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Kenneth Bernstein

Kenneth Bernstein

Posted: October 7, 2010 01:48 PM

Of course, I can't speak for all teachers. But there are probably many who feel as do I, a Maryland high school teacher of government with some 15 years' experience.

Let's be clear. Were I evaluated by the external tests my students take, be they Maryland's High School Assessments (all six of my classes) or the Advanced Placement test in U.S. Government and Politics (three classes), I would do just fine. Ditto if the process compared these tests with pre-tests at the start of the year. I have no doubt my results would be at a minimum quite good.

Yet I object to being evaluated solely or primarily on the test scores of my students. It isn't an accurate reflection of the work I do as a teacher. The results might make me complacent, which would be unfair to my students, and would mean that I wasn't living up to my standards as a professional educator.

I teach government by choice: I want to prepare my students to be full participants in the civic and democratic processes without which this country would not be a place of opportunity for so many, not just economically but also in matters of personal belief and political participation.

My parents -- and my students -- can judge my effectiveness by something I tell them. I want to challenge all of my students to think more deeply about the issues that they will encounter. I want them better able to express their thoughts cogently verbally and in writing. I hope they will also learn how to dissect the arguments of someone who opposes their views without attempting to destroy the person. As we used to say in the Civil Rights era, I want them to learn how to disagree without being disagreeable. In the process, as I tell their parents, I may create my own worst nightmare: an articulate, persuasive advocate of a position I abhor. In that case, I've done my job as their teacher, for ultimately the measure of my effectiveness will be seen in my students after they leave my classroom. The real measure will be in understanding, behavior, activity, things not easily measured by test scores.

Fair evaluation would include observations by administrators and peers, with feedback that can help me improve as a teacher. It would also include input from parents as they watch their children develop during their time with me. Ideally, it would include having students build and maintain a portfolio of work over the entire year, with periodic reflection on what they are learning, and what it means to them.

One of my guides to teaching is the work of Parker Palmer, from whom I have come to understand that teaching inevitably involves relationship. Or as Nel Noddings has put it, it requires an ethic of caring. My students need to know that I care about each of them, that I see each as a unique individual entitled to be recognized and treated for that uniqueness. Each student is something far more than can be reflected by a test score, or even by the grade for a marking period.

In an ideal world, someone should be able to come into my class any time after the first three weeks, move the students around, and then have me address each by name, and also describe each one's strengths and weaknesses. As a teacher I should be able to know and understand my students.

That's in an ideal world -- the almost 200 students currently in my six classes makes that almost impossible, and yet as a teacher I have to try.

A visitor should be able to experience a sense of trust and respect. That should be evident in my behavior towards my students, for if I want it from them I should demonstrate it in my words and actions towards them.

Evaluation should be formative rather than summative, to use the distinction first established years ago by Michael Scriven. Whether one is a beginning teacher or a grizzled veteran -- and in my 16th year of teaching and 65th of living I am arguable more of the latter -- the purpose of evaluation should be focused on helping the teacher improve her practice and effectiveness. The willingness to continue learning, to hear constructive criticism, should be a key factor in evaluating the teacher. This process can keep a teacher from going stale -- it requires honesty and openness, a willingness to be reflective, and -- most of all -- to adjust to the needs of the students that appear in one's class, who can be very different period to period, and are often significantly different from year to year.

We have an unhealthy obsession in the United States of wanting to quantify everything so that we can compare and rank. I think we do ourselves, and most of all our students, a disservice by that obsession. My students are far more than their scores on SATs, HSAs, APs, or their grades. Some learn more deeply because they are willing to take intellectual risks -- I hope our emphasis on scores does not discourage that behavior, which is what leads to real progress.

The same should apply to teachers -- we should be willing to accept some eccentricity and willingness to take intellectual risks in order to help our students learn more effectively. However we evaluate teachers, if we squeeze those out, we will inevitably impoverish the quality of teaching our students receive. And that would be a serious mistake.

 

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