Thursday, July 2, 2009

Scapegoating Teachers?

Does Jonathan Alter at Newsweek really know what he wants? His recent article, Peanut-Butter Politics, rightly pinpoints teacher effectiveness as a crucial component of classroom effectiveness, but accuses the teachers union of reluctance to actually promote effective teachers by avoiding accountability. The problem is he has no viable accountability plan except a nebulous call for measuring teacher effectiveness in the classroom.

Teacher effectiveness–say it three times. Last week a group called the New Teacher Project released a report titled "The Widget Effect" that argues that teachers are viewed as indistinguishable widgets–states and districts are "indifferent to variations in teacher performance"–and notes that more than 99 percent of teachers are rated satisfactory. The whole country is like Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegon, except all the teachers are above average, too.

Why? The short answer is teachers' unions. Duncan complained recently that the California school system has a harmful "firewall" between student evaluation and teacher evaluation. In other words, teachers can't be evaluated on whether their students actually learned anything between September and June. The head of the San Francisco union says it's nuts to judge teachers on whether there's evidence that shows improvement in their classrooms. An A for accountability, eh?


It takes a tough man to say, in the middle of a recession, "no improvement, no check." But if not now, when?

I addressed The Widget Effect a couple weeks ago. It is not so much that there is a lack of desire to hold teachers accountable. The main problem is that there are simple too many variables the teacher does not control. No one has proposed any fair way of evaluating teachers.
The worthlessness of evaluations creates a major disconnect in the school policy.

Though it is widely accepted that a teacher’s effectiveness matters more than any other school factor in student success or failure, it is almost never considered in critical decisions such as how teachers are hired, developed or retained.

Teacher effectiveness cannot be considered because teacher effectiveness is unknown. What's more, researchers have no consensus as to the characteristics of an effective teacher.
I would like to address the first two points.

It is easy to be negative and overlook the legions of highly motivated, highly competent, and highly effective teachers in our classrooms. In spite of the evaluation difficulties, we know they are there. Many are recognized only years after a student has benefited from their influence. At the time, their students, with their lack of life experience, may not have realized what a treasure their teacher was. In fact, they may have even “hated” their teacher. Nevertheless, great teachers populated our classrooms in great numbers. A commonly appearing estimate is 50%. Around 50% of education students have the right stuff, but nearly all students will graduate and end up in our schools. Any college of education cohort can differentiate the more able from the less able among their peers. Maybe our colleges of education should be more selective, evaluating teaching candidates for suitability long before they have invested four plus years of time and money in becoming teachers. Long before all those uncontrollable variables have impossibly muddled the evaluation issue. Maybe then we could have Lake Wobegone in our schools where all the teachers are truly above average.

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