American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten attended the International Summit on the Teaching Profession and came away with a renewed sense that high-stakes standardized tests are hurting the U.S. education system and its students.
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.
She noted that countries that do better in educating their students than the U.S. don't share our test obsession:
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.
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.
Instead of a focus on testing, countries with better education systems have other priorities:
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.
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 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.