Lighting the Way

In a recent post on the Rodel blog site, Paul Herdman, President and CEO of the Rodel Foundation, uses the North Star as a metaphor for our collective journey towards school improvement. 

Mr. Herdman writes: “As Delaware policy makers and teachers struggle with the complexities of introducing student growth measures into the state’s revised teacher evaluation system, DPAS II, I hope we don’t lose sight of the larger goal.  As a state, we are on a journey to create a great teaching profession so that every child inDelawarehas an inspired teacher in their classroom.  The DPAS II conversation is simply one step, albeit a complicated one, toward that North Star.”

I would argue that the North Star itself is not actually our goal but is a guiding light that points us in the right direction, keeps us on course, and leads us on, just as it has done for centuries for explorers, adventurers, and those who seek. Harriet Tubman comes to mind. She learned to follow the drinking gourd, to make use of that ever-visible, ever-steady star Polaris as she led those tired, hungry, frightened slaves to the North and freedom.

Mr. Herdman casts Singapore schools and their successful transformation from what they were (not sure that I understand from whence they have come) to what they have become as the North Star for the next phase of our journey here in Delaware. [I need to find out more details about Singapore and its school system.]

Herdman adds: “On a related note, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel recently produced a helpful three part framework that speaks to the vision of raising the bar in terms of who enters the profession and the career paths that they might pursue once in it. But without a sound way to measure effective teaching, this vision cannot be realized.” As stated elsewhere in the blog post, the vision is “to create a great teaching profession so that every child in Delaware has an inspired teacher in their classroom.”

“A sound way to measure effective teaching, …” I think I know what this means. Do you?

I think that it means seeking a way to attach numbers to the teacher evaluation and ratings systems—to link quantitative data to the act of teaching. To imagine a clear, direct, linear, valid, and reliable association between one teacher’s teaching and his/her students’ learning. To make teaching –> learning into a cause and effect relationship. To go beyond the collection of mere qualitative data on which teacher evaluation has been based for years. Apparently the reliance on classroom observations is no longer regarded as a good enough or thorough enough method of teacher evaluation. We need measurements, and measurements mean numbers.

This initiative is not limited to Delaware. There is a national movement to compel teacher evaluation systems to include student test results as the measure—the calculus—of teacher effectiveness.  

In many ways, Delaware is way ahead of most other states. (a) We have a state-wide system of teacher evaluation, known as DPAS. (b) DPAS was introduced in the mid-80’s, so, we have lots of experience and data. The assertion (or conventional wisdom) is that a system based on classroom observation, like the one that had been in place for over two decades here in Delaware, has not been discriminating enough. Too many ineffective and/or ineffectual teachers have been getting through the screening process. The observation procedure has allowed too many teachers to be rated as satisfactory or even distinguished teachers.

[Some folks might speculate that a process based on classroom observations is not the problem. They might say the problem lies elsewhere.]   

I am currently on leave of absence from teaching. My full-time job now is President of the Delaware State Education Association. However, I am a 6th grade science teacher. Last June, I completed my 39th year of teaching. I used to love teaching. I’m a good teacher. Over the years, I have been regarded as a very effective teacher.

Last year, I ended up in an informal debate with an edreform friend—a fellow who is always kind and flattering about my abilities as a teacher.

I asked him how he knew that I was a good teacher. He said that he had been told by many people that I was a good teacher. I wondered how they knew I was a good teacher. He suggested that some of them had seen me teach or had heard from others who had seen me teach. I asked how the observers knew that I was a good teacher. He said that my DPAS observations must have documented that I was a good teacher. In frustration to my badgering, he finally blurted that he could just tell that I was a good teacher and that everybody said so.  

[I knew what he meant. I can actually tell a good teacher when I meet one. If I have the chance to speak to a teacher for more than 1-2 minutes about their classroom and their experiences as a classroom teacher, I can just tell. I can tell a good teacher from a mediocre teacher; I can tell a mediocre teacher—whose heart is in the right place and whose teaching could possibly be improved—from a poor teacher. I can tell if I am speaking with a person who does not belong in a classroom—because they lack teaching skills, or they lack motivation, or they do not speak nicely about their students.]  

My point? There are no numbers associated with my teaching. There are no student test scores that have been attached to me or associated with my capabilities as a classroom teacher. I got out in the nick of time! LOL Were I still in the classroom, I would be as anxious as my colleagues about the outcome of the revised version of DPAS II that includes student test results as a significant portion of our teacher evaluation system. I would be damned uneasy.

Many of us have our doubts about the wisdom of adapting an evaluation system to include the use of DCAS math and reading test scores as an indicator of teacher effectiveness—even for the math and reading/ELA/English teachers.

Is it possible that the teacher evaluation systems in Singapore and Finland could shed some light on this quandary?

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