Testing 1-2-3. And 4-12, too.

Debbie Sternecky, ITBE President 

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Educating public junior high students has always been a challenge. A teacher must act like a store-liquidation sign-holder as she waves SMARTBoard activities at her classroom of fidgety middle-schoolers who would much prefer being at home in front of their latest diversion (perhaps shooting marbles in the early 1900s or combating enemies on their PS4 Destiny today) to listening to her. In addition to the usual issues, today’s teacher also faces an inordinate amount of pressure from governmental testing mandates. She knows that down the road, right around the corner in fact, is a series of obstacles in the form of mandates in which student growth will be tied to teacher evaluation.

This sounds so simple on its face. Any teacher worth her salt will strive to help her students grow. But public-school teachers do not get to choose who their students are. What will happen when a teacher’s evaluation is directly linked to the make-up of her class?

Having been a teacher of English Language Learners (ELLs) at both the high-school and junior-high levels for over 12 years, I have often seen the response from general-education teachers who do not want ELL students in their classrooms. It goes something like this: “Your student (it’s always my student when they don’t want them) can’t speak any English and just can’t do [insert subject matter here].” The implication is that the student needs to be removed from this teacher’s class. When I explain that the student actually can do [subject matter], but needs a lot of support (visuals, written instructions, among other strategies), the teacher makes a face that looks like I just told them pond scum tastes like Marshmallow Fluff.

Let’s speed ahead now to the roadblocks of endless testing being placed along our educational path. The response from the general education teacher, who suddenly has to make sure each student is growing by an arbitrarily set amount (statisticians will argue this point, saying that the growth is determined using time-tested computer models, but we’ll get to that point later) will sound a bit different when an ELL is placed in their class. “Get this student out of my class IMMEDIATELY!! I don’t have time to make my classroom cozy for your (here we go again) student when I need my test scores to go up for my evaluation!!”

And who could blame them? Their career is potentially at stake.

Children aren’t parts in a factory waiting to be pieced together. We can’t measure their progress by determining whether their cogs are where we expect them to be on a given date. Let’s look at this another way. Suppose we said that if children aren’t able to grow taller at a projected rate, this means parents are not raising them right. So, at their annual physical check-up, physicians must compare children’s growth to the doctor’s clinical growth chart and punish parents whose children don’t reach their expected target.

“Preposterous!” you’d say. “You can’t expect a child to grow taller at an exact rate.” You’d be right, of course. So how can we expect them to grow intellectually at a pre-determined pace, even one that was calculated using the latest technology?

The implications of tying student growth to teacher evaluation are far-reaching. Unlike charter schools, public school teachers don’t get to choose who sits before them each day. What about the class with the unmedicated-by-parent-choice student with ADHD who whistles to himself all period? In the past, a teacher would use a variety of interventions to reach the child, such as preferential seating or point sheets. But with her career on the line under the student-growth/evaluation connection, she’s now going to say, “The hell with that. I’ll just put Andy Griffith off to the side to entertain himself since he’s a lost cause as far as reaching his expected growth. Then I can focus on bringing the other students’ scores up more to make up for his losses.”

Okay, most teachers wouldn’t really say that, but it might cross their minds.

Who will teachers want in their classrooms once our educational system finds itself navigating around scores of barricades? Conforming, compliant students who are open to the gifts of knowledge we teachers hope to impart, of course. Hah! So much for the Albert Einsteins, Steven Spielbergs, and Thomas Edisons who struggled in school during their time and would be relegated to the corners of our classrooms to fend for themselves under this system.

So what do we do now? We rise up and demand that our legislators (remember, in our system of government, that means We, the People) stop this insane push against teachers and let us do what we do best: teach.

Debbie Sternecky is an ELL teacher at Jefferson Middle School. She is also the president of ITBE. 

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ITBE Link - Fall 2014 - Volume 42 Number 3