The Funhouse Mirror – What Do We See and How Do We Report?

fun-house-mirrorBy Peggy Wuenstel — As a teenage babysitter, keeping your job depends on creating the impression that things are under complete control.

Even if your charges had you tied to a chair while they trashed the family room, stayed up way past their bed time and played non-approved on-line video games, you report to their parents at the end of the evening that everything was “just fine”. There are scores of movies that have used these images to great comic effect. But in the world of accurate reporting of student progress, in keeping parents advised about academic and behavioral challenges, “just fine” is a bit more serious.

Parents’ views of the “good teacher” can be very hard to determine. There can be as many characterizations of this role as there are parents in each school year. There is also an element of mindreading at work here, as many of these expectations go unspoken from both perspectives. Do these parents want their child challenged or coddled? Do those parents want us to create educational angst or prevent it?

Are they interested in having the teacher provide lots of ways to support kids at home or do they need us to create the environment where everything is fine and that parents needn’t worry? Should we make their child compare favorably with others or build on personal goals and avoid comparisons of any type?  These expectations may also change throughout the school year. It all depends on which funhouse mirror we are gazing into, the one that makes me look long and lean, or compact and powerful, or just plain silly.

Strong personalities or leadership skills are not synonymous with being a good teacher. It is tempting to believe that the well-spoken educator, with the right phrases to present the increasingly consumerist view of education that requires us to keep the customers happy, is by extension, a good teacher. This may be “just fine”, but the motivations can conflict especially in a time when teacher evaluation systems are changing and  administrations have much more freedom to remove or transfer classroom staff. Putting a good face on things has become more important than in the past.

Teachers and students are under increasing pressure to perform well on high stakes assessments, and producing these kinds of results is also not synonymous with good teaching or effective learning. The memorable educator, the teacher that changes your life, sets you on a new path, or pulls you back from the brink is often the teacher that refuses to say that everything is “fine“. They ask the tough questions, raise the thorny issues and refuse to settle for the easy route that narrow our definition of what teaching should be.

Problems such as grade inflation and vague or unfiltered positive comments in progress reporting surface periodically. Those of us who have been around a few decades have watched the pendulums swing back and forth between Outcome Based Education and Self-Esteem Building initiatives and “Back to Basics” and Zero Tolerance policies. Our current buzzwords are Common Core State Standards, Educational Effectiveness, Individual Learning Plans, Student Learning Outcomes, and Professional Practice Goals. The labels may be new, but the questions are essentially the same, only the tools have changed.

We learn how to use rubrics, curriculum maps, standardized measures and authentic assessments but we are still asking the question that Whitney Houston posed musically – “How will I know?”  Just like Whitney said, we have to trust our feelings,  along with providing the data, filling in the Scantron bubbles and checking the right boxes.

Whether we are elementary schoolers or post doctoral students we want to know what is required for success. How many pages must I write?, What percentage is passing?, What does my teacher, professor, or boss expect? A “just fine” assessment of student work does not provide that kind of feedback. It does not help students or parents identify the strengths on which to build or provide constructive criticism for improvement on the next task. It might tell us where we are but it certainly doesn’t provide a clear path to where we would like our students to go next.

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