In light of the news of how Michelle Rhee’s much touted success in Washington was at least partially due to cheating,1) and the catastrophic disclosures about the Atlanta school’s scandals, educators are back to the drawing board in the debate as to how to evaluate teachers and improve schools.
High stakes tests as teacher evaluations don’t work 2) and yet those who are charged with overseeing education insist on using them. As a result we are seeing schools closed because of failing scores, principals who have devoted their professional careers are having to deal with non-renewal notices because of someone’s artificial measure of success. Public education has been built upon a litany that educators know only too well: “Keep doing what you have always done and do this too. We wish we could provide the materials you need, or support for your struggling students but money is so tight.” Teachers who have labored for years while watching their classrooms increase in numbers and their paychecks shrink with each fall’s arrival are now looking at the want-ads to search for their new career.
It’s not any easier for the students.
Children are spending their precious time learning how to take tests and what to look for on the test and they are deprived of time to think, reason and develop as they should. Art, science, music and social studies are sacrificed to the altar of the all-mighty standardized test with no more thought than we used in choosing our cell phone provider — that of money: which one is cheapest, high stakes tests or real education?
But teachers must be accountable; no longer is it enough that they are willing to do the job few others want to do. Now we must validate their competence through a fabricated measure, some kind of assessment. Unfortunately no one agrees as to what that measure should be.
I think I have a simple solution.
When asked about schools and public education in general, parents often respond that schools need to be improved. But when asked about their schools, the one their children attend, they usually respond that their school is fine, they are happy with their school. 3)
Have parents evaluate their child’s teacher.
Now wait, don’t sign my commitment papers yet. Follow my reasoning on this.
One thing we know is that children need to be educated, we can’t just let them wallow in ignorance hoping they’ll get lucky and fall into some lifelong career like being elected to our legislature. If we are going to educate them we may as well do a good job of it; I think most people would agree to that premise.
But there is no panacea.
Writing in the New York Times, Jal Mehta offers one of the most damning and yet cogent arguments for what is wrong with education at this time. 4) He argues that our model is basically unchanged from the original formulated in response to the needs of the Industrial Revolution and yet our world is greatly altered. The warnings have been around for a long time:
In April 1983, a federal commission warned in a famous report, “A Nation at Risk,” that American education was a “rising tide of mediocrity.”
Mehta continues by offering a solid solution and it is what so many of us have been advocating for years:
Teaching requires a professional model, like we have in medicine, law, engineering, accounting, architecture and many other fields. In these professions, consistency of quality is created less by holding individual practitioners accountable and more by building a body of knowledge, carefully training people in that knowledge, requiring them to show expertise before they become licensed, and then using their professions’ standards to guide their work.
Some might respond, “Don’t we already do that?” No we don’t, our system does not prepare teachers for what they actually find when they get to school each day. It prepares them for what we think they should find but reality intercedes.
We need more time spent in real teaching, more research into what works, and support, support, support. This issue is simply too important to skimp on it.
We point to Finland and cite the effectiveness of their education systems but they have already adopted this model. Their teachers actually teach fewer hours, have better training and are appropriately compensated for their efforts.We do not necessarily want to be Finland or even Japan but we do want an effective educational system that prepares students to participate in the world not to shun it. When our goal is truly to provide the best educational experience possible; administrators, parents and yes, possibly even legislators will clearly see the results and enacting the evaluation model will be easy.
I see teachers every day. I see how hard they work and what conditions they work in. And I see students struggling to focus on learning.
It is not simply a case of good schools and bad schools. Writing in the Arizona Star, Richard Gilman aptly points this out using Paradise Valley School District in Arizona as an example. 5) He states: Some of the state’s “best” schools, judged just by test scores, are part of the same school district as some of the “worst.” That means it is not simply a matter of good teachers and bad teachers, good schools and bad schools; it comes down to support. Gilman reports:
(Paradise Valley) pulled in 14 of the 15 A’s given and 12 of the 16 B’s. . . . worse-off schools get . . . the black marks (and) Paradise Valley received seven of the district’s 10 C’s and both of the D’s. Any suggestion that the disparity is the fault of the schools is vigorously disputed by Paradise Valley Superintendent James P. Lee. He declares, “Some of our best teachers are in our ‘D’ schools. They’re laying it on the line for these kids.”
To educate a child is a worthy goal. But we can’t ask children to learn if they are hungry or sick. We can’t ask parents to help with homework if they are working three jobs only to still be living in poverty or they have to use the hospital emergency room as their family’s primary medical provider. We can’t ask teachers to make children successful if they do not have the necessary tools, support or training and we can’t expect anyone to commit to being an educator if that profession is reviled or dismissed outright.
The answers are not simple and they are not likely to be cheap but then they say you get what you pay for.
If we don’t offer what students need to learn they will still find some way to survive, though not necessarily as contributing members of a growing healthy society. If we do not provide avenues for parents to achieve a reasonable wage in a profession they value without working 60 hours a week they will give up or become a drain on our economy instead of an advantage as a contributor to that society. If we do not provide our best teachers the support they need to be effective they will leave and seek professional gratification elsewhere. And if we do not invest in our education system and those who commit their professional careers to mastering it there is no hope for our continued position as a leader in the world.
But if we do decide to turn this around, in an appropriate fashion, by committing to the whole child, and their families, I think the teacher evaluation issue will be solved.