The Teachers’ Unions’ Last Stand?

In case you missed it, Steven Brill wrote a relatively balanced piece in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine about the national education reform landscape — and how teachers unions are truly facing a sink-or-swim moment of reinvention.

As someone who feels neither allegiance nor antipathy toward either of the increasingly polarized camps (I actually like and respect both Linda Darling-Hammond and Jon Schnur), I see the partial truths in each side’s argument. On one hand, for example, it’s clear that K-12 teachers should not be granted lifetime tenure so easily — tenure, after all, was originally designed to protect the free-expression rights of college professors, and since the First Amendment barely even applies to public employees anymore, that point is moot. So I say bring on this reform.

It’s also clear that teacher evaluation systems need to be dramatically retooled. When educators can only be scored ‘satisfactory’ or ‘unsatisfactory,’ that’s a huge problem. So again I say yes to any reform that results in a new system that creates a reciprocal flow of feedback and helps educators improve the quality of their professional practice.

However, I see one massive problem — and it’s a problem that no one, Brill included, seems interested in addressing:  Everyone wants to tie these new teacher evaluations to student performance data, but no one wants to talk publicly about the fact that we lack sufficient metrics for truly evaluating the full extent of whether or not young people are learning and achieving at high levels.

As I’ve written many times before, basic-skills tests in reading and math provide a single, useful proof point that is, in the current climate, dramatically overvalued. To help students learn to use their minds well, schools — and teachers — need to focus on not just basic- but also higher-order skills; they need to engage children in not just reading and math but also the arts and sciences; and they need to focus less on just data per se, and more on how well we’re equipping our teachers to respond to data in ways that improve the overall learning conditions (and outcomes) for kids.

A system, therefore, that incentivizes compensation and job security by using a single measure to count for as much as 50% of an evaluation will incentivize — you guessed it! — a relentless focus on basic-skills reading and math scores. But that’s not enough if we want the achievement gap to mean more than test scores. And more people need to start calling it out.

The good news is that although we may not yet have these more sophisticated metrics in place, at least we know what we should be looking for. This month, I’m finalizing the manuscript of a book that brings together 50 powerful stories about teaching and learning — selected from the many hundred that have been submitted by people across the country as part of a national campaign. The stories recount a wide range of experiences — from third grade classrooms to Outward Bound courses to church missions to prison sentences — but what they combine to make visible are the core conditions of a powerful learning environment. (See for yourself at And although they do not reveal a simple, single answer to the deeply complex question of how to improve our schools, they do clarify the question we should be asking ourselves at every turn — How do we create more challenging, engaging, supportive, relevant and experiential learning opportunities for children?

Imagine if more people started asking that question. Imagine what a new statewide teacher evaluation system would need to look like in response. And ask yourself — would you want that sort of environment for your child?

Categories: Assessment, Learning, Teacher Quality

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  1. Posted June 2, 2010 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    Sam’s heart and head are in the right place but:

    Brill’s piece was not “relatively balanced” as Sam says—it was very clever, deceptive support for the Schnur/Kopp/Klein/Duncan/Gates/Broad position, a position that the NY Times continues to advocate relentlessly.

    Sam’s call for more sophisticated assessments of higher-order achievement is technically and financially impossible to enact at scale if reliable individual student scores are required, and his immediate turn to a focus on improved learning opportunities (which are devoutly to be wished) is a non sequitur.

  2. Sam
    Posted June 2, 2010 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for your close read, Eric, and for taking the time to respond. I think you might be right that I was too generous in saying the piece was balanced — sometimes I can be a victim of my own efforts to be a Haynesian bridge-builder, when what I really need is to grab the flamethrower — but I’m less certain of your other points. I wasn’t calling for a massive scale up of more holistic assessment. Actually I think it’s time we gave up on the illusion that such a complex undertaking like meaningful assessment of student learning can be “scaled.” As you well know, the countries in the world with the most enviable education systems do most of their assessments locally and in a decentralized way– in part because the investments those countries have made in teachers are so substantial and well thought-out.

    My next column for the Huffington Post (which should go up in the next day or so) explores some of these issues in greater detail. I’ll also cross-post it here, so I’ll be curious to see if you think the policy prescriptions I lay out seem more reasonable.

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