Once again, educational reform efforts designed to improve the quality of Maine’s public schools are receiving attention in the state media. Only this time, more than in any other past reform efforts to “fix our public schools,” public school teachers are being targeted as the main culprits, and students’ test scores are being widely promoted as essential to demonstrate teacher and school accountability.
The term value-added assessment has become the mantra echoed by many of the current education reformers, many of whom are philanthropists, CEOs of large corporations and hedge fund managers — not educators.
Value-added assessment, the use of students’ scores on standardized achievement tests to evaluate the effectiveness of their teachers, is being widely promoted and increasingly implemented as the primary measure for evaluating public school teachers. In many cases, student achievement test scores have been used as the major marker to adjust the pay levels of teachers (merit pay), to embarrass them publicly by posting their names tied to student achievement test results and, in some cases, to fire them, presumably for being incompetent. Currently in Maine this has surfaced as a major concern for public school teachers and their respective unions.
Based upon the consensus of reputable research regarding this topic, I suggest that there are several things that are terribly wrong and dangerous with the practice of attempting to judge the effectiveness of a teacher based primarily upon how his or her students perform on standardized achievement tests.
First, serious questions have been raised relative to the flaws and inconsistencies that exist within the very standardized tests themselves that are being used — especially in terms of their use for a purpose that was never intended, in this case — to evaluate teacher performance.
Second, no strong evidence exists to support the claim that measuring teachers’ effectiveness primarily by student scores on standardized achievement scores will lead to improved student achievement. No evidence exists that teachers who are terminated as a result of this process either are the weakest teachers, or that the terminated teachers would be replaced by more effective teachers.
Further, there is little or no evidence to support the claim that teachers will be more motivated to improve student learning if they are monetarily rewarded for student test score gains.
Third, most studies have shown that differences between teachers account for only about one-third of the variation in student achievement. Outside-of-school factors account for the largest variation (income level of parents, attendance, peer associations, mental health and substance abuse problems, for example).
I am not trying to “let teachers and schools off the hook” by blaming external factors alone for the reasons why many of our students are not performing well in school. Of course, high-quality teachers are extremely important, but to deny the horrible realities that face many children in Maine and the negative impact these realities are having upon their ability to learn is both naive and disingenuous. The playing field is not level for all students.
What has become especially disturbing in much of the current education reform rhetoric are the words “no excuses,” frequently used by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, to convey the point that a student’s socioeconomic status should never be used as an excuse for poor academic performance. In an effort to bolster his warning, Duncan and others are quick to cite examples of the academic successes of some of our nation’s poorest students once they left their former “failing public schools” and enrolled in largely privately funded charter schools.
Promise Academy, the Harlem Children’s Zone charter school featured in the widely acclaimed film documentary “Waiting for Superman,” represents one such example of this rhetoric. In this film, public school teachers and teacher unions are singled out as the real villains. Yet, what is usually not mentioned in discussions about this film is that children who attended this school, which was about two-thirds privately funded, benefited from a wide array of support services, including free medical care and free mental health counseling.
Interestingly, the Maine Legislature soon will be debating LD 1438, “An Act To Permit Public Charter Schools in Maine.”
The reality is that most teachers in Maine’s public schools are struggling to deal with students who are experiencing similar levels of poverty and adverse circumstances as those in the Harlem school — but without the substantial financial and program supports that exist in the Promise Academy and others like it. Arguably, child poverty is the most persistent and insidious problem facing America in 2011 — and to simply utter “no excuses” is indefensible and unconscionable.
Please, let us stop the teacher bashing and the student testing mania that presently is becoming pervasive throughout Maine. Rather, let us become actively engaged in more productive conversations relative to how we can really support our public schools, our teachers, and most of all, our children.
William E. Davis is a professor emeritus of education at the University of Maine. He is the former director of the university’s Institute for the Study of Students At Risk. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.