**Side-Note: This blog was never intended to be an education blog, but rather a personal account of our family’s journey into obedience and walking by faith that God will provide for our family as I leave public education. I felt led to write about this and thought it important to explain some background before diving into our story. While there will be times I am led to write about education, I will mostly be writing about our lifestyle changes and whatever else the Lord wants me to say.
I also want to point out that the concerns I’m expressing are not my attempt at degrading a specific school or district. I have heard from countless Georgia educators and a significant number of educators from nearly every region of the United States since my last post. These are concerns reaching a national level, which are often beyond the control of local level boards of education. That being said, many educators are fearful of speaking out against what they know to be detriments against children for fear of irreversible consequences. I am not attempting to be that voice by airing out this dirty laundry, but rather taking a risk I feel God has impressed upon me to take. Whatever happens as a result of that risk is in His hands.**
There’s a word that has recently been given a new connotation. It makes every educator cringe, knowing that this word now resembles nothing close to what it once did. I, for one, used to love this word. It was what kept me motivated and focused on my mission each day, something that felt like a personal trainer, pushing me to be better tomorrow than I was today, and to do it all for a purpose much larger than myself.
I bet some of you just grimaced, didn’t you? What’s a shame is I bet if you reflected for a bit, you’d realize there was a time when you actually yearned for more of it.
Those educators who are passionate about this profession are also often quick to label colleagues whose priorities and skill sets are not in alignment with their own. When you take evaluator feedback seriously, you ensure that every day for the rest of the school year you will exhibit improvement on that one growth area (and to be honest, there can be times that the evaluator only wrote it for the purposes of being able to say she provided feedback—but it was a stretch).
Then there’s that one teacher on the hall that doesn’t seem to give a flying squirrel about anything being done the right way—the one whose lesson planner, you imagine, is filled with a confetti of ideas and not one polished to perfection lesson to call her own. Or maybe it’s the teacher who every child adores because she spends her time going off on tangents of personal stories and never gets back to the actual skill or standard for the day. The students know all it takes is one question masked with the deception of caring to get this teacher distracted for 55 minutes. But for most of us, it’s the teacher who never seems to have anything organized, who can’t come up with a single idea for collaborative planning while complaining about the logistics of every creative venture the group proposes, and can’t seem to be bothered to leave sub plans let alone preparations for lessons on the days she is here. There was a time when that person was your metaphoric chalk screeching against the board. Where was the accountability for THAT teacher? Why was I the one drained at the end of the day after pushing myself beyond human limits BUT still managed to pull her load too for the sake of what’s best for the kids? Those passionate educators were probably clogged with resentment by the fact that there seemed to be no consequences for THAT colleague.
What do we want? Accountability! When do we want it? Now!
Then enters the TKES evaluation system. Initially, we were told things like, “Most of you already do these things every day” and “This will help us focus our support on those who have specific growth areas.”
All I heard was, “We’re finally going to do something to prove who is doing their job and who isn’t.”
(As a disclaimer, I must stress this train of thought is NOT who I am any more. I was a full-of-herself rookie on a mission to show the world what I was born to do. God used some big lessons to put me in my proper place. I now see the importance of investing in such colleagues and dropping everything, no matter the time crunch, to either listen or help them if I know how because that is what is best for EVERYONE.)
To put it simply, knowing TKES was coming was not a concern; it was a welcomed friend.
It didn’t take long for this wolf in sheep’s clothing to devastate many flocks. It wasn’t the elaborate daily lesson plans, the introduction of the mandated 3 or 4 part lesson model, the forced use of protocols during weekly collaboration time, nor the stringent implementation of common core standards without any resources or definitive support that devoured us. It was that word, turned profane, and the way it was both interpreted and executed.
The way educators are now held accountable for their performance in the classroom makes as much sense as if the country decided to evaluate FEMA workers based on the number of natural disasters that occur each year or a doctor based on how many people contract illness.
To be fair, there are components of the evaluation system that make sense, such as professionalism. Teachers have the opportunity to be some children’s first role models outside of the home. To hold us to a higher standard of professionalism is critical. The way we carry ourselves and behave is under constant surveillance by countless impressionable children, so to be further evaluated by an administrator should be required.
Communication is another reasonable standard for evaluations. Part of our role as facilitators of learning is speaking with the very people who love our students the most, parents and guardians. Teachers get busy, parents get busy, and before we know it a student is slipping from our reach. All too often teachers are told game-changing information at parent conferences that we wish we knew months beforehand because we might have approached things entirely differently with that student. The level of accountability TKES encourages for communicating is integral for some teachers, as without it, the exchanging of potentially critical information may never take place.
The true failure of TKES is the conflagration of student data. Whoever came up with the phrase “the data doesn’t lie” probably never heard the more accurate adage “a lie by omission is still a lie.” As the person on the receiving end of the consequences of the student data, I’m far more burdened by what the data does not tell the state.
A significant portion of a teacher’s final evaluation score rests on the student growth model, currently set at 50%. The way it has been explained countless times is that students are compared to similarly achieving students somewhere else in Georgia to determine if that particular student has shown high growth or low growth (personal improvement from previous year to current) and high achievement or low achievement (total score on most recent state test). This formula has two tragic flaws. First, whatever method is used to determine which students are “similar or comparable” peers has no way to account for life happening. Second, the formula has no way of measuring or documenting apathy.
Data can easily be sorted to determine which schools are similar achievement-wise and socioeconomic-wise; furthermore, data can be broken down to look at students within those similar schools to match students who typically perform in the same range. What I’d like to know is if the comparable student to one of mine also had her father, and sole caregiver, die days before state testing began and what formula was used to factor this emotionally crippling event into the student growth. What differentiated tool of measurement was used to recalculate the growth for a student who was moved across the nation to live with a distant relative because his father didn’t want to deal with him anymore and now this young student is so confused and devoid of self-worth that trying to focus on a meaningless assessment is the least of his concerns? Any advice for the girl who is still trying to fully recover from a traumatic brain injury, yet still is mandated to take the test? What about the new big sister who’s worried about how the open heart surgery is going on her infant sister? The student beside the empty desk where his best friend battling cancer should be? The truth is nothing is or will be done for these students, including the apparently insane concept of considering them exempt from testing while they try to focus on restoration or healing.
Months later, when the bubbles show up in the State Longitudinal Data System, none of those circumstances will be reflected by a teacher’s final evaluation score; never mind the fact those children are still trudging along with minimal emotional support, but plenty of data-driven academic interventions that will do nothing to soothe their broken souls. No, educators and state officials can’t provide them with a new guardian or neurological medical attention, but we can meet them where they are and show compassion by not forcing state assessments down their throats until they are consumed with a hatred for learning, which often is a direct result from the delusional coercion of teachers to focus on student academic achievement over student emotional needs. Both needs are important, and only one need is fostered, which seems equally as absurd as an insurance company funding the rebuilding of a home after a fire, but forbidding the installation of smoke detectors.
Critics often argue that things such as the above described are not the norm and would not significantly impact a teacher’s performance rating. An inference I would have to draw is that the person making such a statement spends little time working with children in a setting in which they are also evaluated on his/her work with the children. Teachers hold far more influence over a child than most people. One sentence worded insensitively one time or said in a particular tone can greatly affect a student’s sense of self-worth or esteem for a duration of time. What do adults typically do when they get together with other adults? Complain. Children hear these conversations and robe themselves in them. Are life’s problems isolated to adults? No, and to imply such a thing is narcissistic. Children often bear burdens far beyond their developmental capabilities in invisible ways. To presume that children suffering in any capacity is an out of the norm situation is obscene.
Beyond skewed data failing to account for life-triggers, it also ignores the presence of another rising enemy- apathy. The overexposure of high stakes assessments and data analysis coupled with long lists of broad standards and little time for exposure or in-depth analysis and the abuse of remediation opportunities has created a generation of children desensitized to education. What incentive is there to do your best when you barely have enough time to get comfortable with a skill before a new, seemingly unrelated skills is torpedoed at you, and then another? The consequence of such pacing is that students forever hold onto a very shallow understanding that is nearly impossible to apply to a higher level thinking situation because the foundational concept is still murky. There are some schools that have adopted policies allowing students to re-test until they score a passing grade, which has greatly inflated grades and perceived levels of achievement. If you knew you would not understand something before even beginning or that you could just take another test after seeing what to study, would you put forth your best effort knowing eventually you will be passed? How would a prepubescent 12 year old respond to this? And more importantly, why would a teacher be held accountable for a student feeling this way? The result of this issue is teachers being forced to place emphasis on assessments and students who relinquish their own accountability. Education policy makers are creating an epidemic of indifferent, unmotivated learners who assume the purpose of schooling is to pass tests (unless they fail—which is then a result of their teacher’s shortcomings) and not to prepare for the demands of adulthood and society by acquiring necessary skills, including personal work ethic. When you have an alarming percentage of students who boldly declare that they shouldn’t have to read directions on a task when the teacher can read it for them or students who justify not completing work with the excuse they do not like the concept and would rather get zero credit instead, the problem goes far beyond the realm of a teacher’s responsibility. What is the only logical resolution? The department of education would say to ensure that students with an apathy for education assume the responsibility for 50% of a teacher’s evaluation score.
Public educators are not asking for the removal of all accountability—we actually crave it. In fact, all professions have a method for evaluating employee performance at some level. What educators want is for the tool of measurement used for evaluation to reflect things we can directly control or influence through our role in the classroom. We do not control the curriculum, the resources and supplies available, household situations, tragic events, health issues, or the circumstances leading to a distaste for personal accountability. We do control our classroom environment, the way we interact with our students, the relationships we build in an effort to break through learning barriers, the methods we use to plan meaningful lessons, the manner in which we conduct ourselves as role models, the frequency of communication with various stakeholders, and our content knowledge of what we teach. All of these areas of control can be evaluated through classroom observations, no standardized testing required.
Policy makers have created a festering and gaping wound; TKES is the salt poured and rubbed into it, and educators are the simple bandage that is being blamed for the lack of healing and spread of infection. If the department of education is wondering why wounds are not being healed, they need to look farther than the bleeding dressing. Until then, they can expect the continued demise of our children and the disintegration of a love for life-long learning.