Arne Duncan and the art of flexibility

Arne Duncan convinced me to modify the syllabus for my university physics class.

On Thursday, US Secretary of Education Duncan announced that he will allow states that hold waivers from certain requirements of the No Child Left Behind Law – including Florida – to delay the use of standardized test scores in teacher evaluations by a year.    The announcement seemed to be a bolt from the blue – something that no one expected.  For years, Duncan had taken a hard line about measuring student learning gains using standardized tests and using the results to evaluate teachers.

Duncan’s statement even adopted some of the arguments made by his critics.  He said that testing has been “sucking oxygen out of the room” in many schools (a quote featured in the School Zone post on the statement.  Also see the New York Times article here ).

With the delay, Duncan sought to let some of the air out of the controversy surrounding the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers.  No doubt the pause will lower the tension level and perhaps even allow a more reasoned discussion about teacher evaluations at the state level.

Which brings me to my course syllabus.

I give the students in my SCALE-UP introductory physics course a quiz every Friday – 14 quizzes for the semester.  Most of the other introductory physics courses do the same.  But most of my colleagues allow students to “drop” one of the quizzes each semester, so that only 13 count.  If a student misses a quiz, then that is the dropped quiz.  If not, then the lowest of the student’s scores on the 14 quizzes is dropped.  I did this for years, and learned that this policy didn’t eliminate student unhappiness.  If a student missed a quiz for a family trip or a university function that seemed more important than class (Model UN is my favorite example) then they would complain that it wasn’t “fair” that they didn’t get to drop the lowest quiz grade like the darn goody-two-shoes students who took all 14 quizzes and didn’t have well-rounded lives.  I finally threw up my hands and decided to require all 14 quizzes without exceptions – I figured that the student complaints couldn’t get any worse.

And they didn’t with the new policy.  But it turns out that the no-drop policy might have been more costly than I realized.  Students may not have complained any more often, but I’ve noticed a problem with classroom atmosphere – students seem more subdued than one might expect in a class specifically designed to empower students to take responsibility for their own learning.

So I’m looking for ways to improve my students’ sense of empowerment (short of allowing them to evaluate their own learning – that’s my job).  I’m going to restore the one-dropped-quiz policy that my colleagues generally use and that I used for so many years.  It’s important to understand what this will not do.  It will not improve student grades – I’m no slave to numerical scores and I take great care to understand what my students can do and not do.  It will not eliminate student complaints or even reduce them.  But it may give students an increased sense of empowerment in a small way, and I’ll be trying to discern whether this is the case or not.

And this is where Arne Duncan’s one-year reprieve comes in.  It’s only a one-year reprieve – and the controversial teacher-evaluation-by-testing requirement will still likely arrive a year later.   But Duncan is acknowledging the frustrations and concerns of many teachers and administrators by even adopting their language.  Perhaps that validation will help smooth the way a little.  And maybe the delay will ultimately lead to a more thoughtful approach for teacher evaluation, one that both policy-makers and teachers can accept.

But at least Duncan has demonstrated that he’s listening.  And that’s an important step forward all by itself.  I’m going to try to do better on that myself.

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