Once upon a time, not so long ago, a group of self-important people decided that schools weren’t getting the job done. Naturally, they blamed this failure on the people working inside the schools. Since only one group of people worked directly with the students who were doing such an abysmal job compared to their international peers, they decided that teachers were the root of the problem.
The solution was simple: Get better ones.
But attracting people who might be better teachers than the ones currently doing the job would be difficult and costly. Teaching is hard. You can’t get rich doing it, no matter how driven you are. And taxpayers don’t love paying for things.
Providing better training to those who were already willing to become teachers might help, but that seemed hard too. How rigorous of a training program are you going to put candidates through if the reward at the end is an endlessly stressful job that (eventually) pays a middle-class income and subjects the graduate to scapegoating for all of the nation’s ills? Would better training even make a difference? If B and C students were becoming teachers and it was too hard to entice A students to the field, then was it really prudent to reform teacher training programs? How good should we expect B and C students to be?
So they landed on the one thing they could control and that wouldn’t cost much money: Get rid of the bad teachers. If you got rid of the duds, then only the good ones would remain. And then students would do better.
In order to get rid of those bad teachers, they had to make it easier for districts to fire them. So they attacked tenure and removed other teacher protections so districts could more expeditiously dump their losers.
This idea had the benefit of being nearly universally supported. For who could oppose getting rid of awful teachers? Most people had no trouble thinking of at least one teacher who deserved the ax.
I’ve worked with two truly bad teachers in my eighteen-year career. One was a gym teacher who only had her students play cat and mouse. All year long. Never went outside. Another was a grump who hung on for the paycheck. She mostly showed videos. Not educational ones, either. She’d just stick a full-length Disney movie in and let it play all afternoon while she sat at her desk and grumbled at students who dared talk during the film. The rest had varying levels of dedication and competence, but they all did the job. They taught. They cared about how their students did. None of them mailed it in. But fire those two? You bet!
If it had stopped there, with getting rid of the worst of the worst, most teachers would have supported the reforms. Nearly everyone in a school knows who should no longer be teaching. An evaluation system needn’t be any more complicated than asking everyone in a building to write down the names of teachers who should be let go. If the same name shows up five or more times, then get rid of that person.
But no. That’s cruel. That’s unfair. It’s not very scientific. The potential for abuse is obvious. Why, school personnel might conspire to get rid of an unpopular but effective teacher!
So we made it more complex to give the appearance of fairness.
We now have convoluted evaluation systems that require a lot more money and work so we can churn out lots more numbers and labels. Instead of just getting rid of the worst among us, administrators have to observe every teacher, fill out onerous checklists, input countless data points, and complete several year-end evaluations, all so teachers can be ranked and sorted and given a meaningless number and silly label.
Tests have to be created, not to assess students, as tests are supposed to, but to assess teachers because there have to be multiple data points. Districts spend thousands on preapproved evaluation systems like Danielson and Marzano and thousands more on data warehouses. Administrators have to be trained to use the evaluation tools so we can pretend they’re being used consistently.
We do all of this because we want the decision to fire a teacher to appear scientific and therefore fair.
But in reality, the observations are subjective, which means they’re unscientific and therefore unfair. The tests often measure proficiency instead of growth, which makes them not very useful for judging teachers. The potential for abuse is obvious. Why, administrators might conspire to get rid of an unpopular but effective teacher!
In other words, we’re wasting scarce resources to not solve any problems. We have traded a simple way of removing bad teachers for a complicated way that squanders an incredible amount of time and money, is not actually any more scientific or fair than a simple vote would be, and can easily be used to target teachers that administrators don’t like.
We’ve done it because it allows us to comfort ourselves with the lie that this way — because it’s complicated and there are numbers involved –is a more fair way to do things.
But it isn’t. It’s just more dishonest, wasteful, and cowardly.