The assessment culture which currently dominates education de-humanizes the entire education process. According to Mary Pat Donoghue, Director of School Services for the Institute, “Today’s assessment culture violates the truth of subsidiarity by pretending that real assessment of the growth of human souls in knowledge and virtue can be made without the teacher, the human being closest to the students themselves.”
Michael Van Hecke, President of the Institute and Headmaster at St. Augustine Academy in California, sees a tendency to “factory-ize” education. External, quantitative, reportable assessment determines whether a program is succeeding or failing. If it is failing, the program is changed according to the latest creation of education publishing houses. “This is the tail wagging the dog. When students fail, most often it is because teachers are failing. Good teachers know this. All the books on successful students and schools have the same theme: Reform Teachers to Reform Education.”
Teachers must be knowledgeable and committed. If they know their subjects and are committed to their students, they will continually find ways to determine what has been absorbed. This will include all the ways that teachers use to encourage their students to be active in the learning process. If they find the students deficient, good teachers will first ask what more they can do to help students progress. They will seek the advice of more experienced teachers. They will not rest until they find the way to have their students catch fire for their subject. Even when they determine the problem is in their students, they will look for extra ways to motivate, inspire, and discipline the student.
Mary Pat sees that teachers and schools often need to be pushed from the outside. “None of us really like to examine ourselves.” Administrators must see that their teachers have determinate goals in mind for each unit, along with means of deciding how well they have been met. But the administrator’s chief task must be to put qualified teachers in the classroom and help them to grow as educators. “Do my teachers understand the most important concepts the students need to learn? Do they have a good grasp of the virtues we want to form in them? Have they learned to pay close attention to their students, and found ways to have the students actively show what they have learned? If so, then I can be confident in their judgments."
“Soft assessments” are even more important. Mary Pat encourages teachers to make regular notes on each student. What kinds of questions do students ask of what they have read or of what others are saying? What do they show about their understanding? Do they have an active curiosity? Are they willing to take risks in speaking and to receive correction from others? Are they learning to rely appropriately on their own judgments? Student conversation is essential to make these kinds of assessments, and Mary Pat recommends encouraging that as much as possible, such as through Touchstones Socratic discussion circles.
Truly assessment “dominates” teachers and schools; perhaps “tyrannizes” better captures the climate it brings about. It need not be this way. When teachers know what and why they are teaching, and have tasted the real, lasting good they are doing for students, they rejoice in both their freedom and the responsibility it brings. Mike has been teaching pre-Algebra for 20 years. “It is still alive for me, because I’m not teaching a subject, I am teaching kids! I am not checking off standards; I am forming virtues.”