I am absolutely convinced that teachers developing solid relationships with students, and encouraging students to develop similar caring relationships with their peers, is a key to a successful classroom.
During my career as a community organizer, we used to say that successful organizing was just another word for relationship-building.
I believe President Obama, a former community organizer, understands the importance of these kinds of relationships, too.
David Brooks, a columnist for The New York Times (who I generally think is pretty thoughtful), appears to agree with this assessment. In a column last week, he wrote:
The Obama approach would make it more likely that young Americans grow up in relationships with teaching adults. It would expand nurse visits to disorganized homes. It would improve early education. It would extend the school year.
So far, so good.
Then he continues:
Most important, it would increase merit pay for good teachers (the ones who develop emotional bonds with students) and dismiss bad teachers (the ones who treat students like cattle to be processed).
I’d sure like to know how in the world he expects to be able to fairly measure relationship-building and tie that into merit pay (Mathew Needleman recently wrote about merit pay in this blog).
A little later in the column, Brooks answers my question with what I consider to be faulty logic. He claims that somehow test scores will be able to determine which teachers are effective at building relationships:
Today, tests can tell you which students are on track and which aren’t. They can tell you which teachers are bringing their students’ achievement up by two grades in a single year and which are bringing their students’ levels up by only half a grade.
I believe I have great relationships with my students. And I believe that’s true with many other teachers at our inner-city school. And, overall, I feel okay about the progress our students show on standardized tests (as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, our school is one of the few high schools in the nation that has escaped Fourth Year Program Improvement)
If we took the route, though, that the school recently featured by The New York Times did and our classtime was focused on test prep — day in and day out — I wouldn’t be surprised if some student test scores would be higher…in the short term. I suspect their desire to become life-long learners, their intellectual curiosity, and their emotional and moral development might very well suffer, however.
“Rigor” does not have to mean “testing,” as Brooks writes in his column.
I’m not afraid of standardized testing — to paraphrase a saying, I believe it has a place, but also has to be kept in its place. However, I would say — unequivocally — that testing does not help teachers develop relationships with students and nor does it accurately measure the quality of teacher relationships with students (though I do have to say that I suspect some students might try a little harder on a test that they believe is important to a teacher who they like and respect).
It’s unfortunate that Brooks took the idea of building relationships — an important and under-discussed element in teaching and learning — and used it to come up with a non-sequitur related to merit pay and testing (and then even tried to tie it into the voucher debate).