Michelle Gillett: Taking teachers out of education
‘It's worse than ever," my friend said. She was talking about what is expected in her job these days. She's a teacher -- an excellent teacher, one who loves and inspires students and is loved and inspired by them. But teaching high school English is more and more of a burden and less and less of a joy as education reform has been rushed into practice.
It's true that out of 27 industrialized countries, American 15-year-olds rank 26th in math, 17th in science, and 12th in reading. We are 22nd in high school graduation rates among industrialized countries, and fewer than half our students finish college.
Obviously, something has to change. But the adoption of the Common Core State Standards is starting to make less sense than I once thought it did.
Many states have neglected to do the groundwork to implement the teaching of the standards that will hopefully lead us to greater proficiency. Things aren't working and when things aren't working in education, it's easy to blame teachers.
The Economic Policy Institute recognizes that, "Every classroom should have a well-educated, professional teacher, and school systems should recruit, prepare, and retain teachers who are qualified to do the job." Yet in practice, American public schools generally do a poor job of systematically developing and evaluating teachers. Many policy-makers have recently come to believe that this failure can be remedied by calculating the improvement in students' scores on standardized tests in mathematics and reading, and then relying heavily on these calculations to evaluate, reward, and remove the teachers of these tested students."
My daughter teaches art at a high school in Albuquerque and was feeling anxious about her evaluation. She doesn't give tests so she will be evaluated on her students' test scores in their other classes as well as some observation by administrators. The people who know best about what kind of teacher she is -- her visual arts students -- will have no part in her evaluation. She told out me that she gets a number of students who have special needs, most of whom will never do well on standardized tests. Their scores in math and reading won't look good on her evaluation. She has every right to be anxious even though, like my friend, she is a loved and inspired teacher who cares deeply about her students and their work.
Measuring teacher's effectiveness by student test scores offers little proof that students' achievement will improve or that ineffective teachers will be weeded out. As the EPI reports, "If new laws or policies specifically require that teachers be fired if their students' test scores do not rise by a certain amount, then more teachers might well be terminated than is now the case. But there is not strong evidence to indicate either that the departing teachers would actually be the weakest teachers, or that the departing teachers would be replaced by more effective ones. There is also little or no evidence for the claim that teachers will be more motivated to improve student learning if teachers are evaluated or monetarily rewarded for student test score gains."
Both my daughter and my friend are putting in more hours at their jobs than ever before. Part of their extra time is given to mandated professional development training required by public education departments to go along with the tests, but training videos and worksheets are not something they need. Professional development should be relevant and intellectually stimulating and allow teachers to share best practices.
In New Mexico, a group called, CURENM (Citizens for Real Education) is working to support "professional educators in delivering the highest-level education to all New Mexico students." New Mexico is the poorest state in the country, and as Diane Ravitch said when interviewed about her new book, "The State of Error," on Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show" last month, "Common Core is the answer to a problem we don't have. The problem we have is that poverty is the single biggest source of low academic achievement, and we have the highest rate of child poverty in the industrialized world."
Ravitch, who is research professor of education at New York University and a historian of education, pointed out that standardized testing "is an industry that's growing fatter every day, consultants are growing fatter every day..." while teachers are being judged by test scores. She added, "Congress should not legislate testing, they know nothing about education."
The teachers I know, like the ones Ravitch knows, "became teachers because they want to make a difference in the lives of children, but now they have been given a script" that prevents them from being creative. "We are rewarding the kids who can pick the right box, and what we need in the 21st century are children who can think outside the box."
Ken Robinson, author of "The Element," says, "The fact is that given the challenges we face, education doesn't need to be reformed -- it needs to be transformed. The key to this transformation is not to standardize education, but to personalize it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions."
Whether we reform or transform education, it is clear we need to make changes, but first we need to give schools and teachers financial resources and hiring autonomy, we need to institute a more demanding teacher education system, and continue to motivate educators with professional development that suits their work not the tests they are giving.
It is true that some teachers are stronger than others, but if we don't start respecting the role teachers play in our society and learn to value that role, no one is going to want to become a teacher, no matter how badly they want to make a difference in children's lives.
Michelle Gillett is a regular Eagle contributor.