Friday, July 25, 2008

I Know What I Know

Gregg Primo Ventello, Associate Professor of English at Kansas City, Kansas Community College, has written an essay complaining that his administration's requirement that he "document how [he assesses his] teaching methods and [his] students' learning" leaves him feeling "mildly violated". It's one of the absolute worst set of arguments I have ever seen. And as a graduate student in the field of education, and as a teacher of middle school students, I've seen a lot of lousy arguments.

Ventello's essay contains precisely one correct claim, namely that "[r]equiring documentation of assessment is a failed attempt to hold educators 'accountable.'" This is basically true, since assessing learning is notoriously difficult and administrators don't like to admit that they're not holding people accountable.

So let it be said that the paperwork Ventello despises is, in fact, essentially a waste of time and energy. The rest of the reasoning offered in the piece, however, isn't just wrong, but patently absurd. Consider whether the following argument would hold water in any other professional context:
Before the mandate for documentation, we assessed ourselves and our students because we love our content, and how well we convey that content to our students deeply concerns us. Assessment, for a teacher, is an internal requirement.

The origin of this internal requirement is what the Greeks called “eros.” Socrates speaks of this in the Symposium. Eros can be defined as passion for work, any work -- whether it’s teaching calculus, playing the saxophone, or plumbing a house. It depends on the individual. Eros is the reason I fill with unabated joy when doing the work that I love. It is what causes time to fly while engaged, and what also causes time to stop when forced to do work that is, as Audre Lorde put it, “a travesty of necessities, a duty by which we earn bread” (Lorde, 1984, p. 55).


Eros is why we assess our teaching on some level at every moment of our professional day, and why we often cannot stop assessing at the “end” of our day. Teachers will do what they must to process their successes and failures. If there is a need to write it down, we will, but often the most productive plan of action emerges through a conversation with a colleague or mentor who shares your passion for the content and its pedagogy.
(Keep in mind, this horribly sophomoric argument is coming from a college-level professor.)

The confusion here is so basic that I actually had to contemplate for several minutes exactly how to articulate it. The best I can do is: We do not take it for granted that individuals are fulfilling their responsibilities on the assumption that they would not have taken on those responsibilities if they were not passionate about fulfilling them.

(But imagine how awesome it would be to be Prof. Ventello's financial planner! "No sir, we don't provide regular statements regarding the status and progress of your investments, because we are deeply passionate about maximizing your wealth. That sort of paperwork would be totally redundant.")

Not only are the empirical assumptions wildly absurd, though, there are also very serious issues of internal coherence. Remember, Ventello argues - correctly, I think! - that "what we do [as teachers] doesn’t lend itself easily to any perfect quantitative measure", and that therefore documentation of assessment in education is bound to be pointless. At the same time, however, he seems to have no doubts about his own ability to pursue "excellence" in teaching:
When we achieve eros, we settle for nothing short of excellence. We continually push ourselves to be better at what we do, and this is why we are concerned with how we use our time. In our pursuit of excellence, we know that our time is best spent engaged in the work that we love. We demand from others what we demand of ourselves. This means that we expect other people to put forth their best efforts because this is what we put forth. Incompetence, carelessness, ineptitude will not go unchecked. We know it exists; we’re not crazy. However, we expect better and will almost always ask for it. Because we care so much for how we use our time, we are forced to assess every minute and every aspect of our lives.
The question is naturally raised: if assessment in education is easily performed by close practitioners, why on earth would it be so inscrutable to a supervisor? There's a deeply unfortunate tendency among many educators to want to have this issue both ways such that they can be supremely confident of their own abilities as a teacher without conceding that other people might be able to evaluate the evidence as well. Ventello's essay illustrates that tendency almost perfectly.

Obviously, assessment in education really is hard, but that's a fact that cuts both ways. It's both the hardest part of being a teacher, and the part of the job teachers tend to deal with least seriously. I think that reality is made all too clear, here.

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