Saturday, January 14, 2012

What Can't Good Teachers Do? And Is That What Will Save Schools?

It is budget discussion time for many schools around the country, and it shows in the educational articles in recent weeks. This is a time when teachers and their work come under scrutiny as districts tighten belts and examine what they can cut; schools are still suffering and will continue to suffer for many more years as property tax rates decline (and thus, school revenues decline).

Last week Slate published a great article on elementary school teachers and their ability to not only increase college attendance rates but also decrease teen pregnancy rates. The article is actually about value-added teacher evaluation systems; simply put, these systems look at a student's test scores with a particular teacher. The more the scores go up, the more value a teacher has added, and the more effective a teacher is deemed to be. Obviously, the converse is also true. Bonuses and base pay are trending this way in education, and some teachers are arguing (rightly so) that basing an evaluation solely on a standardized test score is misleading and will not give a true measure of a teacher's performance.  The other argument is that teachers under this system may simply teach to the test.

It is hard to say what the right answer to teacher evaluation is. Teachers deal with living beings, changeable and fractious. They are not crunching numbers or dealing with black and white scenarios, ever. What works brilliantly for one group of students may fail spectacularly the next; which year do you use to evaluate? Is it a straight average? And what are you looking at to decide what has failed and what has succeeded?

Let's look at the larger system of education before we drill down to its smaller bits. I believe we have lost our way in public education, starting with NCLB ten years ago and continuing with Race to the Middle and other standardizing measures. What is our goal in education, and why? Have we set up schools for success by giving them the ability to change what and how they teach based on who they teach? Are our schools student-focused, community-based and success-oriented? Do they empower teachers as trained professionals, or do they view them as babysitters with degrees?

Do our schools have access to meaningful technology? Do they allow for collaboration and problem-solving? Have they allowed time for teachers to build the skills they need to incorporate new technologies, modeling cooperation and collaboration?

Do our schools have high expectations for all students, and do they offer opportunities for useful remediation as well as expansive acceleration? Are they innovative?

Unless we address the larger issues plaguing our schools, we will be unable to move forward, and tecaher evaluation will (continue to) be the least of our worries. All of the reform movements have not looked at larger philosophical underpinnings in public education, and without that close look at what we believe, any reforms we make are simply Band-aids.

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