Another bite at Utah teaching standards

I blogged earlier about the recently released Utah Teaching Standards, and expressed my concern that the standards “focus almost entirely on what the teacher does in the classroom . . . and not on whether the teacher’s chosen approach translates into actual student learning.” I contrasted this with the demanding common core standards, which deliberately choose not to advocate particular teaching techniques but instead specify what STUDENTS should be able to accomplish after they’ve been effectively taught. (I did not note, as I should have, that Utah has in fact adopted the common core standards.)

I wanted to return to this topic, because there were other elements of the teaching standards that worried me.

Here’s standard number one (note that content knowledge doesn’t show up until standard four): “Learner Development. “The teacher 1) respects learners’ differing strengths and needs and is committed to using this information to further each learner’s development; 2) is committed to using learners’ strengths as a basis for growth and their misconceptions as opportunities for learning; 3) values the input and contributions of families, colleagues and other professionals.”

Who could quarrel with that?

I will, although I’d like to note that I appreciate how the standards put the input and contributions of families first.

While I agree that effective teachers understand different learning styles and needs, I also believe that by focusing FIRST on what educational professionals call “differentiated instruction”, these standards send a troubling signal to teachers about what matters most to school districts and administrators.

No teacher can possibly develop lesson plans that reflect “each learner’s” strengths, weaknesses and learning styles. This may be an admirable goal – and I believe that a desire for highly individualized instruction is much of what attracts parents, myself at one time included, to home schooling – but it’s also an impossible goal. Most years I taught at least 150 different students. A teacher in even a small elementary school classroom will teach at least 20 students. If we spent the time required to figure out all these individual learning styles, we wouldn’t have time for anything else! At best we can – and should – vary instruction enough that if one approach doesn’t get through, another will.

And to return to my earlier point, how do we assess whether this standard is being met? Do administrators ask for 20 – or 150 – individualized lesson plans? Or do they assess whether the 20 – or 150 – students are actually learning what we expect them to learn for that subject and grade level? Oops. We’re back to more concrete and objective assessments of teacher effectiveness . . . the kind of assessments that the teaching standards fail to mention.

Standard two is “Learning Differences.” To meet this standard, “the teacher understands individual learner differences and cultural and linguistic diversity.”

Again, it’s hard to quarrel with this aspiration. I also really like the first sub-point: “the teacher believes that all learners can achieve at high levels and persists in helping each learner reach his/her full potential.” But I’d note again that this standard focuses entirely on what the teacher “believes” and “understands,” and not on whether these beliefs and understandings translate into diverse students actually achieving at high levels. As I’ve mentioned before, Utah performs quite badly when it comes to objective measurements of how our most disadvantaged students perform.

I am not advocating that we assess teachers based solely on standardized test results, and I’m not disagreeing, at all, with the proposition that teachers should strive diligently to meet the challenges posed by our increasingly diverse student body. But I still think that the first question we should be asking in evaluating a teacher is: Are his or her students learning what they need to learn? And I still think that the Utah Teaching Standards duck this question.

Here, again, is the link to the Utah teaching standards.

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