Monday, April 23, 2012

When Is a Teacher Not a Teacher

When is a teacher not a teacher? No, this isn’t the first line of a joke, it’s a serious query with important implications. Every time I drive past Trenton High, and see those Phys Ed students walking around the track- some with cell phones in hand- I start to think about teaching, specifically the meaning of the verb “to teach.”

To me the answer is very simple; a teacher is a teacher when a student can demonstrate learning. To judge a teacher any other way is disingenuous. This raises the question of how we evaluate the performance of a teacher; to do this we must design a legitimate, fair method for measuring learning. As I’ve alluded to many times on this blog, there are a plethora of factors that affect student learning, with teachers playing a vital, central role. My personal preference for evaluating learning is to have students demonstrate what they have learned by engaging in some sort of oral presentation, whether it be a speech, discussion, debate, or presentation. But these are time consuming methodologies, and instead teachers are often limited to simply designing a formal test like those that utilize that infamous scantron. So let’s talk about testing.

New Jersey has a love affair with testing, more specifically with generating quantitative measures of performance. These formal tests, most notably the ASK and HSPA, have been implemented to measure student performance, and will soon be applied to the evaluation of teachers.

This gets me back to the Phys Ed teacher. I will readily admit that I was one among many teachers that viewed the system of remuneration for teachers as unfair. What exactly were kids learning in phys ed classes? How much planning and assessment were phys. ed. teachers engrossed in during a typical school year? Did they deserve the same pay as me? The issue is of course moot until a better system is devised, one that assesses learning and rewards exemplary performance in every school subject.

Now to the main point of this posting: Right now, New Jersey’s graduation test fails to meet its own criteria, it does not suffice as an assessment tool for the vast majority of teachers, and it is totally disconnected from the “real world” and the content that is essential for every high school student to have learned in preparation for life in civil society and a market economy.  Something must be done about this, and it must be done immediately.

The following statement is a direct quote from the NJDOE’s “Guide to the HSPA.”

The HSPA is a state test given to students in the eleventh grade to measure whether they have gained the knowledge and skills identified in the Core Curriculum Content Standards. These standards, adopted by the State Board of Education, identify what students should know and be able to do at the end of various benchmark years. The HSPA will help determine whether your child is making satisfactory progress toward mastering the skills he or she will need to graduate from high school.

The problem is that it’s a lie. Since the test is limited to math and language arts, it is only measuring whether teenagers have “gained the knowledge and skills” in only about 20% of the required Core Curriculum.   

I am asking anyone reading this blog that is interested in reforming the NJ HSPA to please contact me as soon as possible. I am interested in forming a PAC for the sole purpose of revising the HSPA and the Core Curriculum Content Standards on which they are based.  I would love to meet with those who are interested and engage in a discussion of what each of you believes students MUST know as a prerequisite for graduation.

It is time for New Jersey students to take a graduation test that truly measures how well they have been prepared for “life beyond high school.” There is currently no way of evaluating how well teachers have met the “cumulative progress indicators” prescribed in the Core Curriculum Content Standards. Unless we test in all areas covered in the NJCCCS, why require teachers to teach to the standards? It is pointless.     

 As New Jersey embarks on a new experiment in evaluating teacher performance, the timing is perfect for rewriting the HSPA to reflect all of the content areas identified in the NJCCCS. The issue of evaluating teachers using quantitative metrics was a common theme at the recent hearings on Senator Ruiz’s reform legislation, so there would clearly seem to be the political will to construct  a test that addresses all subject areas. It is time for the community to apply pressure on our educators and legislators to make it happen. Please join me in helping to make these needed changes a reality. As I see it, a proper HSPA for 11th grade students will include the following subject areas:





Government and Law





We need look no further than New York for the precedent for such subject tests. The New York Regents exams have, since the 1930’s, tested students in a broad range of subject areas. Comprehensive exams such as these are a perfect model for New Jersey to build on. If New York can do it, why can’t we??  
So when is a teacher not a teacher: When students can't demonstrate learning. And though there are many ways to show that learning has occurred, there is no escaping the point that testing is one method that has broad acceptance for its validity. I am no fan of "more" testing, but I do believe in "better" testing, and that means creating a new and improved HSPA, one that will properly measure compliance with the NJCCCS, create a usable metric for teacher evaluations, and properly measure student preparation for the demands of life beyond high school.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

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