edward Kennedy, the hero of Chappaquiddick and the boozehound of the Senate. Lot of credibility there, folks.

    Does anyone actually think that the schools in, say, Westchester County and the schools in Harlem are going to be improved by punishing whichever one (yeah, right, big surprise there) of them does worse than the other?

    Yes, we have problems with teachers who have Retired On The Job. Does anyone say, let’s see what’s going wrong with the system so that we can stop all this teacher burnout? Or are we just going to be like the Red Queen and yell, “Off with their heads!”

    This is like a career woman who is unmarried and childless trying to give a mother of five children advice on how she should raise her children.

    If there is a solution to the problems in American education today, it is not going to be found by Congress. It is not going to be found by any of the fifty state legislatures or fifty state school boards. It will not be found by education professors doing studies in lab schools or studies with small groups of students.

    If there is a solution, it will be found by the teachers “on the front lines,” i.e. by the teachers in the classrooms. But nobody has been listening to them for decades. People have been listening to the “experts” who have never been in a classroom. They have been listening to the politicians who are only interested in reelection. They have been listening to the fear-mongers who are spouting out their rhetoric about how the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and how we need to go back to the kind of teaching that worked so well in the “good old days” in the one-room schoolhouse.

    Well, it probably still works well in all the one-room schoolhouses in this country. There may even still be one or two one-room schoolhouses in this country. Stranger things have happened.

    Teachers have been yelling for help for decades, and they’ve been told, sorry, that doesn’t fit our educational philosophy.

    I substitute taught one day — one endless, incredibly long day — in an “open classroom,” which was the innovation that was going to revolutionize education. Four sixth grade classes were all held in one huge classroom. The theorists had touted a whole list of how “open classrooms” would provide x number of benefits. None of the experts, however, had ever tried to teach in an open classroom. The noise level gave me a headache by eleven o’clock. The distraction level for the students was off the top of the scale. I talked to the three other teachers who taught there full time. They were all miserable. They said they had begged the administration to at least, as a minimum, put in some plexiglass partitions between the four “virtual classrooms” (or whatever the buzzword was back then) so that the noise level wouldn’t be so unbearable. The teachers had been told, “Sorry, plexiglass dividers don’t fit with the architectural concept.”

    First grade and second grade and third grade teachers are not the ones who are in favor of the “push the child along through school whether he is learning anything or not” doctrine.

    Teachers have been saying for years, WE NEED HELP! And all we’ve done is say, well, we’re going to increase the level of punishment for you, and THAT should make you try harder.

    Yeah, right.


    25 Aug 11 at 12:37 pm

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