Determining Student Needs. . .

My recent post on the recommendations made by our Nation’s TOY team has generated a pretty interesting conversation between two of my favorite readers, Parry and Matt.  Both writers are brilliant and make points that are legitimate in both theory and practicality. One early comment from Matt left me thinking.  He wrote: 

Two centuries of experience in American education clearly indicate that the answer is yes. In fact, if we were principals, would we hire any teacher we knew to be incapable of effectively determining individual student needs and individualizing instruction throughout the school year? Would we hire any teacher whose only means of teaching was to teach to a middle of the road test for all students, and whose only means of evaluation was the scores generated by the single test? Do I really need to answer?

Mike’s comments left me thinking because I’m not sure that I’m capable of effectively determining individual student needs or individualizing instruction throughout the school year. I’ve always questioned my ability to assess student learning and to have confidence that the measures of learning that I’d developed were reliable indicators of performance. In fact, I would say that I have little faith in my ability to accurately quantify what my students do and don’t know.

And I’m considered to be a highly accomplished teacher!

What’s even more disconcerting to me is that I’ve been open about my assessment weaknesses with administrators for years and yet my concerns are always dismissed. "Of course you can assess your students’ ability," my evaluators always say. "And we see you tailor instruction appropriate for individual learners all the time. You don’t give yourself enough credit."

Despite their confidence, I know my own abilities and can quickly recognize the gaps in my professional training. Few–if any–of my college courses focused on developing high quality assessments of student learning at all, and the professional development that I’ve been exposed to in the past 14 years has never addressed measuring student learning.

Sometimes I wonder if the coercive accountability movement and the deprofessionalization of educators contributes to my lack of confidence in my ability to assess. After all, I’ve spent the past 14 years being bombarded with messages of failure. Scripted curricula and standardized tests are given great credibility while thousands of under-trained "professionals" are given positions in classrooms. Working in such conditions inevitably opens the door to doubt. 

And I know that the lack of time is an almost insurmountable barrier to effective practice. Identifying individual student strengths and weaknesses and then tailoring instruction to meet these needs requires more time that teachers generally have access to. Even when I develop an assessment that I have great confidence in, I find myself rushing through the grading process and too overwhelmed to tailor follow up lessons based on the data that I collect. Because there is no time structured within the school day to provide enrichment or remediation and because simply keeping up with basic planning and grading consumes all of the short planning that I have available to me, I almost always end up teaching to the middle of the pack.

But in the end, it is my awareness of my own weaknesses as an "assessor" that is cause for concern to anyone who cares about education. If a widely recognized educator who invests no less than 12 hours a day living and breathing school is unsure of his own ability to measure student achievement, what can we expect from new teachers or those new to our profession?  How can we ensure that every teacher has the skills that Matt rightly asserts should be givens?

5 thoughts on “Determining Student Needs. . .

  1. Bob

    Perhaps words have more than one meaning among teachers, including perfection, informed, competent, teacher, and teaching.
    As for computers, yes they can do some things more efficiently than most teachers, by conventional classroom measures. Some software provides direct learning without additional human mediation, yielding smiling, enthusiastic learners. Openings exists for teachers to work with engineers writing learning software.
    So, back to Bill’s Q about addressing student needs. Some engineers have changed education vocabulary in order to develop prototypes that address student prerequisite skills (vs. needs) and offer efficient learning of the next set of skills and information for typical school content.
    I’ll bet educators like you two could add important insights to engineers’ efforts to make learning more efficient.
    Better yet, maybe can show engineers what (e.g., your instructional processes for specific content) to write programs to routinize your patterns, so you can offer more one on one with students who still progress more slowly than you think appropriate.

  2. Mike

    Dear Bob:
    Thanks for your kind comments. I’m not suggesting that we should stop seeking perfection, but we’d be foolish to imagine we can ever truly attain it. Yet, striving for perfection transforms us and our students. Don’t we all know that some people’s “good enough” is far better than most people’s “excellent?” One of my favorite Kendo senseis used to say “we will reach perfection tomorrow,” at the end of teach training session. And the next day, we’d keep trying.
    If we buy the idea that external references should take precedence over the informed judgement of competent teachers, we are sealing our own doom. If that is truly the case, why do we need teachers at all? It would be far cheaper to merely buy 2000 computers for a 2000 student school and software the kids to death. After all, if external references are all that count, why not? Talk about accountability! Talk about removing the human factor! Talk about removing those annoying teachers who get in the way of the newest political sound bite that will change the face of education!
    But we know, if we think in terms of human development and real teaching, that learning is best done through human to human interaction–relationships–over time. We also know that test scores are only a tiny part of the educational process, and actual performance, not just in a given discipline but as a functioning human being, is really the point.
    So we strive for perfection, but we have to be wise enough not to get neurotic about it.

  3. Bob

    Thoughtfully, appealingly asserted, Bill and Mike. You’ve described how many of us hope we think about teaching. Others will argue that what we think is less relevant than how our students perform against external references.
    Two companion thoughts:
    Protocols exist for measuring daily effects of teacher behavior on each student’s performance. Most of us don’t follow these guides, nor do our supervisors expect us to do so. I find myself starting with one, but drifting away from it. Following a protocol is a matter of self discipline, or lack thereof, like completing a Fritz Kreisler exercise. Yet, protocols exist, and test results have shown that students of some protocol users achieve higher performance outcomes.
    A wise person said, “Good enough isn’t.” Yet, as you both infer, good enough keeps most of us going. I’m less confident about encouraging others to stop short of their best or meeting an external criterion of accomplishment when I’m paid to get them to that criterion.

  4. Mike

    Oh Bill, one more thing. One of my firm beliefs is that we are each responsible for our education, which is a life long process. If I relied on the “professional development” classes that have been inflicted on me over the years for my professional education, my measureable IQ would have steadily declined. We do the best we can with what we have, and if we employ good people, that will be more than good enough. That’s solving real educational problems. High stakes tests are political sound bites.

  5. Mike

    Dear Bill:
    Matt/Mike (it’s actually Mike; you had me feeing a little schizo there for a moment) here. Your lack of confidence in your abilities in this area reflects two things and two things only: A necessary and helpful lack of hubris, and a desire to continually live an examined professional life. My assertion regarding the ability to continually assess students assumes that it is human beings that will be doing the assessment, and therefore, imperfection will always enter into the equation. We judge imperfectly employing imperfect criteria. Even so, which of these methods of student assessment is most likely to be most accurate:
    (1) A picture formed over a school year by a teacher who works closely with the student each day, dealing with their work on a hundred or more assignments of all kinds, many of which are designed for the express purpose of diagnosing and meeting student learning needs. And this picture is reinforced by the portfolio of all of their work that each student keeps and that the teacher periodically reviews for evidence, not just of progress, but of the right kind of progress.
    (2) A single score generated through a single mandatory, high stakes test, given once a year.
    I’ll paraphrase here in saying that in virtually all human endeavors, the perfect is the enemy of the good. One of my teaching frustrations is that because I have no time at all to observe other teachers, I really have no idea of their skill and effectiveness. I can make inferences from our conversations and from other clues, but I ultimately have to rely on pricipals to properly make those calls. The point is that we all have limitations, but based upon our online conversations, I’d be far more confident in your assessment of student progress based on my first example than on any single test score. In fact, any competent teacher should be a far better judge, using my criteria, than any test score could possibly indicate. And again, if we are playing principal, wouldn’t we consider that basic ability–understanding that not every human being is equal in ability and dedication–to be among our minimum hiring criteria?
    Apart from teaching, I am a professional, classically trained musician, and I can tell you that even the best make mistakes. They tend to make fewer of them than neophytes, and they tend to be less serious. The primary difference between a professional and neophyte is that professionals cover their mistakes so much better. So Bill, take the advice I give my students virtually every day: “trust yourself.” You don’t have to be perfect, just good enough. Living an examined professional life will help to ensure that you are indeed more than good enough. And any competent teacher is far. far better in this regard than a high stakes test score.

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