The DeHavilland Blog

Thursday, June 12, 2008

For you, or for them?

I've been working a lot with value-added assessment in Tennessee over the past couple of years. One of the things I've learned is that there are some schools that really understand the link between assessment and performance: continual assessment is part of the culture, driving instructional decisions and focusing the entire staff on a goal of 100% mastery. Everything they do is focused on the kids, giving them the skills and knowledge they'll need to succeed in life. (See here for more on the common practices of effective schools.)

But I've always wondered - why is this not the standard? Why doesn't everyone focus so heavily on measuring and advancing student outcomes?

With that question in mind, I came across something that stopped me dead in my tracks. In a post on his summer reading list, the author of The Tempered Radical blog writes the following:

What I Haven't (Regretfully) Been Able to Finish Yet:

Classroom Assessment for Student Learning by Rick Stiggins and Friends: I gotta tell ya, no single task drives me crazier than trying to assess my students. Embarrassing, huh? How can an award winning teacher openly admit to not having a clue whether or not the work that he is doing is making a difference. That's why I picked up this title---and it's amazing. Almost every page includes ideas about what high quality assessment looks like in the classroom, and my practices are slowly changing for the better.

The only problem: This sucker's almost 500 pages long! I think I've made it to chapter 4 so far. I figure by the time I retire, I'll hit the back cover.

Does he realize what he's saying?

His blog focuses on incorporating new technology (wikis, Twitter, etc.) into instruction, and he argues forcefully for the use of these tools. But you have to ask the question - to what end? Why would you advocate so strongly for the use of technology - or the use of any other instructional tool - when you admit up front that you have no idea whatsoever whether it helps students learn?

And of course, it's one thing to admit that you don't know how to assess student learning; it's another to make clear that it's not a priority. "I'll finish the book by the time I retire" - which will do all your students a load of good in the meantime.

And this from the 2005-06 Teacher of the Year in his (rather large) district!

So clearly, at least for this teacher, the answer to my question is clear: he doesn't assess student learning because it's not about the students, it's about him. He's incorporating technology because he likes it; there's no other explanation. If he cared whether students were learning, he'd make an effort to learn how to assess that learning, and tailor his instruction based on their progress. Clearly that's not going to happen - not, at least, until he retires.

And the kicker? Unlike most teachers in the country, he has access to some of the most powerful data available on student performance. North Carolina has its own value-added assessment system - EVAAS - built by Dr. Bill Sanders, architect of Tennessee's groundbreaking system. The Tempered Radical teaches 6th grade, which means he has access to tons of current value-added data on his students. But I think he's made it pretty clear that he's not going to avail himself.

I'm not going to attempt to draw universal lessons from this; I can't say whether most teachers are like this, or whether most teachers would be as appalled as I am right now. But I do think this provides at least one possible answer as to why some teachers don't focus on student outcomes: because it might limit the time they spend on the "fun stuff" like instant messaging and virtual worlds.

But the rest of us know: it's not about us. It's not about what we enjoy, what we're interested in, or what we think will be fun in the classroom. It's about the kids - making sure they actually learn, so they'll be prepared to survive in the world into which they'll graduate.


  • Actually, Brett, I know exactly what I'm saying. I've been saying it for a while. Here's a summary:

    The honest truth about assessment in schools is that managing data and assessing learning is something that many teachers--including myself---are poorly prepared for, regardless of how common sense those skills seem to outside critics.

    In the years before NCLB----when the vast majority of educators were trained---evaluation of students was uneven at best, largely (and wrongly) left to teachers---and to the principals who spent twenty minutes observing them two times a year every year.

    And that is a failure of our profession. Period. No argument there. In fact, it is a failure that I've written about dozens of times in an attempt to drive change from within the profession.

    They tend to attack me, too!

    But the sad fact is that while we've done a lot of talking about providing teachers with meaningful opportunities to learn how to "use data to drive instruction," we've taken little action to provide the kinds of meaningful, ongoing opportunities for professional growth in this area that are necessary to ensure that every teacher can effectively assess student performance.

    Who is responsible for that?

    Here's what Elmore thinks:

    "Accountability must be a reciprocal process. For every increment of performance I demand from you, I have an equal responsibility to provide you with the capacity to meet that expectation.

    Likewise, for every investment you make in my skill and knowledge, I have a reciprocal responsibility to demonstrate some new increment in performance. This is the principle of "reciprocity of accountability for capacity." It is the glue that, in the final analysis, will hold accountability systems together (Elmore, 2000).

    At the moment, schools and school systems are not designed to provide support or capacity in response to demands for accountability."

    I guess what I would ask is when do we intend to hold our society accountable for fully funding the kinds of investments needed to produce the changes that they demand?

    Bill Ferriter

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:41 PM  

  • Brett,

    I have known Bill and worked with him -- both as a colleague and as a supervisor -- for four years. I have also been reading his Tempered Radical blog since its inception.

    In your post, you write, "So clearly, at least for this teacher, the answer to my question is clear: he doesn't assess student learning because it's not about the students, it's about him." As far as I can tell, you draw this inference based on two paragraphs from one of Bill’s posts.

    I can tell you from first-hand experience that Bill does assess his students’ learning on a regular basis (i.e., weekly to monthly), using both his own assessments, common assessments created by his professional learning team, and assessments developed by his district. In addition, Bill does avail himself of value-added data drawn from students’ standardized test scores—all of the core subject area teachers in his building, and throughout his county, do.

    In your last paragraph, you write “But the rest of us know: it's not about us. It's not about what we enjoy, what we're interested in, or what we think will be fun in the classroom. It's about the kids - making sure they actually learn, so they'll be prepared to survive in the world into which they'll graduate.” In your post, you have set this final paragraph up as a counter-point to Bill and his practices: Bill thinks it’s all about him and not about the kids, not about checking to see whether or not his students have actually learned.

    I would encourage you to read more of Bill’s posts on the Tempered Radical, along with his other writings. I think you will find that your characterization of him—based on two paragraphs taken, I would argue, out of context—could not be more inaccurate.

    Parry Graham

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:17 PM  

  • Hi Parry,

    Thanks for your note - since there are now versions of this post on three different blogs (mine, KTM, and Bill's) I'm trying to keep the thread going at KTM.

    I did apologize already (on KTM) for my harsh tone. But I will tell you that I did read more than just those two paragraphs: I followed his back link, then one back from there again. (And this is on top of having checked his blog every so often over time.)

    And while Bill and the rest of the teachers may in fact regularly assess students, and act on those assessments, that's not at all the picture painted by Bill through the linked writings. I can only react to what he says.

    To see the post - and comments - at KTM, you can visit

    By Blogger Brett Pawlowski, at 10:12 PM  

  • Fair enough. Thanks for the explanation.


    By Blogger Parry Graham, at 11:51 PM  

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