All students will achieve their maximum potential by becoming responsible, productive citizens and life-long learners.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Evaluation, Common Core, and Responsibility

A few thoughts concerning student improvement and performance came to me as I was listening to a presentation by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) concerning the implementation of the new teacher evaluation system.  Knowing that this new system measures teacher performance based on student progress is coupled with the issue of just how to measure that progress, I became curious as to what is both “in it for” and required of students throughout this process?  I found it difficult to juxtapose with the fact that it is being implemented concurrently with the Massachusetts State Common Core (MCSS). Surely, as schools are focusing on literacy and higher order thinking skills as they implement the Common Core, we all need to lay out a plan delineating not just how to measure what, but the supports needed by students to reach these expectations as they transition from the old to new curriculum

To fully disclose my position, I am currently writing my dissertation on the teaching and acquisition of thinking skills; specifically those required for the discipline of History.  Therefore, my main concern was how we support instructors in the teaching of essential, often discreet thinking skills when they are concerned about covering standards and being evaluated upon their progress in doing so.  Clearly there is plenty of responsibility to be shared.  Districts must support administrators, administrators must support teachers, parents must support students, and students must take responsibility.

The Foundation of Critical Thinking (2011) asserts that the most effective way to study and learn any subject is to practice what Gardner (2007) terms “disciplinary thinking.”  Furthermore they state that if students are to become “master students,” they need to practice the following list of behaviors:

·   “raise vital questions and problems within it…
·   gather and assess information…
·   come to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions…
·   adopt the point of view of the discipline…
·   communicate effectively with others using the language of the discipline and that of educated public discourse
·   relate what one is learning in the subject to other subjects and to what is significant in human life” (Critical Thinking 2011, p. 1)

These behaviors are then supported by a comprehensive list of 18 ideas for students to internalize. This coupled with an understanding that all disciplines in school possess common intellectual structures (Paul and Elder 2001) will improve students’ ability to think.  In fact, the following statement made in Paul & Elder’s (2001) guide should be examined as we move forward in the consideration of new teacher evaluations and learning requirements.  “It’s [the guide] goal is to foster lifelong learning and the traditional ideal of a liberally educated mind: a mind that questions, probes, and masters a variety of forms of knowledge, through command of itself, intellectual perseverance, and the tools of learning.” (p. 1)

While I personally wholeheartedly support the ideas put forth by Dr. Paul and Dr. Elder (they are part of my dissertation), I cannot help but read that sentence and wonder how we, as educators, are supporting its realization.  By way of example, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is now revamping the tool for teacher evaluation.  Teachers will now be evaluated based on the amount of progress as student achieves and what they are personally doing to affect its increase.  This is occurring at the same time schools across the state are scrambling to implement the Common Core that focuses on literacy and specific College and Career Readiness skills.  The problem you ask?

·   The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has given no clear direction as to how the progress teachers must produce is measured.
·   The Common Core Standards instruct teachers to focus on literacy and college and career readiness standards.
·   Teachers are still held to the expectations of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS).
·   While teachers struggle to improve their practice, less is being expected from students in the way of taking responsibility for their education.
·   There is a growing attempt to measure everything quantitatively, when most of the important growth is qualitative.

Does anyone else see a problem with not only holding all but the most important group responsible for students’ education, but also giving unclear dictates as to on what that education should be focused?

Yes, students should be taught and yes, there should be high expectations.

Yes, teachers must continue to improve and support students in their education. ..however, we all need to remember that for this all to be successful (however “this” is measured) students must be responsible for their own learning.

The quandary is this:
Teachers are being told they will be measured on the growth of students in areas that the Common Core is de-emphasizing.  Therefore they are expected to teach material that does not prepare students to produce the data that is being quantitatively measured to determine effectiveness.  So much of what students should be and are learning may only be assessed qualitatively through detailed narratives that explain the progression of students ability to think, problem solve, be creative, and act as productive citizens.

My opinion is this:
We (educators and parents alike) need to help our students learn to think by supporting their efforts and showing them the way.  We (educators and government) need to underscore the importance of qualitative data and its analysis when determining the effectiveness of teachers, programs and schools.  For years we have been measuring ourselves against other nations on assessments that compare apples to oranges.  This makes perfect political sense, but loses its luster when examining the ways in which it compromises student growth.  Yes we need to stay globally competitive to ensure a bright future for our students.  The irony is that in an effort to take the lead, we are eliminating the very aspects that put us there for so many years; the fostering of creativity, innovation, the ability to solve problems, and acting as respectful, responsible citizens.

Sources consulted for this post:

Gardner, H. (2007). Five minds for the future. Boston, Mass., Harvard Business School Press.
Paul , R., & Elder, L. (n.d.). How to study and learn (part one). Retrieved from http://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/how-to-study-and-learn-part-one/513
Paul, R. & Elder, L. 2001, The Thinkers Guide to How to Study and Learn, Dillon Beach, CA

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