Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Give the People What They Want—Educational Snake Oil and Teachers to Burn!

Burn, Teacher, Burn! (Image from Flickr, cdrummks)
A recent poll by the Los Angeles Times and University of Southern California has found that a majority of California voters want teacher evaluations made public and student test scores used in their reviews.

So what?

Does the public necessarily get or even deserve what it demands? Do we make employee evaluations public for nurses, doctors, firefighters, police, receptionists, retailers, insurance sales reps?

Teachers are already one of the most scrutinized, regulated and manipulated professions out there (most regulated, according to Assailed Teacher). They get reprimanded and sometimes even fired for “transgressions” in their private lives, like having political bumper stickers on their cars or posting  work-related gripes on their private Facebook pages, which is not much different than in the old days when they got fired if they got pregnant. Teachers have been reprimanded for expressing controversial comments or sharing controversial content with students despite their supposed academic freedom.

Unlike the above examples, teachers have very little control over student test scores, which are correlated far more with students’ socioeconomic background than with the quality of their teachers. Evaluating teachers based on their students’ test scores is like evaluating doctors on their patients’ blood pressure and blood sugar. In both cases, lower income people are much more likely to have undesirable results and the professionals who work with them are much less likely to be able to help them.

Another relevant question is what would the public do with this information? Demand the mass firing of all teachers at low income schools because their test scores were too low?

This would conflict with another recent public demand—supported by an ACLU lawsuit and court mandate in Los Angeles—that teachers at low income schools be exempt from layoffs.

If we did fire all teachers at low income schools or anywhere that test scores did not make the required arbitrary improvements, would the public then demand higher wages and an influx of funding for teacher training programs in order to recruit and retain “good” teachers, or would they accept the inevitable mushrooming of class sizes to 40 or 50 students?

Of course rather than demanding that “bad” teachers be fired, parents could use the data to pull their kids from schools with too many “bad” teachers, just as they might use similar data to avoid “bad” doctors. However, they can already pull their kids from “bad” schools and they already know which schools these are: the low income ones that tend to have the lowest test scores. Linking teacher evaluations to these test scores and publishing teacher evaluations does nothing to make this any easier or more effective.

The hysteria over “bad” teachers has the same source as the hysteria over “bad” schools:  fear mongering promulgated by the test publishers, educational management organizations, tutoring industry and other businesses that hope to capitalize on testing, accountability and the resulting punishments. The teacher witch hunt is further exploited by politicians and the wealthy who hope to distract the public from the major cause of the achievement gap—poverty and the growing wealth gap—problems the OWS movement is now shoving in their faces more effectively than the teachers unions ever did.

It is worth considering that simply dumping what you don’t like (e.g., “bad” teachers or traditional public schools) does not necessarily get you what you really want and can result in something much worse. Consider the Egyptians who dumped their dictator and got a military junta that has been slaughtering them in the streets for the past week. What are we getting when we dump the “bad” teachers and schools: elitist charter schools that loot school districts of scare resources while squeezing out minority, special education and low income students, and a growing achievement gap.

It is important to have an accurate understanding of what the problem actually is and a valid critique of its causes before an effective solution can be proposed. Since the data overwhelmingly shows that poverty is the biggest influence on the achievement gap, low test scores and low graduation rates, simply firing teachers and giving away the public schools to private educational management organizations cannot end the achievement gap, get all students to graduate on time or attain the status of Finnish and South Korean schools.

Tying teacher evaluations to student test scores will result in declining numbers of teachers, exacerbating the problems of overcrowding and student access to quality teachers. Many good teachers will lose their jobs simply because they were working with low income students. Others will refuse to work in low income schools because it could jeopardize their careers.

Making teacher evaluations available to the public serves no public good and could result in great harm, not only to teachers, but students, as well. Too many bad evaluations at one school could result in a mass exodus of those families with the time, resources and knowledge of the system to get their kids into other schools. This would result in some schools becoming even more segregated, even more concentrated with poor, immigrant and low-achieving students.

On a more sinister note, if the public is not satisfied with schools’ response to bad evaluations, witch hunts and vigilantism against teachers could result.


  1. The education deformers want to blame teachers for test results while at the same time treating teaching as if it is an unskilled fast food job. Well, if Big Mac sales are down, then you don't blame the employee at the register. Someone needs to tell the ed deformers that they cannot have it both ways.

    Doctors, lawyers, engineers and other professionals are given autonomy, substantial salaries and opportunities for advancement. Teachers get treated like criminals. Even my passion for the job has taken a severe hit from all of the scapegoating. No sane person would dedicate their lives to teaching if the deformers have their way.

  2. One of the main reasons there is a growing teacher shortage (the low pay, of course, doesn't help).

    In reality, we are all assailed teachers

  3. We certainly are. It is a shame so many do not realize it yet.

    I put your site on my blogroll. Would you be interested in a link exchange?

  4. I have added you to my blog roll, too.