Can Teachers Ever Receive A Passing Grade?

OK. I’m back to education. Hey, it’s Teacher Appreciation Week. And I haven’t been able to uncover anything new about Pippa. So let’s look at teachers and one of the big issues being kicked about these days by the education reformers and other miscreants: teacher performance and evaluation.

Can teachers ever receive a passing grade?

Not likely. At least not as long as the major component of evaluating a classroom teacher is how well students do on standardized tests. Not until we recognize and accept the fact that teachers in the classroom — even the excellent ones — can’t control everything that involves students and their families. And what happens outside the classroom influences what happens inside.

Let’s be candid about it. How many of you have ever given — or received — an honest and objective performance review on-the-job in business or elsewhere? My guess is not many. Very difficult to do for several reasons. First, nobody wants to give or receive what is considered to be bad news or a critique that in effect says, “dude, you suck.” And in business, if you spend enough time noodling over it, you can most likely come up with a few easily agreed upon yet general objectives on which to base the evaluation that causes no real damage to the company or the fragile collective egos involved.

Anyway, not as easy in education — but unlike in most businesses and in government these days — teachers are getting fired as a result of the evaluations. Go figure.

Here’s from Joe Nocera, opining in the NYT, “The Limits of School Reform“:

I find myself haunted by a 13-year-old boy named Saquan Townsend. It’s been more than two weeks since he was featured in The New York Times Magazine, yet I can’t get him out of my mind.

The article, by Jonathan Mahler, was about the heroic efforts of Ramón González, the principal of M.S. 223, a public middle school in the South Bronx, to make his school a place where his young charges can get a decent education and thus, perhaps, a better life. Surprisingly, though, González is not aligned with the public school reform movement, even though one of the movement’s leading lights, Joel Klein, was until fairly recently his boss as the head of the New York City school system.

Instead, González comes across as a skeptic, wary of the enthusiasm for, as the article puts it, “all of the educational experimentation” that took place on Klein’s watch. At its core, the reform movement believes that great teachers and improved teaching methods are all that’s required to improve student performance, so that’s all the reformers focus on. But it takes a lot more than that. Which is where Saquan comes in. His part of the story represents difficult truths that the reform movement has yet to face squarely — and needs to.

Saquan lands at M.S. 223 because his family has been placed in a nearby homeless shelter. (His mother fled Brooklyn out of fear that another son was in danger of being killed.) At first, he is so disruptive that a teacher, Emily Dodd, thinks he might have a mental disability. But working with him one on one, Dodd discovers that Saquan is, to the contrary, unusually intelligent — “brilliant” even.

From that point on, Dodd does everything a school reformer could hope for. She sends him text messages in the mornings, urging him to come to school. She gives him special help. She encourages him at every turn. For awhile, it seems to take.

Meanwhile, other forces are pushing him in another direction. His mother, who works nights and barely has time to see her son, comes across as indifferent to his schooling. Though she manages to move the family back to Brooklyn, the move means that Saquan has an hour-and-a-half commute to M.S. 223. As his grades and attendance slip, Dodd offers to tutor him. To no avail: He finally decides it isn’t worth the effort, and transfers to a school in Brooklyn.

The point is obvious, or at least it should be: Good teaching alone can’t overcome the many obstacles Saquan faces when he is not in school. Nor is he unusual. Mahler recounts how M.S. 223 gives away goodie bags to lure parents to parent association meetings, yet barely a dozen show up. He reports that during the summer, some students fall back a full year in reading comprehension — because they don’t read at home.

Going back to the famous Coleman report in the 1960s, social scientists have contended — and unquestionably proved — that students’ socioeconomic backgrounds vastly outweigh what goes on in the school as factors in determining how much they learn. Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute lists dozens of reasons why this is so, from the more frequent illness and stress poor students suffer, to the fact that they don’t hear the large vocabularies that middle-class children hear at home.

Yet the reformers act as if a student’s home life is irrelevant. “There is no question that family engagement can matter,” said Klein when I spoke to him. “But they seem to be saying that poverty is destiny, so let’s go home. We don’t yet know how much education can overcome poverty,” he insisted — notwithstanding the voluminous studies that have been done on the subject. “To let us off the hook prematurely seems, to me, to play into the hands of the other side.”

That last sentence strikes me as the key to the reformers’ resistance: To admit the importance of a student’s background, they fear, is to give ammo to the enemy — which to them are their social-scientist critics and the teachers’ unions. But that shouldn’t be the case. Making schools better is always a goal worth striving for, whether it means improving pedagogy itself or being able to fire bad teachers more easily. Without question, school reform has already achieved some real, though moderate, progress.

What needs to be acknowledged, however, is that school reform won’t fix everything. Though some poor students will succeed, others will fail. Demonizing teachers for the failures of poor students, and pretending that reforming the schools is all that is needed, as the reformers tend to do, is both misguided and counterproductive.

Over the long term, fixing our schools is going to involve a lot more than, well, just fixing our schools. In the short term, however, the reform movement could use something else: a dose of humility about what it can accomplish — and what it can’t.

And Michelle Rhee, until recently the chancellor of the D.C. public schools and one of the heroines of the flick Waiting for Superman because of her outspoken views about teachers unions and methods to improve public education, has an interesting take on all this in her post on The Huffington Post, “In Honor of Teacher Appreciation Week: Let’s Show Our Thanks to Teachers by Elevating the Profession“:

Kids are great judges when it comes to weighing in on educators charged with teaching them. A study by Harvard University professor Thomas Kane found that student evaluations were good predictors of teacher success. As adults, however, we have to do better when it comes to fairly evaluating the nation’s teachers, and fairly compensating them.

Most teachers are evaluated inconsistently, going without the feedback and professional development that can help them excel. The need for change is basic and glaring, and that’s why StudentsFirst is urging states and districts to replace outdated, weak evaluation systems with rigorous ones that can strengthen the profession.

Good evaluations must be accompanied with good pay. The average teacher salary in the United States is estimated to be around $55,000. Surely your favorite teacher is worth more than that. What’s more, teachers tend to earn minimal increases in lockstep with each other and without regard to how well they are actually doing. Excellence goes unrewarded. We should instead value teachers by better compensating them for helping kids make gains and for teaching hard-to-staff subjects in hard-to-staff schools.

OK. Teachers — like everyone else who collects a paycheck — should be responsible and held accountable for results.

But we are in an era now where evaluations and other measures can make a big difference — might, in fact, be the only difference — as to whether a teacher keeps his or her job or not. In those circumstances, we need some standards and common sense to apply that guarantees that teachers who deserve it can receive a passing grade.

Just sayin’.

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