A while back, I wrote “The 300-Word Guide to Long-Term Flourishing,” and it elicited a heartfelt response about test scores and teacher evaluations from a passionate educator whom I'll call D in this post. Her comment follows:
Thank you for defining this concept so clearly! It is difficult to “refuse to freak out about high-stakes tests; use them for what they are worth, but don’t tie your identity to their results” when the state in which I teach ties test results to teacher performance. In NY, a teacher gets a growth score based on the grade 3-8 ELA and Math tests. If the teacher receives an ineffective or developing growth score, even if every other part of the teacher’s APPR scores are highly effective, the teacher is rated as ineffective. If this occurs for two years in a row, the teacher must defend his or her job. Three years in a row and the teacher is fired.
This means that one test that means absolutely nothing to a student’s average or ability to move on to the next grade level means everything to a teacher’s identity as a teacher. I know I’m a great teacher, but there are circumstances beyond my control concerning the tests. Last year, several students decided to opt out. Others saw that happen and part way through the test decided they wanted to opt out too, but they still got a score because they started the test. Students were just filling in bubbles and refusing to write essay responses because the tests didn’t mean anything for their scores.
I know my growth score will be low even though every other part of my APPR will be highly effective. I’m definitely freaking out because I love my job and don’t want to lose it, and I don’t want parents to see my results and APPR score and think I’m a failure. Until the state stops ranking schools based on the scores and stops tying teacher performance to a flawed test, I will be freaking out! (The flawed tests are a whole other post!)
Before I move on, let me suggest that what's worth focusing on here isn't the particular state or scoring system, but rather the effects of the system on this particular educator. I would argue that this particular teacher's situation is being experienced in various shades and systems across the United States. That's why I think it's worth today's article.
(You can see my original response to D here; below is an extended, edited version.)
D, thank you so much for your heartfelt response. Here is my opinion, and keep in mind that it does not come lightly. I need my job; I am the wage-earner in a single-income household. And even though writing and speaking now provides my family additional sources of income, the following opinion predates these things in my life. Here it is: if I am teaching my heart out, growing each year, and earnestly working toward the long-term flourishing of my students, then I will refuse to allow any person in power to cause me to lose sleep at night with a flawed or — what in your case sounds like — insane policy.
In short, a system that would fire me for being a great teacher who happened to have students opt out or make bubble patterns on Testing Days is a system that will inevitably destroy itself. That breaks my heart primarily for the kids and communities involved. And it infuriates my heart because hard-working, earnest, problem-solving teachers like you and me will inevitably leave such systems, which is needless. I can't imagine it really coming to this, but if it does for you and if it ever does in my town, then it will be time for me to move. And this would be a shameful waste of human energy — why make good teachers move to towns, states, or countries that can see the coming iceberg for what it is and have the foresight to steer clear? What a shameful, wasteful tragedy.
But here's how I see it: if I’m an average person, I get to live 70-some years. That is not a long time. It is a time too precious for allowing some external entity to take a single one and drain it of joy. I may not have the power to affect policy, but I do have power to protect my internal life from that policy's pernicious effects. If Viktor Frankl could find meaning in his circumstances, surely there is a way for you and me.
D, dare them, with your daily excellence alone, to terminate you for doing everything but magically, omnipotently goading your students into filling in the bubbles to the best of their ability. Dare the people who visit your classroom and speak with your students and hear from your students' parents — who, in short, know your true quality as an educator — to determine your worth based solely on some algorithmic output. If you lose your job in this way or are judged poorly in this manner, it says nothing about you and everything about the system that fires you and the hearts who judge you.
And D, take heart, because this will not last forever. There is a restoring force with every pendulum, and so too with education policy. What we'll care about in twenty years is whether we worked hard and cultivated joy in the midst of these times.
No educator would say that student achievement doesn't matter. Long-term flourishing for our kids is what we work for.
I don't know the specifics of D's state's policies but I know that, nationwide, we've enacted policies and developed public attitudes that are driving great teaching into the underground and chasing prospective teachers away. I don't know how to change that; I don't know how to most effectively fight systems that demoralize students, parents, and teachers; I don't know how to make sense of situations like Rafe Esquith's right now, where the best teachers of our generation can be fired on fuzzy charges.
All I can see to do is keep teaching, keep wrestling with connecting the dots between my kids today and their flourishing in twenty years, keep working toward improving my craft, keep a long-term lens on the work, and keep encouraging one another. And keep reminding you, dear reader, that no matter the times we live in, teaching is still and always will be a noble calling.
I hope this post helps. It's a bit of a risk, and I apologize if it offends.
Thank you to D for leaving the comment that prompted this post.