10/27/2011 12:08 pm ET Updated Dec 27, 2011

Let's Blame All the Teachers!

Sister Rosetta* is to blame for my inability to do fractions in my head. Oh, she tried to teach me at St. Margaret's School, but my attention span for third grade arithmetic was limited. I was far more interested in being sure that the most popular girl in class, Sally McCann, invited me to her eighth birthday party.

Miss Tetrazzini ordered me to leave the required high school home ec class because I made fun of her filmstrip on 101 Ways of Cooking With Dates and Figs. Perhaps I should sue that nice Catholic girls' school for my inability to cook with figs even today!

Oh, and Miss Tetrazzini? That skirt you made me sew for the school fashion show? The one with the hopeless darts? Further evidence of your lack of good student outcomes! I still can't sew.

I will definitely insist that my tax law professor accompany me to any future IRS audit to fill-in whatever it was that he failed to teach me, which is probably a lot since I was doing crossword puzzles in back of the lecture hall.

My teachers are to blame for all the things I don't know, can't do or just plain screw-up.


Not according to the U.S. Department of Education, which firmly believes that teachers should be evaluated based on student learning outcomes, mostly as measured by standardized tests.

By that formula, my high school Latin teacher obviously taught me more than anyone else ever in my life. I got a nearly perfect score on the Latin achievement test of the SAT. (In 1969, but who can count back that far?) Valuable results for a girl harboring jealousy of altar boys, though now I know that it would have been better to envy computer science geeks. But Sister Belissima drilled us endlessly on Caesar's Gallic Wars, which explains my lackluster performance on the math portion of the SAT. I was too busy with declensions, not quadratic equations.

My teachers were all exceptional women, many of them nuns who did not have fancy diplomas or advanced teacher training, but who knew that a caring learning environment supported by firm discipline (and parents at home who forbade television and heard our homework every night) could turn even the most recalcitrant student into something reasonably approximating a young scholar, albeit with some obvious chronic learning deficiencies. Daily prayer was their final solution for that.

But even the nuns sometimes despaired of student behaviors that undermined their best efforts. My eighth grade teacher resorted to calling the entire class "lazy lumps of protoplasm" mostly because Michael O'Shea never got the right answer. Poor kid, he came from a 'broken home' meaning his mom was a single parent, so we all knew he would probably end up in jail or maybe Vietnam. Most boys knew better and studied hard to avoid the draft.

Even the best students have learning challenges, and many students have real deficiencies in their ability to conquer certain subjects. Millions of students live in circumstances that thwart their ability to come to school each day ready and able to learn. Many teachers, even those with the most elite educational backgrounds, encounter serious challenges and deep frustration with the inability or unwillingness of some students to learn at acceptable levels.

Yes, teachers should certainly be held accountable for excellence in teaching and for measurable results in the progress their students make each day. Teachers are on the front line of student learning assessment, since they really do know better than anyone else what makes a child successful or lackadaisical, engaged or detached in class. Standardized tests rarely measure the real progress that teachers make with some of the most challenging pupils whose learning styles are far off the normed curves.

The current fashion in education reform treats teachers as lazy slugs who care little about whether their students are learning anything. The assumption behind using standardized testing for teacher evaluation is that the only way to make teachers care about learning is to embarrass them publicly when their students do not perform according to someone else's idea of norms. This assumption is what is truly preposterous!

For teachers who choose to devote their life's work to some of the most difficult classrooms in America, such as here in the District of Columbia, the testing imperative becomes a monumental disincentive to stay in the classroom for any length of time, since the opportunities for sustained superior results on standardized tests are rare, while the risks of frequent subpar results are very high. It's no secret that the widely-hailed Teach for America program has ingrained two-year turnover in its teaching corps. TFA teachers rarely stay to wrestle through the down years, which are frequent among students in marginalized communities.

In spite of the obvious problems with assessing teachers by using the standardized testing results of their pupils, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan now forges ahead with a proposal to assess schools of education as well based on the results of standardized tests given to the pupils of the teachers who graduate from their teacher preparation programs.

Frankly, I don't think Secretary Duncan should stop there, not by a long shot.

Schools of business should be evaluated based on how many of their graduates in banking contributed to the global economic meltdown, ever sold a subprime mortgage, or work in banks that think it's OK to charge customers for using their debit cards.

Schools of medicine should be evaluated based on how many of the patients of their doctors recovered from their illnesses, adopt heart-healthy lifestyles and really get annual checkups.

Schools of dentistry can easily be judged based on the flossing habits of Americans.

Schools of psychology should be evaluated based on how many clients of their graduates have resolved their mental health issues.

Schools of theology should be assessed based on who among them has solved the "problem of God."

And political science programs should definitely be held accountable for the effectiveness of the federal regulations their graduates write to achieve successful school reform.

*All names have been changed.