09/17/2012 11:35 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2012

Schools Aren't Factories

The current strike by Chicago's teachers has again brought to national attention the long-running debate about the role of standardized testing in the evaluation of the quality of teachers. While stopping short of full-throated support for teachers' unions, especially their resistance to reforms of so-called tenure, most educators certainly side with them on this point: standardized testing is of questionable value in evaluating students at the primary and secondary levels, and it has even less value in evaluating their teachers. As the saying goes, standardized tests test only one thing: the ability of a student to take standardized tests.

The push for more standardized testing ought to fail because it relies on a crucial, sneaky and false premise: schools are like factories. Teachers are assembly-line workers, and students are the products. Standardized tests are a form of quality control at checkpoints in the line, and one can judge the worker by the quality of her or his products. This is plain wrong, as any teacher of primary or secondary school can tell you.

The number one factor influencing a student's development and success in primary and secondary school is not the teacher or progression of teachers -- it is the parent, parents, guardian, or lack thereof. This is why, when teachers talk to each other about schools, they discuss "parent involvement" as a major factor in evaluating a school'squality. Do the children eat breakfast? Are they cared for after school? Do parents supervise their homework? Is there anyone stopping them from playing video games and eating chips and candy all afternoon and evening? Is there someone to tell them to get off the phone and go to bed?

The answers to these questions mean more than virtually anything about what happens during the school day. Consider how you, as an adult, perform at work on insufficient sleep and an empty stomach in a stuffy room until noon. Kids are even worse off. Show me a school with high parent involvement and low test scores, and first, I'll be very surprised. Second, I'll agree that some teachers and administrators in that school ought to be fired.

To return to the surreptitious analogy of the factory: judging teachers by standardized test results is like judging the quality of industrial chefs in a canning plant by testing the quality of the tomato sauce coming off the line -- except some of the chefs receive well-tended, nutritious fruit while others receive undernourished poorly-handled tomatoes. To do so would be ridiculous. Sure, a top chef can pull off a miracle or two, but overall, better ingredients make a better sauce.

The analogy becomes even more ridiculous when one finds out that it's very difficult to tell at first what kind of fruit the chef is dealing with. Some that look perfect aren't quite ripe; some that look bruised can have exceptional flavor with the right care. It takes alot of time and expertise to figure these things out. But by then the process is almost over. Oh, and the next batch will be an entirely different blend, and you're supposed to produce a similar or better product. Or be fired. Because the farmers, the weather, and the terroir can't be fired, and someone has to be punished for the inadequate product.

If we must make analogies to the act of educating, a better one would be thinking of a teacher like a trainer at a health club or fitness center -- an analogy I owe to Randy Pausch's book, The Last Lecture. Expanding on that analogy, how might we judge the quality of a trainer? By measuring the body fat, strength and conditioning of the students at the beginning and end of a semester's aerobics class? I don't think so. We wouldn't find that fair because we inherently understand that the primary responsibility for fitness lies with the student. Certainly we would hope for some development overall in the trainer's students' fitness, just as we do with teachers.

But to evaluate the trainer before renewing an employment contract, we might rather observe: how the trainer creates an appropriate environment, inspires enthusiasm for fitness, creates structured activities for individuals and groups, demonstrates proper techniques, provides correction and encouragement, explains effectively the benefits and drawbacks of various exercises, utilizes appropriate and up-to-date technologies, offers some one-on-one attention with struggling students, and details what students can do at home to continue their development.

But the trainer has no control over what the students actually do next: the students' sleeping habits, diets, activities, or idleness outside of class. If half the class doesn't lose weight because they don't control their diets or are sedentary outside of class, no one would think of blaming the trainer at the end. It's similar for public school teachers, but their challenge is even more pronounced: teachers are expected to get results from everyone that walks in the door; the health club by design welcomes only the self-motivated.

How then to evaluate a teacher? Looking above at the list of ways we might evaluate a trainer suggests some appropriate ways to judge a teacher. The best schools already do these kinds of evaluations, but they take a great deal of staffing, time and expertise. With state budgets shrinking across the country, it seems impossible to add the expenses necessary to generate effective teacher evaluations and improvements. On the other side, teachers' unions have been unnecessarily resistant to touch, much less slaughter, the sacred cow of teacher tenure.

In a perfect world, the negotiators would lock themselves in a Chicago hotel room with coffee and cigarettes until they worked out a deal: one side gives ground on tenure; the other side finds the financial support for legitimate and detailed evaluations of teachers -- independent of standardized test scores.

In short, the widespread movement to judge teachers' performance primarily by their students' performance on standardized tests is fundamentally flawed. Schools aren't factories. If they're like anything, they're like gymnasiums staffed by trainers. In fact, that was exactly how communal education started in the first place: in the gymnasia of ancient Greece.