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Oct. 2, 2014
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Teachers can’t be judged by tests



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In a recent article in The New York Times Magazine, Steven Brill examines “how Obama’s Race to the Top could revolutionize public education.” The central assumption behind this plan, says Brill, is that what matters most in education is “good teachers.” Says Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, “It’s all about the talent.”

I couldn’t agree more. I like talent. I teach a lot of talented teacher candidates at the University of Georgia.

But I don’t teach them how to prepare kids to take the sort of “achievement tests” that Duncan is imposing on the nation’s schools. Rather, I try to teach them to think about what, why and how young people learn, and how they learn to learn.

I try to teach them how to plan instruction so that kids in high school English classes learn how to read and write critically; learn how to synthesize ideas across topics, themes and genres; learn how to express themselves clearly in written communication; and learn how to relate academic knowledge to their prior knowledge and experiences.

I hope to teach teachers how to help kids engage with a curriculum so that they both learn its content and how to integrate it into their own life experiences so that the material contributes to their cognitive, social, interpersonal and emotional growth. I’ll let my students, and their students, decide how well I succeed with these goals.

My point is that it takes talent, and quite a bit of hard thinking and hard work, to learn how to teach so that students find school worthwhile and engaging, and schoolwork worth doing.

I find it hard to imagine that Duncan’s vision of public education will succeed for either students or teachers because it’s entirely geared toward the tedium of test preparation.

Duncan’s plan is to restructure schools so that bad teachers can be forced out of the classroom, and so that teacher retention will be based on student performance. Now, that’s a pretty appealing idea. I’ve been in schools where there’s plenty of deadwood on the faculty, much of it invested with sufficient seniority to provide lifelong job protection.

Although colleges of education are often criticized for defending the status quo because their faculty members endorse some form of teacher tenure, most of us cringe at some of the consequences of a seniority-driven pay scale.

There are plenty of young teachers who are far more dynamic than senior colleagues and provide better learning experiences for their students.

Of course, senior teachers are often among the finest and most respected teachers in their schools, and my point is not to equate seniority with senility. Otherwise, I’d be out of a job myself.

But these dynamic and effective teachers, regardless of age or experience, are not respected for their skill at teaching kids how to take standardized tests. Rather, they are appreciated for pushing their students to learn in ways that stick with them and that lead students to reconnect with their teachers following graduation to express their thanks for providing important contributions to the quality of their lives.

The opportunity to create such experiences is what draws talent to the classroom and keeps it there. Talented teachers are imaginative, industrious and thoughtful. They read widely, join broader communities of educators, spend time outside class working on their craft, and teach with an inquiring mind so that their reflections on their instruction serve to improve it.

If Duncan’s goal is to “reform” education by providing a reward system based on test scores, then his idealistic goal to attract and retain talent in the teaching force seems decidedly dubious.

Talented teachers bristle at the idea that they have to conform to the contours of testing mandates in order to be recognized as effective; teaching to the test strips them of the dynamic qualities that have made them effective to begin with. Duncan might score political points by bashing unions and their emphasis on seniority, but his solution, I believe, will do far more harm than good.

All the talent that he believes will rush to the classroom and establish careers in schools in the wake of his Race to the Top initiative is more likely to avoid the teaching profession like the plague because it offers them so little stimulation.

I recently visited my sister just after her son had arrived home from his first year at college. Prior to his freshman year, he had planned to become a teacher, but he is now talking about anthropology as a major.

His mother, an accomplished math teacher, said with great sadness that she found it hard to encourage her son to follow her into the classroom because the test-driven curriculum provided her with so few opportunities to use her creativity and talent so that kids understand mathematical concepts.

Rather, she must drill kids so that they score well on tests. She is not even thinking of her own pay, which is Duncan’s incentive to teach to tests; she is concerned about helping kids move toward graduation by drilling them in preparation for the batteries of tests that serve as gateways to that end.

I found myself deeply distressed that someone of such ability could not recommend to her own son that he take up the profession. And my sadness extends to the whole of the profession because, in the name of reform, schools are headed toward an assembly-line model that few people of talent, either students or teachers, could ever find satisfying.

Peter Smagorinsky is professor of English education at the University of Georgia.