Take eight certified teachers, all with a prestigious advanced teaching credential, and ask them to tell stories about how they measure student growth in their classrooms — a requirement of the state’s new teacher evaluation system.
These are some of our most accomplished instructors — teachers who care a lot about how much their students learn. Yet most admit that, at first, they tried to game the system or find an easy, if meaningless, way to show growth.
As Lindsey Stevens, a high school teacher in Sumner, put it:
Teachers were literally joking (I hope) about grading everything ridiculously hard the first time, and then just being easier on the kids the next time. They would say, write your goal in a way you can’t go wrong, then no matter what happens you look like a rock star.
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Tom White, a fourth-grade teacher in the Edmonds School District, did just that — making sure students did badly on a fall test so that their later scores would almost certainly rise. He called his approach “cheaching,” saying it was bad, but not all that different from what other professionals do to make themselves look good. (And he pointed out he only did this when such scores didn’t count.)
But along with way, most of the eight found that their methods backfired, failed or just weren’t satisfying, and they came up with new ways to track growth that helped their students.
All their stories — a written essay, and a short video from each teacher, can be found here.
They were gathered by the Center for Strengthening the Teaching Profession, a Washington state group with a mission to help teachers’ voices be heard in debates about education. The Center told the teachers to be honest, said executive director Nasue Nishida, and they worked for months to write their essays.
White said he stopped cheaching when he started collaborating with a special education teacher, and realized that real data helped him uncover student weaknesses that he then could do something about.
Using data this way is fun. Way more fun than cheaching. And more than that, it’s effective. We’re using data to address our students’ needs in a way that’s responsible and flexible.
But he worries that the new teacher evaluation system, by requiring teachers to prove growth each year, will make it tempting for teachers to focus more on looking good.
Mark Gardner, a ninth-grade English teacher in Camas, at first decided just to do what was easy: Measure progress on his students’ vocabulary tests. Then he realized that he could measure something much more meaningful.
Here is part of his epiphany:
In my narrow perception of how to represent growth, improvement in writing couldn’t function to show growth because it lacked the kind of quantification possible with a vocabulary test. But I was so wrong … I needed to stop associating ‘data’ with counts and numbers, and recognize that “data” simply means information.
At least for now, teachers don’t have to use state test scores as part of how they measure student growth. State lawmakers chose not to make that mandatory — the reason why Washington was the first state in the nation to lose its waiver from the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Other teachers are the intended audience for the essays, but Nishinda said policymakers and the general public could also benefit by hearing classroom teachers share the struggles they have with complex issues such as this one.