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.