Evergreen offers model for better teachers – without depending on test scores

Sharon Nichols and David Berliner know something you don’t know about education – but they wish you did. And I wish all the smart people who supposedly care about education would listen to them.

Nichols and Berliner reported in 2008, in their book “Collateral Damage” and in a short piece in the Harvard Education Letter, on the corruption of American schools by high-stakes standardized testing. They explain that this situation is subject to the law formulated by Donald T. Campbell, a respected social psychologist, which stipulates that “the more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

They show again and again how such testing in schools has resulted in institutionalized cheating, the debasement of the curriculum, and the general destruction of real education.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently reported widespread cheating in schools by teachers and administrators to improve their students’ scores. Marion Brady, a veteran teacher and administrator, has explained in detail why excellent teachers oppose high-stakes standardized tests (Valerie Strauss’ column, Washington Post, Nov. 1, 2011).

It is well-established that scores on standardized tests correlate most strongly with students’ socioeconomic status and little else; teachers influence the scores by no more than 10 percent to 15 percent. Yet using test results to evaluate teachers was mandated by No Child Left Behind, one of George W. Bush’s unfortunate misadventures; its successor, Race to the Top, also mandates that test scores must count for at least half of a teacher’s evaluation.

The pressure to use students’ test scores to evaluate their teachers comes from our brilliant educational leaders, a coalition of big business “experts,” state legislators and other politicians. They run a continuing saga called Get Tough on Teachers, a melodrama that features politicians advancing their careers and business leaders showing everyone what tough-minded guys they are.

But business leaders should not be guiding education; they think the purpose of education is to mold people who can hold down a job, and they demonstrate little conception of the true meanings of education: developing whole, well-rounded, thoughtful human beings who are well-enough informed to run a democracy.

Washington’s new law, SB 5895, mandates that no more than one-fifth of a teacher’s evaluation can be based on student learning as measured by standardized tests. The rest of an evaluation is to be based on vague, subjective observations of classroom practice, like “centering instruction on high expectations.”

But this puts Washington at odds with the U.S. Department of Education and its beloved Race to the Top.

If we are serious about evaluating teachers – and we must be – then a system such as the one we have used for years at Evergreen would be excellent.

It depends on collaborative teaching, in programs and courses taught jointly by two to four people. Here faculty members see one another in action, observe strengths and weaknesses, support one another, and learn from one another – both about methods of teaching well and about the subjects being taught.

Thus, it entails continuous intellectual growth – a true education for both students and teachers. After teaching cooperatively, people can write fair, realistic evaluations for one another.

Some public schools, as in Montgomery County, Md., have developed a comparable system in which younger teachers and those identified as weak work collaboratively with high-quality consulting teachers who have established their expertise. Such evaluation systems are meaningful, fair to teachers, and actually result in improvement of good teachers and elimination of those who are unsuited for the profession.

Burt Guttman, a professor emeritus of biology at The Evergreen State College, is a member of The Olympian Board of Contributors. He can be reached at burtguttman@comcast.net.