Trends in Teacher Evaluation and Standardized Testing and the Art of Teaching

Debbie Sternecky, Naperville School District #203

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Would it be logical to evaluate an artist by the efficiency with which she organizes her studio or by how connected she is to the art community? Most definitely not. There are many individuals who do not possess even one iota of creative talent yet are adept at displaying their art supplies in very functional ways. These self-proclaimed “artists” may also be well-connected with the art world by serving on boards of local art leagues and participating in community art shows. While such organizational skills and involvement in the art field may broaden the perspective of artists, they are not necessarily indicators of their actual ability to create.

There is a parallel to the art world when trying to quantify teaching effectiveness. Evaluation systems which claim to measure teacher effectiveness in a non-biased way are being thrust upon educators at an increasing rate. These frameworks evaluate teachers on such factors as how efficiently a teacher distributes classroom materials (teachers are rated higher if students, rather than teachers, are responsible for distributing handouts) and whether the teacher holds educational leadership roles in the school and community.

As an educator who strives to provide her students with classroom responsibilities and who takes an active leadership role in the field of education, I understand that these pursuits may be desirable aspirations for some; they are for me. And, while they may make me more efficient and well-rounded, they do not necessarily make me a better teacher in the classroom.

We all know teachers who are involved in multiple arenas, including professional development and school or professional activities, but who are not able to connect with their students. Other teachers may have the most organized, efficient classrooms in their school, but are extremely ineffective at imparting knowledge to their students.

Teacher rating systems as previously described force teachers to focus on exhibiting minute skills during the short administrator observations (sometimes in as little as 15 minutes), drawing teachers’ attention away from actual teaching. Returning to the above scenario, if an acclaimed artist were forced to focus on technical minutiae while creating a masterpiece, how much creativity would be sacrificed?

Testing is another area that is moving education away from its artistic roots. Few would argue the need in education for assessment to gauge student learning. Dedicated teachers want their students to grow and welcome valid tools to measure that growth. However, there is currently a great deal of pressure placed on educators to improve students’ scores by a set amount each year. These benchmarks assume that children follow a linear path as they learn.

When children grow physically, they may remain one height for several months—or even years—and then have a growth spurt of many inches over a short period. Given the irregular rate at which children grow physically, we should not expect students to grow academically at a steady pace. Yet teachers are increasingly being held responsible for steady academic growth of students. I’m not suggesting that educators don’t play a major role in students’ academic development—they do. However, many other factors contribute to variations in academic growth rates. Peer relationships, parental involvement, and motivation at any given time are only a few of these. In actuality, the positive or negative effect that a teacher has on a given student may not surface for many years and, more importantly, may not even be measurable.

Enormous pressure is placed on teachers to ensure that their students meet pre-determined scores on high-stakes tests. Some states are tying teacher evaluations and/or teacher salaries to test results. This is fraught with unintended consequences, driving anxious teachers to go to great lengths to boost scores, ranging from “teaching to the test” to blatant cheating. While these actions clearly diminish the educational experience of the learners as well as the effectiveness of the teacher, they are signs of the desperation felt by many educators.

The current evaluation and testing trends are moving our public educational system in the wrong direction: away from the understanding that teaching truly is an art. There has to be a better way to ensure teachers can continue to teach effectively and that students will continue to grow.

Debbie Sternecky is Vice-President and 2014 Convention Chair of ITBE and teaches ELL at Jefferson Jr. High School in Naperville School District #203.

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ITBE Link - Fall 2013 - Volume 41 Number 3

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