“O Romeo, Romeo, Wherefore Art Thou Test Scores?”

Recently, I attended the largest educational conference in the world, the American Educational Research Association (AERA) conference.  Over 14,000 participants (researchers, college and university professors, members of educational foundations, teachers, and administrators) attended the conference.  A major theme of the conference was educational accountability and evaluation, making the conference location, Philadelphia, ironic:  Fifty percent of Philadelphia’s public schools have been closed and re-opened as charter schools.  This means they are taxpayer-funded – yet privately run – and not subject to the rules and testing of most public schools.

I have been evaluating teacher performance most of my educational career; so, the chance to learn new developments and best practices was a great one.  I decided to spend my few days at the AERA conference attending workshops on teacher evaluation.  The themes and topics discussed were all very similar: 1) Can teacher performance be quantified? 2) To what extent does student performance on tests demonstrate the amount of teacher effectiveness? 3) Are there other socio-economic factors that influence student test scores and teacher effectiveness?  4) How does a teacher’s “value” add to increased student performance?  These researchers presented their evidence in the form of quantifiable evidence, correlational statistics, and regression analytics.

Researchers talked and presented lots of “evidence,” but they never questioned the idea of measuring teachers and assigning a numerical value to their performance.   This unreflecting acquiescence to a dominant ideology that now includes the vocabulary of technocratic efficiency (i.e. targets, performance measures, enhanced growth scores, value-added, student learning objectives, and so on) has silently allowed the reduction of education to hyper test preparation and over testing.  As our school leader, I want our kids to do their very best.  I am proud when they succeed and always want to find new ways to support them when they are challenged.  Some form of testing is a part of life, be it at school, home, or at work.  It is a valuable tool that instills values beyond subject matter.  Students develop time management skills and responsibility.  This is what I hope educational leaders mean when they reference “college and career readiness.”  Of course, we need great teachers, and I need some way of evaluating their ability and measuring success.  However, I am hard-pressed to see how canned tests created by multi-national corporations are going to translate into better academic, personal, and professional lives for our kids.

Recently, our English teachers introduced and taught Romeo and Juliet to our ninth graders.  Some teachers decided to fully adopt the State Education Department’s unit plan (also called a “module”) on Romeo and Juliet.  Other teachers decided to adapt this module, while some teachers ignored the module all together.  In those classes that adopted the module, I noticed that students seemed disinterested and less engaged.  The same teaching strategy was utilized lesson after lesson, day after day (as the module instructed).  The teacher read certain pre-determined passages.   Students answered questions from worksheets on their own and, then, discussed responses with other students.  We can debate whether Romeo and Juliet is a good play for kids – that is open for discussion.  The important and shocking part about the State Education Department’s module is that students did not have to read the entire play.  Whole scenes were skipped.  By the end of the unit, students were reasonably confused about why characters did certain things.

The students’ reaction to the module was insightful.  They wondered why they were not able to read from the play or act certain scenes in class.  The most interesting debate occurred in a class whose teacher decided to ignore the module and whose students read the entire play.   The teacher asked whether students felt sorry for Romeo.  One student stated that he felt sorry for Paris.  Paris was Juliet’s fiancé and he loved her; then, along came Romeo, and she abandoned Paris, who was heartbroken.  An impromptu discussion ensued in class as to whether Paris or Romeo was the more tragic character.  This debate could not occur in a class that followed the state module since Paris was only rudimentarily covered.

As an observer, how do I measure which teacher or teaching techniques were more effective?  How can I quantify the degree of student growth from one class to the other?  Did the unsolicited discussion about Romeo and Paris meet any performance target as described by the module?  Probably not, but this conversation required an understanding of difficult language and themes.  It inspired philosophical and ethical debate, and more than a little bit of empathy.  After all, Romeo and Juliet is often taught at this grade level because the lead characters are the same age as the students.

Students must know certain basics and must be able to perform tasks that will help them participate in a world that requires literacy and numeracy on many levels.  At the same time, what always made U.S. education unique was focus on the creative and the imaginative.  This is the reason why high performing nations in the world (e.g. Finland, China, and Canada) utilize U.S. classroom strategies.  While our departments of state education have abandoned tested, tried, and effective methods, the rest of the world is catching up with where we used to be.

Alfred North Whitehead, a noted physicist and philosopher, observed that “nothing is more curious than the self- satisfied dogmatism with which mankind at each period of its history cherishes the delusion of the finality of its existing modes of knowledge.”  In education and teaching, the disastrous consequence of such a tendency is to reduce the eagerness of inquiry to the dull acquisition of inert ideas and the passive tolerance of disconnected bits of information.   Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk addresses how schools curtail creativity:

At a time when future jobs have not even been invented yet, a central purpose of education is to prepare students for the unknown.  Sometimes, they will need to choose the “least worst answer” as standardized test tutors often suggest.  More often, they will need creative problem-solving skills.  They will need imagination.  They will need strong ethics and the ability and social skills to work effectively with others.  As a school leader, I take this responsibility seriously, as do most teachers I have ever known.