By Robert W. Andrews
“America’s Report Card 2012,” a government evaluation of our K-12 education system was released recently. Not surprising, we scored a C- and much lower in many categories, especially in those dealing with poverty. As an educator, who works in public schools, this doesn’t surprise me. Did we really need this type of assessment to tell us the obvious? Perhaps for political reasons we do, but ask any teacher where deficiencies are and they can tell you. If you ask them in a public setting, when they feel that their job security is at risk, they may bring up working conditions or social issues, such as poverty, but if you talk to them privately, they can pinpoint deficiencies in teaching, curriculum and other pedagogical issues that may not always get national attention.
I remember sitting at lunch with some upper level high school teachers who were lamenting having to do remedial work with their students. When I probed further, both teachers lowered their voices and said that it was clear that certain ninth grade teachers were missing specific foundational work in their classrooms. They could identify what concepts were missed or not fully understood by the majority of students in those classes where skills learned were necessary to be successful in their classroom. They were all shy about bringing this up to their department chairs or the principal. The conversation got broader and the teachers assured me that any fifth grade teacher could easily give feedback to fourth grade teachers and so on because they can see themes each year as kids make their way through the system. Why do so many teachers operate solo in their classrooms? Wouldn’t peer reviews be welcome?
Broad based assessments like “America’s Report Card” are helpful for political reasons, but actual assessments on learning are needed to help teachers improve their craft. Peer reviews and a less toxic environment for teacher evaluations needs to be developed. I refuse to believe that low-income kids are inherently unable to learn because of social factors. I know poverty impacts student learning, but this can’t be used to give up on kids. Teacher evaluations need to be developed that can focus on learning and teaching rather than spending time highlighting social issues.
I recognize that a student’s social situation influences their education and development. I also recognize the power of an amazing teacher in transforming a student’s trajectory in life. This report card points out a lot of where we are failing, but can it help teachers on the ground improve their student’s skills? One teacher isn’t able to solve societal issues like poverty, but she may be able to teach kids math. Can we evaluate schools on how far they can move kid’s skills despite social circumstances? Or is this too much to ask?