When I was studying to become a teacher, I learned a simple way to describe assessment to young children. Since then, I have uttered this phrase countless times: “This will help me see what you understand now so that I can decide what to teach you next.” Framed in this way, assessment helps teachers determine when a student is ready to move on to 2-digit multiplication or to identify the comprehension strategies that could help her move through reading difficulties. Now that I teach at the University level, approaching assessment in this way helps me to make informed judgments about whether my students are ready to move on from foundational building blocks to key theories in multicultural education.
The sorts of assessments I have described above are certainly not simple, but they can be somewhat smooth and achievable. They address variables that are largely observable and that I can impact within my role as a facilitator of learning. While the proposed federal regulations for teacher preparation miss the mark in many more ways than I can address here (though I look forward to talking with you about some of those ways), they most noticeably represent simply bad assessment.
But I don’t think I have to tell you that.
If teachers and teacher educators were viewed similarly to our colleagues in other professions, then external “accountability” measures would come from a place of trust in the unique blend of art and science that is our daily work. Leaders in the profession would work alongside policymakers to make decisions about what is most important to be assessed and how. So I don’t think this is about an actual belief that your policy could lead to us doing our jobs better. Instead, I think that these proposed regulations reveal how dangerously close you are to succeeding at a grand distraction from the real conversations that might actually lead to ALL of us doing our jobs better.
The conversation we’re not having–and we should be–is about the failure of the federal government to acknowledge that the challenges before public educators are the challenges of U.S. society. Many others have documented the absurdity of trying to measure a relationship among teacher education program, individual teacher, and student learning in a K-12 classroom without untangling the countless mitigating factors coming from all directions. My critique is similar, but I add that we need to push through the noise (statistical and otherwise) to recognize that the very promise of democracy is threatened when one of its institutions is undervalued in this way. Your proposed policy demonstrates a refusal to fight for a fundamental pillar of democracy–our nation’s public schools.
My students are predominately white, working and middle class undergraduate preservice teachers at a regional university in the Midwest. While they are remarkable to me, on paper they look similar to emerging teachers nationwide. My students recognize how the forms of “assessment” being meted out, ultimately, on the backs of poor and working class children of color are not really designed in those children’s interests. They understand the connections between this and the urgent need to address social injustices beyond schools and throughout society. They understand that the rhetoric of “accountability” serves to distract from these realities. I wish that I could congratulate them on understanding this complex set of ideas and then decide what to teach them next.
Secretary Duncan, I can’t decide what to teach my students next until you join us in this complicated conversation. My students want to talk to you. I want to talk to you. We are not distracted. Our ideas will help. I will be waiting by the phone.
Ann Mogush Mason, Ph.D.