Since 2009, 39 states and the District of Columbia have required that teacher evaluations be tied to student performance on standardized tests. And ours, of course, is one of them.
The New Mexico Public Education Department's recent decision to de-emphasize scores of standardized tests in the teacher evaluation process is a nominal first step toward giving teachers a measure of respect in assessing the difficult work they do. This concession by the PED primarily focuses on allowances for teachers whose subjects are not evaluated on standardized tests, such as those who teach music and art in a universe where such tests focus primarily on math, social studies and science.
While I recognize the importance of evaluating teacher effectiveness, and the need to link teacher performance in some measure to standard learning goals and outcomes, tying teacher performance to standardized tests is a flawed approach to evaluating the quality of instruction in classrooms.
In a basic sense, effective teachers instruct using the established curriculum to achieve decided goals in their subject areas. But they are also inventive, intellectual salespeople. They sell ideas and facilitate the construction of classrooms that are evolving, dynamic communities which foster learning, growth and curiosity. These are difficult skills to measure via standardized tests.
Furthermore, given that there are currently more than 200 diverse standards of measurement in place from the department and by which teachers can be evaluated, it's difficult to believe that student performance on standardized tests will illuminate much more about teacher ability or success. While most teachers in New Mexico will continue to have some portion of their evaluations linked to standardized test scores, the Albuquerque Journal reports that the recent decision by the PED does allow school districts to determine how input from those standardized tests will be used to evaluate educators along with teacher observations and other methods. This is where the focus needs to return: observation. More than filling in bubbles to determine who we have in our classrooms, we need to check out the climate our budget limitation creates for students and what approaches teachers are using to inspire students despite (and because of) them.
The Albuquerque Teacher Federation and the American Federation of Teachers filed a lawsuit earlier this year, alleging that New Mexico's evaluation standards tied to standardized testing were punitive. A preliminary hearing for an injunction to halt evaluations until their validity has been decided is scheduled for later this month. It seems like common sense that the state should want to evaluate teachers to improve the jobs they do, not to punish them for trying to do their jobs.
Here's the Thing: Teachers spend between seven and 10 hours a day, five days a week, nine to 10 months out of the year teaching our children. Their pay is modest. Their hours are long, and lately their profession is under attack by corporate interests and politically appointed bureaucrats who've never observed, let alone taught in, an effective classroom setting. Long after our children are home, good teachers are still working: grading papers and strategizing to engage and help children succeed.
The last thing under-supported teachers need to deal with is a punitive threat related to an unproven, hot-button topic like standardized tests. Teachers open worlds and save lives. Their work should be measured honorably.
Andrea is an American Studies scholar who writes and teaches courses on US politics and culture. You can reach her with your thoughts at: firstname.lastname@example.org