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New Teacher Evaluations Add to Testing Frenzy

Emily Giles Oct 31

Most teachers rank building caring relationships with students at the top of the list of must-dos for good teaching. If I could wrap that secret in a test and sell the copyright to companies that produce standardized tests, I’d be rich. But I can’t. Building trust and relationships can’t be measured or tested. Observed, maybe. And now it will be.

Sixty percent of a teacher’s evaluation under “Advance,” a new system being implemented this year in the State of New York, will be determined by the school principal’s observations using the Danielson rubric. The rubric attempts to make things like building relationships observable and objective using language like “respectful talk” or “body language indicative of warmth and caring.”

The Danielson rubric is actually full of good things that are hallmarks of great teaching —but the idea that any teacher can demonstrate expertise in all 22 components in the span of about an hour and a half of teaching, or that such qualities can be objectively measured, is laughable.

Even if she could demonstrate expertise in all 22 components, and was rated Highly Effective by the principal in all of them, she could still be rated Ineffective overall and be terminated after two years of Ineffective ratings.

This is possible because “Advance” exists and operates in the realm of high stakes testing. If a teacher receives an Ineffective on the Measures of Student Learning portion of the evaluation she must be rated Ineffective overall.

Measures of Student Learning (MOSL) are standardized tests used to assess the amount of growth students have shown. They make up 40 percent of the evaluation, but an Ineffective in this section overrides any other rating from the 60 percent observations portion. Someone might want to check on the test scores of whoever approved that bit of math.

Recently, I spent an entire afternoon of classes giving a reading and writing exam as part of my school’s MOSL to my 9th and 10th grade students. The exam consisted of five non-fiction articles followed by an essay prompt.

My students all recently arrived to the United States and are learning English. Many of them arrived within the last couple of months — they are beginner English speakers, readers and writers. During the exam, according to DOE rules, they were not allowed translation, bilingual dictionaries or even to have instructions read aloud to them. I spent the period explaining to students that I wasn’t allowed to explain. And apologizing frequently.

There are many problems with this. Here are the most worrisome:

Problem 1: Assessments that will be used to assess both teachers and students are being implemented before any discussion about how to actually teach what the test is assessing.

Problem 2: If students can’t understand the test now and still can’t adequately understand it in six months, it is not possible for them to show measurable growth. Any results from such a measurement could not possibly reflect the leaps and bounds students will make over the course of this year because the test will still be well above their reading comprehension level.

Problem 3: If the test can’t accurately reflect student growth, it can’t possibly be used to measure the quality of teaching.

The result, then, of a teacher evaluation deal driven by high stakes standardized tests, coupled with a public school system that bases student promotion decisions in grades 3-8 on high stakes test results, is an entire school system of teachers, students and parents held hostage by corporate-driven testing madness.

This evaluation deal comes on the heels of an onslaught of anti-teacher propaganda, posing teachers as the root of every problem facing our students and public schools and attacking the notion that teaching is a profession that requires experience and expertise.

Within the context of the budget cuts and neoliberal reforms sweeping the public sector, the evaluation deal is a nail in the coffin of teacher tenure and job protection, which all workers deserve.

“Advance” was brought in under the watch of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the union local that represents 75,000 New York City public school teachers. The rank-and-file members of the union, those who know best what works in classrooms, had no input on the deal and were not granted the right by their union to vote on what has amounted to the largest changes in our working conditions in decades.

What “Advance” is already doing is creating a climate of fear and anxiety in which test prep is seen as the most valuable use of our time. Test prep is not good curriculum. It is not engaging or designed to meet students where they’re at. It does not inspire creativity or the risk-taking required for learning and growth.

The Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE), an opposition caucus within the UFT, launched a campaign calling for a moratorium on implementation of the teacher evaluation deal. MORE’s position is that any evaluation system based on high stakes standardized tests does not improve the learning conditions or achievement of our students, and does nothing to support teachers.

MORE will present petition signatures from UFT members citywide to the Delegate Assembly on November 16. Hundreds of UFT members have already signed the petition. MORE launched the petition campaign as a tool for members to organize their local chapters as well as being a means to reach a new layer of teachers frustrated by the evaluation system.

MORE is working in collaboration with Change the Stakes, a parent group speaking out against the use of high stakes testing in our schools. Change the Stakes is also working hard to spread the word about parents’ right to opt students out of standardized tests, and is laying the groundwork for future opt-out campaigns in specific schools.

Should kindergarten teachers teach their students how to fill in bubbles for standardized tests? Teachers at Castle Bridge Elementary, a K-2 bilingual school in Washington Heights say “No.” The school has canceled the new standardized tests after more than 80 percent of parents opted their students out of the exam. Castle Bridge parents hope that other parents will hear their story and choose to opt their children out as well.

“Helping teachers or parents know where their children are is really not what the tests are about,” says Dao Tran, a parent of a 1st grader at Castle Bridge. “They are really about gathering data on teachers that won’t be accurate at all.”

Herein lies the seed of real resistance — a true solidarity between teachers and parents that recognizes that the fight for public schools is the civil rights fight of our time. But we must take our lead, not from corporate reformers who haven’t taught a minute in their lives and who do not rely on public education, but from the true stakeholders of public schools — parents, students and teachers.

Emily Giles is an NYC public school teacher and a member of the Movement of Rank-and-file Educators (MORE). For more information, see morecaucusnyc.org.


RELATED COVERAGE from Issue 191:

Mexican Teachers Flood Capitol to Protest Business-Led School Reforms, by Laura Carlsen


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