Dr. Douglas Selwyn was a teacher.
Now he instructs students on how to become teachers as a professor in teacher education at Plattsburgh State.
And he has become disillusioned with the push to focus on standardized tests. There is no research or evidence they have any bearing on student performance, and now states across the country, facing pressure from the federal government, are pushing evaluation systems that link a teacher’s success to student test scores.
“To pretend these tests have some validity and to base how you evaluate teachers on it seems to be misguided for sure,” Selwyn said. “You then force people to arrange the educational experience around these test scores.”
Selwyn started as a high school teacher and worked his way down to the elementary grades, eventually becoming a mentor teacher in Seattle.
“We were elder brothers and sisters to first-year teachers,” he said. “It was a good program, and I wish we did more of that.”
Unfortunately it is also expensive as it means hiring another body to fill the mentor teacher’s classroom.
Still, to Selwyn, it was cost effective as it kept more good teachers in the profession and provided support to educators who were struggling.
He has been training teachers, first in Seattle and starting five years ago at Plattsburgh State, for more than 11 years.
Lately, the focus on standardized testing and scores has alarmed him.
Recently Selwyn and nearly 5,000 principals and educators statewide signed an open letter of concern regarding New York’s Annual Professional Review Legislation.
Approved in May 2010 in order to secure a federal Race to the Top grant worth nearly $700 million, the legislation took effect this past September. It requires that all teachers and principals be rated annually on their job performance, with 60 percent based on direct observation and between 20 and 40 percent on students’ standardized test scores.
Despite the outcry by many in the field, the state is pushing hard to ensure all school districts come on line with the new legislation.
“Teacher evaluations are critical to ensure our kids have high quality teachers in the classroom because performance counts,” said Gov. Andrew Cuomo in a press release. “I am disappointed that agreements could not be reached to impose teacher performance evaluations at some of our troubled school districts across the state.”
Cuomo said students lose because such schools continue to operate without true accountability. Secondly, he said the schools lose because districts will miss out on millions in federal aid.
“I urge all involved to get back to the table immediately, put their differences aside and put the kids first,” Cuomo said.
But Selwyn and many others say that is exactly what they are doing.
“Let’s start with the whole idea that this is largely based on testing,” Selwyn said. “There is no research or evidence that suggests these tests are reliable or valid or do what they say they are doing. Yet we reduce what we are doing in education to test scores.”
Plus, there is evidence that children learn differently and an array of factors often determine how a child will do in school, such as socio-economic status. More money and efforts should be directed toward those issues if leaders truly want to affect student outcome, Selwyn said.
But that is not happening, and Selwyn is concerned that the new system will force teachers to build curriculum around test preparation. That will leave little time for creativity or for exploring students’ interests and other areas that engage them.
“Our role as adults is to nurture and guide and support and inspire children to learn more,” Selwyn said. “I do not think that is what happens with these tests, and it is not what happens to teachers under that thumb.
“I have been in classrooms where students are learning to bubble in sheets. None of what is happening is developmentally appropriate.”
When he asks college freshmen about their education experience up until that point, they universally talk about stress.
“We are demanding that our children and our teachers learn to be compliant.”
And the short-term agenda, Selwyn said, is money. The narrowed focus is an economic decision and not an educational one.
The only people who seem to benefit are testing companies and those who want to put public money in the pockets of the private sector.
School districts are hungry for money, and if starved enough they will jump on the standardized test bandwagon.
“We have districts all across the state that are starving, and the education department is saying this is what we need to do to stay afloat, and very little of the money is heading to districts, so it becomes an unfunded and underfunded mandate,” Selwyn said.
At the same time, Selwyn said, there is a great fear across the education community that speaking out will bring punishment.
“What children and teachers learn is that their interests are irrelevant,” Selwyn said. “It is about testing, and it is turning us into an educational machine. I have deep concern about that.”