Perhaps cold comfort doesn't provide the same oxymoronic intensity as Shakespeare's "sick health" or "cold fire" but it adequately conveys my reaction to state Secretary of Education Matthew Malone's visit to the Berkshires as described in Jenn Smith's "Getting an education from teachers, kids" (Eagle, December 14). His visit to four Berkshire County public schools gave me some comfort in that he sought input from teachers and students but it produced an equally troubling chill because of his startling revelation.
"Folks in [roles like mine] don't understand what teachers do every day." Color me dumbfounded but shouldn't the state's secretary of education, the driving authority behind the management and administration of public schools, already have a good idea of "what teachers do every day." Shouldn't such familiarity be a criteria for appointment to such a powerful position?
If his admitted unfamiliarity with the role of teachers is characteristic of those in high bureaucratic places, it may serve to explain some of the destructive policies that have literally come down the pike. It may also explain why the new statewide rubrics for teacher evaluation require that excellent pedagogy invariably produce "measureable outcomes."
A superb elementary school teacher who is two years away from retirement can't wait for that day to arrive. When I asked her why, she explained that the new evaluation system that will fully take effect next year is already robbing her of much-needed time to plan lessons and help her students. She spends an inordinate amount of time documenting her students' progress. She must now produce "evidence" to validate her success. At the heart of her discomfort is the gnawing feeling that she is no longer trusted.
Part of this new state program requires high stakes test results to be factored into teacher evaluations. While advocates for accountability point out that such test results will only count 40 percent, and that other "measurable" factors can and will be considered, I shudder to think of the damage that will result when evaluators make use of data to fire teachers who seem equal to their peers in every other observable way.
Not only will some very effective teachers be sacrificed and their careers destroyed, but the process will eradicate any semblance of collaboration among teachers who will be forced to compete against each other to obtain the best test results. Evaluators cognizant of the fact that removing teachers from their jobs usually requires iron clad documentation will be forced to use test results to seal the deal.
Pittsfield has sometimes paid the price for attempting to fire teachers without strong and convincing documentation. Test data will be useful to provide cover for evaluators who may not have thoroughly done their jobs. The temptation to use data as the pivotal factor in retention or termination may be a far more appealing option than investing the hours and hours it takes to comprehensively, skillfully and thoroughly evaluate one teacher.
The irony of this regrettable development is rooted in Secretary Malone's own words. "Collaboration is how you get results." At the high school level, why would teachers collaborate when they must now compete against each other for survival? The logical extension of this scholastic version of "The Hunger Games" is that teachers will keep their best instructional strategies to themselves.
Students who end up in prison are taught by the very same teachers who successfully guide others into Harvard. These students all share the same school air, read many of the same school books and eat the same school lunches. Yet their lives outside of school are vastly different. Some of them have been read to since infancy, escorted weekly to libraries and museums and convinced by their parents that academic success is an absolute necessity. Their less fortunate peers have no such support. Within the first few years of their young lives, their brains are not actively applied to reading and learning. Huge, sometimes insurmountable, gaps develop in their skill levels and even in their capacity to learn. For them, superb teaching may not be enough to compensate for the gaping holes in their early years. There are many factors outside of a teacher's control that determine academic success or failure.
Wave after wave of expensive reforms and the attendant claims for their value have produced minimal success. Ten years from now, after the new evaluation system has reeked its havoc, we will still be debating how we can reduce the stubborn 40 percent who cannot read well in the third grade or how to improve the quality of underperforming graduates.
Top-down bureaucratic solutions aimed exclusively at teachers and schools do not work and fail to address the real challenge. If we are to make an authentic dent in the education deficits of this nation, we must admit to the destructive influence of poverty, both financial and experiential, and provide more supportive homes for our children. Reforms imposed upon teachers that are based upon a foundation of suspicion and mistrust will not get the job done! At best, they will provide cold comfort to those who seek scapegoats rather than solutions.
Edward Udel is a long-time teacher in the Pittsfield public school system and former chairman of the Taconic English department.