Sunday, March 18, 2012

Pushing Teachers by Testing: Hammer vs. Screwdriver

For the most part, most of the teachers and principals that I have spoken with have been fairly strongly anti-standardized testing. However--in the last few months I did have two conversations with acquaintances--one, a teacher, and the other, a principal--who did shed some light on the ways in which testing has been used to advance teaching. And in the interests of fairness and erudition, I thought I would share their reflections.

The teacher explained to me that when the MEAP started, it was seen as a tool to encourage teachers in a certain way. Although there were state curriculum standards, it was sometimes hard to get teachers to teach to them. The thinking went that if skills--particularly higher-level skills--were represented on the tests, then teachers would naturally want to teach them.

And the example she gave me? Manipulatives.

In elementary school math, manipulatives are used to teach math in a concrete way. So, for example, bundles of tens are a type of manipulative. Modern math education theory has as a foundation that students need to understand what numbers really are, and that--for instance--using manipulatives allows students to understand what is really happening when you add 10 + 10. However, at the time--and still today--some teachers only were teaching the arithmetic. In other words, they were/are not teaching what 10 + 10 means, but rather, simply--how do you add 10 + 10.  

So--the designers of the MEAP began
              including questions that involved descriptions of manipulatives,
                        in order to encourage teachers
                                   to introduce actual manipulatives
                                          in order that their students would
                                   remember the actual manipulatives when
                         asked about it on the MEAP.
              And because the test was (becoming) a high-stake test
Even teachers who were resistant to using manipulatives would start using them.

The principal told me a similar story. Fast forward fifteen or twenty years though, to today's environment. And she said, and I'm paraphrasing/summarizing here, that the high-stakes nature of the test allows her to check in regularly with teachers and make sure that they are teaching what they should be teaching.

And my thoughts about this?

We need a test to make sure that principals are able to evaluate teachers? Really? 
I don't believe it.

This whole system reminds me of using a hammer when a screwdriver is required.


  1. The role of the principal seems to vary. In the schools I have observed, Principals either focus on academics or day-to-day non-academic operations; rarely both. Both roles seem to require a full time commitment. I wonder if p
    principals would spend more time evaluating/developing teachers if they had a system of incentives available. At one point, Rick Snyder floated the idea of creating the role of "Master Teacher," to give effective teachers a career path other than that of administration - not sure what happened to that idea, but what a great way to reward a teacher and have another resource available for evaluations.

  2. Nothing occurs in a vacuum. Some teachers must not have been teaching well.(!) And they probably should have been taken off their positions and found work somewhere else. This does sound like a union generated problem. Creating policy to get around being unable to get rid of a bad teacher generated it's own set of problems
    The response however, to test more, is not the right answer.
    I'm underwhelmed by MEAP's. However, I don't thinks it as big a waste of time as say, the days after Memorial Day where there seems to be endless days of not much happening for those 2 1/2 weeks. There's no real teaching going on then, and it's a shame.

  3. anon4,
    I agree that there are certainly teachers who don't teach well. My question is why does the next step have to be eliminating those teachers? What I don't hear is how can we provide support and/or continue to train teachers that the schools have already deemed good enough to hire?

  4. There are staff who shouldn't be out there teaching kids, and administrators who shouldn't be administrating and that's my point. Absolutely, teachers who are struggling should be mentored and given extra attention to get better, but there also needs to be a way to say, enough already, this isn't working.