The New York Daily News today ran an editorial praising the work of state legislators and teacher union groups to come up with a new way of assessing teachers with an eye more than anything else on getting rid of those who are performing below expectations. As always, exactly how to figure out which teachers are “underperforming” is the problem, and the state’s attempt to win some of the Race to the Top money that’s being dangled in front of everyone’s face is driving the conversation. That means, of course, that students’ scores on standardized tests will play a big part in determining whether a teacher is “highly effective, effective, developing or ineffective.”

The reasons why this is highly problematic have been articulated over and over; just wait until the first teacher gets fired because his kids conspired to do poorly on the test. But I have another concern, namely the tendency if not habit of people to confuse learning and knowledge. Here’s the first paragraph of the Daily News editorial:

The state Education Department has fashioned a plan that would start New York on the road toward measuring whether each public school teacher is a superstar or a lemon, based on how well students learn.

It should read:

The state Education Department has fashioned a plan that would start New York on the road toward measuring whether each public school teacher is a superstar or a lemon, based on how much their students know.

I don’t know about you, but very few of the questions I’ve seen on the NY State Regents have anything to do with student learning. Instead they attempt to assess whether or not a student knows how to read, knows how to use a formula, know what the parts of a leaf are, etc. It’s pretty hard to look at those questions and find any that get to “how well students learn.”

Semantics? Maybe. But I think it’s a crucial distinction to make at a time when “knowing” is pretty darn easy considering how many places knowledge resides these days, notwithstanding the complexity of figuring out what’s worth knowing in the first place. And yes, we need to know that our kids know some stuff, no question. But what I really want to know is that my kids are learners, that they are motivated to seek knowledge on their own and use it effectively, that they are problem solvers, that they are self-directed, entrepreneurial, and motivated to change the world. If you can find a way to test that, I’d be more than happy to apply the result as a part of teacher evaluation.

Until then, especially if people’s livelihoods depend on it, let’s at least be clear exactly what we’re measuring.