Sunday, March 24, 2013

John Meeks: CASTing out fear in our schools

By John Louis Meeks, Jr.

If Florida’s teacher assessment system was designed to improve learning for students, it was way off the mark.

The Collaborative Assessment System for Teachers (CAST) is supposed to be an objective way to grade educators on their classroom performance.  It is supposed to be a way for administrators to observe classroom work and combine their observations with student data.  Instead, we have what I call FEAR (Failing Educators through Alienation and Retribution). 

Education reformers initially designed CAST because they felt that teacher evaluations were letting too many teachers off the hook when too many students were not making the grade.  CAST was initially created to expose the teachers who were not contributing to student success.

After the first year of this experiment, however, a disproportionate number of educators received ‘Effective’ ratings or higher.  This did not bode well for a system that was supposed to align teacher performance (or lack thereof) with student success and failure.

There is rumbling in many quarters today that Tallahassee’s message is loud and clear – there will not be another year of ‘effective’ teachers in a state of ineffective results.  The heat is now on for school districts and administrators to lowball educators in advance of our test results. 

It should be no surprise that administrators now have taken the message from state legislators to be marching orders to downplay and belittle the work that their subordinates are doing. 

Principals and assistant principals know what they are doing when they observe a classroom with their minds already made up who they are going to scapegoat for their respective schools.  They know how to take the smallest flaw in a teacher’s lesson and how to magnify it into the observed teacher’s inability to do the job that they were hired to do.

If this sounds like a conspiracy theory, it likely is one because the administrators manage to cover themselves in the event school test scores stagnate and the state legislature manages to justify their merit pay plan that supposedly rewards the good teachers that CAST is supposed to identify.

And how do we identify good teachers?  CAST is a narrowly-defined metric that expects educators to teach to the metric in a way that abandons their individual teaching styles and negates their professional skills in favor of a cookie-cutter method of teaching that allows for no differentiation within the teaching profession.

Our state government chose to force this long-term damage into our schools for the quick fix of winning federal money in the Race to the Top program.  The same legislators who will fight to the death to oppose Medicaid expansion are the same ones who would gladly take any strings-attached funds from the U.S. Department of Education to make a point about how we indeed should hold our teachers in such low regard.

Teaching is supposed to be about creating hope for our communities to build a better future.  By playing politics with teacher evaluations the way we are, however, is creating a climate of fear in which teachers are destined to fail no matter what they do.  It is not too late to repair and reform CAST, but it is up to Florida’s educators to finally evaluate the tool that does such a poor job of judging them.

To remain silent is to tell our leaders that we are on board with this travesty.  I, for one, am not.