At What Point Do We Stop Blaming Teachers?

At the beginning of this school year, TNTP released a report called The Opportunity Myth, in which they repeated a golden oldie from the reform agenda’s playlist:  Public schools suck and it’s mostly because public school teachers suck. They didn’t come right out and say that, of course, but it’s hard to interpret the report’s introduction any other way. Judge for yourself:

Far too many students graduate from high school still unprepared for the lives they want to lead. They enroll in college and land in remedial courses, or start jobs and discover they’re missing skills they need. We wanted to understand why.

To do this, we followed nearly 4,000 students in five diverse school systems to learn more about their experiences. What we found was unnerving: classroom after classroom filled with A and B students whose big goals for their lives are slipping further away each day, unbeknownst to them and their families—not because they can’t master challenging material, but because they’re rarely given a real chance to try.

In fact, most students—and especially students of color, those from low-income families, those with mild to moderate disabilities, and English language learners—spent the vast majority of their school days missing out on four crucial resources: grade-appropriate assignments, strong instruction, deep engagement, and teachers with high expectations. Students spent more than 500 hours per school year on assignments that weren’t appropriate for their grade and with instruction that didn’t ask enough of them—the equivalent of six months of wasted class time in each core subject. And middle and high school students reported that their school experiences were engaging less than half the time.

The report is exactly what you’d expect if you’ve been in public education for any length of time, and if you’d like to read why you can safely ignore it, check out Peter Greene’s criticism here and Matt Barnum’s here.

What strikes me is how reformers continue to shamelessly want it both ways.

They have, for the most part, won. They rammed through the standards they wanted. Tenure protections have been decimated in many states. Schools are more “data-driven” than ever. School choice continues to expand. Teachers can now be held accountable for their students’ performance on a standardized test. Reformers have managed to convince 7 out of every 10 Americans that our public schools deserve a C or D rating, even though most believe their children’s own schools are just fine.

School leaders, in their quest to take individual teacher differences out of the equation and standardize lessons just as much as we’ve standardized tests, have adopted Common Core-aligned programs and required strict fidelity to them. They’ve done everything they can to take teacher judgment out of education, going so far as to forbid educators from using anything that hasn’t received prior approval from central office administrators. Some of these programs literally have scripts for teachers to read, and many districts require teachers to follow pacing guides to make sure they cover all the material before the big exam and to ensure continuity across the district. Because I guess that’s important.

The way schools are run today is different than they used to be run, and it isn’t because schools decided they needed to change or parents demanded it; it’s because those changes were forced on them by people with the same ideology as those who write reports criticizing teachers for their weak instruction, below-grade-level assignments, inability to engage students, and low expectations.

It’s the same thing that infuriates me whenever teacher effectiveness is discussed at a district level.

As a teacher who has been told to teach a program as it’s written, how the hell is it my fault if the assignments students get are not challenging enough? I’m not the one who designed the assignments.

If you’re requiring me to read from some stupid script written by publishers who’ve never met my students, then how can you fairly evaluate my instruction? It’s not my instruction.

Should we be surprised that students aren’t engaged during a lesson that’s delivered by a teacher who had no hand in creating it and who sees it as the contrived lump that it is? I’m not a terrible actor, but hand me a lemon and I’m going to have trouble convincing even the most eager-to-learn student that I’m giving them lemonade.

Why would we expect students to be engaged when they’re walked through standard after standard with the goal of preparing them for a test? Last week, my third graders read an article (out of the district-mandated curriculum) on the transcontinental railroad. They were interested and asked lots of questions. I went rogue and showed an unapproved video of how it was built. They had more questions. I could envision us spending the next two weeks learning about westward expansion. We could discuss Manifest Destiny and investigate why certain large western cities are located where they are today. We could read about how the railroad affected the environment and how it upset Native American hunting grounds and led to the taking of their land.

Instead, I had to move on. I had to teach about sequence and cause and effect because I had a test to give on those skills and a new topic (completely unrelated to the American west or even American history) to start on Monday.

I had to do those things because that’s what’s in the standards these reformers so badly wanted and because my district needs data to make decisions and because I can’t be trusted to make decisions about how to best prepare my students for those tests, much less for anything more important than tests.

But TNTP wants to tell me it’s my fault students aren’t engaged?

If I’m doing what I’ve been told to do, then how do you evaluate my effectiveness? Shouldn’t you really evaluate the effectiveness of the curriculum you’ve forced me to use?

This is the educational world the reformers have wrought, and the one they still have the temerity to criticize. They created this mess, and now they’re pointing at it, holding their noses, and telling teachers to do better.

Please.

The reformers’ agenda has had a chance to work. If it isn’t — if kids aren’t being given grade-level tasks, if instruction is weak, if students aren’t engaged, if teachers aren’t expecting enough of them — then it’s long past time for the reform crowd to own their failures and stop scapegoating teachers, many of whom are doing nothing more than exactly what they’ve been told to do with the materials they’ve been told to do it with.

If students aren’t able to pursue their goals, it’s not because teachers have failed them. It’s because reformers have.

If you want to blame teachers, then you need to allow them to make some decisions. You need to give them some power. Blaming teachers for the state of education today, when teachers have lost nearly every skirmish with the well-financed reform movement, is straight from the reformer playbook, where all the plays are designed wonderfully, but the damn players don’t know how to run them.

If you want teachers to be nothing more than compliant replaceable parts, then you don’t get to blame them when your plans don’t work out.

The army doesn’t fire soldiers when the general’s plan is a disaster.

NFL teams don’t swap out their entire rosters when the coach’s gameplans result in multiple losing seasons.

And reformers should no longer get to blame teachers when teachers are working under conditions created by those reformers.

No, We Didn’t Sign Up For This

We teachers sure like to complain a lot. At least, that’s what I’m told by people who don’t teach. Here’s one comment left on an article I wrote:

“Quit complaining. Everybody has things they don’t like about the professions they chose but teachers are the biggest whiners.”

Here’s another:

“I know about a dozen teachers. Every single one of them knew going in how much education they’d have to invest and the amount of effort expected.”

One of the most common refrains complaining teachers hear from non-educators is that we knew what we signed up for.

“Hey,” they say, “You knew the score going in, so no bitching about it now.” It’s an argument that, on its face, makes some sense. It’s true that teachers knew at the outset we weren’t going to get rich. We knew the job would be challenging. We understood that no matter how good we were, no one was going to build a monument to us.

But the truth is, the job of a teacher has changed a lot in a very short amount of time.

I started teaching in 2000. I thought I knew what to expect. I doubt I’m alone. Since many big changes to education have happened in the last 10 years, there are likely millions of teachers who are currently doing a job for which they did not sign up. So when our critics tire of hearing us complain and tell us that we knew the deal going in, they are often wrong. There is a lot of stuff we didn’t sign up for.

We didn’t sign up for a Department of Education that doesn’t actually believe in public education.

We didn’t sign up for wage gaps and the “teacher pay penalty.” In 1996, while I was in college deciding to “sign up” to be a teacher, the average weekly wage of public-sector teachers was $1,122 (in 2015 dollars). In 2015, it had fallen to $1,092. (SOURCE) Weekly pay for all college graduates rose by $124 dollars per week over the same period. I might have signed on knowing I wouldn’t get rich, but I sure as hell didn’t sign on expecting to be paid less after 17 years on the job.

Part of that declining pay may have something to do with diminished political clout. Because when I signed up to be a teacher, teachers’ unions still had power. In the intervening years, Republican-controlled legislatures have done everything they can to erode the unions’ influence. My state, Michigan, became right-to-work in 2012. State legislatures around the country have also removed tenure protections, curtailed collective bargaining rights, abolished last in, first out policies that protected veteran (read, more expensive) teachers, and attacked pensions.

We also didn’t sign up for fewer resources. But according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 31 states provided less per-pupil funding in 2014 than they did before the recession in 2008. In 15 states, those cuts exceeded 10%.

We didn’t sign up for increasing federal intrusion. No Child Left Behind was signed in 2001. Its goal of having all students proficient by the year 2014 was mocked by anyone who knew anything, but that didn’t stop the feds from doubling down with a piss-poor rollout of the Common Core State Standards and a bribery scheme called Race to the Top to get states to adopt those standards.

We didn’t sign up for high-stakes teacher evaluation systems that rely on crummy data and the opinions of administrators whose motives may not always be pure.

We didn’t sign up to give students an ever-increasing number of flawed standardized tests that spit out unreliable data used to determine a meaningless teacher rating.

We didn’t sign up for value-added modeling, a statistical method used to evaluate teachers that the American Statistical Society says, “typically measures correlation, not causation: Effects – positive or negative – attributed to a teacher may actually be caused by other factors that are not captured in the model.”

We didn’t sign up to be scapegoated by politicians. The staff of Central Falls High School in Rhode Island sure didn’t sign up expecting the President of the United States and the Secretary of Education to endorse their collective firing. While we may have expected to be treated like dirt by Republicans, we didn’t sign up knowing the Democratic party would abandon us in such a publicly humiliating way.

We didn’t sign up for longer school years or balanced calendars.

We didn’t sign up for substitute teacher shortages.

We didn’t sign up for active shooter drills.

We didn’t sign up for higher poverty rates and needier students. In my state, there are 15% more kids in poverty today than there were in 2008.

We didn’t sign up for increased funding for charter and virtual schools. The same politicians who claim they can’t spend more on education manage to find billions of dollars for charter schools every year, in spite of their lackluster performance. Virtual schools are even worse, but legislators seem to love them anyway.

We didn’t sign up for declining autonomy in the classroom. We didn’t sign up to have our hands held — mistrusted, second-guessed, and told to toe the line, to teach this content at this time in this way. We didn’t sign up for pacing guides, scripted lessons, or strict fidelity to unproven programs.

We didn’t sign up for less planning time.

We didn’t sign up to implement policies we know are bad for kids. We didn’t sign up for less recess, less gym class, less art, less music, and less fun.

We sure as hell didn’t sign up to give eight-year-olds reading tests that could result in their retention.

We elementary teachers didn’t sign up to stress out nine-year-olds over their “college and career readiness” or to take the play out of kindergarten.

There’s an awful lot about teaching today we didn’t sign up for.

In spite of this, most teachers will continue to do the job. Most will do their best. I’m not naive enough to expect those who call teachers whiners to join us in fighting for change. I have no illusions about any of the things I didn’t sign up for going away anytime soon. I won’t challenge our critics to get in the ring and become teachers themselves. After all, they now know what they’d be signing up for. But I will ask them to believe teachers when they tell them what needs fixing. And if they won’t do that, then I will kindly ask them to shut up, and quit telling teachers that they knew what they signed up for.

What do you think, teachers? What else didn’t you sign up for? What’s changed since you decided to become a teacher?

____________________________

Thanks for reading! Thanks even more for spreading the message on your favorite social media platform. If you’d like to receive new articles directly in your inbox, you can subscribe. Just click HERE.

Every Student An Athlete (ESAA)

We have a crisis in America. Our kids are fat. To combat this epidemic, Congress has decided to make exercise compulsory. They’re prepared to spend billions of other people’s money. It’s a simple plan. They’re going to cut one hour off the end of the school day and students will be bused to their local gym. If no gym exists, one will be built. Students — check that — “athletes” will be assigned a personal trainer.  Some trainers will be responsible for 25 kids, others more like 150. It’s called, “Every Student An Athlete,” and the goal is simple: no more fat kids by 2025. I spoke to the plan’s architect, Tara Bullidea, and dug deeper into the details:

MURPH: Hi, Tara. So every kid, starting when they’re five, will be required to work out for one hour after school each day. How will you enforce it?

TARA: This is just like school. Athletes have to attend. It’s mandatory. I mean, I guess their parents could pick them up from school and take them home, but we really don’t want them to. We’ll threaten stuff and, oh… you know what, I just thought of this — we’ll hold the gyms accountable for athletes’ attendance! That ought to do it.

MURPH: So the gym will be punished if too many of their athletes don’t show up to exercise?

TARA: You got it!

MURPH: Okay. What if the athletes come but don’t want to participate? What if they refuse to follow their trainers’ instructions? Or what if they actively interfere with the workouts of other athletes?

TARA: Those athletes will be in big trouble. They’ll have to sit out or even be sent home.

MURPH: But wouldn’t that sort of defeat the whole purpose? They may want to sit out, and if they’re sent home, they’re not getting the exercise they need.

TARA: True. Trainers shouldn’t do that. They should do everything they can to get those students to work out. I guess maybe they should make it more fun. They should, um, build relationships so athletes will want to work out! You know, now that I think about it, if a trainer has some athletes with bad attitudes, it’s really the trainers’ fault, isn’t it? Such poor athlete attitudes should be reflected on the trainers’ year-end ratings.

MURPH: The trainers are going to be rated? How will that work?

TARA: That’s my favorite part. Look, we don’t want any consequences for the athletes. I mean, if they fail to lose weight, they’re only hurting themselves, right? But the trainers? We’re paying the trainers! The taxpayers will expect a decent return on investment. So we will hold the trainers accountable for their athletes’ weight loss.

MURPH: Oh, I see. So will there be bonuses for really good trainers? Some way to reward excellence?

TARA: No, silly. Nothing like that. We can’t afford bonuses. No, what we’re going to do is punish the gyms that don’t get their athletes’ to shed the pounds. If a gym is really bad — like if only a few kids achieve expected yearly weight loss (EYWL, pronounced “I-will”) — we may even close the gym. Or at least fire all the trainers. Also, each trainer will be rated at the end of the year, and we would expect gyms to fire the trainers with the lowest ratings. As for the best trainers, we’ll  give them the laziest, most overweight kids.

MURPH: How will you figure out which trainers deserve low ratings?

TARA: We’ll just go in and weigh all the athletes at the start of the year and weigh them again at the end of the year. If they haven’t lost enough weight, that trainer will get a bad rating.

MURPH: How much weight should each kid lose? What’s going to be the cut-off?

TARA: Oh, I don’t know. Let’s just say 10% of their original weight. Actually, on second thought, we’ll change the target every year and not tell the trainers what the new goal is. I know. We’ll come up with a really complicated formula to assess the trainers. That way, if someone starts to question it, we’ll just explain to them that they’re not smart enough to figure it out. In reality, I won’t be smart enough to figure it out either. Hardly anyone will. We’ll just say that some statisticians somewhere said it’s fine and that will be enough.

MURPH: But isn’t it unfair to hold trainers accountable when they only see the athletes for five hours a week? What if the kids go home and their parents undo all the trainers’ hard work? What if they feed their kids horrible food and never exercise themselves? What if they, God forbid, denigrate the whole idea of a healthy lifestyle? Isn’t it possible that some parents, either through ignorance or willful neglect, will sabotage the trainers’ efforts? Should trainers be punished for that?

TARA: Uh, huh. Yep.

MURPH: Okay. How about these trainers? We’re putting a lot on them and trusting them with the future health of the nation. How will you ensure that they’re up to the task?

TARA: You know, I’ve thought a lot about that. We’re going to be rating them, so they have a strong incentive to really study their craft and become excellent at what they do. They’ll be judged on their performance (okay, actually their athletes’ performance, but let’s not split hairs), so they’ll probably try really hard. So, here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to require them to train kids certain ways. Now, sometimes those ways will be based on the latest scientific research on wellness. But other times, they’ll just be based on the latest fad, like maybe a popular book that’s out at the time. And to be sure they’re all doing pretty much the same thing, we’re going to make them sit through lots of meetings where we train them in these methods. We really want them to train their athletes the way we think they should train them.

MURPH: But then, shouldn’t it be you who is held accountable? I mean, if the trainers are just following your marching orders and they don’t get results, isn’t that your fault?

TARA: I don’t think so. Perhaps they aren’t training with fidelity. Maybe they aren’t very good at implementing the required methods. Their fault, for sure.

MURPH: Let’s change gears and focus on the kids.

TARA: Athletes.

MURPH: Right. What about those athletes who come from families that can’t afford tennis shoes or gym shorts?

TARA: We’ll provide those.

MURPH: So will all gyms get the same equipment? Will they have the same budgets?

TARA: Hahahahaha! No. Taxes will be raised at the local level for equipment, so certain areas will have newer machines than other areas. But every gym will have some equipment. Research tells us that it’s not the equipment that matters, but the trainer. So we won’t accept any excuses from trainers who have to work with older equipment, or even equipment that no longer works. Those trainers will simply have to be more creative.

MURPH: That sounds difficult. It might be hard to get good trainers to work at gyms with broken machines. Will you pay these trainers more?

TARA. No. Less, actually.

MURPH: But–

TARA: It’s fine! It’s all going to work out fine. We’re going to have no fat kids by 2025. They’re all going to hit their EYWL targets. Every Student An Athlete is going to be an amazing success because I really want it to be!

MURPH: Aren’t the athletes going to get tired of all this working out? Won’t they need some breaks? Even elite athletes take some time off.

TARA: Yes, you’re right. We’ll build in a few two-week breaks throughout the year and we’ll give them — I don’t know — two straight months off in the summer. It’s too hot to work out then anyway.

MURPH: But won’t a lot of athletes, especially those whose parents don’t value exercise and healthy eating, regain the weight and fall back into bad habits?

TARA: Perhaps. But the trainers will just have to work extra hard to make up for it.

MURPH: Just one last question, Tara. What is your background? Do you own a gym? Are you a former Olympian? Have you ever been a trainer yourself?

TARA: No, nothing like that. I’m rich. I’m very, very rich.

Why You Shouldn’t Care About Your Teacher Evaluation

Evaluations are in. All of your good intentions, hard work, and personal sacrifice have been boiled down to a number and a label. Are you “highly effective” or “innovating,” or merely “developing,” like you’re an insect in its larval stage instead of a professional educator?

Whatever your label or your number, you shouldn’t take too much pride or allow yourself to feel any disappointment or shame over it. Your evaluation is meaningless.

My district uses Marzano and everything is entered into iObservation. The last step in the evaluation process is for me, the teacher, to go in and “acknowledge” my scores. Why this is necessary is a bit of a mystery, since I am in no way allowed to question or challenge my final score. The state of Michigan gives districts total power when it comes to teacher evaluations. No due process. No appeals. No presumption of effectiveness. It’s all very democratic, and obviously designed to help teachers get better (he said sarcastically).

Once I acknowledged my rating, I was then provided the opportunity to leave a comment. I guess this is iObservation’s way of throwing teachers a bone. We may not be allowed to tell our principal, “Actually, the stupid learning goal was on the board. You just didn’t see it,” but we can sound off in the comments section. As a reminder, that’s the section nobody reads.

Nevertheless, it was my only chance to offer any thoughts, so here’s what I wrote:

I continue to find the evaluations arbitrary, based on questionable data, and demoralizing to the profession. That 75% of any teacher’s evaluation is in the hands of a single individual should be cause for concern. That that individual, however well-meaning and effective he or she might be, bases most of his or her evaluation on a small sample size of a teacher’s instruction is also concerning. It’s a flawed model, operating inside of a flawed system, foisted upon professional educators who were given little opportunity to provide input to the flawed legislators who pushed for more accountability based on the flawed belief that American schools, and therefore the people who work inside of them, are failing. The whole thing is nonsense, and I therefore put no stock in the above numbers, whether they be high, low, or somewhere in between. It’s a shame that principals have to waste so much time on it.

To add to the above and to put everything in list form, here is why your evaluation is meaningless and therefore not worth hanging your head or puffing your chest over.

Your evaluation is likely composed of two parts: administrator observations and student growth data. Both have major problems.

Student Growth

  • The student growth portion of your evaluation is likely based on cruddy assessments. Mine was based on screeners, which were never intended for teacher evaluations.
  • Students are not held accountable for their performance on the cruddy assessments, which makes you wonder how much they really care about them, which makes you wonder how hard they try on them. (I’ll give you a hint: two of my students were done with the 30-question reading test in 10 minutes.)
  • In my district,  growth scores are harmed by students who start the year with already high numbers. They have the least room for improvement, and that lack of growth lowers teachers’ ratings.
  • The whole thing sets up terrible incentives, which I try my best to ignore. Teachers in my district joke about getting students to bomb the fall screener to show more growth. You could actively lobby for the lowest students to be on your class roster to have a better chance of showing growth. There’s no doubt that some teach to the screeners, so kids get the idea that reading is really about saying words super fast. The list goes on.
  • Those students who missed more than 20 days of school? Doesn’t matter. It’s somehow your fault they didn’t learn as much as they should have.

Observations

  • Most of the evaluation is based on principal observations. I had two.  If we only needed two songs to evaluate a band, Tesla would be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
  • Observations are only as good as the people making them.  They’re meaningless if principals across buildings and districts evaluate their teachers in different ways, which they do.
  • Observations are only reliable if we assume that principals can shelve their personal biases when observing a teacher and rely only on their training (assuming they received any).
  • Evaluations lose their meaning when those being evaluated are judged against different criteria. The current system assumes districts have at least a somewhat similar approach to evaluating teachers. They don’t.  My wife’s district handles the whole thing differently than my district. An “effective” teacher in one district won’t necessarily be effective in a neighboring district. Some districts make it nearly impossible to be “innovating,” while other districts start teachers out there and only lower them for cause. That makes the system junk.
  • Basing a significant part of a teacher’s evaluation on an administrator’s observations makes the system ripe for abuse. Observations might be an honest appraisal of your skills or they could be the result of office politics or personal grudges. If it’s the latter? Well, there’s always the comments section.

And why only observations and student growth, anyway? I’m a teacher, a service professional. Why don’t parents get a say in this? Why don’t the students?

I don’t mind being evaluated. I just wish my evaluation actually told me something, anything, about how well or poorly I do my job. Until it does, I find it hard to care. You should too.