Perhaps no issue in America generates more heat and less light than the allegedly dismal state of public education. The most recent inflammation followed the release of international test results showing American students languishing in the middle of the pack. From President Obama on down, our leaders fret that we will lose our place as the world's greatest economic power if we're not training our young folks to compete against the Chinese (and others). And, of course, it must be teachers' fault.
Reading the newspaper or watching the evening news leads one to believe that teachers are overpaid and under-worked. Powerful politicians and wealthy philanthropists claim that teacher unions are hell-bent on protecting incompetents. Nearly every policy initiative is predicated on the idea that we must bust up the unions, end the public school monopoly and introduce good business practices into schools. Incentives, merit pay, evaluations and accountability - these things will straighten out the miscreants and restore American preeminence in education. (They've worked really well for American business lately, haven't they!)
Seldom mentioned is the rather simple fact that teachers are perhaps the only variable that hasn't changed over the past few decades. From my earliest school days in the 1950s until today, some teachers are superb, some competent if uninspiring and a few lousy ones. Most everything else has changed dramatically: Family structure, stresses on working parents, social and economic inequity, popular culture, the ubiquitous and corrosive effects of electronic media, racial and ethnic diversity, just to name a few.
But the press to make teachers accountable is incessant. "Tie pay to performance," the bureaucrats rage. For the past few decades teachers and schools around the country have been assessed by their students' results on standardized tests. As frustrated bureaucrats belatedly acknowledged the complex variables at work in the achievement-testing morass, the new buzz-phrase in teacher assessment became "value-added." Perhaps student test scores can't be accurately compared across the many social and individual variables within or between schools and districts, but we surely can compare how much any particularly teacher improves the test performance of the children in her care, can't we? Maybe or maybe not, but the process is destructive in either event.
Teacher assessment schemes these days are often designed in tandem with proposals for merit pay. Merit pay is a long-standing red herring, based on the unproven notion that teaching will get better if financially incentivized. Some evidence from schools in Israel and India suggests that financial incentives work. The evidence from school districts around America is mixed, at best. To a great extent the argument in the current economic environment is moot. Given flat or reduced funding for education in most districts, merit pay, even if it raised motivation for some teachers, would be emotionally and financially devastating to others. You can't serve more of a shrinking pie to a few without starving others. Good schools are characterized by teacher collaboration and esprit de corps. Merit pay, particularly when all teachers are underpaid, is divisive to community spirit, at a direct cost to students.
The greater problem with current teacher evaluation schemes is that they incentivize bad teaching. With or without merit pay, the assumed straight-line correlation between test scores and teacher quality drives the worst practices. When one's job or the very existence of the school depends on students' short-term test results, even the best teacher will compromise or abandon the rich and powerful experiences that benefit students most. Great teaching requires patience, flexibility, good humor, and a sophisticated understanding of individual ways of learning and rates of development. Great teaching invites students to engage their imaginations and construct their own knowledge. Great teaching focuses on important questions instead of "right" answers. Great schools have music, art and lots of recess. Great schools and great teachers know that relationships among and between children and adults have the most profound impact on students' emotional development and long-term academic achievement. Every test-score based evaluation system compromises many or all of these things.
Of course teachers should be held to a high standard. We all should be. In every school, public and private, administrators, parents and students know who the good teachers are. Most teachers are deeply committed to their work, dedicated to their students and trying to do their best in a system gone mad. What we need is resources to pay them properly and support their professional development. And we must reject the educational policies that tie their hands and force them to treat their students like raw material on a production line. There's plenty wrong with education in America. Teachers are not the problem.