by Ed Gross
When the topic is teachers and education, common sense often flies out the window.
Judging the fitness of teachers by the results of standardized tests may seem logical on
its face, but if we apply a little common sense it’s anything but. Why? Because kids are
not commodities. How a class does on a test depends far more on who’s in the class
than who’s teaching it. And how can anyone expect to measure a fourth grade teacher’s
improvement from one year to the next based on the results of completely different
kids? Yet they do. Consider this: a teacher who has many students who are just learning
English and/or come from poor homes where no one is supporting their education can
easily be scored as a bad teacher. Give that same teacher a class full of motivated kids
from upper middle class families the next year. Wow, suddenly she’s a great teacher!
The move to hold teachers accountable via standardized testing is actually quite cynical.
It’s part of the right wing move to privatize education. (There’s gold in them thar kids!”)
Unlike kids, the tests are a commodity and a handy one at that for “proving” the need to
divert money for education to private and charter schools. It’s also a strong component of
the attack on unions. If the right wing can use tests to prove that teachers are doing a bad
job, then it’s easy to claim that unions are protecting and rewarding bad teachers.
Why is this approach having so much success? In part, it might be because we can all
remember teachers from our own schooling whom we couldn’t stand or who didn’t
command our respect. No one’s saying there aren’t any people teaching who are in the
wrong career. (What percentage of people in any profession are actually good at their
job? Maybe 35 or 40?) But don’t forget that teaching, unlike business to which it’s
often being compared, is a calling and therefore attracts a much higher percentage of
dedicated workers than, say, Citibank or General Electric. (My wife is a teacher and she
assures me that her elementary school is always loaded with hard-working dedicated
teachers.) That’s why a lot more than kids’ test results needs to go into evaluating
teachers. Especially when you realize that some very smart students do well on class
work, homework, reports and special projects but freeze up or just underperform on tests,
thereby indicating absolutely nothing about the quality of their teachers. Administrators
have three years to evaluate teachers and see to it they get any mentoring they need
before offering them tenure. Isn’t it the administrators’ responsibility to observe, talk to
parents and even kids to get a true picture? I’d certainly say so, but I don’t hear anyone
clamoring for better oversight, just for better teachers.
And that brings me to the point I keep making whenever this subject comes up. Who do
we think will replace all these so-called bad teachers? I’ll draw you a mental picture.
First, we eliminate tenure, then we cut back on teacher’s benefits and freeze their salaries.
And finally we attract the crème de la crème of college graduates to take their places?
Um, well, no. Instead we would make teachers out of young people who just can’t find a
better-paying alternative. And that’s supposed to be good? Well, yes, if the idea is to have
more and more turnover so that fewer and fewer teachers climb the salary scale. Not so
much, if the idea is to encourage, support and then retain dedicated, experienced teachers.
As Ethical Culturists, we believe in the importance of education and the increased
opportunity for a satisfying life it provides, especially to kids from poor and lower middle
class backgrounds. If delivering that were as simple as holding teachers accountable for
standardized test scores, I’d be a lot more sympathetic. We can all agree that kids deserve
the best teachers our country can provide. While, the current system is far from perfect,
making teaching a less desirable profession is a very large step in the wrong direction.