Citing our children’s continued inability to choose the right bubbles on multiple choice tests, Gov. Susana Martinez is changing the rules. As of this school year, teachers may no longer rest on the laurels of their licenses, but will be subject to annual evaluations—50 percent of which will be determined by how well their students perform on standardized tests.
This is a huge shift. It’s also very controversial. When Chicago Public Schools implemented a similar evaluation system last year, 25,000 teachers took to the streets. Here in New Mexico, some districts are pushing back—including SFPS, which according to the New Mexican has sent the state a counter-proposal that lowers the test score factor to 35 percent.
Advocates of test-based teacher evaluations, including President Barack Obama and Bill Gates, cite front-page studies on the impact of “effective teachers” and insist educators, like ballplayers, must be measured by hard results. Opponents cry foul, pointing to research that proves student test scores are affected by factors a teacher cannot control, like wealth, home language, even parent divorce.
Lost in the debate is that everyone shares the same goal: Excellent teachers. Which means perhaps we should stop wrangling over how we evaluate teachers, and start considering how we can help them become excellent.
I don’t think it’s a motivation issue. Not all teachers—myself included—want to be self-sacrificing heroes, working 70 hours a week, but nearly all do want to be great, want to inspire kids and help them learn. How do we help teachers meet their own goals? More broadly put, how do we draw out the best in people?
When I was in high school, I wanted to be an excellent soccer player. I had two influential coaches. One was a hard-nosed, former Division I player who demanded performance, and laid into us when we didn’t produce. My skills improved—they had to—but I played so tense, I made key blunders, including a couple that cost us games.
The other coach was an Englishman named Graham Ramsay, who’d roll into town to lead weekend clinics. Ramsay was relaxed, playful and focused. He’d put us at ease, cheer us on, correct our mistakes and let us shine. Under his watch, I played the best soccer in my life and fell in love with the sport.
What I experienced while playing for Ramsay might be described, in the terms of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, as “flow,” or “optimal experience.” It’s what we feel when we find the sweet spot between being bored and being over-challenged, when we turn our full attention to the task at hand and lose ourselves in the joy and richness of doing. You’ve felt it, maybe, when you lose yourself painting, biking, gardening—the pleasure of doing something simply because you love doing it, and because you know you are learning as you go along.
On my best days teaching, I managed to create “flow” in my classroom, an environment that we call a “learning field” at the Academy for the Love of Learning. My students and I would forget about grades and tests and bells, and engage so fully in the discussion or activity that you could “feel” the learning. I don’t know if these flow moments helped my students become better at taking tests, but I do know they fueled their curiosity and passion, and helped them become better, as Academy founder Aaron Stern puts it, at being human.
Helping teachers develop the capacity to create “flow” will lead to excellent teaching. Subjecting them to high-pressure, anxiety-ridden evaluations may not—and may even make things worse.
If the governor wants to be scientific about improving teacher quality, she’ll need some comparison data. We’d do well to set up a few schools, perhaps here in Santa Fe, where the teachers will not be measured as good or bad, but coached, Graham Ramsay style, toward ways of being fully present and engaging.
Hard to say what would happen to test scores, but my guess is that students taught by relaxed, passionate teachers perform better than those whose teachers are anxious and stressed-out. It’d be worth finding out.
A graduate of SFPS and a former Santa Fe educator, Seth Biderman is under contract with the Academy for the Love of Learning to explore what “school” could someday be. His research can be found at