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News/Opinion
‹‹ V.21 No.2 | January 12 - 18, 2012

Ortiz y Pino

The Great Teacher Debate

Guv to tie schools and pay to test scores

By Jerry Ortiz y Pino

New Mexico lawmakers are considering a proposal from the Martinez administration to link teacher evaluations to student test scores. This is a crucial element in the overall reform plan offered by Public Education Secretary Hanna Skandera. Not surprisingly, it’s proving contentious. It will be a huge topic in the coming 30-day legislative session set to begin Tuesday, Jan. 17.

The Obama administration’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, favors eliminating legal barriers to linking student test scores to teacher evaluations. That means student tests could determine tenure, raises and even termination. He talks about it in the Atlantic Monthly article “What Makes a Great Teacher?” which goes into great detail about the efforts of educational researchers to tease out what constitutes excellence in teaching. Are great teachers just hard-wired that way, or can we cultivate them?

I also just finished reading Diane Ravitch’s wonderful overview of the last 20 years of educational reform efforts in the United States, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. One of her most readable chapters is titled “What Would Mrs. Ratliff Do?” in which she describes her high school English teacher. Mrs. Ratliff set big goals for her students; she perpetually looked for ways to improve her methods; she maintained focus on the curriculum. And she refused to allow budget restrictions, bureaucratic bungling or even the students’ poverty to become barriers to reaching them.

These two pictures of classroom genius diverge crucially on the question of measurement. How do we quantify what may ultimately prove impossible to quantify—a talent for striking the spark in a student’s heart? That’s the gift the great teachers share: the ability to communicate to a young mind just how exciting it is to see and understand, to express emotion, to discover truths.

How do we quantify what may ultimately prove impossible to quantify—a talent for striking the spark in a student’s heart?

Therein lies the problem with what Skandera wants to do in New Mexico. Test scores cannot measure learning. Yet Skandera and her D.C. inspiration, Duncan, insist that test scores should make all the most critical decisions about students, teachers, principals and even the schools themselves.

They have little evidence that this plan improves education. In fact, most research indicates the opposite, and we are actually making our schools worse by canonizing testing.

More dangerously, we only have national test scores for some subjects, such as reading and math. Using test scores to “grade” education creates an overconcentration of time spent on certain areas. So the rest of education—art, music, civics, health, physical education—languishes. It also makes it impossible to evaluate teachers of those topics.

Ravitch punches holes in the supposed progress of some high-profile districts around the country. Closer examination of miracle transformations in Washington and Atlanta yielded outright cheating by school administrators to balloon student performance. In New York, officials quietly lowered the bar to inflate success rates.

All of those shenanigans resulted from the single-minded emphasis on test scores as the measure of progress.

I had the chance to see a different measure of great teaching in December when I was invited to the Albuquerque School of Excellence science fair at Hotel Albuquerque. ASE is a public charter school, grades one through nine, with about 160 students. (The plan is to eventually enroll twice that number.) It was eye-opening to observe how an environment given over to genuine learning can produce such excitement among students, teachers and the families that crowded around the many exhibits.

I don’t know how ASE’s standardized test scores compare with the rest of Albuquerque or elsewhere in the country. But really, I don’t think it matters. I don’t need any measure other than the enthusiastic students who patiently explained to me what they’d learned—and the smiles from parents and grandparents as they proudly looked on.

Diane Ravitch and Mrs. Ratliff would understand, even if Arne Duncan and Hanna Skandera might not.

Jerry Ortiz y Pino is a retired social worker, community activist and college instructor. He is in his second term as the Democratic state senator for District 12 in the New Mexico Legislature. Email jerry@alibi.com

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.