Tuesday, May 15, 2018

On Formative Assessment

It's funny to see administrators hyping formative assessment. Of course it's a great idea to give students low-risk environments in which to demonstrate mastery of material, or to encourage improvement. I've always marveled that we give these big tests as semester's end, frequently don't even return them, and then tell students, "There you're a 78," or whatever. What does that even mean? What did they miss? What can they do about it?

Our goal, as I understand it, is to support student achievement and improvement. And just by the way, we're supposed to be something like role models. We're supposed to show them that they have potential in this game of life, that your boyfriend dumping you, or your last math test, or losing your cell phone is not, in fact, the end of your life, and that there are more things than you can imagine awaiting you when you finish high school.

Yet all too frequently administrators decide there is only one form of formative assessment, only one way to do it and that any variation from said way is Ineffective. You didn't use an exit slip? You suck. You didn't have them raise right hands for comprehension and left hand for befuddlement? You suck. You didn't hold up green cards for understanding, red cards for lack thereof, and yellow cards for I don't know whether or not I understand? You also suck.

When you have an administrator who Knows Everything and Must Be Obeyed, your options are limited. Oddly, whenever I have students doing work in class, I circulate and look at said work. I can tell whether students understand based on what they do. Call me cynical, but what they say is not entirely relevant to me. I'm not actually suggesting they're liars. Rather, they're teenagers, enveloped in the most insecure and stressful stage of their lives, and the likelihood of their raising their hand to admit they don't follow is not sufficiently high for me to depend on.

Nonetheless, the administrators do not practice what they preach. If it's important to do formative assessment, if formative assessment is in fact an integral part of learning, then it follows that those tasked with making us improve as teachers must practice it. I've seen very few administrators do so, and in fact the ones who demand that everything be done One Way are among the biggest hypocrites there are.

These are the same people who will observe you on a half day when there are 30-minute periods. They don't have any issue with the fact that only eight of your students show up. They vilify you for the fact that 26 students stayed home. That's your fault for insufficiently motivating them. Of course this is a full evaluation, and of course it will count against you, because that supervisor isn't gonna come back and do it again when your actual class is there and you are actually doing your job.

Formative observation is for the Little People, specifically you, and since your supervisor knows everything, it's assumed you do as well. If you don't, well, you suck and are therefore ineffective. That will be reflected on your observation report, of course.

How are you supposed to know what Does Not Suck? That's a tough question. Given that your supervisor, who officially knows everything, has never, ever been evaluated via the Danielson rubric, you can't expect him to demonstrate a model lesson. That's just one reason why he never comes into your classroom to do that. That's probably why his classroom isn't open as a model for us all to observe. In fact, that might be why he doesn't teach at all. Teaching is also for the Little People. It's your job to teach, and his job to tell you why you suck.

In fairness, he may have hundreds of observations to perform and write up each year. Most people don't write very quickly and he could be overwhelmed. If he were actually fair, I'd feel sorry for him. Nonetheless, if he were actually fair, his time would be better spent supporting teachers than running around endlessly rating them.

The argument that supervisors can be vindictive lunatics and therefore should be doing 200 observations a week to keep them busy is not necessarily a bad one. There are issues, though. First, if they're vindictive lunatics they ought to be placed in mental health facilities rather than public schools. Second, if they aren't, they'd be better off doing two observations a year, as required by current law, unless teachers need further support.

It would be nice if observations were used to support teaching rather than bash teachers over the head. In fact, it would likely benefit communities to have teachers who felt supported rather than terrorized. Maybe we'll be able to convey that to people in positions to decide. Here's NYC Educator's hot tip of the day to to UFT leadership--cut mandatory observations to two and it will be a whole lot easier to sign members post-Janus.
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