THE BLOG
06/13/2014 06:17 pm ET Updated Aug 13, 2014

The Way to Always Have 'Ineffective' Teachers

Phil Boorman via Getty Images

In the wake of Vergara, we've repeatedly heard an old piece of reformster wisdom: Poor students are nearly twice as likely as their wealthier peers to have ineffective, or low-performing, teachers. This new interpretation of "ineffective" or "low-performing" guarantees that there will always be an endless supply of ineffective teachers.

The new definition of "ineffective teacher" is "teacher whose students score poorly on test."

Add to that the assumption that a student only scores low on a test because of the student had an ineffective teacher.

You have now created a perfect circular definition. And the beauty of this is that in order to generate the statistics tossed around in the poster above, you don't even have to evaluate teachers!

At Rich White Kid Academy, 50 out of 1,000 students scored Below Basic on The Big Test. At Poor Brown Kid High, 100 out of 1,000 scored Below Basic. Because the only admitted explanation for a Below Basic score is ineffective teaching, the only reason PBKH could have twice as many failing scores is because they have twice as many ineffective teachers! ! See how easy it is??

Look, I don't know what methodology was used to generate that factoid. It's entirely possible that they inserted the extra step of doing actual teacher evaluations. It doesn't matter. As long as you don't consider the possibility that low-income students do poorly on standardized tests because they go to schools with chaotic administrations, high staff turnover, crumbling facilities, lack of resources, dangerous neighborhoods, and backgrounds that do not fit them for culturally-biased standardized tests -- as long as you don't consider any of that, one thing remains certain--

Low-income students will always be taught by ineffective low-performing teachers.

If you define "bad teacher" as "whoever is standing in front of these low-testing students," it doesn't matter who stands there. Whoever it is, he's ineffective.

It is like concluding that the people running up the side of the mountain are slower runners than the people running down the mountain. It is like concluding that people who stand outside in the rain are worse at keeping their clothes dry than inside-standers. It is like concluding that people who are standing in ten-foot holes have poorer distance than people who are standing on ladders.

You can have people trade places all day -- you will always find roughly the same distribution of slow/fast, wet/dry. good/bad vision. Because what you are fixing is not the source of your problem. It's like getting a bad meal in a restaurant and demanding that a different waiter bring it to you.

It is literally -- literally -- like drawing an X on a classroom floor and saying, "Any teacher who stands here is an ineffective teacher."

How do reformsters think this approach will affect their stated plan of putting a great teacher in front of those low-income students? How many teachers (or TFA temp bodies) do they plan to run through that meat grinder before they admit that other factors might be in play? And how do they plan to recruit teachers to stand on that big X, to volunteer for an "ineffective" rating?

So am I saying the poverty and chaos and crumbling building and all the rest is an excuse?

I am not. In fact, once we realize it's not an excuse, we can start to see that for those schools, the situation is actually worse than what I've described so far.

Because that allegedly ineffective teacher, by virtue of connecting with students and hard work and love and, yes, even grit, may be accomplishing great things in the face of tremendous odds -- just not super-duper standardized test scores.

I've talked so far about all these people as if they are easily interchangeable when in fact they are not. A teacher who is awesomely effective in one school setting might be meh in another. That teacher you've rated "ineffective" because of test scores might, in fact, be the most awesomely perfect person for the job. They might have accomplished great things in spite of the chaos and crumbling and underfunding and lack of admin support and resources, and if you had just fixed any of those things, that teacher would have accomplished miracles for you. But instead you want to fire her and replace her with someone who may have no idea how to face the specific challenges of that classroom.

In other words, by focusing on a bogus definition of effectiveness, you actually have no idea of which teachers are great for a particular classroom. It's not just that the reformster definition of "effective" is unjust and unfair; its innate wrongness will actively thwart any attempts to make anything better. It's almost -- almost -- as if reformsters actually want public schools to fail.

Cross-posted from Curmudgucation.