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On Measuring Student Learning

For the last two days, I've been at conference hosted by Pearson on "The Professionalization of Teaching," where I got to introduce the concept of teacherpreneurship and my own work as a teacherpreneur.  The range of speakers was quite interesting, and I was one of just two practicing teachers to present.  It felt good to give a dose of on-the-ground reality with a heavy sprinkle of optimism to the audience of academics, district administrators, and policy makers.

 At one point, Governor Jim Hunt of NC, who made a lot of impressive and heartfelt points about education policy and teacher leadership, said something along the lines of, "Student learning should be part of teacher evaluation, but it should only be one part of the whole picture."  Though I've heard this statement many times before, it gave me pause and I started thinking... What else would I want my evaluation to be based on, exactly? My effort? My punctuality? My daily aims?

I'm becoming increasingly troubled by the whole notion of teacher evaluation lately.  The truth is, I measure my own strength as a teacher by what I observe in my students (and to some degree my ability to collaborate with colleagues and make other contributions to my school).  But overall, student learning is exactly what I think my value as a teacher should be based on; it's not just "part of the whole picture" of what I do.  Everything else, in fact, is  secondary to me. 

The sticky part is what we define as learning and how we measure it. 

Studens are learning so many different things from us in a given moment. For example, if a class is orderly, students may be learning something about order, discipline and organization. They may also be learning to keep their mouths shut and do what they are told.  There is a huge difference there! Neither of these things is measured on standardized tests or even in state standards.  But organization and also speaking your mind in a context-appropriate manner, are both incredibly important to students’ success in life, as scholars, as citizens and in careers.  If these points were clearly laid out in state standards, how would we measure them? 

I'm not on board with the general framework I see lately for defining the learning that happens in schools. And I'm even less on board with how we are measuring this.  Because of the multitiude of things students are learning all the time from their teachers, classmates, parents and environment, and the difficulty of accurately separating out and measuring these things, I'm doubtful that we could ever come up with a teacher evaluation system that is based on measures of student learning. And if we're not measuring student learning, what are we measuring and why?



Sherlyn Laurelli commented on October 31, 2013 at 6:52am:

Confused and frustrated

Not entirely sure this comment is on point with your topic,but here is what came to mind when I read the last sentence. I feel that teacher evaluation is becoming a measure of productivity. Not saying that we don't produce anything. But as you point out, many of the qualities that we "produce"in our students can't be measured by a standardized test.  

This idea of measuring teacher productivity comes from decision makers that have business mindset. When education is lead by those with a education mindset all of these type issues/questions will be taken care of.  

Bill Ivey commented on October 31, 2013 at 11:56am:

"Business mindset"

Great point, Sherlyn. And, as my cousin Bruce Baker (who periodically blogs on education and education reform at School Finance 101) once pointed out, it's not even a successful business model.

Ariel Sacks Ariel Sacks commented on October 31, 2013 at 7:52pm:

True--it's the learning we can quantify

Sheryln, your point does make sense. The (antiquated) business model being applied to education privileges the learning that can be counted (like dollars).  So the rest is being ignored, and this is why most teachers feel uncomfortable with our teaching being judged by numbers.  It's not because we don't care deeply about student learning.  It's just that we never agreed on the "bottom line," and were never even asked.

Kris Giere commented on October 31, 2013 at 11:41pm:

Process over Product

More often than not, what is measured is the product: test scores, grades, final drafts, degrees earned, etc.  All of those come as a result of learning, the byproduct of learning if you will; however, none of them are learning.  I would even be willing to argue that none of them are quality measurements of learning, rather convenient measurements of learning.

The focus must return to the process of learning: the reading, the working out of problems, the drafting of writing, the laboratory explorations, etc.  That is where the reflection of good teaching can been seen clearest.

How do we do this?  I don't know.  What I do know is that learning isn't standardized; it is individualized.  And no one-size-fits-all measurement can justly capture the essence of learning in every student equally.

Brad Clark commented on November 7, 2013 at 8:56am:

Glad you have raised this point

Process needs to be the focus of our entire educational model.  When we sink our teeth into the process of learning, the process of teaching, the process of growing, we create a culture that understands how to learn.  We embrace individual growth as the system-wide norm.  What learning atmosphere do I create for my students?  How do I design instruction based on constantly evolving formative data so that every student grows?  How do I communicate and measure learning (in all of its various forms)?  How do I refine my role as learning facilitator as students begin to take charge of their own learning processes?

These questions need to drive our accountability systems.  I want to be held accountable for my craft.  I want to be acknowledged for being a self-reflective educator.  I want to have evidence compiled by an objective observer that can quantifiably identify my areas of mastery and my areas that need improving.  I want a system that refines and distills what I do best.

In order to accomplish the above, it is absolutely necessary that the measures for evaluating a teacher's mastery of craft truly reflect the complexity and nuance of our profession.  Perhaps that is why a flawed business model is so offensive to educators: there isn't a one-size-fits-all, simplistic method for measuring processes, performance or professionalism in our field.

-But I think Kris raises a meaningful point that process is more valuable than product, and I say all of the above to demonstrate that if we focus on a high quality process evaluation system, then the result will be a high quality product.

Brielle Erazo commented on November 7, 2013 at 12:15am:


"And if we're not measuring student learning, what are we measuring and why?"

This question bothers me the most!  I feel like it is really important for me as a teacher to assess my students' learning.  This is a constant process, part of which is test giving, but a lot of which is observing students, listening to students and trying to figure out what they need (as a class & individually) to get to the next level of understanding.  I spend a lot of time in class working on engaging the students in dialogue surrounding the math problems.  The students are learning to talk to each other and lead the class.  I am also trying to work with students on perseverance. In the past I have experienced too many students accept zeros on many assignments because they didn't hand something in on time.  This year, I am telling them to keep working on it until it's done, at which point I correct it, and they are expected to fix their mistakes.  As a result, my students are working harder this year than I've ever experienced.  I'm trying to teach them to be resourceful.  If you need help, work with your classmates, research the topic online, watch a math video, and of course, ask your teacher.  

Not all of these lessons can be measured by a standardized test.  Trying to measure dialogue, perseverance, and resourcefulness with data would either be impossible or really messy!  And even if you could, the effects of these lessons may have more impact later on, after this year's tests.  So why should 50% of my rating be determined by students' performance on tests?

Why is it that we need to spend so much money collecting and analyzing data based on standardized test scores? In what way is that helping my students learn better?  How is that making me a better teacher?     

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