What Makes Teachers Amazing (and it isn’t their ability to administer FITD or online tests)

I would like to begin this post with something I posted to my Facebook page.  I hope you have time to read.  This is the textual opposite of a tweet.

I began by posting an observation of how teachers do what they do.   The teachers quoted have given permission.
Teachers know a lot about their students soon after school starts. Non-readers, slow readers, dyslexic readers. ‪#‎noonlinetestneeded‬ Since attendance is a big predictor of school success teachers know a lot about who may drop out some day. They don’t need test after test to tell them this. They know many of these things without even giving one of their own tests. When they do give tests they learn a lot about specific knowledge the students have. But they know their students very well long before they get the results of the fill-in-the-dot tests at the end of the year.
Which is a good thing. By the time they get the data from the FITD* tests at years end school is usually underway in the fall. The FITD tests are for politicians and prognosticators. Not teachers, students, or parents.

*FITD – Fill-In-The-Dot

First, I would like to explain how I learned this. I heard Greer Nichols, now retired from Broken Arrow Public Schools explain this at a workshop for first-year teachers in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. I was serving on the Professional Development Committee. Since the state (sadly) no longer funded mentors for first year teachers our district sponsored sessions for the new teachers to try to take up some of the slack. Greer pointed this out in one of the discussions. I asked an unscientific sample (my lunch group) about this. As a music teacher I knew that something similar happens in my classes, but we never have test data on these sorts of things. Sure enough, other teachers confirmed what Greer Nichols said. The test data, which is not available on the first day of school, just serves to confirm what they have already figured out about their students.

I am not sure if a first-year teacher would be so quick to figure this out as an experienced teacher. But it does appear to be a common thing.

Following my comment a lively discussion ensued, mostly between two teachers. One allowed as to how the test data was helpful to her. On the other hand, I she mentioned (as I already knew) that she was opposed to the over testing we do now. I was fascinated as I watched this discussion move quickly into a back and forth between two obviously great teachers who were sharing information about things they had found effective. With their permission, I am quoting their remarks (and mine).  These are two awesome teachers.

Stacie – OCCT can give valuable data to organize small groups.

Lorrie -They are autopsies rather than physicals.

Stacie-Why autopsies? I teach Reading. Those skills carry over from 3rd to 4th to 5th to 6th. It’s only an autopsy if not evaluated & a plan formulated:)

Rob Reck -For many many years teachers taught students to read without the kinds of testing we do now. There were tests, but many were given and scored at the school with immediate results. This was done even before the availability of computers.

Now we use computers and online testing. We give the tests earlier and get the scores even later still.

When a test is given in April and the data is not available until after school starts the data is already pretty cold. (Autopsy indeed!) If the idea behind the test was to help teaching the whole system would be structured differently. You can use “data” from your own tests just as well, and you can make immediate corrections as the students learn. In fact, this was the way it worked for few hundred years or so.

Lorrie – They also do not account for the summer slide. I do think they give information, even good information, but it is just one test on one day (as we all know).

The reason I used the word autopsy is because the results arrive too late for me to make any adjustments in the teaching of the kids the data is for. I think they are valuable for identifying who is going to need remediation but not necessarily what that remediation will be.

Stacie – I am no proponent of excess testing, but refuse to give a test only to file the data. I have seen growth across skill categories & the “ah ha” faces at the small group table are precious. 48 minutes is too little time to spend on skills that the vast majority of certain classes have mastered. If teachers are not using flexible skill groups they are missing a golden opportunity to help their kiddos. It makes me sad to hear a chance to solidify knowledge referred to as an autopsy itself. It’s through an autopsy, we learn.

Lorrie – I agree that flexible group is absolutely critical. I don’t know how else we make it work. I really don’t.

Stacie Dunn – Lorrie, do you not feel the next grade can gain insight?

Lorri – I do.

Lorrie – I do feel that they can gain insight.

Stacie – Cross-referencing OCCT with my lesson plans helps me plan for the next year.

Rob – But when do you get that? Are you just using generic data? Our teachers did not get anything until school was underway, sometimes for several weeks…

Lorrie – I give a lot of assessments and surveys in the first two weeks to get that information because I have kids who do not test the previous year.

Stacie – I believe I was making color charts by the first week of school.

Lorrie – Stacie…I can’t think of the program I want to tell you about…cough syrup…But when you said color charts it made me think of something…

Stacie – I start the nagging in June:)

Lorrie – but of course not the name..

Stacie – My program is a Word document & paint fill. I’m old school
Lorrie – I will think of it and I bet you have used it. I LOVE it.

Lorrie – This program does it all for you.

Rob – I like watching these two veteran teachers go back and forth. You guys rock.

Stacie Dunn -Thanks, you two!

Lorrie – My friend does that. And as she fills in the word document with the paint fill, she actually lets the kids fill it in. So they kids has a very visual reinforcement of filling in a hole in their knowledge.

Lorrie – She teaches Kindergarten.

Lorrie – Thank you Stacie. I will think of that program.

Stacie Dunn – Appreciate it!

Rob – For any non-teachers following along…. This is what makes great teachers. This kind of cooperation and collaboration make teachers better teachers. It is part of their DNA.

When you rank teachers state wide according to some value added evaluation system and then publish the results, as they do in New York, it forces teachers to keep these things to themselves and makes them self-centered instead of student centered. Most teachers will go ahead and do the right thing. But they are penalized for it instead of rewarded. How sad.

Stacie – A true word, Rob.

Lorrie -True.

(End quotation of conversation.)

This took longer to get ready than I thought it would because it just doesn’t work to cut/paste a Facebook chat into a blog post.

It takes awhile for teachers to get this good. Once they do it makes sense to provide economic incentives to keep them around. While “experience” raises smack of unionism to some, it is much better for students, parents, and teachers if the faculty is relatively stable in a school building. Many rookie teachers are very effective, but good teachers are also good students. They are always learning. And, as you can see, good teaching breeds good teaching. A new teacher that comes into a school with a host of veteran teachers has a potentially huge support group that can help with every aspect of teaching, both in and out of the classroom.

Part of the problem of the current evaluation models is that they consider teachers in a vacuum. This is not only wrong headed, it actually discourages the kind of collegiality and community that nurtures good teaching and learning. It does not figure the influence of the principal which can range from hugely positive to hugely negative. I have seen a lot of the former, thankfully. I have also experienced toxic leadership. It is not right to evaluate teacher performance without considering whether they get the support they need. It is also obvious that current models do not consider other factors outside of the teacher’s control. It is not so much as a flaw in the model as it is the belief in the first place that an evaluation model can reliably and objectively control for every factor in the teaching environment and come up with a meaningful score. If every teacher taught the same students with the same family support and the same economic means with the same ability to speak English and the same perceptual and cognitive abilities with the same administrative support and the same instructional budget  then an “objective” evaluation might be possible. When you truly think it through, the very idea is ludicrous.

In other words, any useful evaluation must contain some subjective judgment. It makes the determination of “merit pay” nigh impossible, although good principals have always had ways of rewarding good teaching. Parents too, come to think of it.

Thanks so much for Lorrie Desbien and Stacie Dunn for the use of their words. You guys area awesome. Teachers are awesome! It is high time to start paying them more and listening to them about how to makes schools better.


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