Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Standards and Evaluation

I’m thinking a lot about some teachers who struggle how to teach persuasive writing. These teachers, who teach primarily low-achieving students, are locked into teaching the five-paragraph essay. As a quick refresher, that’s the basic introductory paragraph, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. Recently, the Virginia Standards of Learning have required a counterclaim, so that gets thrown into the conclusion in this formula.

My graduate school training and my professional development through the National Council of Teachers of English and the National Writing Project have taught me to reject the five-paragraph essay as simplistic and unhelpful in creating students who are prepared to write in multiple contexts such as work or at college. These teachers argue that the students who need this formula are not going into careers that require writing or to college at all.

How can they know that? My own mother didn’t finish college until she was forty. She earned her masters in social work six years later. I so strongly believe that our job isn’t to decide what students will do after they leave our classrooms. Our job is to give the tools to succeed in as many contexts as possible.

What does this have to do with teacher evaluation? Well, I’ve been thinking of how I might, as a building-level leader, encourage teachers to engage in the sort of professional development and research that guides innovative teaching practice. First of all, I think that I need to take my attitude about standardized tests to any sort of building-level leadership role I may have; They’re here, but we don’t have to like them. We definitely don’t have to teach to them, and if we’re teaching students truly transferable skills, they’ll likely do better on the test than if we merely drill into them test-taking skills.  

But that will only get me so far with teachers (and the superintendent). And it won’t do much to support my own belief in consensus building if I’m operating by fiat from the front office. So, I need to think about building systems to help teachers engage with work about our profession. I think that teacher evaluation portfolios, as recommended by Glickman, would be just the thing! If teachers are able to evaluate themselves on research-based practices and innovation through professional development provided by content councils, teachers are more likely to be able to give themselves permission to ditch the test-taking anxiety and teach kids rather than standards.

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