Tilting at Windmills

May/June 2012 Pick your poison

By Charles Peters

One error that some school reformers make is to place too much emphasis on testing, even when it takes into account different student backgrounds. Consider the case of a teacher who was good enough to be immediately rehired by the excellent Fairfax County, Virginia, school system after she had been dismissed in the District of Columbia primarily because of her students’ poor test scores. I believe evaluation of classroom performance by principals, other teachers of proven ability, and, in the case of secondary schools, by students themselves should weigh equally with test results. In an article in the April issue of the Atlantic , Jonathan Alter reports that the Chicago schools have found that students are the most reliable evaluators. Come to think of it, I bet you knew who your good teachers were and which ones were really lousy.

What is ironic is that I’m sure reformers came to overemphasize testing precisely because unions had been so loud in characterizing other methods—including evaluation of classroom performance by principals and unbiased and qualified teachers or by surveys of student opinion—as being too “subjective.” Testing seemed to answer the problem by being objective.

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly and the author of a new book on Lyndon B. Johnson published by Times Books.

Comments

  • brian t. raven on June 09, 2012 10:19 PM:

    "...Come to think of it, I bet you knew who your good teachers were and which ones were really lousy..."

    And most of us can do so decades later. It seems that should qualify as pretty objective.

  • R on July 09, 2012 5:28 PM:

    Of course testing should be part, but by no means all, of the teacher evaluation process. The thing is, it takes time, money, and expertise to design a decent test, and that's after you decide what it is you want kids to know and do. Since this society wants to do public education on the cheap, I don't hold out much hope. It's easier and cheaper to test math facts and vocabulary as opposed to mathematical thinking and creative writing. I'm still waiting for an investigative journalist or two to look into who makes standardized tests (hint: who makes textbooks?), how they design and evaluate them, what they leave out, and how this affects what happens in classrooms. "Teaching to the test" has a bad rap because we don't trust tests to give a full and accurate picture; why should we? To call tests "objective" seems a bit naive.

    Also, I'm no great fan of teachers' unions, though given that the profession used to be dominated by women who had few other career choices and hence were susceptible to exploitation, I don't object to their existence. Still, can you back up your claim that "reformers came to overemphasize testing precisely because unions had been so loud in characterizing other methods—including evaluation of classroom performance by principals and unbiased and qualified teachers or by surveys of student opinion—as being too 'subjective'"? There are lots of "reformers" out there, with various motives and visions, and I suspect the history is more complicated than you suggest.

    I had some outstanding teachers and some crummy ones (mostly the ones who didn't like kids), but most were in between. Some were great for me but not so much for my siblings, or vice-versa. Even if we could easily sort them into "good" and "lousy," then what would we do? (Please don't say fire the lousy ones and replace them with 22-year-old Teach for America novices with five whole weeks of training. This is already happening under the testing regime as a budget-cutting device, where "lousy" means "can't get competitive test scores out of six-year-olds whose parents don't speak English.")