Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Animal School Redux

Does anyone remember reading that classic fable called, "The Animal School" by George Reavis? It was first published back in 1946 and is more true today than ever before. Read it below:

Sad to say, we are still trying to standardize our students by requiring them to take standardized tests on a largely standardized curriculum. Never mind that the kids are all different in abilities and interests, but grouped largely by age, as that's the only descriptor we can easily measure. We'd like standardized results from all of them too, with all of them above average in running, flying, swimming and whatever.

Did you ever stop and think what it means to have everyone above average? I don't recommend it, as it can cause an instant headache. Never mind that it's impossible to have everyone above average!

Since these NCLB tests we now give our kids tell us little or nothing about how to help each Jason with his reading or eqach Gwen with her grammar, we have to figure out something useful to do with them. Billions are being tossed by states and feds into the test-makers' coffers annually, largely to assure us that while our students are not quite there yet, it's only because teachers have not yet done enough.

So now, instead of using these tests for the purposes for which they were written....testing K-12 students....our leaders tell us we will use them to test the quality of our teachers instead. If the kids are not all above average, it is clearly the fault of the teacher. Right?

Think about this: Many teachers have 35 kids in their classroom in the fall and maybe 35 kids in the spring. More often than not, they are not the same 35 kids. Whatever demonstrable teacher effect exists is not being measured across the same set of learners. On any given day 20-30% of the students may be absent too, but not all on the same day.

So what do we do? I propose that, if you want to evaluate teachers with standardized tests, then create a valid and reliable measure specifically designed for the teachers. We need a test that tests teachers.

If the tests themselves were correlated with actual classroom performance, this could be helpful information for teacher improvement. We would then need to put resources in place to help them improve, something we are not doing well or at all right now. Perhaps, some of that touted federal investment in our collective futures would make sense being spent here.

This proposal does not address the Animal School conundrum. It could improve those teachers, trainers, coaches who are trying to get all the learners equally able to run, swim, fly, and burrow. But we all know that equal competency for each learner can't happen across the curriculum.

But perhaps by then we will all wake up to the fact that standardized tests can only bring unattainable standardized results. As Reavis says at the end of his article:

At the end of the year, an abnormal eel that could swim exceeding well and also run, climb and fly a little had the highest average and was valedictorian.

The prairie dogs stayed out of school and fought the tax levy because the administration would not add digging and burrowing to the curriculum. They apprenticed their children to a badger and later joined the groundhogs and gophers to start a successful private school.

Sounds like more charter schools to me!


David said...

That's the big question ... how do we evaluate teaching? It may be easier to test teachers, but what will a "SCORE" really show? Does a score show the level of engagement? Does a score show an acceptable level of "student-centeredness"?

Not quite sure how to do it ...

Dr. Tom said...

Thanks, David! Good points all.

I'm confidant we could convene some blue ribbon educators and get a lasso around these issues.

Makes more sense to me than using student test scores to measure teachers.