"The first thing we do, let's [fire] all the [teachers]..."
--pace William Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part 2, IV:2
I just returned from the National TAP Summer Institute, an annual training put on by the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET). NIET's goal is to define "excellent teaching"; give teachers the tools and training they need to become excellent in the classroom and hold teachers accountable. The TAP rubric covers everything that goes into classroom teaching, and ties classroom teaching, professional development and teacher evaluation into a comprehensive whole.
Query: Why does everyone focus on holding teachers accountable?
Answer #1: Because they can.
There are numerous characters in education: students, teachers, administrators, school boards, parents and communities, as well as the Greek chorus of educational experts, consultants and bureaucrats. (Felix Salmon has a great discussion of the various roles posted here.)
Teachers are the one group on whom everyone else can focus, and so we bear the brunt of school reform -- stiffened evaluation processes, new requirements to be highly qualified, performance-based pay, charter schools and parent-choice triggers, and ultimately the threat of non-renewal if students don't improve on standardized tests.
Why aren't the other parties in for their share of the blame?
Shouldn't students be responsible for their own learning, for attending school regularly and paying attention and doing their work? Well, lots of students work diligently, quietly going about their assignments and completing all that is expected of them. But not every kid understands why school is important; not every kid gets the support he needs at home, and encouragement to succeed academically; not every kid sees a future for herself that is empowered or improved by a diploma or degree. This isn't their fault; it's a failure on the part of every adult in their lives.
So what about those adults who aren't teachers -- the administrators, school boards, parents, communities and the background chanters?
Administrators are already in the same boat as teachers -- bring up test scores and graduation rates, reduce absenteeism and do it all on reduced budgets or you're out. Never mind your elementary school is inundated with kids unprepared socially or academically; we don't want to hear about high-school freshmen reading at fourth- or fifth-grade levels. Bring up the test scores or you're gone.
School boards work diligently to catch up to new and ever-changing standards, to keep up with constantly shifting expectations from state and federal overseers, and to meet community expectations so they can get reelected and continue their work.
Parents love their kids, and want the best for them. Not all parents are equally equipped -- intellectually, academically, emotionally, financially -- to help their kids. Depending on your political persuasion, you'll have ideas about how this ought to be addressed, but it's beyond the schools' remit or capacity to fix problems in the larger society. Besides, it's the parents who vote to reelect school board members, so ain't nobody pointing fingers in this direction.
We do need more help from our communities. When I was a kid, every adult I encountered asked me about school. The questions came from neighbors, family friends, Scout leaders, pastors, the guy pumping gas, even the small-appliance repairman who doubled as a barber. "How's school going?" "You gotta stay in school." "You need that education." I'm pretty sure my students don't often hear that school is important, at least not from folks off-campus. We all are more likely to believe things we hear multiple times, from different sources, and our students need validation that school matters.
Educational bureaucrats -- public and private, with money and without -- are mostly great people, dedicated to improving society by helping our youngsters. But each bureaucrat, each program, each initiative is focused on its own needs, separate from the overall project of educating the nation, and no one acts as the coordinator.
In our school and in education generally, we're like an orchestra of competent musicians who lack a score; we can each play well, but we're seldom playing the same thing at the same time, or looking to the same conductor.
So that's why everyone is focused on teacher accountability. It's the only thing people can actually get their hands around.
Answer #2: Because we can always improve teaching, and because we have to increase student test scores, so we've assumed that the former leads to the latter.
Programs like TAP and its peers are bringing sophisticated training and accountability approaches to education, where teacher evaluations have been too infrequent and too subjective. This is all to the good and should continue.
We have to bring up student test scores. Teacher evaluations, school funding and even the independence of some districts are all on the chopping block if NCLB-mandated standardized test scores don't rise significantly. The Obama administration is backing off the requirement that 100 percent of students pass the exams by 2014, a feckless goal if ever there was one, but we still have to figure out how to get high-school students past the exams when they present with deficient reading skills and virtually no math.
So because we can work on ways to improve teaching, and because we have to increase student scores, we've decided that the way to increase student scores is to improve teaching.
Here's the problem: Improving teaching does not guarantee increased student test scores.
Sure, better teachers should eventually lead to better students, but the fuse on that may be a pretty long one. Like, a decade. Will the federal and state funding agencies see the glimmer of progress at schools like mine, and work with us for the years it will take? Can we maintain program and funding consistency so things have time to work?
Now, if you were reading a smarter author than yours truly, this is where you'd find the brilliant solution to the problem. I don't have one. I'm pretty sure no one has the brilliant solution. After reading the 1828 Yale Report to President John Quincy Adams and the 1918 Cardinal Report on Secondary Education and John Dewey, I'm increasingly skeptical that there is a brilliant solution.
But I'm open, and the idea behind this blog is to share what's going on in my corner of the world, in the hopes that you'll share what's going on in your corner, and maybe, just maybe, we'll hit on some reasonably bright solutions that help a few kids a little bit today.
That's when we're doing God's work.