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Chicago Strike Forces Discussion of New Models for Student Achievement and Teacher Assessment

As the Chicago teachers strike continues for at least a couple more days, I’m struck by how the event, and the associated commentary, is forcing a rethink about the measures we use in the popular mythology for student achievement and teacher assessment. Because the education space has become so dominated by corporate-led interests of the likes of Students First and Waiting for Superman, you would think that the only way to properly assess teacher quality and student performance comes from high-stakes testing. Similarly, you would think that the only way to provide the conditions for student achievement comes from finding great teachers to cause a spark in children, or putting them through some rigorous curriculum that only a charter school can administer.

It turns out that none of this is true. The other valid, valuable research in this area has merely been marginalized, I would argue because there’s no financial stake in it for intermediaries. For example, Rick Kahlenberg’s laudatory piece in The New Republican includes a description of an alternative measure of teacher assessment:

Of course teachers should be held accountable for performance, but there is a better alternative: peer assistance and review. In Toledo, Ohio, Montgomery County, Maryland, and numerous other districts, expert teachers go into a school and seek to help struggling teachers—and, after a period of time, recommend that those teachers who do not improve be fired. In such districts, more teachers are terminated than when principals are solely responsible, because upstream teachers suffer when colleagues pass along unprepared students. Importantly, unlike mechanical plans that fire teachers heavily based on test score performance, peer review—which is advocated by many union activists—actually enhances the profession, making it more like medicine or the law.

Here’s a paper from 2000 on the peer assistance and review model from the California State University system. As Kahlenberg says, this is a program to actually improve the profession of teaching, rather than identify the “best” teachers with a blunt instrument of test results and hope through attrition that the cream will rise to the top. Nobody comes into a profession fully formed. Everyone needs career training and feedback. Peer assistance and review provides that.

Similarly, thinking that the only way to get students to achieve is to find the teachers that will give them positive standardized test results neglects a whole area of research about student achievement. In an excellent episode of This American Life from this weekend, Ira Glass looks at a series of programs, most of them out of the classroom and based on enhancing non-cognitive skills, designed to improve student performance. This is an abstract:

(Writer) Paul Tough discusses how “non-cognitive skills” — qualities like tenacity, resilience, impulse control — are being viewed as increasingly vital in education, and Ira speaks with economist James Heckman, who’s been at the center of this research and this shift.

Doctor Nadine Burke Harris weighs in to discuss studies that show how poverty-related stress can affect brain development, and inhibit the development of non-cognitive skills. We also hear from a teenager named Kewauna Lerma, who talks about her struggles with some of the skills discussed, like restraint and impulse control.

We then turn to the question of what can schools can offer to kids like Kewauna, and whether non-cognitive skills are something that can be taught. Paul discusses research that suggests these kinds of skills can indeed be learned in a classroom, even with young people, like Kewauna, facing especially adverse situations, and also the success of various programs that revolve around early interventions. Ira reports on a mother and daughter in Chicago, Barbara and Aniya McDonald, who have been working with a program designed to help them improve their relationship — and ultimately to put Aniyah in a strong position to learn non-cognitive skills.

Improving the attachment between parent and child, it turns out, improves the life skills and even the student achievement of that child. Improving the physical circumstances of someone in poverty, or just enabling an early intervention by getting them into a classroom early, can make an enormous difference. I recommend the podcast of this episode highly.

These are ideas that practically never get an airing in the public sphere. Testing, testing, testing becomes the only option for failing schools and failing students and failing teachers, maybe sprinkled with a dose of Bill Cosby-like wisdom about how parents have to “turn off the TV.” But that neglects a vast space of proven research and proven models that improve the education system. None of them have anything to do with a charter school or a high-stakes test.

I think without the strike, these would still be unknown subjects to most of the population, particularly parents of students. We’re finally having a full debate about education policy in America.

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David Dayen

David Dayen