Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mrs. Hendrix, Mme. Ver and value-added.

Read this story. You just have to. Tissues, maybe, at the ready.

I believe there is a place for standardized testing, and I believe there is a need to reform the way teachers are evaluated and compensated. But I couldn’t read this story without puzzling over how a teacher like Mrs. Hendrix might have fared in an environment where states are racing to make sure that student test scores count for at least half of a teacher’s measured worth.

I say this as a person who is not sappy, but practical. (Okay, that article couldn’t help but make me a little sappy, and this comes from someone who groaned, “OH, PLEASE,” at the end of “Mr. Holland’s Opus.”) Forget the inspiration part—which we all know is uncountable—and just consider the logistics. Were Mrs. Hendrix’s class to exist today, a fourth grader in it would be reading at an eighth-grade level yet in many states his or her progress would be measured using a fourth-grade test. Even a value-added system would just compare that to how that student had done on the third-grade test while in third grade. And if Mrs. Hendrix was not those students’ homeroom teacher, no matter how much she influenced and taught them, her effect would not be officially measured.

I had several great teachers in my childhood, from Mrs. Goral in kindergarten to Mr. Johnson in freshman algebra to Mrs. Schwartz in ninth and tenth grade French. The most memorable of all was French teacher Judy Worm, or Mme. Ver, as we called her junior and senior year. As long as we only spoke in French in that classroom—when we were in the classroom; there were loads of field trips—anything went: We gave cooking demonstrations; we read Marcel Pagnol novels, four pages at a time; we learned tidbits about every great impressionist and expressionist painter, which remain with me today. (Did you know that Auguste Renoir worked in a porcelain factory, which may help explain why his subjects have such delicate, doll-like features? Or that Max Ernst believed he was born from an egg?) I have no doubt my life took many of the turns it did—studying abroad, masters degree in international affairs, proficiency in several foreign languages—because of her.

In my case, were the system designed properly, you could have assessed the value Mme. Ver added to my French profiency. It would have been sizeable, even though her true effect was far greater. The teaching of foreign languages in school is notoriously weak, yet my friends and I were fluent at 17.

But there’s the rub: were it designed properly. I feel like policy is outracing journalism on this issue, and we are not getting a good understanding of how value-added measures are and will be designed. I am not reading about where we do and don’t have adaptive tests, how the effect of all those other adults besides the main teacher who pedagogically touch a student each day will be considered, the design and validity of assessments for, say, art or kindergarten.

We won’t capture even part of the true worth of a Mrs. Hendrix—or a bad teacher, either—without attending to the details.

1 comment:

  1. I read the Mrs. Hendrix piece on Saturday and did indeed cry a little. As a "gifted kid" myself, I remembered my favorite GT teacher (our program was called STEP - Special Talent Enrichment Program), Mrs. Baker. She taught us orienteering and took us to several orienteering races. She coached us all the way to state finals in Odyssey of the Mind competition. She let us use markers to turn the boring ceiling panels of the classroom into tesselated masterpieces in the style of MC Escher.

    I only saw Mrs. Baker three times a week in 7th grade. I don't think that the English teacher - whose name I can't recall - or the math teacher, who convinced me that I was going to be terrible at algebra, contributed nearly as much "value" to my education as Mrs. Baker. But how do you measure the cultivation of imagination and a desire to learn?