Mrs. Jones* missed 100 school days two years in a row. She was a good teacher when she was there, but she had a second job. Ms. Marcus had no classroom management, and her students ran around the room and did no work. A social studies teacher, Mr. Cali took over when Mr. Stevens, the math teacher, went out on extended sick leave.
During my six years of teaching middle school in a major urban school system, I never worked with a consistent team of teachers that provided high quality instruction all year long. I watched as teachers missed extended periods of instruction, untrained substitutes took over their classrooms, and students fell permanently behind in core content areas. None of the tenured teachers was ever released or fired. When a principal would decide to remove a teacher, that teacher would get reassigned to another school. Only provisional (new teachers) could be released. So the dance of the lemons continued for thousands of teachers.
Releasing Test Scores Shames the Wrong People
New York City yesterday released test scores of thousands of teachers, following the lead of Los Angeles, where the test scores of teachers were released in the newspaper last spring. Both efforts are narrowed-minded and leading us in the wrong direction. Last week, Bill Gates wrote a powerful piece, "Shame Is Not the Solution," and I agree that we don't need to shame teachers by publishing their test scores. Education is too complex for that one measure. The public does not understand that these scores do not reveal enough.
Instead, we need to shame the people who allow teachers who by all standards are not competent to stay in their classrooms, our classrooms.
Multiple Factors Affect Student Performance
Releasing test scores alone will not reveal enough about teacher quality. So many factors affect students test scores: the teachers the students had before, their socioeconomic status, their access to effective instruction materials and other academic programs, the levels of the other students in their classes, the type of tests given, the method of test analysis, and so much more. Of course, teacher quality matters. Many teachers can improve. Others can't and won't.
If you had looked at my test scores my first year, you would have not have seen how weak I was, because my sixth graders had another amazing reading teacher on the team whose skills almost counteracted my lack of teaching knowledge and experience. During my sixth year of teaching, when I was much better trained and competent, my test scores were lower, because my students' skills were far below grade level. Yet, from the beginning to the end of the year, their gains were substantial because of the multiple ways we worked on their literacy skills. We had set them on the path to great gains.
Now as I train and coach middle and high school teachers, I push them to see themselves as agents of change. I teach them that they have the moral, professional, and legal obligation to provide their students with the highest quality instruction possible. I help them see themselves as just beginning their path to great teaching. I encourage them to view themselves as lifelong learners and how complex their work truly is. I know that teaching is one of the hardest jobs imaginable, especially in urban school systems, beset with limited resources, overwhelmed families, and students with little external motivation. Nonetheless, I have faith in my new teachers' abilities to become truly amazing teachers.
Over the past 10 years, I have watched most of my teachers develop into extraordinary teachers. I have also tried counseled others out of the profession, while their administrators haven't.
There Is Hope
As federal, state, and local leaders continue to look for ways to reform schools, there is hope. There are more teachers than positions. We can be picky. We can be selective. We cannot just use seniority. We must gain the collective will to remove teachers who do not put their students first.
Gates is correct that we need a systematic approach to evaluating teachers. We need to develop a more effective way of measuring teachers. As I evaluate my student teachers now, I look for multiple measures of their success from observations, student work, service, to student feedback. Professionalism should and must be one major measure.
The Need for Streamlined Removal Processes
I am not a union buster. I am here today because my teacher's union helped me throughout my development into an activist teacher. However, we have to develop a much faster way to remove incompetent teachers. Removing incompetent teachers will not weaken efforts to protect others. Our students cannot wait; just look at the mess in Los Angeles as teachers who clearly should have been removed from their classrooms were allowed to keep their jobs and their credentials.
As I continue to train urban teachers, I now also teach remedial college freshmen. These are the urban students who make it to college, but are so woefully under-prepared that they require at least a year of remediation. Many of these freshmen are extraordinary, but many read and write at middle school levels. They tell me about years of mediocre education, and how many of their teachers had no classroom management and low expectations. They also tell me of the 30 to 50 percent percent of their peers who dropped out before making it to college. Just think how many of them we could have reached with effective teachers in all of their classrooms.
Stop the Dance of the Lemons
Together, we beg educational and political leaders to stop the dance of the lemons. We beg them to implement a much more streamlined, yet complex method of teacher evaluation. We need a commitment now to stop the madness and to educate every student with a high quality teacher.
Shaming teachers by publishing their test scores won't work. Holding their administrators and district leaders accountable will. They need to remove the truly ineffective teachers with much more effective evaluation and removal methods.
*No real names were used in this piece except for mine.