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Karen Magee: Teaching Is An Art

When I taught special education in my hometown of Harrison, one of my students achieved an educational milestone.

He said “hello.”

For this student, the simple act of entering a classroom and greeting me — his teacher — marked a step forward.  And, this boy’s progress — this student’s growth — couldn’t be measured by any standardized test.

This school year — more than any in the past — has been rocked by controversy over standardized testing.  Parents and teachers united and pushed back — hard — against New York State’s over-reliance on standardized testing and use of data, and its flawed implementation of the new Common Core learning standards.

The Legislature and governor took notice.  April’s state budget agreement recognized — correctly — that those standardized tests were so unfair, and the results so unreliable and invalid, they should not count for students.

Now — as the legislative session winds down — we are working with the Legislature and governor to delay the use of those same flawed, unreliable test scores in teacher evaluations.

New York State must treat its teachers fairly and not allow invalid and discredited student test scores to be used against them in evaluations.

We also have to go one step further. We have to fix what’s broken in the state’s teacher evaluation system.

Teaching is an art.  Yet, the way teachers are currently measured tries to make it a science.  It doesn’t work.

The effort to fix teachers evaluations should be guided by these principles.

Teacher evaluations must reflect the realities of the classroom.

They must be fair and valid.

And, perhaps most importantly, they must help teachers to improve at their craft so they can, in turn, better serve their students and communities.  After all, isn’t that the point of these evaluations?

As a teacher, I saw first-hand there is no standardized test — no data set — which can accurately reflect all the important student-teacher interactions that occur daily in our classrooms.

There is no fill-in-the-bubble test to measure the value of a teacher who protects a student from a bully.

No test can measure the bond that develops when a teacher helps an English language learner assimilate to a new environment.

Pearson doesn’t make a test that can measure heroism — like that of the North Country teacher who, just a few months ago, prevented a mass tragedy by wresting a gun away from a troubled 15-year-old.

And, there’s certainly no test to measure the progress of a disabled student who — simply, but poignantly — learns how to look an adult in the eye and say hello.

The current teacher evaluation system is simply not an accurate — or effective — tool to measure what makes up good teaching.  And, it’s crystal clear there are obvious limits to what standardized tests can accurately measure.

Make no mistake, teachers embrace the accountability that accompanies good, fair evaluations that help them improve their work in the classroom, and better meet the needs of their students.

The current teacher evaluation system fails that test.  Teachers want an evaluation system that makes sense, honors best practice in the classroom and recognizes that not everything that counts can be counted.  As the legislative session winds down, teachers deserve no less. 

Karen Magee is president of the 600,000-member New York State United Teachers.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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