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Sunday, March 1, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 15.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Madison school board candidates Michael Flores and Mary Burke discuss tests, teacher evaluation, and No Child Left Behind
Take Home Test 2012, Week 4

School board elections are usually sleepy affairs.

But the proposal this year for Madison Prep, a single-gender charter school, has sparked a lively, and sometimes controversial, conversation about one of the most pressing problems facing Madison schools: the achievement gap between students of color and their white peers. The debate has, in turn, sparked interest in the school board.

In the race for Seat 2, which is being vacated by retiring board member Lucy Mathiak, philanthropist Mary Burke is running against firefighter Michael Flores.

While there are an unprecedented number of candidate forums and listening sessions under way, we thought we'd pose our own questions to candidates. We focus on evaluation this week, of students, teachers, schools, and the district. What is the importance of student test scores, and how do they reflect upon teachers? What is the impact of No Child Left Behind on Madison schools?

What is the proper way to evaluate teachers? Do you believe they should be evaluated on the basis of student test scores?

Michael Flores
We need to have a process that is fair to both teachers and students.

Principals and other administrators should be trained to be thoughtful observers of teachers in their classrooms. This is the best way to understand how students are learning. Principals can take into account how the teacher deals with behavior issues, attendance, and works with other teachers.

While test scores can be another measure that can be considered, it should not be the only, or even the major, factor. Tests reflect only one aspect of student learning -- and then only for some students. There are many students whose learning is not reflected in the scores they earn on tests.

We need to open the lines of communication between teachers and both staff and administration to assess and reassess the work we are doing. Our teachers aim at doing the best for the students. Continuing education is a great way for educators to improve.

Mary Burke
Our teacher evaluations need to focus on supporting effective teaching and improving student learning. I believe our current system can do a better job. In many cases, Madison teachers are evaluated on only one 5-15 minute classroom observation over three years.

If we are to have top notch schools we need to put a high priority on recruiting, retaining, and developing great teachers. No child is going to learn in the classroom without teachers who are fairly compensated, highly trained, supported, and respected.

Student learning suffers from teacher turnover. Nationally, 46% of new teachers leave before their fifth year, and this rate is even higher in high-poverty schools. Our evaluation system must help identify what teachers need to be successful and satisfied in their profession.

The National Education Association, whose members are teachers, has outlined an evaluation framework that includes two components:

  1. Formative Assessments focus on teacher growth and improved practice. Because these do not include threat of punishment, they can facilitate interaction and flexible forms of feedback among colleagues, students, and parents.
  2. Summative Assessments are related to job advancement and continued employment. Teacher evaluations should include student learning, but need to be fair and meaningful.

Teacher evaluations need to be developed collaboratively with administrators, teachers, and teachers' associations. They identify whether teachers are meeting acceptable standards of practice. If not, they should be offered professional development, improvement plans, and opportunities to train with peers in order to meet the standards.

Teaching is not easy and new challenges appear every day. I volunteer at Frank Allis Elementary every week. I love being there, look forward to it, and am honored to help children learn. But I am always aware that I could not do the job that teachers do. Our teachers bring patience, professionalism and commitment to their classroom each day, all day. The evaluation process should support ongoing teacher development to deal with the challenges in the classroom. Supporting effective teaching leads to improved student learning.

Do you think No Child Left Behind is a good fit for Madison schools? Has it helped or hurt?

Michael Flores
No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has been a proven disaster. It has relied almost exclusively on standardized tests to decide whether a student is learning. Standardized tests have limited value -- and the time spent preparing for and taking tests is time lost for genuine learning.

Good tests -- or assessments -- provide a teacher with information on students' strengths and weaknesses. This would allow teachers' to develop instruction around the needs of the individual student. The NCLB tests do not do that; and even if the tests were better, the tests are given in October and the results are not available until March or April, which leaves very little time to modify what is being taught to respond the needs of the student.

NCLB sets unrealistic goals. Its standards require all children to be at the proficient level in reading and math by the year 2014. This simply is not possible -- yet any school or district that misses this goal will be declared a failure.

Lastly, NCLB is underfunded, so that not only do the tests take time from instruction, they also take funds that could be better used in providing up-to-date instructional materials.

Mary Burke
No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has not been effective at improving education in the United States or in Madison, but it has helped increase awareness of low performance among different student groups. Prior to NCLB our community could avoid comparisons, such as how African American students were performing versus white students. Or how African American students in Madison were doing versus African American students in Milwaukee.

Standardized tests are only one measure of student performance and should not be overemphasized, but they do tell us that in Madison 48.4% of our African American students in 3rd grade are not proficient in reading, which is worse than in Milwaukee at 42.1%. These numbers tell us we can and should do better.

We need accountability measures that accurately reflect student learning, skills, and knowledge. NCLB is based off of the Wisconsin Knowledge Concepts Examination (WKCE) standardized state test, which does not accurately show student learning and is being replaced. With a better measure of our schools and students, we can also improve after-school and summer learning programs. By using this information community-wide and coordinating our efforts, more students will learn and thrive.

Not only do we need good information, we need timely information. With the current WCKE student assessment, students take the test in November and data is not available until the spring. This timing does not help a teacher or our schools better work with a student.

In Madison, we shouldn't set our sights on just meeting a national standard. Instead, we need to use our community expertise, innovation, and commitment to set our own vision and high standards. With my experience with our schools and education, as well as expertise improving large, complex organizations, I can help us move beyond No Child Left Behind. We can establish effective student assessments that reflect the learning and skills of our children. With these, our teachers, schools, and community can better intervene and engage students when and how it matters most. Together we can do better.

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