I am just back from travels that started in Boston, moved on to Chicago, then to Los Angeles and San Francisco. This week I will be in Dallas and Denver.
Wherever I go, I meet many teachers who say virtually the same thing: They have never been more demoralized in their professional lives. They feel that they are scapegoats for everything that is wrong in American education. Arne Duncan and Barack Obama, even more than Margaret Spellings and George W. Bush, are giving credibility to the idea that 100 percent of students should be proficient, that teachers are to blame when test scores are not 100 percent proficient, that teachers use students' poverty as just an excuse for their bad teaching, and that firing teachers is laudable and courageous. Teachers say that they worked hard to elect Obama, and they now feel betrayed by his negative attitudes about teachers. They say, "If only Obama or Duncan would spend a few days in my classroom..."
So, the big idea today is that the way to fix American education is to identify bad teachers and fire them. I agree that we should get rid of bad teachers (but only after a fair hearing, in which charges against them are substantiated). But I also believe that this issue is a red herring that distracts us from far more important issues.
Right now, I would say that Bush's No Child Left Behind and Obama's Race to the Top are more injurious to American education than bad teachers. There is a way to solve the problem of bad teachers. They can be denied tenure or fired, but no one knows how to stop the damage done by NCLB and the predictable damage that will be done by RTTT.
Right now, many states are hoping to qualify for RTTT billions by introducing laws to evaluate teachers by student test scores. Teachers know this is unfair because student performance depends on many factors beyond the teachers' control (like regular attendance and student motivation), as well as the fact that students are not randomly assigned to classes and teachers. However much NCLB promotes teaching to the test, think how much worse it will be when teachers' salaries are tied to test scores.
I received an email from Dr. Harry Frank, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Michigan who has written textbooks about testing and measurement. Dr. Frank wrote that the first principle for valid assessment is that "no assessment can be used at the same time for both counseling and for administrative decisions (retention, increment, tenure, promotion). ... All this does is promote cheating and teaching to the exam. ... This principle is so basic that it's often covered in the very first chapter of introductory texts on workplace performance evaluation." [The full text of Dr. Frank's email is posted on my Web site, www.dianeravitch.com, in a section called "comments."] I asked Dr. Frank to explain the word "counseling," and he said that this meant "feedback on performance for purposes of skills development," what we might think of as the diagnostic use of an assessment. Dr. Frank also added: "Assessments should be a counseling resource, not a source of extrinsic motivation, i.e., rewards and punishments for teachers, administrators, and school districts."
Put simply, tests and assessments should inform teachers about student progress and their own teaching, i.e., what can be learned from the test results. But it is inappropriate to use the same test results to hand out bonuses and punishments, promotions and tenure.
Thus, if any of our public officials is talking to testing experts, they are likely to discover that their plans to evaluate teachers by student test scores are technically invalid and will produce perverse (but predictable) effects that actually damage learning and are likely to undermine the teaching profession.