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A Road Map for Future Conversations

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When Michelle and I agreed to engage each other on this blog, the point wasn't to debate.  Knowing that we tend to take different sides on a range of policy issues, we wanted to figure out if there were things we could actually agree on.  After all, neither side is going away, however much we might wish that to be the case.

We've found quite a bit to disagree about in the first two weeks of this conversation.  Still, I do see some common ground, which I'd like to take a moment to sketch out. 

First, we both agree that teaching is complex work.  Of course, it would be hard to disagree with that idea.  But I do think it's important to recognize that reformers like Michelle are willing to acknowledge that teachers do far more than standardized tests currently measure, and that great teaching will look different from classroom to classroom.  To that end, critics of standardized tests and new teacher evaluation policies might consider spending more time engaging reformers in discussions about the degree to which such efforts narrow the aims of teaching.  And I think there is a fruitful discussion to be had here about the fact that, even if we say that academic knowledge is the most important aim in schools, our tests still do a poor job of capturing what students know and can do.

Second, we both agree that assessment is important.  Michelle thinks some of it needs to be standardized.  I'm more skeptical.  Michelle thinks our current tests are useful, though she's willing to recognize that they're imperfect.  I think they're weak.  But in the abstract, we both agree that it is important to get a sense of what kids are learning and what they are struggling with.  Assessment can give educators feedback to help adjust their instruction and strategically deploy resources.  But only if the assessments are good.  And only if the assessments are being used to aid learning, rather than to weaken teacher autonomy or to bash schools with low-scoring students.  Consequently, I think we need to talk more about how we can create better tests that do a far better job of capturing actual learning.  And I think we also need to talk about the kinds of policies that can ensure assessments are used to actually support learning.

Third, we both agree that any effort to evaluate teachers must use multiple methods.  We continue to disagree about the use of value-added measures—Michelle thinks they're helpful despite their documented flaws, whereas I think they're too problematic to risk using.  But we do agree that no single method of evaluation can adequately capture the complexity of teacher performance.  Insofar as that is the case, then, I think there are productive conversations to be had about what those methods should be.  Because what I've heard from Michelle so far is not that she sees VAM as a perfect tool, but rather, that she sees it as less bad than previous methods.  I disagree, of course.  I think VAM is worse because it's erratic and incredibly narrow.  But I think there's room in this line of conversation to discuss evaluative methods that would be more reliable than VAM.

Fourth, we agree that too many great teachers leave the classroom, and that teachers need to be valued and respected for their work.  Michelle believes that more money will help with retention—hence her cynicism about salary scales.  I tend to disagree, since fairly doling out bonuses would require more precise and accurate teacher evaluation systems than we currently have.  But we both see other ways to retain teachers—by recognizing them, by improving work environments, and by increasing leadership opportunities.  I'm interested in talking more about this. 

Fifth, we agree that there are ineffective teachers in this world.  Again, we disagree about how to identify them.  Michelle thinks test scores are useful.  I, on the other hand, think that scores will only lead to misidentification, and that professional educators know a truly bad teacher when they see one.  But I do think there's room here for more nuanced conversations.  No one wants to protect the worst teachers, least of all the good teachers whose reputations are tarnished by association.  But educators shouldn't have to fear being drawn into the net along with the tiny minority who are truly incompetent.  So how can we fairly identify ineffective teachers without allowing test scores to be the determining factor?  And what should we do once they've been identified?  I think there's potential for agreement here.

Finally, I think we're in agreement that teachers need better professional development.  Michelle thinks that PD dollars can be used more effectively if teachers are allowed to make more choices—controlling their own PD funds to hire substitutes for the day, for instance, or to take online courses.  I think it isn't that simple, given the incentives for third parties to pursue profit above all else, and given the absence of real supports for connecting teachers with each other.  But we are on the same page about some basics: that PD needs to be ongoing, collaborative, built into the schoolday, and rooted in the work teachers are already doing.

In short, while there is much to fight about, there are also some things about which we agree.  And that may form the basis for further conversation.  Because the truth is that reformers and their opponents are each powerful enough to ensure stalemate.  If that happens, though, we will lose the opportunity to pursue positive change, however incremental.

I doubt Michelle and I will convince each other about much.  But we knew that going in.  Instead, we're hoping to identify some common ground for stakeholders of different ideological persuasions to civilly engage each other.

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