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Teaching Professional Judgement is Essential for Student Learning

Tara Zwolinski

Rick Surrency, Florida’s 2023 Superintendent of the Year, spoke at the Future of Education Technology Conference about the recent lessons he had learned from touring schools in Finland. These lessons reflected what ETFO has always believed: teachers deserve to be respected and recognized for their expertise in the classroom and for using their professional judgement to improve student learning. Why? Because the best education systems in the world prioritize teacher professional judgement, autonomy and voice. However, the current narrative in North America devalues teacher professionalism and, instead, is centred around the buzz words of closing the achievement gap, accountability and return on investments, with governments increasingly looking to standardized testing as the measure of student learning.

ETFO’s position is that teaching is intellectual and technical work. Teaching is rocket science; it is also an art, a skill and a passion. Teaching is full of love. Teaching understands that students are not standardized, they are unique human beings. Consequently, teaching isn’t just about testing students, it is about building relationships to understand students. It is a journey. It is about both students and teachers having the right to be curious.

That is why ETFO has defined professional judgement in its Teacher/Occasional Teacher central agreement as “judgement that is informed by professional knowledge of curriculum expectations, context, evidence of learning, methods of instruction and assessment, and the criteria and standards that indicate success in student learning.” This definition recognizes our members’ professionalism and makes teacher professional judgment the cornerstone of instructional planning, assessment and evaluation.

In our current round of bargaining, the government is attempting to alter the scope of teacher professional judgement in the central agreement in relation to the use of diagnostic assessment. The government wants to limit teachers from using their professional judgement to determine what kind of assessment best suits an individual student’s needs, and when assessment should/could be administered. Even though students are not standardized learners, the government wants to intensify standardized testing of students.

Teachers know how essential professional judgement is to the work that they do. There is no standardized test that can replace professional judgement or can more accurately assess where a student thrives or where they need support.

Consider Kenisha, a teacher who has used the first few weeks of September to welcome back her Senior Kindergarten students and introduce her Junior Kindergarten students to their new routine at school. Kenisha is now conducting language assessments. For her Junior Kindergarten students, she is gathering information about what letters and letter sounds they know. Each student has their own tracking sheet so that growth over time can be monitored. Kenisha also has a class tracking sheet. She uses this information to guide her planning of whole class and small group lessons as well as individual support. Kenisha has used her professional judgement to gather information that will inform her next steps and improve student learning.

Consider Joy, a Grade 7 teacher. It is January and the class is engaged in a Patterning and Algebra unit about equations. Today’s mathematics period begins with students evaluating an algebraic expression from yesterday’s lesson on a small square piece of paper. Joy collects and quickly sorts the papers into two categories: ‘correct’ or ‘has a mistake.’ Joy, then selects her “favourite” mistake, i.e., a mistake that, when discussed with students, will further student learning and replicates the answer on the board. Joy and the students investigate the misconceptions that were applied and review appropriate mathematical strategies to solve the expression and learn from the mistake. Later in the lesson, Joy follows up with all the students who made a mistake on the assigned algebraic expression. Joy has used her professional judgement to gather information, inform her next steps and has improved student learning.

These are just two examples of how teachers use their professional judgment. Every day, in every subject, teachers are collecting information both formally and informally about student learning through conversations, observations and products. Teachers are developmentally responsive to students by using this evidence of learning, professional knowledge of the curriculum, and evidence-based practices to plan the next steps to both and inspire and improve student learning.

Professional judgement is essential in implementing evidence-based pedagogy. Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky observed that individual students learn most effectively within a zone of proximal development. That is, when student learning is guided by a teacher, using their professional judgement, the student is challenged neither too little nor too much. The child is neither disengaged by boredom of something too easy nor by the frustration of something too difficult.

Teacher Professional Judgement Under Attack

It was through his research that Arlo Kempf also observed that Ontario teachers are increasingly on the defensive as both professionals and as human beings who care about their work and have dedicated their lives to educating children. The struggle to defend educator jobs, our schools, our pedagogy, our students, our knowledge and ability, and our profession has only increased with the Ford government.

Even before the pandemic, “closing the achievement gap” had become a popular buzzword often used by educational policy makers and politicians. However, the effects of the pandemic have created even more urgency regarding learning recovery for educators, families and politicians. And a new buzzword has begun to enter the education vernacular: Return on Investment (ROI).

The connection that the government has made between learning recovery and accountability for money spent in education has opened a path for increased privatization in our public school system, since ‘accountability’ often comes in the form of standardized testing.

In 2016, Arlo Kempf observed that increased standardization has intensified the role of private companies in public education, and standardized measurement is a key private-to-public access point. For example, Pearson Education boasts a 39 percent market share of the multibillion-dollar testing industry. Pearson has also opened the door for test content as commodity by including product placement mentions of Mug Root Beer, IBM, Lego and FIFA on their testing platform.

Kempf emphasizes that it is also important to note that this massive transfer of public money into private hands has been ushered in under the banner of accountability for taxpayer dollars, to improve student achievement and to increase global competitiveness. This approach to accountability perpetuates the myth that students are empty vessels to be filled with knowledge that can measured as returns on investments, instead of acknowledging that teaching is intellectual and technical work performed by expert professionals.

Similar observations were made in the OTF report: Schools, Austerity and Privatization in the Pandemic Era in 2022. The author, Dr. Paul Bocking, warned that the “platformization” and digitization of education by ed tech companies has accelerated privatization within Ontario public education during the pandemic, and that the re-centring of teaching around Learning Management System (LMS) platforms is both a form of privatization and a potential threat to teachers’ professional autonomy.

There are several companies that offer packages that, using artificial intelligence, assess a student’s knowledge and create a queue of formulaic lessons for the student to complete – without the student ever having to interact with a teacher or another student. Some programs provide the number of minutes a student must complete in order to “catch up” to grade level and promote a purchased program, devoid of human connection, as the solution.

In the recent article From Learning Loss to a Liberatory Mindset, the author Sonja Cherry-Paul argues that prescriptive programs devoid of human connection are not responsive to students as whole children. Instead, they result in pedagogical practices focused on fixing children rather than fixing systems that perpetuate structural and systemic barriers. Cherry-Paul further argues that “when school leaders rush to invest in tests, isolated technology programs, and boxed curricula that promise only to raise scores on standardized assessments, schools can become spaces where children are disengaged from learning, languishing in classrooms where they believe that they are not capable or worthy of vibrant, challenging, thoughtprovoking curriculum.” Vibrant, challenging, thought-provoking teaching and learning are only possible when educators are valued for their professional judgement.

Teacher Professional Judgement is Priceless

All students have a learning story. In her book, Softening the Edges: Assessment Practices That Honour K-12 Teachers and Learners (2017), Katie White argues that the skills required to meet the needs of diverse learners within a school environment are astoundingly complex. White further argues that to nurture confident, independent learners we must believe in our students so deeply that we refuse to accept less than their best. As educators we believe in ourselves, and we believe in our professional judgement, to accomplish this very complex vision for each learner.

In conclusion, consider Ed, a rotary music teacher for a Kindergarten to Grade 6 school, including a diagnostic Kindergarten class. Ed wrote a song for these special students. The call and response song used simple rhythm and sounds. One young non-verbal student simply listened to the song for many months. Then, one day, when she saw Ed approaching the class with his guitar, she began singing the song. She now greets Ed every time she sees him. Ed used his professional judgement to create this priceless moment of communication. A moment that will never be able to be measured on a return-on-investment index. However, this year, his music program has frequently been cancelled so that he can replace teachers whose absence failed to be filled. He comes home feeling unappreciated and exhausted, feeling that music in schools is expendable.

Teachers are well-trained, highly-skilled professionals who are experts in teaching and improving student learning. In 2015, ETFO and the government agreed to enshrine teachers’ use of professional judgement in the central agreement, particularly regarding the assessment and evaluation of students. Now, during the 2022 round of bargaining, the Ford government is trying to erode and neutralize the central agreement’s teacher professional judgement language.

Teachers pay close attention to where students are at with their learning, whether they are learning to solve algebraic equations or beginning to communicate through music. Teacher professional judgement is a cornerstone that supports Ontario’s world-class public education system. Teacher professional judgement ensures that students receive responsive learning that is built on appropriate assessment, as well as on positive and professional human relationships. Teacher professional judgement matters. It matters to student learning and to teacher professionalism, and it is worth fighting for.

Tara Zwolinski is a member of ETFO executive staff.