Conflict of Interest? 

Value-added assessment means value lost in Memphis classrooms.

The 787 teachers who were invited to a "voluntary" meeting at American Way Middle School last week were instead thrilled to be able to go home, grade papers, plan lessons, and do their job because a last-minute scheduling conflict occurred. However, a story in The Commercial Appeal suggested a different reason for the cancellation, one involving issues that were raised over the breach of confidentiality regarding the email invitation the teachers received.

According to Deputy Superintendent Irving Hamer, approximately 1,200 teachers in Memphis City Schools need to be counseled out of the teaching profession. This assessment comes in the wake of an administrative push for a marked increase in teachers' value-added assessment data based on their students' standardized test scores. The teachers invited to last week's meeting knew from the onset that they were invited because their students did not show gains on these tests for three consecutive years.

Having taught in Memphis City Schools for seven years, I've seen the gamut of the approximate 7,000 teachers in the system. As with any system, there are those who actually teach, and there are those who come to work just to collect a paycheck. The latter group most often hands out worksheets to keep the students occupied, while the former group spends countless hours and countless dollars (of their own money) to keep the youth of Memphis engaged in the learning process. My guess is that the worksheet group, for the most part, was not on Hamer's email list.

This value-added assessment data that prompted Thursday's meeting is data that shows student gains on standardized testing after being placed with a particular teacher. It isn't about how well they did on the test; it's about how large the students' gains were during that year under a particular teacher's tutelage. Anyone who has ever been in the field of education for long enough understands that the process of education is so much more than standardized tests. It's about teaching students how to make it in the world, how to love learning, how to respect themselves and each other, and how to build a better community within the classroom and outside of it.

Since I no longer have to worry about speaking out (a very real concern that many of my teacher colleagues have based on nondisclosure agreements they are forced to sign), I'd like to point out a few inherent problems to Hamer and to the rest of the administration of MCS, who have held these scores over teachers' heads like a threat for years.

First, to teach a student how to perform well on a standardized test, you have to constantly give them standardized tests in class. This is best done with a worksheet. The catch is that when given a choice of A, B, C, or D, children do not think outside of the box and they do not use advanced problem-solving skills. Standardized testing requires mere basic recall and memorization. While in grad school, teachers are taught to avoid lower-level recall questions like the plague.

Second, when an intellectually gifted student, who typically makes a 98 percent on the TCAP, doesn't make a 99 percent the following year, this does not show an ineffective teacher, despite what the value-added data says. The student is still advanced in his or her age group, but since there were no value-added gains, that student's teacher will be directly threatened with unemployment under the Kriner Cash/Irving Hamer regime.

Finally, there are the multiple extenuating circumstances that are present in classrooms across the city on a daily basis. Many students are living in poverty, dealing with emotional and family trauma — and yet these children are supposed to show gains on a standardized test despite the enormous obstacles facing them.

So as Hamer counsels teachers not showing gains out of the profession and replaces them with teachers who consistently give worksheets in class in order to achieve the elusive value-added gains, I worry about the future of our city and our city's children. Education is more than standardized testing; it is about teaching young people to be innovative citizens of the world who can think and reason for themselves. To push some of our best teachers from the classroom based on the inane concept of value-added gains does nothing but harm the future leaders and thinkers of Memphis.

Tonya L. Thompson, who works with the Young Memphis Writers Collective, is a former Memphis City Schools teacher.

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