Fires in the Mind

Students on “value added” – Part 1

Way back in 1994, we learned from Gloria Ladson-Billings that the best way to identify great teachers is to ask the people closest to them: students, fellow teachers, and parents.

So in this era when the data-gatherers are pushing questionable test scores as measures of “value added” by teachers, it’s somewhat heartening to see students systematically questioned about their classroom experiences, and taken seriously.

It’s only one part of a $335 million Gates Foundation effort to overhaul the personnel systems in seven large school districts: Charlotte, N.C.; Dallas; Denver; Hillsborough County, Fla., which includes Tampa; Memphis; New York; and Pittsburgh. And, being Gates, those test scores are still paramount—the kids were asked just out of curiosity whether their responses would corroborate them.

The early results show that they do. “Kids know effective teaching when they experience it,” Harvard researcher Ronald Ferguson, who designed the student questionnaires, told the New York Times.

When most of a teacher’s students agreed with statements like “Our class stays busy and doesn’t waste time,” “In this class, we learn to correct our mistakes,” or “My teacher has several good ways to explain each topic that we cover in this class,” guess what? Those students also showed increases in test scores. (Dare I say “duh”?)

Even more important, the Gates findings show that teachers who prioritize test-prep drilling actually end up with lower value-added learning gains than those who systematically focus on key concepts in literacy and mathematics.

“Teaching to the test makes your students do worse on the tests,” Gates education director Vicki Phillips told the Times. “It turns out all that ‘drill and kill’ isn’t helpful.”

Billions of our education dollars are pouring into a testing industry with an iron grip on the everyday lives of students and teachers in our public school systems.

Why can’t we put those dollars directly into supporting teaching and learning those crucial concepts?

Why can’t that money also support a thoughtful large-scale system (like Finland’s) in which we assess student learning growth by watching and listening to students themselves?

And why can’t we trust students—along with teaching colleagues and families—to let us know which teachers help them most?

Stay tuned. In part 2 of this post, high-school-student researchers have some startling findings on what helps them get to college.

‘Only I can determine who I am!’

The pain and passion in these students’ voices bring into stark relief all the ways in which our current national policy obsession with testing and standardization strips youth of their motivation at school. How much more effort and practice they have clearly poured into making this performance piece! How powerful those energies would prove if our students could use them in their academic learning!