Five Questions for … Teacher and Author Roxanna Elden on Evaluations, Accountability and Access
1. Do you believe newspapers should publish the names of teachers with the results of their job evaluations?
No. Teachers are not public figures. They are private citizens doing a difficult job under conditions that vary widely from school to school. There are many factors that affect a teacher’s apparent success even within a school. Teachers know this and don’t want to be publicly humiliated. Publishing teacher evaluations in the local newspaper is a good way to scare teaching talent away from local schools. It also makes teachers feel that taking on difficult teaching assignments puts their professional reputations at risk.
2. Florida notifies parents if a teacher gets consistently poor ratings. Do you think it’s a fair policy?
I should start by saying that I don’t know any teachers this has happened to. However, I know plenty of teachers who have had parents challenge their authority over a grade or discipline decision the parent doesn’t like. A policy that starts the year by undermining parent support will make teachers less effective throughout the year.
3. Education reporters often have difficulty getting access to teachers. What would you suggest as effective outreach tools?
Teachers are often wary of commenting on record because we feel outgunned when it comes to knowing how to talk to the media. Corporate reform talking points are often crafted by PR people and are very quote-friendly, but are often phrased in such a way that anyone who argues with them seems lazy, racist, or incompetent. Teachers’ reputations are fragile, and we don’t have ready-to-use sound bites. A teacher’s worst fear is talking candidly with a friendly-seeming journalist, then being quoted out of context as an example of the bad teacher who is “leaving children behind” and “making excuses” about it.
Be up front about the topic and tone of the article and the type of quote you are looking for. If possible, give teachers enough thinking time to boil their thoughts down to print-worthy comments. If possible, promise to double check quotes and context with teachers before printing.
If contacting teachers by email, attach a few article clips that quote teachers fairly or hold potentially anti-teacher talking points up to some scrutiny.
Teachers who feel you’ve quoted them fairly in the past are your best spokespeople. Ask past sources to put you in touch with other teachers.
Avoid asking teachers to make comments that could damage our careers. This includes criticizing our own schools or bosses on record, or giving specific information about any children.
4. Florida set off a chain reaction with its policy to hold back students who weren’t proficient in reading by the end of the third grade. What’s your take on the policy?
This policy attempts to address the difficult judgment call that schools and districts must make when young students are not proficient in reading. On one hand, reading skills are a foundation for all other learning, and it is important to let students and parents know that kids have to master material to move onto the next grade.
On the other hand, some schools have an overwhelming number of students not reading at grade level, and some students are so behind they won’t catch up even after an extra year.
Schools run into trouble when they don’t have the resources to provide all these students with the type of attention they would need. They cannot hold back a full class of students, nor can they hold students back for so many years that there are teenagers in fourth grade, which would create a separate set of problems. With this in mind, a greater number of students retained in third grade will probably be balanced by fewer retentions in first, second, fourth, and fifth grade.
We will also probably see elementary schools redirecting available reading help to third grade, including resources that might be better used to help students in earlier grades. This is not necessarily a bad policy, but it is important not to confuse a redirection of resources for solving a problem.
5. There’s plenty of criticism of the emphasis on testing in schools. Are there any ways that it’s actually helped you do a better job?
It is helpful to know how a student – or a group of students – performed on major tests in previous years. For example, preparing to teach high school students who read at a level one or two on the state test (at the lower end of the spectrum) means preparing for students who will have trouble doing required reading on their own, among other things.
Regular course assessments during the year help also as motivators, as in: “Pay attention because this will be on the test.” Tests are helpful when kept in perspective for what they are: a somewhat accurate snapshot of a student’s knowledge and skill levels on a given day. When they are not kept in perspective, and the school year and curriculum are pressed into the service of a high stakes snapshot that is only somewhat accurate, they are actively harmful.
This post originally appeared on EWA’s now-defunct online community, EdMedia Commons. Old content from EMC will appear in the Ed Beat archives.