Implementation is everything.
I’m not philosophically against the notion that we ought to be expecting teachers to “add value” to students’ schooling experience. However, when we use prescriptive tests to decide how much value is added, I take issue. For example, in TN a restructuring of compensation is about to be implemented. This system seems quite comprehensive and my first reaction was to think of Occam’s razor. That is, this complex system seems to be just a new way to reward the same stuff. Of course there are some differences – most notably the 35% of teacher’s rating from a value added measure based on Tennessee’s state exam.
So, the implicit message here is that certain things matter. Those things are covered by a certain test. Yet, schooling is so very much more than acquisition of certain content. So, my beef is not with expecting teachers to add value, my beef is with expecting teachers to add certain value. When we prescribe these certain tests, my concern is that we prescribe a greater narrowing of the curriculum. I am confident this country’s teachers can raise test scores, I’m just not sure we’re using tests on which improved test scores are desirable.
Enough complaining, how about a different idea?
When teaching middle school I often studied my students’ learning. I gave students pretests (sometimes MC, sometimes essays, sometimes interviews, and sometimes concept maps) and then monitored student progress all the way until the end of the year (usually at least one mid-year assessment and then a final assessment)*. The things I tracked throughout the year were academic/educational interests of mine. Things I wanted to study how well students were learning. The things I studied went far deeper than any standardized test I’ve seen or heard of. Specifically, in the last two years of my k-12 teaching I studied how well students came to understand the nature of science and how students views of learning changed over time. In both cases, my students made significant progress over the course of the year. That is, I could reliably demonstrate added value for each of my students. Yet, the value I could demonstrate having added is not the value for which the state would be looking.**
While I love to rage against the machine, I also like to “work the system”. So, if value added measures are coming (and I suspect they are in my state), let’s put politicians’ money where their mouth is and actually treat teachers like professionals. Let’s actually put power in teachers’ hands instead of just claiming to do so.
Here’s a very simple proposal***:
1) Teachers choose at least one of their goals for students to study each year. (i.e.: content understanding, communication skills, writing proficiency, critical thinking, problem-solving, attitude toward subject, or many others). If a group of teachers wants to work collaboratively on a goal, great!
2) Professional development days are dedicated to teachers being able to research how they might promote their chosen goal, research how they might reliably assess the construct, and/or collaborate with peers to plan.
3) Teachers identify how they will track progress concerning their goal. Ideally, tracking of progress is multi-dimensional. Perhaps an instrument already exists in the education literature for pre/post testing, students might reflect periodically on the goal, or maybe the teacher will review classroom video to see what changes are, or are not, occurring.
4) Teachers will summarize results and perhaps present to colleagues, or at least to administrators. I see “lessons learned” (what worked/didn’t work) being just as important as the actual improvement of students. The 35% of “value added” could be tied to the success of the intervention or even just the completion of such a study (cause we learn a LOT from failure).
Will such a system be more work for teachers? yes.
Will such a system raise the awareness of many teachers? yes.
Will such a system stimulate school-wide improvement? yes.
Will such a system be more authentic and likely more interesting for teachers? yes.
Will such a system allow for context-based improvement of practice? yes.
Will such a system be a better use of money? yes – we don’t need to be dumping tax-payers money into testing companies.
If we want to give teachers bonuses, learn from google and give them freedom in what they choose to study/create. If we want to tie teacher compensation to value added, teachers ought to decide what is of most value in their context.
*Of course I assessed students much more often than this, these were just the more formal, long term assessments.
**I would challenge anyone to say improving a students view of learning is less important than learning the formula for density. (d=m/v)
***I pretty much wrote this as I brainstorm. I think there is something here, but it would obviously need some refinement. The key here is giving teachers choice in how and what they improve. Imagine if a teacher did a study like this every year for 30 years….wow!