Terrific commentary on a good teachers experience with a bad system
By guest writer JENNIFER MATHIEU BLESSINGTON
I started working for the Houston Independent School District in 2005. Teaching was not my first career, but almost instantly, I knew I had found the job I would do for the rest of my life. The best part? Connecting with kids during those awkward years of early adolescence and helping them learn to think and read critically and write well and creatively. Six years later, my desk at home is covered in earnestly penned, sweet thank-you notes from former students. (“Ever since I started grade 7 English I thought you were the nicest teacher and you were.”)
But now, six years later, I am planning to leave HISD and start a new job next year teaching at a private school.
By any measure, I think I am a teacher HISD would want to keep. I’ve won a few awards, volunteered to participate in district initiatives, and am generally well liked by students, parents and colleagues. I don’t put any weight in the Education Value-Added Assessment System, which uses student test data to measure teachers’ effectiveness, but EVAAS rates me a highly effective teacher. I’ve regularly received some of the highest achievement-related bonus payouts on my campus since the program began. My students who fail the state assessments can often be counted on one hand, and the majority earn commended status. I’ve tried my best to follow the procedures and policies of the district without making waves. While I support some of the union’s views, I’ve never been a member. But under Superintendent Terry Grier, I have seen the culture of HISD change, and not for the better.
In my opinion, morale is sinking, and if the state budget crisis hadn’t squashed hiring by other school systems, I believe even more good teachers and administrators would be leaving. Schools are losing autonomy and are being micromanaged. Focus on testing is unyielding, and new programs and policies are implemented with little warning. Certainly any attempt to gain input from those who will be affected by the changes is window dressing at best. Above all, the district’s rhetoric has created an environment where good teachers feel that we’re never trusted.
The district’s focus on standardized test scores has become so intense, I dream about bubble sheets. In years past, my colleagues and I were allowed to create our own tests to see how our students were doing. After all, we knew our kids best. But this year, despite the consistently strong records of the teachers at my exemplary-rated school, we were mandated to give district-created tests every month. This cut into instruction time with our kids. Sadly, this focusing-on-the-test trend shows little sign of ending. For teachers, EVAAS scores and other end-of-course test data now carry more weight than ever before: In the evaluation system recently passed by the school board, they make up half of each teacher’s rating.
We teachers should be held accountable, and I believe student growth on standardized tests should be part of that accountability. Parents should be able to know whether their child’s teacher has demonstrated good instruction. Taxpayers should be able to know whether their dollars are being well spent.
But the public also needs to know that EVAAS figures are misleading for many reasons, and including them in the teacher evaluation system could lead to good teachers being punished. First of all, many teachers earn their EVAAS scores based on a complicated formula that reflects a combination of growth not just on the state test but also on the Stanford Achievement Test. Unfortunately, Texas’ state curriculum — which HISD teachers are required to teach, and which our textbooks cover – is not aligned with the Stanford. For example, eighth-grade U.S. history teachers earn their EVAAS scores strictly from the Stanford, which includes questions on world history, anthropology, and sociology – none of which are included in the eighth-grade state curriculum. So what’s a teacher supposed to teach?
Even worse, EVAAS data does not help us become better teachers. I challenge you to find one single teacher in the district who can clearly explain how his or her EVAAS scores will help improve what happens in the classroom. I’ve pored over my EVAAS data and can find little to take away – except for that magic, seemingly random final score that determines my bonus.
Grier has repeatedly said that there is no time to wait, that Houston’s children need reform now. But a sense of urgency cannot be used as an excuse to dismantle and demand without reflecting on the impact of major changes. Schools and parents are still frustrated with his mandatory breakfast-in-the-classroom program, one of several new initiatives implemented with little warning or input from campuses. And don’t get me started about Grier’s rushed, poorly received audit of the magnet-school program.
A successful superintendent creates a culture that hires innovative, free-thinking principals who are rewarded for taking risks instead of toeing a party line. Bad teachers need to be fired without making good teachers feel endangered and abused. If schools and teachers are successful, ask them what help they need instead of forcing them to change. Train principals to support good teachers and to give them real power in the schools. Most importantly, if you are going to hold teachers accountable for the value added to student achievement, do it with data that we can use to help our kids improve.
I don’t envy anyone who tries to lead a large urban school district. The problems are many and complex – the kind of problems that require thoughtful individual solutions, not one-size-fits-all proclamations. My campus, like much of HISD, is full of hard-working, wonderful children and adults, and it desperately needs thoughtful, careful leadership from its school superintendent.
I thought I would retire from this district, and it’s still strange to think I won’t be returning next year. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Terry Grier.
Blessington is a middle school English teacher in HISD.
Ten things teachers need to reclaim their profession
This was written by Horace B. Lucido, a retired physics instructor, author and educational consultant, and a founding member of Educators and Parents Against Testing Abuse.
By Horace B. Lucido
Sports referees make split second decisions. Judges and doctors do too, sometimes decisions that are life changing. Despite the subjective nature of their judgments, they are given respect and trust because of their training and experience, and we most often accept their decisions as valid.
This was once the same type of respect given to our public school teachers, the professionals who work in the classroom. But since the onslaught of state and national high-stakes testing regimes, too many teachers have been relegated to mechanized assembly line workers who have little say about the process but are required to follow the company line.
This is in direct conflict with the national Model Core Teaching Standards, which give the teacher responsibility to adjust, modify and pace the lessons according to the needs of their individual students. In today’s classrooms, though, teachers are taken out of the equation, becoming functionaries in a system of rigorous “manufacturing” controls by local, state and national directives.
High-stakes tests are said by proponents to provide “objective” truth whereas teachers’ opinions are classified as subjective and, thus, believed to be less trustworthy.
But test scores aren’t really objective. Who writes the test questions on these tests? People. Who chooses the test questions, the number of questions, the time allowed and when the test will be given? People. Who chooses the cut scores that decide where proficient or passing is? People. Who determines the meaning of these scores? People. These are all subjective not objective processes and most of these people are not even educators.
Teachers are trustworthy, trained professionals. Throughout the year they have a long sustained contact with their students. They know their students’ strengths and weaknesses. Their judgments are based on multiple sources of information over the entire school year and are more valid than the results of a few hours of annual high-stakes testing.
Why else would some states, like California, in their Testing Report to Parents, contain a clear disclaimer on the reporting sheet:
A note on using this information: A single test can provide only limited information. A student taking this same test more than once might score higher or lower in each tested area in a small range. You should confirm your child’s strengths and needs in these topics by reviewing classroom work, standards-based assessments, and your child’s progress during the year.
California’s Department of Education thus admits that assessments, assignments and progress provided by the classroom teacher should be the place to assess the real meaning and accuracy of standardized test results. But it doesn’t act like it really believes it because schools and districts are judged almost entirely by standardized test scores.
Which is a more valid predictor of student success in college: “objective” SAT and ACT college entrance scores or “subjective” teacher grades? Several studies have found that high school grades more accurately predict academic college achievement than any other factor. But still the standardized test remains dominant in admissions decisions.
In many detailed analysis of international tests such as the PISA and TIMSS, as well as our own national report card, National Assessment of Educational Progress, what is clearly evident is that poverty and the gap between the wealthy and the poor are the major contributors to test performance.
Our top-performing students far outnumber other nations. They come from schools that have less than 10% poverty. When we compare these students to the other participating nations we are among the leaders. No analysis in any of these studies points to poorer teaching in America than elsewhere.
So what are some key elements in teachers regaining the professional respect and trust they deserve? State, district and site practices and policies should:
1. Allow our teachers to use best practices in lesson design and pedagogy rather than canned programs that require rigorous adherence to step-by-step procedures without flexibility.
2. Permit teachers to adjust and modify their lessons to fit their students’ knowledge and skills rather than prepare them for high-stakes testing. Forgo all site and district high-stakes testing that is not required by state or national law. Do away with site and district tests used to prepare for more tests.
3. Test score ‘data’ can only become relevant when interpretation for individual students is corroborated by their teachers — individually or groups — who have evaluated said students using multiple sources of information. No judgments, placements or qualifications for individual students should be made solely on the basis of annual high-stakes testing.
4. Abolish all goal-setting based on annual high-stakes testing scores. This includes targeting students, teachers and schools for score improvement. Each should be evaluated using multiple sources of information before making plans for any corrective actions. Teams of educators, parents, psychologists and community members should be employed in developing helpful strategies.
5. Eliminate both scripted and paced lesson mandates. It is not in standardizing our classrooms that students learn to be creative and innovative-attributes that are highly prized in the world of work. Just as the diversity of plants and animals is the strength of the Earth’s ecosystem, our ‘edusystem’ should model that diversity in the manner in which teachers provide unique lessons using a variety of methods. Standardized sameness is not conducive to how students learn nor is it an attribute valued in our culture — otherwise we would all be driving only Fords and wearing only Levi jeans.
6. Eliminate all punitive policies that pronounce harsh judgments on students, teachers, schools and districts based on unchallenged interpretations of student test scores. Teacher evaluations of their students’ knowledge and skills should be the hallmark and cornerstone of valid conclusions about what students know and are able to do. They are the professionals in the classroom.
7. Codify regulations against administrative use of direct and/or implied threats of repercussions to those teachers who follow their State Standards for the Teaching Profession rather than curricular and/or pedagogy directives which utilize a script-like pacing without allowing for teacher modification and adjustments to fit the classroom clientele.
8. State Standards for the Teaching Profession should be the guiding principles for all teacher evaluation protocols used by administrators. Terminate ‘walkthroughs’. Thoughtful classroom visitations that respect the context of the lesson with pre and post discussion is vital to proper evaluation. Otherwise, walkthroughs become nothing more than “big brother” in a formal setting, keeping a critical eye rather than a supportive stance.
9. Teachers should have the freedom without fear of recrimination to express their professional opinions inside and outside of school sites regarding school practices and policies. Fellow teachers, parents and the larger community need to hear from the classroom professionals regarding the educational programs at their schools. This will provide open forums for discussion and the enhancement of the school environment.
10. Develop an enhanced parent-teacher communication protocol complete with translators for second language learner parents who are not fluent in English. Ongoing and frequent parent-teacher communication will both improve understanding and appreciation of the role each plays in the education of their students and also foster a greater mutual respect.
It will take a coalition of educators, parents and community members to take this agenda forward. Seeking changes in existing local, state and national educational mandates from school boards, legislatures and congress should be the focus of our actions. This should be of the highest priority. If we want the best for our students, then we need to have the best for their teachers. When they again have the highest community respect and when classroom autonomy is returned to them, students will then be able to experience the creativity of revived and energized instructors.
Stopping the culture of high-stakes testing will be the key step in initiating this process. How long will it take? That is up to us.