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Talking tests & teaching: What’s new in helping students and teachers progress?

Exploring cutting-edge thinking about testing students, and considering new research on how to help teachers hone their skills.

REUTERS/Michael Kooren

A slender post today while the author preps for a Wednesday night panel discussion and event that promises to be a ton of fun. You’re coming, are you not, to “Tap and Talk: How to Fix State Testing”?

Panelists include Education Minnesota’s Carrie Lucking, Students for Education Reform’s Latasha Gandy and me. Hosted by Educators4Excellence (E4E), the event goes from 5 to 7 p.m. at Day Block Brewing Co. at 1105 Washington Ave. S. There will be small group discussion and beer and snacks.

And I believe Minneapolis teacher and E4E policy advocate Holly Kragthorpe, co-author of a fresh-off-the-presses Education Post column on assessments, will be on hand. We’ll snack, we’ll discuss, we’ll go home smarter.

I couldn’t be more excited. I spent two days at Stanford University last fall with the Education Writers Association (EWA) hearing about next-generation assessments and cutting-edge thinking on how to make testing a useful and organic part of learning. Now I get to share.

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I’d like to print out and bring a list of six “vital” assessment features contained in a lively, ongoing discourse between the Center for School Change’s Joe Nathan and Education Week’s “Bridging Differences” blogger Deborah Meier. The two have taken up any number of thorny issues in recent weeks. I think Nathan is right, especially on the use of multiple measures and about the need for everyone in the school community to understand how the assessments contribute toward its goals.

The other item involves research that put me to mind of another EWA event, this one on teachers. Even more exciting than top-flight tests is the notion that the body of information we have about how to help teachers really amp up their practice is mushrooming.

Education researchers have long believed that teacher effectiveness looks something like a squat mesa. After a difficult first few years, conventional wisdom has held, performance plateaus. It holds more or less steady until the last phase of a teacher’s career, when it dips again.

According to Education Week, there are two new studies out that contradict this and suggest that experience has benefits beyond simple academic performance. Not only does teacher expertise continue to rise for a decade or more, its benefits include better student attendance.

“While the teachers did make the most progress during their first few years in the classroom, teachers improved their ability to boost student test scores on average by 40 percent between their 10th and their 30th year on the job,” EdWeek reported.

No doubt the studies, by researchers at Brown and Duke universities, will be used and misused to bolster various positions in heated debates about teacher pay and seniority.

If we stop there, though, we’ll be missing an opportunity to bust one of the teaching culture’s least productive beliefs: that good teaching is an innate gift.

The data neatly jibe with the hypothesis of one of the better books of the year, Elizabeth Green’s “How to Build a Better Teacher.” Teaching is a craft, Green shows, that can be taught to most anyone and that involves skills that can be polished.

It’s a great read. If it sounds mind-boggling that until recently there wasn’t even a common taxonomy to describe the strategies teachers devise as they gain experience, Green lays out the history of why this is so. And she describes cultures — Japan, for instance — where teachers “workshop” their classroom techniques on a frequent and ongoing basis to elevate everyone’s practice.

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The other important discussion the research could fuel involves teacher professional development. There’s tons of research to suggest that the current one- or two-day workshop model does not lead to meaningful teacher growth and should be replaced with ongoing, year-round on-the-job development and coaching for teams of teachers.