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Randi Weingarten: Stop the Testing Obsession | The Nation

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Dana Goldstein

Dana Goldstein

 Education, health, women's issues and politics.

Randi Weingarten: Stop the Testing Obsession

Educators and policy-makers from twenty-three nations gathered in New York this week for the second International Summit on the Teaching Profession, hosted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The purpose of the summit was to identify effective reforms for improving teacher quality. Notably, the research paper released in conjuntion with the event showed that compared to the United States, other nations put little faith in student test scores as a measure of teacher quality; the phrase "value-added," for example, never appears in the 103-page report. Instead, top-scoring nations like Finland and China have focused on improving training before teachers enter the classroom, and on making education a more attractive career choice by providing teachers with opportunities to participate in curriculum writing, group lesson planning and other professional activities alongside other adults.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten attended the summit. Here are her reflections on what the United States can learn from international education reform efforts, which she also had the opportunity to observe firsthand on a recent trip to Shanghai, Japan and Singapore. The interview has been consensed and edited for clarity.

“Cooperation” and “trust” were big buzzwords at the summit. Everyone talked about teachers working together, and with administrators, to actively improve instruction and curriculum. Do you think American reform efforts do enough to collaborate with teachers?

What is similar is the focus on how to ensure teachers are the best they can be, and how teacher evaluation has to be more than a snapshot, more than a principal coming in once a year. A lot of countries have focused on career ladders, student learning and teacher peer review, and those are elements of reform proposals that we and our managers have made [in some American schools]. Take Singapore. They have a teacher evaluation system that does include student learning measures. What is really different is that, except maybe for Chile, testing is not the centerpiece of these other nations’ accountability systems for teachers. Instead, testing is the centerpiece of an accountability system around children. In other nations, kids see tests as consequential. In the United States, teachers see student tests as consequential, but the kids don’t see it.

What do you hope Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his staff will take away from the summit, having heard that very few other nations are pursuing teacher reform strategies that are as test-driven as the kinds of reforms the Obama administration incentivized through Race to the Top?

I just hope they listen. I never doubt—and I know this will be controversial—but I never doubt their wish and hope and aspiration for transforming America’s educational system to ensure that there is both excellence and equity for all children. I don’t doubt them for a second. But it’s about the hows. The president is a very smart guy and he focuses on evidence. Here you have a lot of evidence about what works in other places.

America always pivots between collective responsibility and the idea that the individual can pull himself up by his bootstraps. What you see is that in education, you have to understand this notion of systems rather than individuals. Creating teacher capacity, teacher efficacy and climates of trust are what enable all kids, rather than just some kids, to learn. If you want equity, you have to have a system that focuses on it.

There was a real consensus at the summit. When nations were reporting their plans, you heard the buzzwords of collaboration and trust, of retain, recruit, support. You didn’t hear market solutions, competition, things like that.

One remarkable difference between teacher reform in the United States and teacher reform elsewhere is that American reformers like Joel Klein often speak about tearing down the barriers to becoming a teacher, while in other nations, it’s actually quite difficult to get into the classroom. In Shanghai and Finland, for example, all teachers must student-teach in the classroom of a mentor teacher for a full academic year. Why is the American debate on teacher preparation so different than the debate abroad?

I have great respect for [Teach for America founder] Wendy Kopp, but we unfortunately think about teaching sometimes as temporary work, or this is our public service work for a few years, as opposed to this being a serious profession. Nobody thinks about this for doctors or lawyers or architects. The disrespect comes in the idea that anybody can do it. At the same time, in Singapore and Japan there are a lot of entry points into teaching, but you still have to really be prepared. You can get your degree in almost anything, but then, if you haven’t gotten your degree in education, you have to be trained. It’s a much higher bar. They don’t just throw people the keys and say, “Okay, do it.”

What did you learn on your recent trip to Asia?

Teachers who work really hard there were much more focused on the art and craft of teaching than they were on all the things that, in the United States, teachers focus on. They’re not as much surrogate moms and dads and guidance counselors, but they are really more instructionally focused. There is a climate in these countries that education really matters, and kids and parents buy into that. That’s a real difference that one sees when you’re in Finland and when you’re in Asia. Teachers are to be respected.

In every previous American budget crisis, teachers have had to do more with less. Most of the time teachers are lionized for that. But this is the first time that during a budget crisis, with 300,000 fewer teachers, teachers were actually vilified for the mere fact that they were teaching during this period of time. And you never see that in any of these other countries. Even countries where you have some real debate about educational philosophies, there’s not the blaming and shaming of teachers that you have here.

In Singapore, very few people opt out of public education, very few people send their kids to private schools. There is a real sense of systemic responsibility, as opposed to asking individual teachers to take full responsibility.

You visited a high school in Shanghai that had undergone something akin to what we call a “turnaround” in American education reform.

Yes. They really focus on fixing schools, not closing them. We spent an afternoon in Shanghai at one of the toughest neighborhood schools that has turned around. The principal had his teachers speak far more than he himself spoke about the kinds of practices they do. Teacher engagement and adult relationships are really important. Teachers were very engaged in students’ lives and in the students’ success, and the school did provide a panoply of other services, like access to health care and counseling. It was the closest thing I saw to what we plan to do in our West Virginia project, or something like Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone. Those “wraparound services” we talk about all the time were as much a part of the strategy as instruction.

How were Asian instructional practices different?

In Singapore, the schools were fairly well funded, and what you saw was really a very interesting way to teach math. I’m such a stereotypical female learner in that I love social studies and love literature, and I always struggled with math and science. In Singapore they spent a lot of time with young kids teaching math spatially, so kids would see forms and would actually try to conclude which was larger or smaller by looking at diagrams.

And they were using technology in a very interactive way. They were using whiteboards, laptops, and some of the kids had tablet whiteboards with them. Teachers had technology in every classroom, but they were using it in a way where it wasn’t just a shiny object. The teacher was the center of the lesson; the technology wasn’t driving the lesson.

In Japan, we saw a school that appeared to be in a fairly middle-class prefecture, as well as a school that was in a poorer prefecture. In the high school that was in the poor prefecture, you didn’t see whiteboards, you saw blackboards. You saw more traditional ways of teachers teaching. But you still saw tremendous engagement and kids really focused on learning.

Many American education experts are fascinated by Japanese “lesson study,” in which teams of teachers work together to create lesson plans and test them in the classroom. Did you observe that?

Yes. [Japanese educators] were really honest about how they spend a lot of time with each other, trying to figure out how to teach. They’re proud of the time they spend collaborating. It's part of the work of getting better, and they build collaborative time into the schedule.

At the summit, did you get the chance to ask your international colleagues what they thought of New York City releasing teacher value-added scores to the media?

My colleagues are as horrified by it as Bill Gates was. People who want schooling to get better understand what a counterproductive mistake this is. I fought, as you may recall, using this value-add data as a basis for evaluation or for any kind of tenure decision. It was a big, big fight up in Albany. And I fought against it because we knew value-added was based on a series of assumptions and not ready for primetime. But back then, we didn’t realize the error rates could be as high as 50 percent!

None of the other countries use test scores to evaluate teachers. They use portfolios, demonstration lessons, peer processes. There are multiple ways of trying to assess, “Have I taught it and have kids learned it?” But very few countries are as fixated on student testing having a consequential effect on teachers’ lives. Student testing is very consequential for students.

So how do we shift the education reform conversation in the United States to better reflect the best international practices?

I think the first thing we have to do is move off the test fixaton. Top-down, test-driven accountability as a salvation has not proven to work. People will say, “Oh, she’s anti-accountability.” But I’m for making sure teachers can really teach and for multiple measures to assess teachers, like peer review, self-reflection, administrative review and assessment of student learning. But right now there are a disproportionate number of points [in many teacher evaluation systems] allocated to test scores.

The president gets a lot of credit for saying in his State of the Union, “Let’s not teach to the test.” NAEP [the National Assessment of Educational Progress] scores from the last decade had a better rate of growth than in this decade, and that says a lot about the effects of top-down, test-based accountability. We have to get away from that concept. I think if there’s a reset button where we get away from that, we can unleash creativity. We can unleash the Common Core, we can work on teacher quality through what we know works: cooperative environments. Then I think we’ll have a different conversation in America.

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