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Janette MacKay | Assessment, Education, Elementary, Professional Development, Social Issues | October 3, 2012

Teacher Fever

2

Thermometer

I woke up in the middle of the night, and knew something was wrong. I was cold, hot, shaking, queasy, everything ached. I stumbled into the bathroom to find a thermometer and wait…

wait…

yup. A fever. Now it’s definitive. I’m sick.

Like somehow I didn’t know that until after the little number popped up on the thermometer.

Well, it’s probably just a little virus, or something I ate. Uncomfortable, unpleasant, but not serious I consoled myself as I curled up on the floor by the toilet where I would be spending the next few hours.

A temperature tells us our immune system is working. It’s fighting off the weakness in the body and in a day or two, we will be well again. Most fevers don’t send us running off to the doctor. Unless they persist…

A fever tells us something is wrong. But by itself, it doesn’t tell us what is wrong or how serious it might be. It takes a while to figure out if you need to call in sick, or check into the hospital.  Just get some rest, or run expensive tests using big humming medical equipment. These are the thoughts running through my head at 2am on the floor of the bathroom.

What does any of this have to do with teaching? Well, since I’m home sick today, I’m sitting here looking at my school’s MSP scores from this past year. We, like many schools, seem to have a bit of a fever. Our scores aren’t where we’d like them to be. They certainly aren’t terrible, but they’ve declined two years in a row. I guess you would call that a fever in reverse.  Anyway, it appears that we’re a bit under the weather. However, the numbers that I’m looking at don’t tell the whole story. It’s a small school. A few kids having a bad day are enough to change our scores from one year to the next. Listen to the staff conversations about this, and we all have an idea what caused the trouble. But what we don’t have is expensive medical equipment that can give us a definitive diagnosis. All we have is the number on the thermometer.

Do we need more professional development to help improve our instruction?

Or new curriculum?

Or a new intervention program?

Or new technology?

Or stronger anti-poverty initiatives?

Or maybe a better thermometer?

Maybe the one we have is broken.

After all, in the past few years we’ve changed our test from the WASL to the MSP, and then changed the administration of that test from paper and pencil to computer based. It’s hard to compare year to year using an inconsistent tool. Looking at National Assessment (NAEP) scores from the past ten years, our 4th grade state scores have remained relatively unchanged.  It doesn’t seem to matter what we do: which curriculum we adopt, which diagnostic test we administer, which RtI model we embrace. The scores have not wavered in the past decade.

According to the Flynn Effect, we are getting more intelligent over time. If that’s true, then seriously, why aren’t our test scores rising?

I’m not saying we can’t or shouldn’t do anything to try and raise student achievement. On the contrary, I think we need to do even more…way more…to figure out how to level the playing field, provide meaningful, appropriate instruction, and assess it in ways that aren’t skewed by politics. If after a decade this fever has persisted, it seems like it’s time to do more than just keep taking our temperature over and over.

Comments

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Kristin

I love this analogy. In fact, we have two digital thermometers in our house, and they give different readings. I always use both on my daughters, then end up using my hand and my common sense.

You're right - we keep changing the assessment tool and then acting like it's giving accurate and meaningful information. While I'm a fan of assessments, as my posts demonstrate, I think they're good for only a few things.

If one group of kids has a fever of 105 on the thermometer, and another group of kids is at a comfortable 98.6, we've learned something. But we haven't learned what to do about it, or why it is.

Your point is well made, that we need to continue to investigate, and question the tool.

Your comments about trying a different thermometer, because maybe the one we have is broken, are good ones. We thrown out many thermometers in the past few years in terms of changing state standards, WASL to HSPE to EOC, and then moving on to Common Core standards and Next Generation Science standards. It makes it impossible to reasonably compare results from year to year in many subject areas and grade levels, yet people do. Will a move to national standards bring us some stability in this area?

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