Today the New York Department of Education decided to release a lot of test scores to the public. That way, anyone can look up a teacher and see how his/her students performed. I thought long and hard about why they would possibly want to do this, and I came up with five possible reasons. Unfortunately, none of them make any sense.
- Measuring something motivates people to change it. Maybe, maybe not. There’s no shortage of numbers to show that poorer students do less well in school. We keep on paying more taxpayer dollars to measure, making great profits for test writers and data collectors. Why do we need all this measurement? A lack of change may suggest that a problem is overwhelmingly complex, or there is great resistance to change because of entrenched interests. In education, we have both problems. What we don’t have is a lack of data.
- Shame is a good motivator. When followed quickly by peacemaking redirection and encouragement, it can work. Without any reason or suggestions for how to improve, it’s just an exercise in cruelty. These teachers aren’t having the test results of their students released to reassure them or motivate them. Teachers aren’t even motivated by money (see failed bonus experiments). Only personal relationships and effective professional development and workplace practices can motivate teachers.
- The public has a right to know student test scores. Test scores are released on a need-to-know basis. Students need to know their progress. Sometimes their families need to know. Principals, superintendents: maybe. The general public? I can’t imagine why. There are other numbers to tell you how schools in various areas are doing—percentage graduating, percentage attending college. If you’re really interested, visit the school. I welcome visitors into my classroom all the time.
- The reason we have “bad” teachers in schools is because we don’t know who they are, or we don’t have the data to back up firing them. If principals don’t know the strengths and weaknesses of the people who work with them, this is their own fault. Supervision is their job. Being in classrooms is their job. They should never need test scores to tell them what’s going on. If they do, they are negligent. And if they don’t act on what they know, finding and coordinating the pushes and pulls that teachers need, including modeling teaching strategies in real classrooms, they are also negligent. Administrators are almost always able to fire truly ineffective teachers. I’ve seen it happen many times.
- Teachers must have something to hide if they don’t want their tests scores released. I’ve worked in research, and I will tell you a million times that numbers lie more easily than narratives. Teachers’ test scores are always going to be raggedy, weak data because the sample sets are so small, and there is never a control group. This doesn’t make for useful data.
Using a little more imagination, maybe this is the reason: knowing that imperfect, underpaid, stressed out people are alone in rooms with our children for enormous chunks of their impressionable years is just too scary. Who knows what those people are doing? Who knows if they’re doing it well? Let’s pretend we can quantify it and nail it down. Let’s pretend education is safe. That everyone understands what should be done, and how it should all work out.
Real education is never safe. It’s always messy, always threatening, always amorphous and haphazard. Whatever the folks far distant from classrooms may hope, it will keep evolving and growing like anything that’s alive.