Guest Column: Hidden cost of destroying education

03/02/2012 5:00 PM |

BETH YOUNG FILE PHOTO | Southold Superintendent David Gamberg.

I invite you to think back, not to your favorite teacher, but to the one who was most effective.

Chances are that despite our chosen paths in life, we come away with some common threads that run through what we all experienced when we learned from an effective teacher. The ability to inspire us, relate to us, hold us accountable for our actions and treat us with dignity would probably stand out.

Even if we preferred teachers who were strict and dispensed tough love, we knew we were treated fairly and those teachers were doing their best for us. These qualities led to learning important lessons that serve us well as adults.

Now fast-forward to the latest plan to measure teacher and principal effectiveness. New York has joined with other states around the country to impose a system of measurement that on first blush appears to be long overdue. Known as the Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR), the system of evaluation is a multifaceted approach to review all aspects of educator performance and includes the use of student test scores as a factor in rating performance. There is no doubt that education stands to improve in order to meet the demands of a highly competitive society, however there are many unforeseen consequences of this ill-conceived system.

It’s all too easy to look around and blame kids, parents, teachers and others for not having the qualities that we saw in evidence during the good old days. I do not for a moment deny that contemporary society (within which schools and education exist) is undergoing transformative changes in business, culture and civic life. Not all of this may be seen as progress.

The demands of our community at a local as well as a national level call for change and/or a return to a civility that seems absent from our current dialogue on so many levels. So much that we see and hear is an affront to our senses. However, the new, more punitive “fix” for our schools does more harm than good.

Those aspects of our curriculum that promote critical thinking, a strong work ethic and the ability to solve complex problems stand to lose as a result of this evaluation system. When given the choice between preparing for one test that will be used as part of the way to measure teacher performance or having students take the time to develop the skills and attributes used in work and citizenship, both teachers and principals will focus time and resources on preparing children for high stakes tests that take place on just a handful of days out of the school year.

Preparation for a music concert, project-based learning and other authentic, purposeful student engagement will give way to an over-reliance on test preparation. A generation of our youth may pass the tests, but fail to become the civic-minded, entrepreneurial citizens that our nation demands for future success.

I recently looked at old documents found in the school district office dating back to the 1930s and 1940s. These artifacts showed students performing in plays, teachers working together, celebrations of the arts, debating teams and the like — all of which will suffer when we place a narrow band of being successful around our modern day definition of educating our youth. I’m concerned with what this will do both now and in the future.

The promise of having young men and women mature and become thoughtful citizens who deepen their understanding of the world through a curiosity promoted by their teachers will not be advanced under a regime that seeks to stigmatize and punish. In a recent New York Times opinion piece even Bill Gates, a harsh critic of the old system of teacher evaluation, cautions against shaming educators by publishing teacher scores in the media. If this is not the solution, where should we look to improve?

Look no further than at the effects of real school reform that has taken place in Finland over the past 30 to 40 years. There’s no comparable APPR in that system. They regularly outperform much of the rest of the world (including the U.S.) in reading, math and science, and they do so with grace and integrity.

There are examples of the qualities that are associated with effective teaching practices in the United States, but these pockets of excellence will retreat from the pursuit of exemplary work in the face of potential public humiliation.

The consequence of this effort to “reform” education is to drive money, energy and attention into a thinly focused set of criteria at the expense of promoting the best in what we want, deserve and expect in our students who graduate our schools. We want our students to appreciate and value hard work, dedication, commitment and the ability to successfully challenge themselves to become their own personal best. Much of this cannot be measured under the new system.

Education cannot be exempt from necessary changes that are well under way in one industry after another. The rapidly changing conditions in the economy represent a challenge and opportunity to improve, but these improvements must be carefully constructed, based upon the best evidence at hand.

It has been said that success leaves clues. We should look around the world to see such success that must be emulated in an effort to promote the best in our schools. The newly enacted fix for education in New York State is not reflective of that evidence.

Mr. Gamberg is superintendent of Southold Schools.