Education Week

by Guest Blogger
November 21st, 2011

by Jessica Lahey

Last Friday, the Illinois State Board of Education proposed new rules that will link teacher performance to their students’ performance on assessments. Up to thirty percent of teacher evaluations will be based on how students perform on tests, and while I understand the value of student progress in evaluating teachers, it’s certainly not the main thing that determines success in education. My mind has been on assessments lately because I just came out of a week defined by what I initially labeled a colossal assessment failure. I gave unit tests to cap off a couple of weeks in Latin and English grammar, and things did not go well. My students failed, failed, failed, and as teachers are wont to do, I used the transitive property and concluded that I had failed, failed, failed.

I spent the following weekend going over the assessments, my preparation, my teaching, the students’ homework scores, and found that the week of failure was much more complicated than one faulty assessment or a failure to teach some critical aspect of the lesson. As I could not go back and re-do the previous month of teaching, I decided to move forward, and figure out how to turn failure in to a learning experience. Once some time had passed, and I’d gained the benefit of hindsight, I wrote about the solution I came up with in my blog, Coming of Age in the Middle . I wrote about my teaching methods, but mostly, I wrote about how I had managed to make it through the week without tucking my tail between my legs and quitting my job.

A writer friend of mine liked the post, one thing led to another, and the next thing I knew, my failure was in the Gray Lady herself. When K.J. Dell’Antonia wrote her piece on my blog, titled “What Good Teachers Do When Kids Fail,” in the New York Times’ parenting blog Motherlode , the comments fell into two distinct camps: Parents who wished their teachers had more time to address student failure and teachers who lamented that they had no time to address student failure. A few teachers wrote about the time they took for re-writes and remedy, but for the most part, the message from educators was one of regret and frustration with a testing-centric schedule that did not allow for reflection.

The solution I came up with for my students required humility on both sides of the classroom – I had to admit I had failed my students and my students had to admit that they had not held up their end of the pedagogical bargain – but mostly, it took time. Time that, according to the comments after the article, most teachers just don’t have. I handed out blank tests and asked the students re-take the assessment as an open book exercise. They were asked to work in pairs I had strategically assigned, and teach each other the material on the test. They were required to not only find the correct answer, but to show why all of the other answers were wrong. This process ate up two classes, and as I only see my Latin students twice a week, this one remedial exercise burned an entire week of the school year. Clearly, this is simply not an option in many classrooms. Maria, from Baltimore, MD, wrote:

“I am a public high school math teacher. It’s only November, and I’m already 10 days behind schedule in one class, 3 days behind in another. And this is without me taking any sick days, no snow days, just a few days away from class for . . . you guessed it, administering the No Child Left Behind tests. I would love to have students retake their tests and learn from mistakes, but thanks to NCLB, and curricula that are an inch deep and a mile wide, we need to press on to the next topic.”

Many comments stressed the vital role that failure plays in education. Dr. Kim, from Ithaca, NY wrote,

“We need to allow students opportunities to fail. Too often our kids are afraid of failure. If we don’t fail, we’re not pushing our limits–we’re not challenging ourselves. I have a friend who is an amazing skier who says “if you don’t fall, you’re not pushing yourself hard enough.” This is true. Plus, we learn much more from failure. Our brains are programmed to remember those things with strong emotional attachments — positive or negative. Failures are memorable.”

I completely agree that some of the best lessons are learned from failure. Failure can shock a student out of complacency, particularly among those students who are smart enough to do well on a bare minimum of effort. Middle school is the ideal time for this time of shock; the stakes are still low(ish) and the potential for growth is huge. I’m not one for sports quotes, but in this case, baseball player and coach Vernon Law had it right. “Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterwards.” It would have been much easier to teach the lessons first and give the test after, but in the end, I think the experience taught all of us a greater lesson. Everyone has to admit to failure – teacher and student. As a result of this failure, I grew as a teacher and they grew as students. Crossroads Academy was built on a core virtues curriculum as well as a core knowledge curriculum, so our journey through this week of failure became an important part of the students’ character education. That’s where commenter T. Zinner of Boston hits the nail on the head:

This article goes to the heart of our goal as parents and the ideal of teachers: creating individuals with strength of character. The happiest and most successful people seem to be the individuals who take their talents and face obstacles either directly with perseverance or creatively so that the obstacles are no longer viewed as challenges. This is the case for the most exceptional physicians I work with, the patients who live fully despite illness and friends and neighbors who create lives of joy and depth in the face of unexpected loss or change in circumstance.

That’s the kind of teaching I love to do, teaching that helps students become better people, teaching that takes into account the unpredictability inherent teaching adolescents.

But this sort of teaching is increasingly not what is valued today, and it’s certainly not what counts as quality teaching or a gauge of student progress. Failure makes people nervous because in order to find anything of value in the situation, everyone has to face their role in the failure. It would have been much easier for me to fail the students and move on, or curve the exam so much that the failure got lost in a sea of amended numbers. The grades would have looked good, the students would have felt good, and everyone would have been satisfied with my performance. But lurking under this neat and tidy appearance, my students would know. They would know they had not really learned the material, that I had swept something under the rug. Worse, I would know that somewhere down the line that gap in their education would come back to haunt them.

Assessments are often blunt instruments, and to decide a teacher’s worth based on student testing measures just one small fraction of the learning that goes on in the classroom. This one assessment failure taught me valuable lessons about my teaching methods, the quality of my assessments, and the courage of my students. Two of my students summed up our week perfectly as they handed in their remedy exam: “I think I learned more from that one failing grade than from any A,” and “You know, now that we have gone through every question, that test really wasn’t that hard.”

My sentiments exactly.


  1. Jessica,

    Another deeply thoughtful contribution to this blog: please keep writing for us. Which brings up a question that I, a parent and layperson, can’t answer with any finality. What value do traditional letter grades have?

    I keep track of my middle school age kids’ grades on their CK school’s online site. But for me, it’s only a rough gauge of how they’re doing. I really want to know, after all is said and done, if they have truly mastered what they have been tested on.

    I have numerous disagreements with Alfie Kohn. Some of his ideas strike me as hopelessly dreamy, and he deliberately distorts the purposes of Core Knowledge to the point where I question his intellectual integrity. But Kohn strikes a chord with me when he criticizes the overemphasis on grades. I read avidly – as an adult – without being graded on what I’m learning, and I try to maximize the benefits of my reading.

    Is there a way to assess where a student is at without our traditional grading system? Or is grading necessary to motivate students to make the effort to learn what teachers are trying to teach?

    I appreciate whatever insights you and other readers of this blog have on this matter.

    Comment by John Webster — November 21, 2011 @ 8:20 pm

  2. Thank you so much, John. My answer is that grades include so many measures of effort, participation and input toward class discussion, that in the end, one or two bad performances here and there don’t matter much. If my students are present, attentive, engaged, and involved, they will do well, grade-wise. I have seen that bear out year after year, through middle school, secondary school, and college.

    Comment by Jess — November 21, 2011 @ 8:26 pm

  3. I don’t have the data at arm’s length, but I believe that school grades have proven to be a more reliable indicator of college success that standardized entrance exams. So clearly they have some predictive value. As for mastery, in theory that’s what the standards movement is supposed to be about–pegging measurements of performance to accurate benchmarks.

    Of course in theory, a bumblebee cannot fly.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — November 21, 2011 @ 8:30 pm

  4. I think you had a great idea to go back through a failed test and have the students look up the correct answers! Teachers often complain about not enough time. In some cases this is true–often days are shaved off the year to balance the budget. But I’ve seen teachers take days off to play the newest video game that just came out, waste a couple days just letting the kids fool around, etc. Teachers who say that just need to manage their time better.

    Regarding test taking and Alfie Kohn: he seems “dreamy” because his ideology is based on Romantisicm–many in education are like him and believe all learning should come “naturally” (Think of “Huck Finn” and “A Secret Garden”). Obviously they are opposed to testing because it would reveal how hopelessly behind those kids would be! I have seen this first hand with a Sudbury style charter school in our school district. Jessica used the test the way it was supposed to be used: to find out if the students learned the material that was taught and then using the results as a measuring tool to determine what she should do next.

    Comment by C. M. — November 22, 2011 @ 12:46 am

  5. Jessica,

    Much to digest here.

    “Assessments are often blunt instruments, and to decide a teacher’s worth based on student testing measures just one small fraction of the learning that goes on in the classroom.”

    “Up to thirty percent of teacher evaluations will be based on how students perform on tests, and while I understand the value of student progress in evaluating teachers, it’s certainly not the main thing that determines success in education.” Thirty percent is not the primary determinant of a teacher’s performance. We’ll still have the useless administrative subjective observations/evaluations that proved to be an embarrassment to the profession and perhaps the primary rationale behind attempting to inject some objectivity into the process. What percent of teachers were deemed proficient/excellent under this previous system? 98% to 99%? Anyone who has ever taught in a public school knows how absurd that statistic is.

    Up to thirty percent?

    Some districts seeking Race to the Top monies are counting student test scores up to fifty percent of a teacher’s evaluation (DC, Denver, et al). This is still not the “main thing” that determines a teacher’s worth. As well, you need to realize these assessments are being viewed OVER TIME (usually 3-5 years out) to see if any pattern exists with each teacher, failure or success.

    While the NCLB state tests can be perceived as a blunt instrument, can we really return to the previous practice of only teacher evaluations/opinions of their students’ performances? Wasn’t that what led to everyone being promoted and everyone graduating regardless of their actual performance or effort? I don’t think so and I don’t believe our schools will ever be allowed to return to those days, at least I hope not.

    Don’t mean to be so sobering on this issue, but it is an important reform that needs to be considered from both sides.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — November 22, 2011 @ 8:46 am

  6. @Paul What’s your preferred solution? I’m with you that the idea that 99% of teachers are proficient is clearly not true. I’m also with you that “useless administrative subjective observations/evaluations…proved to be an embarrassment to the profession and perhaps the primary rationale behind attempting to inject some objectivity into the process.” But I think it’s equally clear that the race to measure and evaluate everything has had equally deleterious consequences, threatening some of the kind of teaching that Jess describes. In the case of literacy, testing has been a particular calamity, allowing some especially destructive notions about reading comprehension to run riot in our schools. This tension in general strikes mee as a classic example of “the new stupid” that Rick Hess once wrote about (old stupid: not using data; new stupid: using data badly).

    Bottom line to my mind: Data and assessment were supposed to make bad schools look more like good ones. Unfortunately it seems the opposite is more often the case. Good schools act like bad ones. A good friend’s son once took 17 practice tests at his giften and talented program before NYS’ ELA exam. Surely that didn’t happen ten years ago.

    The trouble for me is I’m no smarter about where to draw these lines now than I was ten years ago. You?

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — November 22, 2011 @ 8:58 am

  7. Robert,

    My preferred solution would be: (1) each district negotiate via their collective bargaining agreement the percent student tests are to be used to evaluate teachers, and (2) the tests be used first in an effort to remediate poor/marginal teachers, accompanied by the appropriate professional development for each of those identified teachers. If the teacher remediation fails, the teachers not getting the job done need to be encouraged to seek alternative employment.

    The bottom line: Data and assessments need to indicate how our teachers/students are performing. They should be the DNA of our schools and they should be primarily helpful in nature and not punitive.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — November 22, 2011 @ 6:17 pm

  8. The best solution I’ve heard came from Diane Ravitch a few years ago (I know you’ve parted ways with her, Paul). She once described the ideal role of the Feds in education as setting standards, administering tests and that’s it. Let each state (or preferably district) decide what, if anything, to do with the data. If Mississippi is not troubled by its test scores, then that’s Mississippi’s concern. If the members of one district wish to fire the 4th grade teachers over low reading scores, while another takes the view that the teachers are not directly accountable, that is their perfect right.

    I agree completely that test scores are the DNA of our schools. And the schools and their direct, immediate stakeholders are in the best position to know how to interpret those scores.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — November 22, 2011 @ 6:24 pm

  9. I wouldn’t necessarily say I’ve parted ways with Diane. I simply don’t believe she’s willing to thoroughly examine both sides of the issues; be it charters, student tests, philanthropists as contributors to education reform, shuttering/realigning chronically under performing schools, etc.

    Can’t help but wonder if her recent celebrity (at least in the eyes of many teachers) has somehow altered her ability to reason, rationally. Also worried she has failed to see many of Obama’s reforms as directly benefiting children, even if they’re not totally user friendly to teachers or the educational establishment.

    As I’ve said before, I have nothing but the greatest respect for Diane’s body of work. She is clearly Lawrence Cremin’s successor and a good one at that.

    Your comment on her solution above is not unlike what I stated/think.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — November 22, 2011 @ 10:00 pm

  10. I have been thinking about failure and hard work a lot since reading this NYT piece about why we don’t have as many science majors.

    This may be the fundamental problem with education, the fear of failure seems to obscure the value of the outcome. I get the high stakes problem of testing but this is a wider cultural problem.

    Comment by DC Parent — November 22, 2011 @ 10:00 pm

  11. Paul-

    You are assuming that when Common Core uses the term assessment they mean tests and that there will be some type of measurement of objective knowledge. Neither is true.

    Can you demonstrate desired behavior?

    Did you create the desired artifact preferably as part of a group activity?

    That’s what Common Core means by assessment. It is largely “learning” tasks with an assumption that if you performed the task, you learned something.

    At this point it would be useful to ponder how ignorance among a widespread portion of the voting population could be politically useful. It would also greatly reduce the chances of the next great world altering invention being developed in someone’s garage. And you thought the tech companies were so on board because they are the preferred monopoly vendor to buy so much new equipment.

    Also most of the evaluations of what constitutes effective teaching are from individuals who were heavily involved with the OBE measurements under previous versions of ed reform. What is deemed effective is not about the student’s gains but instead whether the teacher is exhibiting all the desired activities, behaviors, and dispositions in the classroom sought by OBE so long ago.

    Just be careful. As I have warned before this time the mandarins think they have found a way to get around previous implementation problems where teachers wanting to continue the academic knowledge transmission paradigm closed the door and taught the students.

    They’ll bring in some young principal with little teaching experience whose Ed Leadership doctorate consists of much silly theory, incorrect facts, and a promise about what he or she will do the kids to get at their values, attitudes, and beliefs. She will be told what she must see in each classroom that reflects 21st century learning for our changing world and having been a mediocre student herself she will believe this is a better way. She will then insist experienced teachers like you must do as she says because she has been told by expensive outside evaluators that she is to be the “instructional leader of the school”.

    And your choice will be to do as she says or be graded ineffective.

    And yes the above example is a combo from my research on what is really going on coupled with a PTA meeting I was at with the principal quite excited as to what she would be pushing. She had no idea the extent to which she was being played by pros to perform just as they wished. She has good intentions you see and a social vision of what can be. And no idea why utopias are not achievable.

    Good luck in the trenches everyone. Things are about to get ugly if you are knowing and caring and think school or college should be about transmitting foundational knowledge that has proved important in the past and should under any reasonable future scenario be relevant for the future.

    Comment by StudentofHistory — November 27, 2011 @ 1:02 pm

  12. Student,

    So Common Core wants to return to 1918 and the 7 Cardinal Principles? Help us Lord.

    “1. Health
    A secondary school should encourage good health habits, give health instruction, and provide physical activities. Good health should be taken into account when schools and communities are planning activities for youth. The general public should be educated on the importance of good health. Teachers should be examples for good health and schools should furnish good equipment and safe buildings.

    2. Command Of Fundamental Processes
    Fundamental Processes are writing, reading, oral and written expression, and math. It was decided that these basics should be applied to newer material instead of using the older ways of doing things.

    3. Worthy Home Membership
    This principle “calls for the development of those qualities that make the individual a worthy member of a family, both contributing to and deriving benefit from that membership” (Raubinger, Rowe, Piper, West, 108). This principle should be taught through literature, music, social studies, and art. Co-ed schools should show good relationships between males and females. When trying to instill this principle in children the future as well as the present should be taken into account.

    4. Vocation
    The objective of this principle is that the student gets to know him or herself and a variety of careers so that the student can choose the most suitable career. The student should then develop an understanding of the relationship between the vocation and the community in which one lives and works. Those who are successful in a vocation should be the ones to teach the students in either the school or workplace.

    5. Civic Education
    The goal of civic education is to develop an awareness and concern for one’s own community. A student should gain knowledge of social organizations and a commitment to civic morality. Diversity and cooperation should be paramount. Democratic organization of the school and classroom as well as group problem solving are the methods that this principle should be taught through.

    6. Worthy Use Of Leisure
    The idea behind this principle is that education should give the student the skills to enrich his/her body, mind, spirit and personality in his/her leisure. The school should also provide appropriate recreation. This principle should be taught in all subjects but primarily in music, art, literature, drama, social issues, and science.

    7. Ethical Character
    This principle involves instilling in the student the notion of personal responsibility and initiative. Appropriate teaching methods and school organization are the primary examples that should be used.”

    Finland and the Asian juggernauts will laugh us right out of existence. The NEA will once again be highlighting its infamous education of the whole child but leaving cognition by the wayside. It will be buttressing its favorite affective domain. Our kids will be able to function in a democracy but won’t be required to know squat. What a joke. What a sham.

    I never saw this in Obama’s Education Plan or if it was there, it certainly wasn’t emphasized.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — November 28, 2011 @ 7:56 am

  13. Paul,

    You misunderstand the nature of PISA which drives much of this vision internationally and was designed to do just that. Succinctly and using OECD’s own words, PISA is a dynamic model “in which new knowledge and skills necessary for successful adaptation to a changing world are continuously acquired throughout life, rather than measuring achievement in terms of specific curricula” or specific knowledge. It also has a rather strange definition of what constitutes literacy.

    The fact that LDH was his ed advisor should be a warning that the goals are actually not academic. It was a confirmed leftist law prof who suggested I take a look at LDH’s 2008 “Democracy at Risk” for a taste of what was coming at us. In fairness though this is just a continuation of School to Work, OBE, Whole Language, etc under new names and with an intl focus.

    Yes. Whole child is explicitly back. Affective emphasis, not cognitive as traditionally understood. Visuospatial because digital and media literacy are being pushed doesn’t count as cognitive in my book.

    This time though we are really going to finally understand what Dewey wanted. And others whose names are not as well known but remain quietly influential nevertheless.

    Comment by StudentofHistory — November 28, 2011 @ 12:33 pm

  14. Student,

    It was my understanding he had LDH as his ed adviser in an attempt to appease her for not being appointed Secretary of Education. I realize she had a great deal of say in developing the Common Core and what that could translate into (non-academic) but I’m also familiar with a number of people on those two committees from the Massachusetts DOE and they think nothing like her.

    Dewey was in LaLa-Land with his Chicago Laboratory School. Ten to twelve students in a class and all the students were children of college professors? There’s an illegitimate sampling for you if there ever was one.

    I’ll check into “Democracy at Risk.” You go back and look through “The Obama Education Plan,” Jossey-Bass, 2009. Not much in there with an LDH flavoring.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — November 28, 2011 @ 6:50 pm

  15. Read “Democracy at Risk” and agreed with some of its major tenants (spend federal dollars on educating everyone instead of on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as incarceration of one of every hundred Americans).

    However, when the report states, “The successful new schools that have been created by many local reformers have been launched by educators and community members who
    together confronted old constraints; developed new curriculum, teaching, and assessment strategies; redesigned school organizations; and created learning communities that could drive ongoing improvement,” I cannot help but harken back to Stanford University’s School of Education failed charter school in East Palo Alto, California being shuttered by the California DOE a couple of years back. And when they talk about “strengthening teacher preparation” I have to wonder exactly what this would entail.

    The list of progressive participants on the report also caused me much concern.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — November 29, 2011 @ 7:54 am

  16. Paul-

    As a parent said to me after a PTA meeting a few weeks ago, “I know something is wrong” and I told her not to assume it wasn’t. I cannot write and describe what is really going on and what the history is and the economic effects any faster than I am. In the mean time, you and everyone else in the classroom needs to recognize we have a nonacademic, social engineering experiment coming at us with a known to us tragic history.

    Just do your best in the interim and I will keep an eye on this site and others and holler occasionally if you see something you want me to vet or respond to. I do know precisely what is going on.

    Comment by StudentofHistory — November 29, 2011 @ 10:45 am

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