This article was first published at Getting Smart on April 30, 2013

generic12Where does the current emphasis on accountability come from?  I think it comes from a desperate need for equity and justice – from the awareness that has been raised by the national high-stakes testing of students that there is a very real and tragic difference in the outcomes of poor students versus those that are more affluent.  The No Child Left Behind legislation has caused data to be collected for the first time that measures achievement according to race, economic status, English learner status, and so on.

The results are grim.  According to this blog from the National Education Policy Center, a think-tank based at the University of Colorado:

“In 2012, white and Asian students had a 71 percent probability of a higher English Language Arts score than Black and Latino students, and a 75 percent probability of a higher math score.”

There is widespread agreement that the achievement gap is real and persistent and that this sort of social inequity is unconscionable.  Something must be done, and an obvious place to start is by ensuring that every child, regardless of race, has access to a quality school with quality teachers and quality leadership.

The obvious approach is to keep those teachers, schools, and leaders where the students learn and to replace those where students fail.  How do we know where learning happens?  By checking test scores and measuring the progress that students make over a year – if students that are behind make at least a year’s worth of progress over a year’s time, we know that they are in an effective environment.  If they actually start to catch up – progressing more than a year’s worth over a year’s time, then they must be in a highly effective environment.  And every student, regardless of race, background, or zip code deserves a highly effective environment for learning.

I have seen superbly effective teaching, such as in classrooms at the exemplary High Tech High.  I have seen painfully poor teaching in schools that don’t enjoy that level of success.  There is no question which experience I would accept for my own children.


Setting aside for the moment issues with the effectiveness of using high-stakes summative test scores to evaluate school and teacher performance, there is a deeper issue at stake here – how do we account for students’ readiness to learn?

We know that different kids come to school at different academic levels.  A simple model of student growth would say to look at where a student is academically, see how far the student progresses over a year, and see how that compares to the expected amount of learning for a one-year timeframe.  However, to be meaningful, measures of student growth need to take into account a student’s readiness to learn.

With my own kids I notice keenly that there are good days and bad days to learn.  If they aren’t rested, if their blood sugar is low, and particularly if they are feeling stressed, the amount of learning that can happen is minimal.  I also find that the harder I push at these times, the longer it takes before learning can happen – trying to do academics before addressing these other factors is outright counterproductive and only increases their stress and mine.  On the other hand, if I wait until they are rested, fed, and in a good place emotionally, my kids can accomplish more in 30 minutes than they would in many hours of struggle when they are not ready to learn.

I recognize that all kids are different and have different needs, but recent research seems to indicate that prolonged stress has a devastating effect on a child’s ability to learn.   Similarly there is research suggesting that children living in poverty are exposed to significant levels of stress throughout their childhoods and consequently arrive at school far less ready to learn than their peers.  They are facing obstacles that make the missed meal or sleepless night that decimates my kids’ ability to learn trivial by comparison.

So I wonder.  What is the school environment equivalent of the good meal, the good night’s rest, and/or emotional decompressing that I can provide for my kids when they aren’t ready to learn?  If a student isn’t ready to learn, how much of his or her day should be spent on addressing the stress or other obstacles to learning and how much should be spent on trying to prepare the child to do better on tests?  Is there a trade-off between short-term gains and long-term readiness to learn?

Any measures of student growth that are meant to assess the quality of teachers need to take into account not only a student’s academic level but his or her readiness to learn.  They need to recognize the obstacles that students face, such as stress, that we expect teachers to overcome before their students can reach a level playing field.  In particular, how do we compare a teacher with students who are unprepared to learn with a teacher whose students are behind academically, but ready to progress?

Until we are more sophisticated in measuring such intangibles, understanding teacher performance in any real way must include the judgment of professional educators who are knowledgeable about the particular challenges of the students in a specific school’s community as well as the contributions that educators, as individuals and teams, make both to their learning and their life-long ability to learn.