Friday, October 8, 2010

Round Up the Usual Suspects

Teachers are the problem in education.  The press says so.  School districts say so.  State legislatures say so.  The federal government says so.  Political pundits say so.  The Department of Education says so.   And, yes, President Obama says so, loud and clear.  The sole holdouts are, interestingly enough, teachers, parents and students, the only groups that really matter.

If you, like the rest of the public, accept the argument that teachers are the problem in education, then everything else makes sense: standardized testing, punishing school for low scores, boxed and scripted curricula, narrowing of the curriculum, merit pay, elaborate and excessive accountability schemes, and so on.  If, instead, you reject this specious proposition and challenge it head-on, you will be able to see quite clearly how incredibly baseless it is.

The perception that teachers are the problem in education is an obscene exaggeration of one simple fact:  there are indeed some really bad teachers in our country.  President Obama said so recently when visiting my fair city:  "If some teachers are bad, they've got to go."  Even here the President of the United States suggests that there may be some bad teachers.   At the same time, however, he seems to imply that if they exist, they must be the sole reason for all that is bad in education.  After all, he made his statement in the context of how to fix what is broken in education.  Fix the teachers and you've fixed the problem.

What President Obama, Arne Duncan, Bill Gates and other teacher bashers are not saying, even though they know it's true, is that the number of really bad teachers—those who might actually have a detrimental effect on the education of their students—is such an incredibly small percentage of the nation's teaching corps that they couldn't possibly constitute a group large enough to cause all the perceived damage to our educational system.  If some teachers are bad, that means most teachers are not.  And if most teachers are not bad—and many are very good to excellent—then we really don't have an educational crisis on our hands.  A minority of bad teachers does not a bad school or district make.  

It seems absurd but true:  we begin with a statement that virtually everyone can agree with—there are some bad teachers and "they've got to go"—and conclude that most teachers are bad and have to go or be radically retrained.  But the fact of the matter is, most teachers are not bad. There are good and excellent schools across the country with one or two bad teachers on every staff, but those bad teachers don't make the whole school bad.  Most of the nation's public schools are good to excellent because they have good to excellent teachers and despite the presence of one or two bad teachers.  

Even if we agree that there is a small contingent of bad teachers in America, we still have another problem:  defining "bad teacher"?  Is a bad teacher someone in whose classroom parents hope their children are not placed?  Someone who received a negative evaluation from her principal last year?   Someone who hates her job?  Someone who dislikes children?  Someone who focuses her energy more on retirement than on education?  Someone who doesn't seem to know the established curriculum, content and standards?  Looking at it from a different angle, is she someone who received a positive evaluation from the principal due to her adherence to program fidelity?  Someone who refuses to teach the boxed and scripted curriculum and dares to create her own curriculum and teach creatively?  Is she a teacher who gives equal weight to all subjects instead of teaching only reading and math in order to raise test scores?

The definition of a bad teacher probably depends on where you think public education should be heading.  In the end it doesn't matter.  All definitions but one are irrelevant in the minds of the critics of public education:  a bad teacher is one whose students receive poor results on state sanctioned standardized reading and math tests.  Period.  That's right.  Tests that are designed for the sole purpose of pinpointing a student's academic progress are being used to judge teacher quality.  Never mind the fact these tests were never intended to be used to evaluate teachers (or schools either, for that matter).  Beginning with the NCLB testing frenzy in 2002, schools and increasingly teachers have been evaluated based on student test scores.  Obama will soon attempt to sharpen the teeth of the accountability section of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, aka No Child Left Behind and soon to be Blueprint for Success) when it comes up for renewal before the end of his term.

If these tests are not designed to evaluate teacher quality and effectiveness, then why do we use them for that purpose?  Perhaps it is because we have objectified students to the point where they are qualitatively no different than a widget on the assembly line.  It is understandable that a factory worker be held accountable for and evaluated on the quality of her widget.  After all, everything about the widget can be controlled and manipulated by the worker.  The widget is an inanimate object whose ultimate form and function is determined solely by its maker.  Therefore, if the widget is defective or otherwise fails, it must be the worker's fault because it couldn't possibly be the wiget's.

But students are not widgets and teachers are not assembly line workers.  This image was cooked up and promoted by business interests such as the Chamber of Commerce who cannot conceptualize public education in any way other than the factory assembly line.  The image is false, misleading and damaging to our public school system.  Unlike the widgets in the  business world, students are living, breathing, dynamic, individual, multi-faceted, idiosyncratic, creative, spontaneous, unpredictable, free-willed beings who, despite what we may "do" to them, will likely "produce" results wholly inconsistent with the "worker's" desired outcome.  And since students are not widgets—or products—an evaluation of their worth cannot be based on the "productivity" of their "maker."

If the wrong measure is used to determine the quality of the teacher, the wrong fixes—merit pay, firing, meaningless accountability—will be applied to the perceived problem.  And if we are spending time and resources fixing the wrong problems and even problems that don't exist, we'll have a real mess on our hands.   Educational "remedies" based on measuring teachers with student test scores are inherently ill-conceived and will inevitably fail. 

This brings us full circle:  if you believe that most teachers are bad; that their "badness" is proven by student test scores; and that teachers are the main cause of the wholesale failure of the public schools, then the various and sundry educational solutions proposed by the critics of public education will seem wholly logical to you.  You will whoop and holler for the teacher bashers when you hear of their schemes to marginalize the role of the teacher in order to gain direct access to students.  That is precisely the role of standardized tests, standardized curricula, box and scripted curricula, school wide punishments, accountability schemes, and merit pay:  they are all attempts to circumvent teachers and get direct access to students so that teacher bashers can apply their simple minded remedies to the problems teachers have failed to fix.

If you have no faith in teachers' ability to evaluate their students, you imposed standardized testing.  If you have no faith in teachers' ability to teach, you force them to implement boxed and scripted curricula. If you have no faith in teachers' ability to account for their work, you dream up schemes that hold teachers responsible for the boxed and scripted curricula (this is known as "program fidelity").  If you have no faith in teachers' intrinsic value as trained and experienced professionals, you implement merit pay (based, of course, on their students' standardized test results).  If you have no faith in teachers, you blame teachers for all that is wrong in education and proceed to offer the wrong solutions to all the wrong problems.  

President Obama has no faith in teachers; otherwise he would not call his educational plan a Blueprint for Success—a title that invokes private industry ("blueprint") and implies failure ("success")—and he would send his daughters to public school.  The press has no faith in teachers; otherwise they would investigate other, more important factors of school "failure," such as language, parenting, parental level of education, parental investment in the education of their children, and of course the two big ones, TEST VALIDITY and POVERTY (see last post).  Policy makers have no faith in teachers; every fix they come up with, usually in the form of mandatory professional development, addresses the perception the only thing teachers need in order to improve student achievement is more training, more motivation, and an improved work ethic (lazy teachers; if they would only work harder!).  

Perhaps the most unfortunate reality of the teacher bashing is that the solutions to the bad teacher problem proposed by the nation's non educators lead to the production of more bad teachers and, consequently, more bad instruction.  When we dumb down the curriculum in order to make it accessible to the worst of teachers, and force all teachers—good, bad and in-between—to the lower standard of boxed and scripted curricula and "program fidelity," we may succeed in raising the effectiveness of the worst 25% among us, but we will also lower the quality and effectiveness of the 75% good and excellent teachers as they are pulled inexorably towards the new, lower standard.  

The subsequent dilution of the nation's teaching corps will inevitably accelerate the narrowing of an already narrowed curriculum to the point where only basic math and reading skills will be taught and tested.  When we reach that point—and many schools in the country already have—we will no longer be able to claim that what we are engaged in is education.  Instead, we will be engaged in a clinical and impersonal system of mass production wherein our teachers, like factory workers around the globe, will produce human widgets who can look forward to a life as a cog in the machinery of the global marketplace.  The absurdity of public education in America will then be complete:  we will have converted students into objects, teachers into producers, and a flawed system of measurement into the sole "truth" about education, the "truth" that convinced us that teachers are the problem in the first place.

And if you believe that, then everything else makes sense.


nikto said...

Good Blog.

Cheryl A. said...

Yup. A classroom is a reflection of society. Are teachers at fault for all of society's ills? I invite Governor Martinez, SoED Slanders, and any other politician to come take over my job for two weeks. Not a publicity stunt, but really do EVERYTHING that is expected of me. Then maybe they will get some education on EDUCATION.