Attacking the symptoms instead of the root cause

In yesterday’s News Journal, there was an extensive article detailing the results of a survey to all teachers in Delaware asking them how the DPAS-II teacher evaluation system went this year. This, of course, was the first year where student test scores played a part in a teacher’s evaluation rating, so understandably, results from the survey are less than stellar.

The survey results, which will be released completely very soon, go on to detail some shocking numbers:

“Three quarters of the surveyed teachers did not think the system should continue in its current form. More than 80 percent of administrators thought the same thing.”

Wow. I don’t know what’s more fascinating. That an overwhelming 75% of teachers hate this evaluation system or that more administrators hate it than do teachers.

DSEA President Frederika Jenner says it best in what is a great quote early on in the story: “There is an erosion in the confidence teachers have.” This is very true, for as we come to read in subsequent paragraphs of the article, it seems that erosion of confidence comes exactly because leadership at the State Department of Education is oblivious to the reasons why confidence has eroded.

Let me back up just a bit for the uninitiated. Teachers have always been evaluated. The evaluation system, for the most part, is fair in that it requires continual monitoring by your building principal. There are five components to a teacher’s evaluation. The first four are rather harmless and encompass such areas as professional practice, planning and preparation, and classroom environment. They require administrative EYES and EARS in your classroom to OBSERVE what you’re doing. The most controversial, though, is Component V. This is the part of a teacher’s evaluation that is judged solely on student test scores. If students don’t reach some pre-determined growth or benchmark goal, then that could have a negative impact on a teacher’s evaluation.

Yes, there were foul-ups in the implementation of the Component V portion of the evaluation this year. For those teachers who teach subjects NOT covered under the state test, DCAS (which is a majority of educators), they had to administer their own tests under the guidance of the state. Tests developed by cohorts of content-area-specialized teachers. Bubble sheet tests, for the most part. Well, many teachers in my District, particularly at the secondary level, were complaining well into November and December that they had NEVER received the materials FROM THE STATE to give their students the pre-test that should have been given the first week of school.

And the state wonders why the confidence level of teachers has dropped. Y’see, this State Department of Education seems too willing to attack the symptoms of the hot mess that is our evaluation system as opposed to looking at the root causes. They seem willing to simply blame a few chaotic timing and operational foul-ups as the cause for so much teacher dissatisfaction with the new evaluation.

But when I talk to teachers across my District, it’s clear to me this Component V is more universal than a few operational foul-ups. There are things going on in our schools that cannot be measured by test scores and, by extension, it makes it incredibly dangerous to then grade teachers on said test scores.

The symptoms of the problem are irrelevant to the bigger picture issues plaguing our environment of “rigor! rigor! rigor!” and “data! data! data!” and “test! test! test” and “disaggregate! disaggregate! disaggregate!” The flaws of this system are the test itself as well as the judging of our teachers based on factors that are well out of their control.

Let’s chunk this out:

  • Test Itself: Teachers don’t like this test, the DCAS. And they’re not going to like the Smarter Balanced test when it’s rolled out next year. Teachers do not believe these tests are appropriate measures of what their students do and do not know. They also don’t like that their students’ senses are assaulted for weeks every year behind a computer monitor taking pre-tests, mid-year tests, and end-of-year tests that have many students under an unnecessary amount of stress to “raise those scores!”

These tests have brought out some of the most obscene practices in our schools. On my Facebook page alone, I’ve heard from teachers up and down the state who report schools offering ridiculous incentives to get students to perform better. Special education students who will NEVER pass the test or who may NEVER show adequate amounts of growth being left out of incentive activities.

The test is a poor measure in this educational environment where teachers are supposed to differentiate instruction and accommodate students of various learning styles and intelligences. This test forces students into boxes that they shouldn’t be. 

This test is not a symptom. It is a root cause of our problems. It must be addressed and thrown out.

  • Judging teachers based on factors outside of their control: As teachers, we work hard with limited resources to see your children succeed and move on to become productive members of society. That said, a majority of our schools these days face challenges that are far out of the purview of public education, but which seem to be serviced more and more by public education. Let’s be blunt: poverty is an issue wracking our schools. It’s had a damning effect on our society.

We’ve got some great teachers at our high-needs, Title I schools. Schools that feature upwards of 85% of students on free or reduced lunch. These teachers at times go into a war zone and work their magic to bring a sense of stability — the only sense of stability these kids know — into their classrooms. Children who come to school in soiled clothing. Malnourished. Crying. Unkempt hair. Lack of sleep. Bruises. Unmedicated. Emotional distress. Neglect. Lateness. Excessive absence. Transient populations. Homelessness. Unemployment.

What folks like you and I take for granted would be a dream world to these students who’ve never truly experienced a stable lifestyle. These students come to us with such greater deficits than their middle- and upper-class peers, yet teachers in these buildings are expected to have them perform THE SAME with few extra resources. Nay, these teachers generally put forth MORE of their own buck to ensure their classrooms have the basics because they don’t have parents who can provide school supplies or snacks.

So, teachers who are already overworked and beaten down in these extremely challenging schools are going to get another potential kick in the face by receiving an Ineffective rating because their students didn’t show an acceptable level of growth relative to, perhaps, their more affluent peers?

These factors outside of our teachers’ control are a root cause of dissatisfaction with the evaluation system. This is a problem that has not been thouroughly-enough addressed by either our Legislative or Executive Branches. It must be, or else we will see mass exodus from these schools or the profession. We cannot continue to sit idly by and hope that test scores will magically increase as we continue to ignore the socio-economic challenges in these schools.

It’s clear there’s much work to be done. It’s clear the Department of Education wants the results to next year’s survey to go up. It’s clear that many teachers have taken such a cynical view of the current evaluation system that I’m not sure confidence can be salvaged at this point because the first-year rollout was such a failure of epic proportions. The state has a lot on its plate to right these wrongs. But not nearly as much as that teacher returning to his or her classroom next week ready to welcome all students — no matter the challenges that face those students personally. And teachers will be damned if tests drafted by corporate profiteers are going to define who they are personally and professionally. You can take that to the bank.

DCAS is rotten to the (Common) Core

I just stood over a student’s shoulder, being the active test moderator that one must be. Naturally, I couldn’t help but read the question the student was on. Fifth grade math. I looked at it once. I looked at it again. I couldn’t figure it out. Was this a reading test or a math test? Buried somewhere in the reams of blathering text was a math problem. I eventually found it but thought it so complex for a fifth grader.

I called over another adult in the room. That adult who specializes in math thought the question was just as inappropriate. Sharing the question details would be a violation of the rules, so you won’t be seeing the question here. All I will say is this test is bad. Very bad. And our students and teachers are being judged on it.

Time for a real conversation dissecting this test. Open up the books, DoE. Let the sun shine in. Gov. Markell, what say you?

Instructional Coaches=Magic Pill?

The News Journal has an article out today discussing the mid-year results of the Delaware Comprehensive Assessment System (DCAS). (Sidenote: My apologies if you don’t subscribe to The News Journal. I (obviously) won’t be reprinting whole articles here, but I will paraphrase key points.) DCAS is taken at three points during the year to measure a student’s progress on grade-level curriculum. I won’t debate the efficacy of this test as it relates to certain segments of our students; I’ll save that for another post.

I also won’t get into the results of the test, as that’s apparently why we have data coaches — to assist our teachers with data interpretation and tell us how to magically make those students’ scores increase, external influences be damned! I will get into a conclusion that writer Wade Malcolm — perhaps illogically — draws in relation to certain successes from the winter scores in one school district:

The use of instructional coaches — funded by the state’s Race to the Top initiative — is part of the reason Indian River School District has so far exceeded the state average in reading and math for every grade level tested.

Now, it’s wonderful that Indian River School District has exceeded the state average in reading and math. We should absolutely magnify success whenever it’s shown at any of our public schools, be they traditional, magnets, charters, or otherwise.

I’m just a little interested in how a District — or Mr. Malcolm, in this case — can draw the conclusion that “the use of instructional coaches…is part of the reason Indian River” saw such success. We educate in an almost myopically, single-focused environment of “Data! Data! Data!,” so I’m wondering if Indian River has ACTUAL data to prove that the instructional coaches were a part of that success.

Or is this just the District’s attempt to find some — any! — successes in the state’s Race to the Top program, which has proven to be not at all that popular among  many teachers across the state?