If there’s one belief among education reformers that’s as stubbornly persistent as a two-year-old’s questions, it’s that if only schools would fire more teachers, kids would start getting better at reading and math. This enduring illusion seems so impervious to the contradictory evidence that one is forced to conclude that its adherents, for all their reasoned arguments, have more in common with religious zealots than sober academics.
In the course of 20 minutes of web surfing today, I ran across two articles that lazily suggested that the solution to our nation’s education problems is simply to fire more teachers.
Zachary Wright, in an article on Education Post called When Students Aren’t Proficient in Reading or Math, It Isn’t a Shame, It’s Violence, calls teachers a bunch of whiners:
“Teachers, I am one of you, and I say this with all the love, honor, and respect I can muster: Stop moaning about accountability standards…Stop griping about the unfairness of performance metrics. When a teacher speaks out against accountability, the truth is, at their core, whether they admit it or not, they care more about themselves than their students. Full stop.”
This is, and I say this with all the love, honor, and respect I can muster, idiotic thinking. Let’s be clear about what accountability standards are at least supposed to mean. They mean judging and then either punishing or rewarding (but usually punishing) teachers. In the wettest of reformers’ dreams, they mean firing a few hundred thousand teachers every year (I don’t have a source for that number but a few hundred thousand would represent about 10% of teachers, a number that the most passionate reformers would likely still find too low.)
Arguing that teachers shouldn’t complain when those accountability systems rely on unfair metrics is like arguing doctors should just shut up when the government decides to set up a system of rewards and punishments based on how healthy their patients are. It’s like telling dentists to zip their lips when people who know zilch about dentistry decide that some of them need to be fired because too many of their patients don’t brush their teeth. It’s like asking prison wardens to pipe down when the state decides to evaluate them based on recidivism rates. Submissively accepting such illogical systems means being okay with people who are good at their jobs potentially losing them.
As far as teachers who speak out against such unjust systems being only concerned about themselves, wrong again. Everyone with a child in today’s education system should be concerned about accountability systems that are based on unfair metrics for the simple reason that they will result in good teachers being fired or driven from the profession. Teachers, more than anyone else, are aware of this, which is why they have an obligation to fight back against such systems. We are supposed to be there for our students, and our students deserve teachers who are evaluated fairly so that the public can have some assurance that the right people are doing the job.
People who argue for greater teacher accountability always seem to do so from a belief that not having a strong evaluation system means that schools will be saddled with bad teachers, but they rarely seem as concerned that unfair systems will misidentify good teachers as weak ones and force them out of the profession. With many good teachers leaving on their own, that’s not something we can afford. It may, in fact, represent a larger threat to student learning, given that teacher shortages make it challenging for schools to replace “bad” teachers with better ones.
A second article, also on Education Post but written by Brandon Dutcher and titled, “It’s Not Real School Accountability If No One Is Held Accountable” positively drips with reformer frustration. It’s actually kind of fun to read. Dutcher writes:
“Despite years of ‘high stakes’ student testing, very few of the nation’s 3.14 million public-school teachers have ever lost a job, had their pay reduced, or otherwise faced meaningful consequences because of these test results.”
You see, we’ve been trying this for a while now. Accountability systems aren’t new. They just failed. Even Bill Gates admits it. Still, the reason for that failure can be interpreted one of two ways: Either teacher accountability failed because it’s a stupid idea with very little chance of succeeding or it never really had a prayer in the first place because, despite reformers spending billions of dollars to treat educators like guinea pigs and to buy off legislators so they would adopt tougher evaluation systems and dismantle pesky tenure protections, the damn school districts didn’t take advantage of their new power. They just kept rating teachers highly anyway!
Now I’d argue that either way, the idea is a proven dud. If you can’t get the people with the authority to implement your fancy evaluation system the way you want it implemented, then that’s just a different form of failure. But it’s worth it to ask, what if it had succeeded?
“Here in Oklahoma, the majority of students lack proficiency in math, science, and English language arts. So how many schools have been closed? How many grown-ups have lost their jobs or had their pay reduced? Who’s being held accountable for the damage?”
One can almost hear him stomping his feet. Dutcher, and many like him, envision a world where schools, almost all of them in low-income communities, would be closed if students had crappy test scores. He wants the adults in those schools kicked to the curb. He wants those effers held accountable.
Okay. Then what?
Those kids are going to need new schools and those schools are going to need more teachers to teach those kids. Where does Dutcher think the schools will find them? Is Oklahoma, with its embarrassing teacher salaries and lack of job protections, holding scads of would-be-fabulous teachers in some type of strategic teacher reserve? Does Dutcher actually believe a punitive accountability system would lure all those Oklahoma teachers who left for Texas back to the Sooner State?
No, but he does have a solution (prepare to be shocked, he wrote sarcastically):
“True accountability is accountability not to bureaucrats but rather to parents. Happily, we’re now seeing examples of this voting-with-their-feet accountability. The Oklahoman reported this year that “41 percent of students who attend a virtual charter school in Oklahoma left their previous school because they were victims of bullying.”
Virtual charter schools! The same virtual charter schools that, according to this Detroit News article, have been a “spectacular failure.”
“A study by the RAND Corp. and New York University released earlier this year showed that online-only schools tend to attract and harm our most vulnerable students. The study found that Ohio students with low test scores who attend cyber charter schools fell even further behind. High achieving students perform better, but still achieve lower results than they would have if they had enrolled in traditional schools.
In the “National Study of Online Charter Schools,” Stanford University found that cyber charter students received the equivalent of 180 fewer days of learning in math and 72 fewer days of instruction in reading than their peers in traditional schools.”
I wonder if Dutcher wants to hold the computers accountable.
The central problem with calling for a more punitive accountability system for teachers is that the job is already pretty damn unattractive in all of the places where that accountability system would bare its sharpest teeth. Click To TweetWhy would anyone teach in a district where it would be more likely they would be fired because of the test scores of their students, a metric over which they have only some influence?
Look, I wish it were as easy as reformers like to pretend it is, but teacher evaluation reform is this century’s Prohibition. It’s the cure that’s worse than the disease.
At the very least, a medicine ought to remedy the malady for which it was created, even if there are some nasty side-effects. But with teacher evaluation reform, America got a double-whammy. According to the Rand report, not only did students at schools within the Gates program’s purview not do any better than their peers at other schools in the same areas, but teacher accountability systems have wreaked havoc on the profession.
Since accountability gained traction in 2009, teacher stress has increased, with 73% of teachers reporting that they are often under stress and 46% saying they experience high stress every day (the numbers are even higher for elementary teachers). In 2013, 55% of teachers reported low or very low morale and 69% said their morale had declined. (Source) Roughly 6 in 10 teachers in a 2017 survey said their mental health was “not good” for at least seven of the previous 30 days. (Source) Not surprisingly, we have teacher shortages in many of the very geographic areas where reformers would most like to see more teachers fired.
Those numbers can’t just be ignored. In schools where at least 75% of students qualify for free-and-reduced lunch, teacher turnover averages more than 22 percent annually. Recent data from the District of Columbia Public Schools reveal average teacher turnover rates of around 25 percent, but in those schools with free-and-reduced lunch rates higher than 80 percent, turnover was closer to 40 percent each year. In New York City middle schools, 66 percent of educators exit within their first five years. The typical Chicago public school loses over half of its teachers in their first five years.
For those reformers who want more teachers working in these schools gone, you’re already getting your wish. They’re leaving on their own, in some cases because of the policy changes you wanted. To suggest that these teachers, the ones who knowingly (and largely altruistically) go into the most difficult schools and attempt to teach the hardest to reach kids, need to do so with the sword of Damocles resting precariously above their heads isn’t just stupid. It’s cruel.
And would-be teachers know it, as evidenced by teacher shortages not seen since the 1990s. Enrollment in teacher preparation programs declined by 35% from 2009, the year when the Gates accountability experiment started, to 2014. (Source)
Reformers’ plan to improve education only works if you can replace bad teachers with better ones. But the very system they would like to institute to make that happen is driving good teachers from the system and preventing young people from even signing up. If you’re going to propose a solution, that solution should have at least some chance at succeeding. But with a quarter-million teachers already leaving every year and not all of them being replaced, just where do reformers think they’re going to find people to teach our neediest kids?
Oh, that’s right. They’ll use computers.