Douglas McGuirk: My Testimony about the Achieve NJ Act:
The Achieve NJ Act is certainly doing its part to make a convoluted mess out of the art of teaching our children.
In this testimony, I will address the most readily apparent of its many problems: data collection, Student Growth Objectives, Student Growth Percentiles, PARCC tests, and the new observation system. The AchieveNJ Act, and all of its affiliated changes, is simultaneously stretching the education profession in two different directions, most likely to the point of snapping it in half. I am no longer certain about what my job description is these days; am I a teacher, one who attempts to engage students and help them understand subject matter and their world, or am I a data collector, one who keeps statistics on all manner of measurables in a theoretical attempt to improve the process of teaching in which I am often not engaged because I am busy collecting the data?
AchieveNJ seems to operate on the fallacious principle that there is an infinite amount of time. During my day, this humble English teacher will collect data, analyze data, send students out for standardized tests, be observed by an administrator, and, somewhere in and among all of that, plan lessons, grade papers, and teach students. When do all of these things happen? How do they get done? How do I prioritize if each of these items is now considered crucial?
Most days only allow for one to two hours of time not spent in front of a class. Allow me to recount a personal story of how I spent two weeks in October of 2013. Every moment I worked, excluding those during which I was contractually obligated to actually teach students, was spent doing something related to my Student Growth Objectives (SGOs). I had previously administered a benchmark assessment or pre-test (no staff member in my school is sure about what terminology to use, so we have alternately used both, to the point that the students are not sure whether they are being benchmarked, or pre-tested, or, to put in plainly, harassed into doing something they do not wish to do), so I had a stack of essays that needed scoring. To start work on my SGO, I graded the essays according to the soon-to-be obsolete NJ Holistic Scoring rubric. Then I created and organized a spreadsheet to sort and organize my data. Then I entered all of the scores into the spreadsheet. Then I read through all the emails sent by district administrators about how to create my SGO. Following that, I formally wrote my SGO and submitted it to my supervisor.
The next day, the SGO was rejected, and my supervisor told me that all SGOs had been done incorrectly and that our staff would need training. We held a department meeting to review SGO policies. We then held an after school training session to discuss the writing of SGOs. I attended both of these. After two weeks of writing and rewriting my SGO, complete with all of the Core Curriculum Content Standards pasted from the web site, I finally had an acceptable SGO. I managed to accomplish absolutely no lesson planning during this period of time. I graded no papers. I am a veteran teacher with nine years in the profession. I understand how to manage my workload, overcome setbacks, and complete my responsibilities. In short, I am a professional who maintains a diligent work ethic.
But nothing could prepare me for the amount of time I had just spent on a new part of my job that basically exists so that I can continue to prove that I should be entitled to do the other parts of my job. After I completed my SGO, my principal told our staff to make sure we save all of the data, paperwork, and student work relating to our SGO, just in case people from the State want to review the integrity of the data. Seriously? This is the most egregious assumption that there is an infinite amount of time.
When will State reviewers go back and reread mountains upon mountains of SGO data to make sure that my essay scores (which suffer from an inherent subjectivity anyway) are accurate? The real goal of the SGO process seems to be to take teachers so far out of their comfort zones, and so far from working directly with students, that they may begin to question what kind of work they are doing anyway. Wouldn’t this time spent collecting mountains of dust-collecting data be better spent planning more interesting lessons? Offering students more feedback on work they understand and view as necessary? Researching content to make myself more knowledgable and helpful to my students? I guess not.
I have to teach my students the content needed to improve on the SGO so I can keep my job, which apparently consists of collecting even more SGO data. Just in case the SGO process is not intimidating and distracting enough, many of us (myself included) now have the threat of Student Growth Percentiles (SGPs) looming as well. The fact that these SGPs only apply to certain disciplines is inequitable and unfair to begin with, but that does not even address the fact that the correlation between my SGP score and my actual effectiveness is non-existent. Every article that I have read on this issue shows that the data produced by SGPs is statistically insignificant in its ability to determine my actual teaching effectiveness. I might as well determine a sizable portion of my evaluation by rolling dice or, to draw upon history, releasing doves and watching which way they fly. I have no control over how hard the students will work on these tests. I have no control over how thoroughly they will prepare.
From what I have read, these PARCC tests do not even have any actual effect on student grades or promotion. They are only used to evaluate me. In that case, allow me to hand-select the students who will be used to determine my effectiveness. Or better yet, the most fair thing to do would be to allow me to take the test myself, so at least I can have complete control over my own evaluation. Beyond just potentially affecting me in a random (and possibly absurd) way, the PARCC tests further reinforce the current contradictory nature of education rhetoric. What do policymakers want for our children? I consistently hear, from the mouths of our politicians, that our students are falling behind (falling behind whom?) in their critical thinking skills. (May we at least ask, how are these critical thinking skills measured? By bubble tests?) If that is the case, then shouldn’t we, as professionals, seek to introduce more critical thinking tasks, like project-based learning, into our curricula? Aren’t multiple choice standardized tests anathema to critical thinking tasks? Why is anyone promoting them, then? Where is the emphasis? Do we want students to legitimately be able to assess and evaluate on their own? Or do we want illogical measures to make sure that our teachers are, well, doing what exactly? If (some) teachers’ jobs are contingent on whether or not they achieve a high SGP score, then those teachers will, for the sake of their own self-preservation, certainly spend a great deal of time and energy trying to prepare students for those very tests, even though they cannot do the one thing that will ensure satisfactory scores, which is make the students put forth their best effort.
No students dislike learning. But many dislike education, because education consists of misguided and needlessly enervating tasks like standardized tests. Instead of spending this time engaged in critical thinking, students will be responding to questions that will be used to make sure their teachers are doing their jobs. Ironically enough, teachers will again be doing less of their jobs, as I assume we will be called upon increasingly to babysit computer labs full of children clicking vapidly through PARCC assessments. (As a side note, I am sure international test production companies like Pearson stand to profit from this arrangement immeasurably, probably at the expense of my own paycheck, most of which would have been spent in the local New Jersey economy.)
The final issue I will address in the AchieveNJ Act is the inconsistent new observation system. For starters, the public school districts across the state use two different evaluation systems: Danielson or McRel. If we are striving for consistency, why can we not agree on a single, unified observation system, so that all teachers are theoretically evaluated in the same fashion? Still, even if we achieved such uniformity, all observations would continue to suffer from the same inherent bias as the grades on students’ essays: each observer (or teacher, as is the case with the essays) has a different viewpoint (yes, even using a rubric). The administrators who serve as observers in my school have wildly varying interpretations about what constitutes an effective lesson. Even worse, some administrators are offering critiques to teachers about “how the lesson should have been conducted,” and providing less than satisfactory ratings to teachers who choose to do something in a different way.
The biggest source of all of this uncertainty and inconsistency has been the use of technology. Some of our administrators have said that we are to use technology in every single lesson, no exceptions. Others have been more lax about this requirement. I make this point to further illuminate the backwards nature of many these evaluative changes. If we must use technology, then technology is the starting point for each and every lesson. Previously, student learning was my starting point. What tools will help my students learn? Am I there to teach them or to show off the latest and greatest tech toys in my classroom? Are observers looking for critical thinking? Are they looking at my rapport with students? Or are they there to make sure that I go through the motions (according to one person’s rubric of what constitutes effective teaching) of reaching all of my supposed requirements? The inherent subjectivity of trying to quantify the unquantifiable is of course the same issue with which I wrestle when trying to score the essays that will make up my SGO. We all now must worship at the altar of data, even though, at best, the data is fickle and, at worst, it is fraudulent.
In the end I am not quite sure how to proceed under the AchieveNJ system. To paraphrase Plato, a single part of one’s soul cannot be engaged in two contradictory actions at the same time. So the only thing I can do is to default back to the ways in which I have always taught. I will try to help my students learn. I will try to reinforce material that I think is of value. I will provide as many insights from my own experiences as I can. I will focus on the human side of teaching and learning, my AchieveNJ ratings be damned. If this system says that an intelligent and dedicated individual like me is not fit to teach the students of New Jersey, then it is even more broken than my testimony could ever hope to convey.