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Georgia will judge teachers on student growth. But growth toward what end?
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Maureen DowneyMaureen Downey

Georgia will judge teachers on student growth. But growth toward what end?

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University of Georgia professor Peter Smagorinsky offers another provocative essay today on the student growth model, the yet-to-be-proven but soon-be-used way of assessing how much teachers enriched each of their students.

By Peter Smagorinsky

The Georgia Department of Education has introduced a new assessment vehicle, theStudent Growth Model,” to measure student and school progress. According to the DOE, it produces “[t]he metric that will help educators, parents, and other stakeholders better understand and analyze the progress students make year to year.”

Very enticing. Who wouldn’t want such an instrument to track students’ growth?

Georgia plans to assess teachers based on student growth, but are we clear on what growth really means? HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Georgia plans to assess teachers based on student growth, but are we clear on what growth really means? HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

The Student Growth Model relies on two measurements. One is based on the percentage of students who meet or exceed state standards on standardized tests. The second measurement is designed to assess year-to-year progress of each student, compared both to students in other Georgia schools and to students at the national level in “academically similar” schools in terms of demographic and socioeconomic statistics.

These measurements make up a major portion of the state’s new teacher assessment system. The model assumes that there is a one-to-one causal relationship between individual teachers and individual students in terms of their test scores, which serve as a proxy for learning, for growth, and for teacher effectiveness in all areas.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, whose coverage of education I respect, has provided very favorable exposure of this initiative, using the language of advancement to describe its (as yet untested) effects in terms of students’ “progress,” “learning,” “achievement,” and “growth.”

Damian Betebenner, the statistician who designed the model that Georgia has adapted, has said, “You may have a teacher that’s in a classroom and the kids aren’t growing. We’re not saying that you’re necessarily a bad teacher, but it’s just not working here.” Yet by factoring in “growth” in these measurements, the system does indeed conclude that teachers whose students do not improve their test scores relative to local and national peers are bad.

I would like to offer some alternative understandings of what human growth involves, and how to measure it. As one who is immersed in developmental psychology, I always ask of claims of growth, Development toward what? And thus by implication, Development by what means?

For a committed Southern Baptist, this growth might involve learning, through faith-based texts and adult guidance, Biblical precepts so as to walk a righteous path according to the church’s teachings. This path is, above all, going somewhere and might be measured by attendance at church, tithing, good works, and other indicators of devotion. Which would you find more valuable measures of growth within this community, a multiple choice test on the Holy Bible, or living a virtuous life led by worship?

Now, I am not a religious person, so this conception of growth would not suit me. I’m an old high school English teacher who now works in teacher education. There is great disagreement among English teachers about what it means to grow through engagement with this discipline and its texts, traditions, and means of expression. To some, growth through English involves learning canonical works of literature and the cultural traditions that they embody.

To others, growth involves becoming a more involved citizen through engagement with the values and beliefs available in literature. Others might see English as a vehicle through which personal reflection and maturation are available; or as a discipline that requires mastery of the conventions of formal English; or as a means through which student inquiries into topics of interest become available; or many other things.

Growth, progress, achievement, learning: We all want these attributes in our children and expect our teachers to promote them. But the new Student Growth Model measures do not measure up to what most people hope for in their child’s developmental course: their development into good human beings according to some cultural definition of a quality life.

So, what does it mean to conceive of a curriculum and assessment package in terms of human growth? I don’t think it’s the same for everyone, because people are headed in different directions.

Even those headed in the same direction often take different pathways, follow different paces, integrate that pathway with different goals, and otherwise follow Henry David Thoreau’s wisdom: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.  Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

In today’s world of pseudo-objectivity, if students were given this item on a test, their response would not be measured by how they follow the advice, but by which definition of “pace” they think is being employed:

  1. the speed at which someone or something moves
  2. the speed at which something happens
  3. a single step or the length of a single step
  4. a manner of walking

Statisticians’ solutions are admirable in their ability to reduce assessments to single numbers, and thus are prized in the policy world. Teachers’ solutions tend to be much knottier, because they work with kids of delightful variety and hope to help each one realize his or her potential in an appropriate way.

If you agree that Georgia’s Student Growth Model does not rely on measures that encapsulate either student growth or teacher effectiveness, and if you agree that making students and teachers accountable for growth is a good idea, what might be a better alternative in terms of developing teacher effectiveness measures? If you believe that test scores constitute valid measures of student growth, toward what end are they growing, and in what manner do these scores demonstrate that growth conclusively?

In prior essays in this forum, I’ve made points I needn’t recapitulate here in detail. I oppose the standardization of diverse people, and believe that teachers should be entrusted to know their disciplines and how to teach them. I think that standardization is conceived especially poorly when it is measured by people who have never taught. I think that factory-style schooling is more likely to set back authentic human growth than to promote it in ways that lead to satisfying and productive lives. I think that single-iteration test scores are unreliable measures of performance. I think that most conceptions of curriculum and assessment provided by today’s policymakers are misguided and harmful to teaching and learning.

But enough about what I think. How about you?

 

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