This is a guest post from Jack Whelan who ran for School Board in District II in the primary.
“I have a button that reads: "Those who CAN teach. Those who CAN'T become education policymakers." Well, not all teachers can teach, and not all policymakers can't, but ... it's mostly true.” –Deborah Meier
It’s mostly true of school administrators, too. And that’s why it’s just wrong to have a teacher evaluation system that depends on one person—the principal. It only makes sense in a world where you accept that schools are like businesses where you get your performance evaluation from your boss. That’s frequently problematic even in corporate settings if you have a jerk for a boss (like that never happens) or a boss who, for whatever reason, doesn’t know your job because he or she never did it. (Ask any special ed teacher how many principals she’s had who have even the remotest clue about what she is doing.)
A boss who doesn't understand what you're doing can only evaluate you by some “objective” rubric/metric that measures productivity, but that can only work when your job involves doing something for which your productivity is objectively measurable. And so in order to make teacher productivity measurable, there’s this push to link teacher productivity to student test scores, and test scores then become inordinately important for all stakeholders, and getting them up becomes the really only important thing. And in order to get test scores up, you have administrators sitting on classroom teachers to make sure they are teaching to the test. This is inevitable once you accept the necessity of data-driven, quantitative productivity measurements.
But education just isn’t a quantitatively measurable, productivity-producing kind of thing—not at its core, anyway. The most important and memorable things that happen in a classroom are the un-measurables, the intangibles. It’s all about quality--the quality of the relationships, the quality of a teacher’s experience and judgment about how to meet kids where they are and to help them take the next step that’s right for them. (That’s quite a different enterprise from getting them to “standard”.) It’s about the quality of discovery, the quality developed in enabling kids to learn to love learning, to wake up to a world that is much bigger and richer, more interesting and more important than what can be measured on math and reading tests.
I’m sure that if you talked to most supporters of technocratic ed reform they would tell you that they agree with everything I’ve written in the previous paragraph. But then they’d ask, “What about the achievement gap? And then they'd remind me we're in crisis. And then they'd tell me we have to be aggressive and methodical in solving this world-historical problem. “We’ve got to get serious," they'd say. "We’ve got to knock some heads. We need systems; we need processes; we need ways to measure whether we are making progress. Yes, even a few would say, we need to impose the educational equivalent of martial law in our schools, and we need to give superintendents and principals the power to flush out or punish non-producers in the teaching ranks."
I don’t believe there’s some evil capitalist plot to take over education. Sure, there are opportunists on the periphery of technocratic reform, but that reform impulse gains the broad support it does because decent, intelligent people become too easily seduced by crisis thinking: we must do something, anything. But this compulsion to engineer top-down action plans that we impose on intractable, deeply rooted, historical and cultural problems almost always leads us to ruin. There were a lot of very smart, decent people who thought invading Iraq was the right thing to do. It just wasn’t, and it proved ruinous. The mentality that brought us Iraq and the mentality that is bringing us No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top ed reform are, I would argue, very similar. It's bi-partisan wrong-headedness.
Here’s what wiser heads understand: Bend your efforts to improve quality first, and the quantitative (standardized test scores, etc.) will take care of itself over time. The criterion to evaluate the effectiveness of a program ought not to be whether it has helped to close the achievement gap. Other fundamental structural economic and cultural issues need to be dealt with if we’re genuinely serious about closing achievement or opportunity gaps. Once we live in a truly equitable society, then we can expect scalable, equitable educational outcomes.
In the meanwhile, we focus on what’s best and what’s possible for each kid. That’s why I like Kate Martin’s ideas about mentors that would work with families and kids to define goals and shape strategies for what would be best for them, rather than have the district dictate what is best for them. Better the money go into that than into MAP testing, IMO. I hope Kate keeps pushing for that and that others support her.
We all want excellent schools, but excellence is relative to the particular challenges each school community and each kid in that community faces, it cannot be standardized. And you cannot force excellence. You inspire students’ aspiration toward it, and then find ways to cultivate it in them. And teacher-peers, parents, and—when they’re older—the students themselves are better judges of whether teachers provide that quality than the typical harried administrator--and they should be involved in a fairer, broader, relationships-centered teacher-evaluation process. That also was an idea Kate was pushing for, and the union should push for it, too.
Quality is something that develops and grows primarily in and through human relationships. We should be bending our efforts to promote high-quality, rich, collaborative relationships rather than obsessing about these quantitative measurements that are indifferent to quality and that force us to ask the wrong questions and worry about the wrong things.