Teachers are under attack around the country with the assaults at a state level on their collective bargaining rights. Understood within the discussion around the anti-union bills is the misguided idea that teachers are overpaid, coddled incompetents who are largely responsible for the fiscal and social problems found around the country.
So there’s a great deal of hand-wringing about the state of education in the United States. Attempts to fix the system through the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) have proven to be ineffective, as Diane Ravitch has continuously and elegantly pointed out in her speeches and writings. Race to the Top claims that it can correct the problems with NCLB, but what is common with both programs is that they are attempts at reforming the educational system through a carrot and stick approach of rewarding high achievers and punishing the rest; close down schools that don’t achieve and fire teachers whose students don’t perform.
And what is performance based on? Standardized test results. Teachers, schools and students are evaluated on how well they perform on standardized tests. The belief that test scores are an indicator of student learning is controversial at best. Test scores do measure, to some degree, how well students can answer a set of isolated questions and problems within a set period of time. For some subjects such as mathematics, science or reading, standardized tests have some validity and usefulness. While I am not a strong proponent of standardized tests, I regularly gave them to my students during my teaching career, and the results were useful when taken in the appropriate context. However, I would not use them as the sole measure to evaluate student learning. Most international schools (I’ve worked in international schools for the past two decades) evaluate students based on a combination of standardized tests and a variety of types of authentic assessment such as completing a project where a student puts into practice the concepts, ideas and skills that they have been introduced to in class.
And while student learning shouldn’t be evaluated on standardized test results, nor should teacher performance be evaluated based on how well students score on these tests. Teachers are more than content deliverers. If all we had to do was fill the heads of our students with some facts and figures, our jobs would be significantly easier and much less rewarding. What do teachers do then, if not just stand up in front of class and drone on and on about multiplication tables, differential equations and the dates of Revolutionary War battles?
They introduce facts, figures, concepts and ideas to their students, and lead them to develop a real understanding of those things and how they are interrelated. They work on curriculum development, they do recess and lunch duty, they engage in professional development activities (often during their vacations or after school), they work collaboratively with colleagues, they keep pace with the latest in instructional technology, they correct papers and write reports, they counsel students who often bring troubles from home into the classroom, they meet with parents, they provide their students with inspiration and sometimes in between all this they have time for a bathroom break.
Are there some bad teachers? Sure, I’ve met a few, although the overwhelming majority of my colleagues were dedicated, caring professionals who spent their own funds to supplement classroom materials and often spent less time with their own children than they did with the children of other people. 46% of all new teachers leave the profession within the first five years. Schools in low income areas lose as many as 20% of their teachers each year. Teachers who can’t make the grade or are discouraged by the lack of support they receive leave, they don’t hang around looking for an easy payday. Teaching clearly is not the utopia for slackers that some politicians would like Americans to believe. It’s time that teachers were given the support and respect that they deserve.