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Can Failing Students Have Successful Teachers?
Students of color historically have been underserved by public schooling. Teacher assessments need to do a better job of identifying teacher strengths that can be translated into real classroom practices that meet the needs of real urban students of color.
Given the changing demographics of the student body in the United States and the division of public school student populations into groups of haves and have-nots, it is important to understand that, rather than confronting dangerous minds, teachers of urban students of color are teaching in dangerous times. One of the most urgent issues facing this era and the teachers who serve in it is that of being able to more accurately measure what students know and are able to do. Much attention has been paid to new forms of student assessment that purportedly do that. However, communities of color, which historically have raised questions about the potential biases built into traditional test measures, have challenged the purpose and design of many of the new assessments.
UW-Madison education professor Gloria Ladson-Billings considers three aspects of these assessments to discern the ways in which taken-for-granted notions of authenticity may reproduce inequity. Those aspects are (a) teaching contexts, (b) use of videotaping, and (c) portfolio assessments.
Many of the new teacher assessments presently being used or considered fail to take into consideration the very different contexts in which teachers find themselves. Teachers of color are more likely to find themselves in poor, urban school communities than are White teachers. When these teachers walk into their district's, state's, or professional organization's assessment centers for certification testing, the context in which they carry out their teaching may not be given any weight.
Use of videotaping
Recent examinations of teaching have made extensive use of videotaping to document teaching performances. Schools and districts with resources and personnel equipped to produce high-quality videotapes can make mediocre teaching appear much better than it really is. Conversely, excellent teachers with limited access to good equipment and videographic skills may be left with poor-quality tapes that fail to illuminate any of the magic that transpires in their classrooms.
The use of teaching portfolios has been hailed as one of the best ways to assess teaching performance. On the surface, this seems a fair and equitable way to assess teaching: allow teachers to show what they believe is their best work and/or the products of that work and judge it. But closer examination reveals potential inequities in its use and availability. Some schools offer teachers many more technological resources than are available than in other schools.
A culturally relevant approach to teacher assessment
Educational researchers and scholars of color have long suspected that traditional teacher assessment techniques systematically screen out teachers of color from the teaching field. If the proposed new teacher assessment techniques continue in this vein, do alternative assessments need to be formulated? If so, what proficiency or skill areas must these assessments address? Ladson-Billings’s previous work suggests that considerations of teachers' abilities to engender academic achievement, cultural competence, and sociopolitical consciousness among their students may be a way to rethink teacher performance. Additionally, assessments that consider aspects of teachers' culture might prove more equitable for teachers of color.
Student academic achievement
Teaching is hard work. Managing a classroom can be made to seem effortless, but even casual observers come to admire the work entailed in keeping more than 20 students quiet and under control. But is merely managing bodies enough? Regardless of the elegance of one's teaching performances, the bottom line in teaching is always how much learning takes place. Do students demonstrate competence in academic areas? Are they able to formulate questions? propose solutions? apply knowledge to new and different situations?
Culturally relevant teachers know when to introduce relevant examples from their students' backgrounds and experiences to make learning more meaningful. Unfortunately, nothing in the current teacher assessment battery addresses how well teachers' foster cultural competence within their students. Perhaps this is because few test constructors have ever considered the importance of cultural competence for students, nor would they even recognize it when it is being demonstrated by teachers.
Culturally relevant teachers also develop a sociopolitical consciousness in their students. Involvement with real community problems raises students' sociopolitical consciousness and can make mathematics a more meaningful activity for the students. It also makes teaching more challenging but it enables her to help her students understand that what happened in school had relevance for their everyday lives.
Assessment measures that value and reward culturally relevant teaching have not yet been constructed. The most sophisticated teaching tasks, documentation, and scoring rubrics developed to date have not even begun to capture the complexities of such teaching. There are, however, a few promising practices that may allow for a fundamental rethinking of what it means to assess culturally relevant teaching. These include considerations and demonstrations of situated pedagogies, teaching cases, and reflective practice.
The situations in which teachers (and students) find themselves define the pedagogical possibilities. The teacher who exhibits exemplary practices in an affluent suburban community may be a miserable failure in a poor urban community. Even what is thought of as the "same" setting can vary from year to year and class to class
Teachers can develop more powerful ways to analyze and improve their practice when they are asked to detail the dilemmas they face in the classroom and to think critically about those dilemmas. As an assessment tool, developing and analyzing teaching cases might serve to unpack some of the nested and complex aspects of teaching.
A culturally relevant teacher assessment could engage teachers in reflection about the ethical and sociocultural nature of their work. Accordingly, teachers should be able to articulate their dilemmas, successes, and failures to support their professional development in working with students of color.
For more information contact Gloria Ladson-Billings at (608) 263-0574 or firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared in different form in The Journal of Negro Education; Washington; Summer 1998.