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Aaron Regunberg: Teaching Evaluations Another Education Reform Failure

Friday, March 02, 2012


Congratulations, education ‘reformers.’ You’ve lost another future teacher.

There was a significant period in my life when I thought I would probably end up as a teacher, preferably high school history. It was a future career that excited me, and inspired me to get involved in education from a young age. My plan, of course, was to be a good teacher (obviously that’s infinitely easier said than done, but my ambition was to really put in the dedication, patience, and long-term commitment necessary to become a truly effective educator).

However, as I started to learn more about what it actually means to be a teacher nowadays—the lack of respect teachers are afforded financially and societally, the loss of professional autonomy our education policies are causing—I became less and less enthusiastic about the idea. But I could never eliminate it completely.

Earlier this week, however, I read about the teacher evaluation deal struck by the New York State Education Department and the NY teachers’ union that effectively makes student scores on standardized tests the defining variable deciding a teacher’s job security. It was only after learning about this that I made it official and allowed myself to say, for the first time out loud, “I will absolutely not become a teacher in this country.”

A Valuable Perspective

I am not writing this because I think it’s such a big loss to American public education that I have crossed off teaching as a possible career choice. Rather, I want to give people a quick snapshot of the decision-making process that an undergraduate—even one who, like me, is incredibly interested in public education—goes through after coming into contact with the current education reform debate. I think it’s a valuable perspective for policy-makers to hear because it’s one that is increasingly shared by a whole generation of young people. In fact, of all my friends in college who care deeply about education, there are only two who plan on becoming professional teachers.

New York’s new teacher evaluation system is so career-decidingly demoralizing to undergrads like me because of its absurd focus on test scores. Although the system claims only 40 percent of a teacher’s grade will be based on standardized test results, it also includes the telling sentence, “Teachers rated ineffective on student performance based on objective assessments must be rated ineffective overall.” What this means, as education analyst Diane Ravitch recently pointed out, is that a teacher who does not raise test scores will be found ineffective overall, no matter how well he or she does with the remaining 60 percent of the evaluation. In other words, the 40 percent allocated to student performance actually counts for 100 percent. Two years of ineffective ratings and the teacher is fired.

There’s not enough room in this article for me to delve too deeply into all the likely outcomes of this policy (from the loss of good educators to the proliferation of cheating scandals—remember Atlanta?—to the further narrowing of curricula). What I can speak to, however, is the effect it will have on the recruitment of the next generation of dedicated career teachers. Because here’s the truth—young people like me have no interest in committing the rest of our lives to teaching to a test. We have no interest in devoting our futures to a job that will give us zero autonomy to do the meaningful teaching we want to do.

A Lesson for a Teacher

For a good example of what I’m talking about, I’d like to quote from a blog post a friend of mine recently wrote about an experience he had in the Baltimore middle school where he is a teacher-in-training:

“A curious student asks me, ‘If we walked by each other on the street [he is black and I am white] and you called me a n***** could you go to jail for that? Or if I called you a cracker could I get arrested?’

Other students' heads perk up, waiting for my answer. There is a rich discussion to be had about First Amendment rights and the freedoms and limitations of speech in our society. At this moment the entire class is engaged and excited to learn about civics. But we have strayed too far off topic so the lead teacher tells us, "Pull out a piece of paper and begin writing your brief constructed response silently."

We made a decision in that moment with those twelve boys that practice with writing a brief constructed response (BCR) was of higher value than becoming competent, prepared, participatory citizens. Does that decision mesh with your own values?

The instructor was no mindless drill-and-kill caricature. But our class time together was finite and the students had a final test fast approaching with multiple BCRs on it. The program evaluators look at the results of that test to determine whether or not to re-hire teachers from the summer before. Although the instructor would likely say that civics is more important than BCRs, the weight of the final exam (which had no questions about civics on it) was used to gauge his effectiveness as a teacher, and therefore his future employment pushed his actions in another direction.”

Degradation of Students’ Education

Stories like this kill me, and the truth is that they’re taking place every day in thousands of classrooms across the country (well, let me be more specific—in thousands of low-income classrooms; the private and suburban schools that policy-makers send their own kids to aren’t forced to have such a restrictive and damaging focus).

The main tragedy is obviously the degradation of students’ education, as opportunities for young people to think deeply about important issues and to engage in real critical thinking and problem-solving processes (you know, the stuff that will actually be valuable to them in their future careers and roles as citizens and community members) get sacrificed for the sake of test prep, test prep, and more test prep. But a secondary question this poses is how in the world are we going to recruit and retain great teachers if this is the job we’re offering them? If I were to be a teacher, I’d feel a responsibility to engage my students in discussions and dialogue about meaningful issues in every class, every day. I wouldn’t feel like I’d be doing my job otherwise. Good teachers get into the profession because they want to help students understand the world around them, to ask questions, to think independently and form their own opinions, to learn to articulate themselves, to become the citizens our society needs them to be. In short, good teachers decide to become educators because they want to educate.

Somewhere along the line a lot of people in a lot of important positions have lost sight of this, and have somehow substituted the idea of education for the cleaner, simpler, and far less valuable idea of standardized test proficiency. These tests can, to a certain degree, measure limited skills and rote learning, but no standardized test can accurately measure the quality of an education. To quote Diane Ravitch once more, “Students can be coached to guess the right answer, but learning this skill does not equate to acquiring facility in complex reasoning and analysis. It is possible to have higher test scores and worse education. The scores tell us nothing about how well students can think, how deeply they understand history or science or literature or philosophy, or how much they love to paint or dance or sing, or how well prepared they are to cast their votes carefully or to be wise jurors.”

The disturbing new generation of teacher evaluations—whether they’re in New York or Rhode Island (which, of course, has its own system that puts an unfortunate emphasis on test scores) is not how we’re going to improve the quality of America’s teaching force. And I don’t know what evidence anyone is using to claim it will. Not one of the twenty or so nations that outperform the U.S. evaluates teachers by the test scores of their students. And the only two American school systems that have consistently used test-score based teacher evaluations for the past twenty years—the State of Tennessee and the city of Dallas—have some of the least successful student outcomes in the country.

On the other hand, we have more than ample proof of the demoralizing effects these systems have on both current teachers and prospective ones. I have immense respect for all those great educators who are still battling it out and working to make differences in students’ lives regardless of the systemic constraints and insults they face. And I have even more respect for my two (yes, out of my whole graduating class I know only two) friends who are committing to becoming lifelong teachers despite it all. But I won’t be joining them, and neither will countless young people like me. You’ve scared us away, education ‘reformers.’ And until America really starts reforming education in the democratic, liberatory, and student-centered ways its students deserve, you’re not going to get us back.

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