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Fairness, speed of education-reform measures questioned

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FRANK J. SCHULTZ
November 15, 2009
— The latest word in education reform is using children's test scores to grade teachers.

The idea is to identify the "A" teachers, the "B" teachers and, yes, the "C", "D" and "F" teachers and then manage the teachers to get the best results for students.


But how well do test scores reflect the teachers' efforts? Some local teachers are worried that this rush to judge them ignores the human element.


Stephanie Kortyna, a teacher at Janesville's Jackson Elementary School, has two homeless children in her fifth-grade class this year.


"Is their mind really on taking a standardized test, or is it on ‘where am I going to sleep tonight?'" Kortyna said. "You just can't see that on a standardized test."


"We're dealing with human beings here, not an industrial product," said Steve Strieker, a social studies teacher at Parker High School.


Teaching is an art, and while science can tell us something about how education works, it can't measure the art, Strieker said.


What if a child gets no parental support? What if he has to take care of his younger brother and sister the night before and falls asleep before he can do his homework, asked Janesville art teacher Jon Maglio.


And how do you compare a teacher with a room full of kids with great parental support to a teacher whose kids lack those advantages?


"You really have to delve into what's happening in these kids' lives before you can accuse a teacher of not doing their job," Maglio said.


President Obama wants to use test scores to measure teachers' performance, and he is offering massive funding to selected states that go along with that idea. That's why Gov. Jim Doyle signed into law last week a measure allowing test scores to be a part of teacher evaluations.


Critics such as Rep. Brett Davis, R-Oregon, say the measure is weak because it doesn't allow test scores to be used to fire or discipline teachers.


State officials said Wisconsin had to make the changes to be eligible for some of $4.5 billion in federal Race to the Top education grants.


"This is a race for money. That's what frustrates me," Davis said. "People are not focused on solutions."


The solution includes a system more elaborate than using just test scores, said Allan Odden, UW-Madison professor of educational administration.


"All states and districts need a database that links students and their achievement scores to teachers (who taught them the subject) and to schools, both as an overall management tool and for many, many other purposes," Odden said in an e-mail response to a question from the Gazette.


"Using teacher impacts on student learning, measured multiple ways, increasingly is being recognized and accepted as something that needs to be done." Odden said.


The new state law includes protections for teachers. It requires a school board to negotiate any test-based system with the local teachers union. Critics say that defangs the law.


Teachers say they should have a say in how an evaluation system works if they're going to be evaluated using their students' scores.


Strieker said "Race to the Top" scares him.


"Its focus is on competition. … Maybe the ultimate goal is help student achievement. But pitting state versus state, district versus district, teacher versus teacher—I didn't get into education to be competitive."


Strieker and others say they prefer collaboration, where everyone works together for the good of the child.


Wisconsin's once-a-year tests don't cut it, several teachers said.


The tests are given in the fall, noted Wendy Haag, special-education teacher at Janesville's Jackson School. So who bears responsibility for a child's score? The teacher who has had the child for six weeks, or the one who taught the child last year? Or the year before?


"What if the child moves from another district or state? What if half the class comes out of poverty with no support at home?" Haag asked.


Kortyna said her fifth-grade class includes 18 students with third-grade reading levels and one at a first-grade level. How are they going to even understand a state test aimed at fifth-graders, she asked.


"If we have a student who is not reading at grade level, that didn't happen the year that he or she took the test," Haag said.


Many children get little help at home with practicing reading or math, Haag said. Teachers try to get the parents involved, "but sometimes parents work two jobs or have other issues that interfere with parenting in the way that we educators would like to see," Haag said.


"The child is not only the test score," Haag said. "The child is bigger. So how could we evaluate a teacher based on the child's tests scores?


"I believe it is my responsibility to find ways to help kids and to help them succeed, but on the other hand, there are so many other factors, and to come down on a teacher or to come down on a school because a kid doesn't succeed, it's kind of a naïve way of looking at it," Maglio said.


Haag said she's willing to look at a system that takes into account the complex factors that a teacher faces and the human element.


"I think it could happen. I think if teachers were part of that evaluation panel and teachers who were struggling were given opportunities to build skills … I think we could do something like that," Haag said.


"But it would have to be very carefully crafted to get my support."



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