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Teacher Town Hall Exposes Reform Challenges

Teachers are fascinating people---especially when they get a chance to express their sincere beliefs about reform and the impact of that reform on their students and themselves. They are honest, insightful, and passionate about what they do. In these times, they are also a little fed up with the toll certain reforms have taken on the joy of teaching.

This past Sunday, I watched the two-hour town hall meeting of teachers sponsored by NBC News Education Nation. The moderator, Brian Williams, was masterful in setting up the program to be an opportunity to say anything the audience chose about the hot topics in the news. He made sure there was more time for audience participation than talking heads. He asked probing questions and challenged the teachers not to sit quietly. Teachers literally rose to the occasion and provided the viewing audience with an inside view of their classrooms and their lives.

It did not take long for the use and abuse of standardized tests to get center stage. Teachers told of the time that is taken away from teaching not only for taking the tests, but also for preparing for the tests. They told of the increasing public funds used to pay for tests when they must buy supplies for their classrooms out of their pockets. They lamented the impact of poverty, not as an excuse, but as a factor that is not addressed when it comes to standardized tests.

Then they had a passionate discussion about using student results on standardized tests as a part of their evaluations. When asked to vote on what percentage of these test results should be used as part of teacher evaluations, 72 percent voted for less than one third. They were not given the option of zero. I suspect that would have been the big winner. These teachers understand that they have an impact on student learning, but they know that these standardized tests in no way measure the full impact of what they do as teachers.

The forum allowed for a healthy discussion of the importance of non-cognitive learning, such as grit, curiosity, character, and empathy. You cannot measure these on a standardized test, but you can teach them. New research will show how powerful these characteristics are to the success of a student.

I was heartened when teachers came to the microphone and identified themselves as National Board Certified Teachers. The audience clapped and cheered for each NBCT. Teachers know that there are leaders and greater teachers among them, and they embrace the opportunity to learn to be better from these peers. That is the evaluation they are seeking---one that provides honest feedback from credible evaluators who challenge them either to be better and worthy of the title of teacher or to choose a different profession.

Reform embraced by teachers is the path we are seeking. Listen and learn from America's teachers. If NBC News can do it, so can administrators and politicians.

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