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New York Teachers Discuss Accountability, Pros and Cons of Assessments

June 6, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
As part of our American Graduate focus on teachers, testing and accountability, Ray Suarez moderated a discussion with several New York public school teachers on the challenges they face in the classroom and how they think they should be evaluated.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, our series on teachers, testing and accountability.

On Monday and Tuesday, we heard from philanthropist Melinda Gates of the Gates Foundation, and Diane Ravitch, a historian and former assistant secretary of education.

Tonight, we listen to teachers.

Ray Suarez recently moderated a conversation, one of a dozen events in the past year held with teachers around the country. This one was organized by WNET in New York City, featuring educators from each of the city’s five boroughs.

It’s part of our American Graduate project sponsored by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

RAY SUAREZ: Earlier this spring, we invited a group of New York City public schoolteachers to talk about the dropout crisis.

They are Khalilah Brann, a social studies at Brooklyn’s Bushwick Community High School, Amanda Moskowitz, a science and math teacher at P.S.-279, Captain Manuel Rivera Junior Middle School in the Bronx, Seth Guinals-Kupperman, a science teacher at Manhattan’s High School for Math, Science and Engineering, Jeanne Raleigh from P.S.-19, Curtis Elementary School in Staten Island, and Bobson Wong, a math teacher at Bayside High School in Queens.

I wanted to talk to you about the national conversation which is going on here in New York as well of assessing teachers and trying to perhaps encourage those who aren’t doing a good job to seek other careers, and promoting, encouraging, incentivizing those who have a knack for this.

Is it a worthwhile question to be asking, and can it lead us somewhere that’s useful for our kids?

SETH GUINALS-KUPPERMAN, teacher, Manhattan’s High School for Math, Science and Engineering: I don’t think anyone has a problem with accountability in and of itself, anyone has a problem with assessment in and of itself.

The problem is the implementation of it. Even when it’s in a system where the teachers kind of promote it, the observation protocol. Most teachers who are in unions have some sort of observation that happens. For most teachers, the reality is maybe twice a year, twice a year for about an hour.

Imagine a job where the only decision as to whether you will retain another year of satisfactory work is your administrator or your boss, whoever, looking at two one-hour experiences of what you do and a conversation afterwards of that.

KHALILAH BRANN, Teacher, Bushwick Community High School: I have been teaching eight years. I think I have been observed five times. And never one time, I was told, these are the things that you can do to improve. They never came back to see if I did it. They never — nothing ever happened.

And so it’s not just about being rated or ranked. It’s like, what are we really trying to do with teachers? What are we really trying to say?

AMANDA MOSKOWITZ, Captain Manuel Rivera Junior Middle School: We expect ourselves to differentiate, and that that’s considered good practice.

But then there’s no follow-through for the students on that. So their state tests aren’t differentiated based on their needs. And then we’re evaluated based on their state test scores. And there’s no differentiation for our evaluations.

So every teacher is evaluated on the same criteria, no matter where they’re coming from, where they’re teaching, who they’re teaching, and what those students’ needs are.

RAY SUAREZ: Testing has become such a big part of being a student in this part of the 21st century. Is it giving you the kind of information you want, the kind of information you need when someone just hits the front door and they’re your new charge?

BOBSON WONG, Bayside High School: Well, we get a lot of information from standardized tests to take away from the state tests.

The problem is interpreting it correctly. So we have all this data from the city and from the state. It’s a question of, do we have the tools necessary to really interpret it and understand that the score may not be what it represents? And that’s a problem with assessment.

RAY SUAREZ: Has it been a useful tool for you, Seth, all this new data about what kids know?

SETH GUINALS-KUPPERMAN: I wouldn’t say terribly much.

What I’m more upset at is not that I don’t have the tools, but that the tools that I have found that do seem to comport with and do seem to correlate with student achievement, student motivation are ones that I either had to develop or research on my own.

RAY SUAREZ: Do any of you still find yourself surprised in October, in November, I thought you knew this already, I thought you were supposed to know this already?

KHALILAH BRANN: Yes.

And every time I say that, I think to myself, assume nothing. You want to make the assumption, as a high school teacher, you have this foundation there. But I am just at the point where, as soon as I say that, I say, you know what? You cannot assume that they have gotten what they have needed to be at this point.

They get passed through, and it’s because of everything is so high-stakes.

JEANNE RALEIGH, Curtis Elementary School: I feel like an elementary school teacher, that we do teach the curriculum. We teach living skills. We teach much to these students that they don’t remember even the next day. You know, that’s an issue, retention on behalf of the student.

Now, why is that? What do they do when they go home? What are they doing for extracurricular activity? What else are they reading? I sit in front of students and say, we learned this last week.

SETH GUINALS-KUPPERMAN: Can I jump into that? I think part of it is systematic.

I think part of it comes from expectations. When the courses, at least in high school, are so separated, biology, chemistry, physics, earth science, there is so little in terms of the expectation from each course that you retained anything or need anything from the previous course, I think the message is clear to the student that the courses themselves are so independent from each other, that you need not retain anything from the previous year to have success in the subsequent year.

RAY SUAREZ: I want to thank you all for your participation in today’s program. Thanks for the work that you do and thanks for helping raise the kids of New York and giving your working lives to that very noble and very vital task.

Thanks a lot.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you can watch our previous stories in this series online on our American Graduate page.