04/29/2011 06:18 pm ET Updated Jun 29, 2011

Teaching, Learning and Assessment: Getting It Right

Google "Teacher Evaluation and Student Performance" and 827,000 entries spring up in the queue; do the same for "Teacher Effectiveness" and the number plummets to 84,300. Such a gap, and so revealing. Teacher effectiveness has become the Holy Grail for the modern education reform movement, one of whose faithful adherents, Shael Polakow-Suransky, headlined a panel last week in New York City on "Teacher Performance," moderated by Bank Street College of Education's chief academic officer and dean, Jon Snyder.

Polakow-Suransky pierced the consciousness of Gotham's education community late last year, in the wake of Cathie Black's appointment, assuming the role of deputy chancellor for performance and accountability to buttress his boss' subpar C.V. Dubbed "a data mining administrator" by The New York Times, he was introduced to the locals with the menacing headline, "New Schools No. 2 Wants More and Better Testing." A child of progressive schools and a student, no less, of education visionary and reformer Ted Sizer, his faith in the infinite perfectibility of tests seemed unwavering.

Recently named the NYC DOE's Chief Academic Officer, Polakow-Suransky is now deeper than ever in the weeds of performance and accountability. He's grappling with the demands attached to $700 million of federal education funding, won by NY State last summer in the second round of Race to the Top, and made possible by legislation doubling the number of charter schools and plans to tie teacher evaluations to test scores. This, while a ferocious debate rages across the land about the wisdom of assessing teachers' effectiveness by such means. As our top education policymakers embrace teacher quality as their mantra, and the states go hungrily after funding, experts -- including Stanford's Linda Darling-Hammond and Diane Ravitch -- warn of the "Problems with the Use of Student Test Scores to Evaluate Teachers," and teachers are quaking in their classrooms.

"If I were in your shoes," said Snyder, not unsympathetically, to the city's chief academic officer, "I don't know how I could sleep." But Polakow-Suransky, whose face is smooth and inscrutable, exudes great serenity. "For decades," he declared, "we've had no accountability. As you start to reform a system that's been deeply neglected, where kids have been failing, you need to push."

What form that push takes is the question. Nothing less than the future of teaching and learning is on the line.

The role of student learning in teacher assessment is a -- if not the -- critical question of the moment. One that revealed deep fault lines among the panelists, who also included Margaret Ryan, co-founder of Harlem Link Charter School; Barnett Berry, president of the Center for Teaching Quality; and Frederick Frelow, the education and scholarship program officer for the Ford Foundation's Knowledge, Creativity and Freedom program. Polakow-Suransky, ever optimistic, envisions great opportunities to "go beyond bubbles," while maintaining the importance of value-added data.

"When you raise the stakes, there's a tension," argued Frelow. "A single test is not a good metric for performance. The more examples you have of performance, the more a teacher can get a better sense of the zone the kids are in."

Ryan championed "more portfolio and rubrics-based assessment." "Critical thinking," she said, "develops over time, and this all has to be part of an evaluative package."

And Frelow, using a poignant example of his own son, who has struggled with learning disabilities and was recently admitted to Rochester Institute of Technology, reminded us that "learning is not linear," the case for all children -- those who develop typically, and those who do not.

Early childhood educators know this well. While the first five years of life are a time of explosive growth, cognitively, socially and emotionally, young children's acquisition of skills and knowledge unfold in unique ways, with detours, stop, starts and great bursts. Today's test-driven, academically narrow times present tremendous challenges to teaching and learning at the earliest end of the education spectrum.

But early childhood practitioners can't put their heads in the sandbox. As Julie Diamond, Fretta Reitzes and Betsy Grob make clear in their contribution to
The Right to Learn: Preparing Early Childhood Teachers to Work in High-Need Schools
, they must be test-savvy and conversant with the language of standards and accountability; they should be well educated in the methods of observation and assessment; they need to have a rich understanding of curriculum and instructional strategies; and, most important, they must be ready and able to defend their practice, by consistent documentation of children's active learning.

A tall order, for sure, but one that must be filled.