The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Another Response to a Response

on January 23, 2016

Here’s Don Bellair’s response to Doug Garnett.  These two views are especially interesting  because they show how much our experience shapes our opinions.  I hope to post interesting responses from other readers in the future, but for now I plan to return to my own experiences and opionions.

(Doug–I work around a lot of Brits and everyone says “Cheers” for just about any reason.)

“Rich” metrics seems to mean nuanced understanding of test results. I think every human being is going to handle the result of a test differently–there are people out there who lean on numbers, and some of them are the aggressive parents of school-aged children. Teachers have to generate grading data–it rarely means very much, but it mollifies parents. And “objective” data is protection for teachers when administrators try to strong-arm undeserved grades for athletes or the children of privileged parents. The grades themselves, motivation more than evaluation for good teachers, help the kids identify how they stand in a class–pretty important in the kid’s world.

But in my teaching world, when a kid fails a test, it means I failed a kid. Conversely, when a kid aces one, it means I did my job. Every test that classroom teachers give is a “standardized” form for that class. Unless a teacher is designing individual tests (there are ways to do this without adding work to a writing teacher’s 80-hour week), the class test is always a standardized test. Always.

We can do some different things (watch for my book on reform) to give us information about a kid’s progress, but we are always going to need some universal tests that, while unable to identify individual intellect in non-academic areas, will identify collective progress in computational skills and reading comprehension, if only to provide information with which we can hold teachers and administrators accountable. THAT is the real reason we are even talking about this.

I think schools should redact kids’ names and publish ALL the test scores with only the teachers’ and administrators’ names. I would vote to never tell the parents or the kids their individual results, but that’s not going to happen. Some parents require evidence from teachers that they are raising flawless prodigies.

But writing is a different matter because it requires evaluations without test questions (although there is software that grades writing; it counts misspelled words and complex sentences). I cannot tell you how many times, late at night, I just made up numbers to try to keep a kid interested in my class or to send a signal, but deep in the pit of my heart, I felt guilty for not helping every kid improve every paper.

It is really hard to teach writing–I honestly don’t think many people know how. For my first few years, I didn’t. I think a lot of teachers get credit for stuff kids can already do…and those kids who can already write well sure are easier to “teach.”

But I was fortunate to be a young teacher in Kentucky when they launched the statewide education reform moment called KERA, where EVERY public school teacher in the state was required to have a basic understanding of what constituted good writing at different grade levels. We were ALL retrained (big $), even the middle school PE teachers. Grading was on a 1-6 scale, with six categories evaluated for each paper–cohesion, use of vocabulary, sentence structure, etc. We had to submit properly-graded portfolios to the state, where experts randomly checked them. Improperly-graded portfolios resulted in wide swaths of returned portfolios. It was expensive and difficult to achieve but, in Kentucky, we were finally working on the writing skills of ALL students.

To my surprise, I arrived in Oregon in 1996 to discover the schools in the midst of a statewide writing reform (CIM/CAM) that was exactly like the one I had been using in Kentucky. The problem with CIM/CAM: There were no teeth behind it. No sending portfolios for grading checks. No rewards or consequences. No training. I was required to attend ONE after-school training workshop in Oregon in seven years (where I demonstrated mastery of the evaluation process but was never asked to help my peers). I fear that is the fate of most reform. The reports that reach the public are filtered through PR specialists.

My (elusive) point is that real writing reform is possible in American public schools but requires lots of work that many people can’t or won’t do, flat out–but it is important to recognize that writing reform has little to do with these much-maligned “high-stakes tests” (and Dr. Yatvin’s ill-advised stand against CCSS). That argument is all about “teachers” unions and state legislators seeking to avoid responsibility for how they spend education funding. Cheers, y’all.




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