UW News

May 23, 2002

Education professor wins prestigious teacher preparation award

Steve Hill
University Week

Cathy Taylor experienced an epiphany on a Seattle soccer field.

The associate professor in the UW’s College of Education doesn’t double as a coach. She’s not a goalie. She freely admits her limited understanding of soccer. But watching her daughters and their friends learn the sport reinforced a philosophy that drives Taylor professionally.

“Soccer was this a-ha experience for me,” Taylor said recently from her Miller Hall office that overlooks the Quad cherry trees.

Taylor, who will receive the Washington Award for Excellence in Teacher Preparation in ceremonies on June 20, recalls watching her daughters’ introduction to the sport. For the first three weeks of the season, the aspiring soccer players worked on skills and skills only. “They were running up and down the field and passing and dribbling, kicking the ball into the goal, throwing the ball in, and running and running and running.”

Then it was game time and Taylor noticed how the hard work wasn’t immediately translating into high-quality soccer.

“They had all these skills but no concept of soccer. After a while, about three games, they understood why they had been running up and down the field. They went back and practiced their skills in a whole new way. I’m not advocating for competitiveness. I’m saying that they had to play the game to understand the skills.

“For too long in our system of education we’ve taught skills without teaching the game. So we need to help kids get to a-ha before they lose interest. If all the coach had ever done was teach skills and slowly work them up to the game, he would have lost them because they would have seen no reason to learn.”

In the same way, Taylor says, students need to understand why they’re learning math and sentence structure and science. That simple step that’s often overlooked, she says, can make all the difference.

“If kids know where they’re going, they really work hard and they’re willing to take on the challenges to get better.”

Taylor’s impact on helping students in Washington “get better” has been profound. First, as one of the college’s assessment experts, Taylor helps her pre-service teachers and in-service teachers throughout the state understand why they’re assessing students and how best to assess students.

Too often she hears of teachers at all levels who try to give difficult tests, asking questions that will trick their students. That, she says, is a flawed approach. In one case she heard of an instructor working with one textbook and asking test questions from another.

“That’s inane,” she said. “The message students get is that school isn’t about learning, it’s about figuring out teachers. The idea of a test should be to see if students learned what was taught, not, ‘Can you figure me out?’ ”

Taylor’s approach is both more practical and compassionate according to Nathalie Gehrke, who heads the UW’s Teacher Education Program.

“To Cathy, assessment isn’t about grading students — about passing and failing them — it’s about finding out what they know and are able to do, so the teacher can plan how and what to teach them next. It is assessment with heart.”

So Taylor starts by asking her crop of future teachers what they want their students to learn. What will matter most and what is the key knowledge that will be generalizable and something students can build on in the future? Then she asks how that knowledge translates into the professional world — what kind of jobs use that knowledge and those skills.

If teachers can successfully develop a curriculum around that knowledge and its very pragmatic role in society, students will benefit.

“Kids can begin to say, ‘Oh, I’m not just learning this because it’s school. I’m learning this because it’s helpful.’ I call that identifying the work worth doing.” Once that work is identified teachers have a better idea of how to approach instruction.

But Taylor’s impact reaches far beyond her own classroom. Since 1980 she has been involved in developing standardized tests. In fact, before coming to the UW in 1991 Taylor was a senior editor at CTB-McGraw Hill, one of the nation’s leading producers of such assessments. That expertise has been invaluable to the state of Washington as it struggles with high-stakes standardized testing.

Taylor is the principal investigator on an Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction grant that is helping fine tune the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL). Her role is to make sure questions are relevant to and appropriate for the students taking the tests.

“I’m kind of the watchdog,” she said. “I bring to the thinking process that whole idea about what is the work worth doing and how do you assess that. However, in a standardized test like the WASL you don’t do the real work. You do that in class.”

The WASL, she says, amounts to a practical competency test. Controversy surrounding the test has been plentiful, but is frequently off the mark, she says. Taylor was approached by a policymaker, for example, who asked why the WASL was testing calculus. Understanding calculus wasn’t necessary for most people, the person argued, and therefore it shouldn’t be on the test. She had to explain that, in fact, calculus isn’t on the WASL.

“The 10th-grade WASL is intended to test what all kids — not just college bound kids but all kids — should know and be able to do to graduate from high school and go on into the world. Most of what’s on the WASL is everyday stuff.

“There has to be an understanding of what Washington is testing and what the state is not testing. WASL doesn’t test difficult math. It tests everyday math. There are problems and situations that are realistic.”

In addition to her work in contributing to the development of the test, she is constantly helping teachers understand the test and how to prepare students to succeed. That’s a role that she’s particularly well suited to fill, according to Education Dean Pat Wasley.

“She is an expert in both statewide assessments and in classroom assessment, which makes her particularly well suited to helping teachers understand how to align their work with the WASL,” Wasley said. “Cathy cares deeply about our public schools and about the children in them. She is truly deserving of this award.”