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Michael Spillman: Test data is poor way to measure teachers

Emma was a talented student in my 11th-grade English class. Inquisitive and eager to learn, she made creative contributions and arrived each afternoon with a warm, positive attitude. Last August, after a successful high school career, Emma went off to one of our great SUNY schools to become a teacher, “so I can have a positive impact on the lives of other people,” she would later tell me. I remember proudly scrawling in Emma’s yearbook, “You’re a good student, a great person and you’re going to be a fantastic teacher!”

Emma just finished her second semester of college and her dream is already on life support. How did this happen to this energetic, bright, positive young woman?

Let’s be clear: Emma wants to be a teacher for all of the reasons every great teacher became one. She loves kids. She is passionate about making positive connections with people about important things. Like so many great educators before her, she was inspired by the risk-takers – the teachers who nurture creative ideas and who relish the opportunity to introduce students to new knowledge.

To its credit, Emma’s program requires freshmen to do observational field work – a good way to find out who is serious about becoming a teacher and who should start shopping for a new major.

“She was a miserable teacher under the new regulations,” Emma wrote me recently, regarding the string of field observations she completed. “The teacher had no freedom to do what she wanted to do in her class. She read off of a predesigned Common Core script made by a publishing company. There was no inspiration, no creativity, no choice, and I know that I would hate that.” Emma noted that the first-grade teacher she observed was fearful of losing her job, intimidated by data-driven bosses who wanted to see the numbers improve rather than inspire the brains of the kids.

It didn’t stop there. Emma had heard that one of her former teachers publicly admitted at a board meeting that state assessment scores of his students label him an ineffective teacher. She wrote: “Seven years later, I remember him as an outstanding, inspiring teacher, the furthest thing from ineffective. Knowing that this is what the system has become has really turned me off. Do I really want to become a teacher under these unfair regulations?”

Good question, Emma.

These concerns can’t be unique. How many intelligent college kids across the state will catch a whiff of this rancid air and decide that they do not want to become teachers after all? How dark and deep will the cultural impact be when our brightest minds no longer want to participate in this noble profession?

I recently attended a class trip to Washington, D.C., with a few hundred eighth-graders and a dozen colleagues. My favorite moment was observing one teacher lead a dozen students through the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. That powerful exhibit became their classroom; he introduced his students to ideas that they will remember forever. Who knows what this teacher’s APPR score is or how his students did on the state tests? Who cares? He inspired them in a powerful way. Isn’t that the mark of great teaching? Do we really believe that such skill can be fairly measured by test data or that we can script the kind of talent that comes from the heart?

To the Emmas across the state: We need you in our classrooms. Our kids need your energy, your creativity and your compassion. More importantly, our society needs bold thinkers teaching in public schools.