I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Friday, November 9, 2012

Jon Stewart, Brooklyn Castle, and the Importance of Teachers

Valerie Strauss points us to Jon Stewart's interview last night with the director and one of the stars of Brooklyn Castle:
On “The Daily Show” Thursday night, Jon Stewart did a segment that focused on public education — the impact of budget cuts, how kids learn, teachers. This was all in his discussion with director Katie Dellamaggiore and student Pobo Efekoro about their documentary  film “Brooklyn Castle,” which details how budget cuts affected a highly successful chess program at a New York City middle school.
Stewart notes the illogic of axing the chess program, the heart of the school, while money for standardized tests was not in jeopardy because of the budget cuts. Efekoro, who was a student at the school, says: “The teachers were fabulous. A lot of my teachers that I had, according to the city they are bad, but the fact of the matter is that I loved them.” And Stewart said: “Because they are being graded on a criterion that is much more mathematic….”

Whenever I or others who know what the hell we are talking about make the argument that teachers are only responsible for 10 to 15 percent of test-based student outcomes, a reformyist will usually chime up - often with the smug air of someone who is playing "Gotcha!" - with the following retort:

"But then you're saying the teacher isn't important! If the teacher is such a small part of the outcome, why worry about accreditation or advanced degrees? Why raise pay? Why worry about churn? You're saying that teachers don't matter, so we should treat them like they don't! 

"I, however, as a noble reformer, know how important teachers are. Which is why I want to fire so many bad ones and base their pay on "performance"! I care more about good teaching than you people and your unions do!"

My usual response has been to beat my head on my laptop's keyboard until I see stars. But I think, from now on, I'll just point the reformyists to this clip. Because it perfectly encapsulates why teachers are important, and why judging them by test scores is so very, very dumb.

Test scores do not capture the most important work that teachers do. Yes, teachers teach kids how to conjugate verbs and use the quadratic formula; yes, that's important. But even if standardized tests did a good job at measuring these things - and, let's be clear, they do not - they still couldn't evaluate performance on all the other important parts of a teacher's job.

Standardized tests can't tell us how well a teacher sparked a child's interest in chess, or music, or math, or just about anything. They can't tell us how well a teacher contributes to a culture of learning and achievement. They can't tell us how well a teacher listens, or sets an example for how to conduct yourself, or fights for a child's rights in a system that all too often has its priorities wrong.

These, and many other things, are what really matters. Those who try to boil down the art of teaching to a ranking with phony precision undermine the craft of the educator. And, again: even if you base only some of the evaluation on testing, some of the evaluation becomes all of the desicion.

So it's not contradictory to say that teaching is indeed very important, but basing decisions on test scores is a very bad idea, because the test score shows so little of what is important in teaching.

It's telling that someone like Stewart can grasp this so easily, and a student like Efekoro can articulate it so well....

But so many of the reformyists just don't seem to get it.

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