The recent teacher strike in Chicago elicits varying opinions. Many blame the teachers for resisting change and driving a hard bargain. Others support the teachers, citing the job’s importance and the unprecedented shellacking they’ve taken over the last few years. And of course, we’re all concerned about the strike’s impact on students, because for now their future is on hold.
However, it appears that at the heart of this strike lies a controversial topic that’s driving school reform; specifically, teacher evaluations, and the effort to tie standardized test scores to those evaluations.
It’s a good question: why shouldn’t teachers be accountable for their students’ test results? After all, in almost every profession, from NFL quarterback to cell-phone sales person, people are judged on the basis of their results in the form of numbers. Moreover, in a profession everyone agrees is important, it seems almost silly that job security and salary are based purely on experience—i.e. the number of years a teacher’s been employed in-district—rather than their overall talent and ability.
So why are teachers so adamantly opposed to this reform? It’s really quite simple: they don’t get to take the test—their students do. Now, in a perfect world, test days would see every student get a good night’s sleep, eat a healthy breakfast, and try their very hardest on each and every question, making sure to remember everything their teacher taught them. In addition, students would always do their homework, be held back if they failed a course or grade, and have parents that made sure education was their number one priority.
Unfortunately, as anyone working in education can tell you, that world is a fantasy. Students fail tests for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with their teachers, ranging from language to poverty, chronic truancy, parents with drug and/or alcohol addiction, etc. I’ve even seen kids—GASP—just fill in bubbles randomly, finishing a two-hour test in twenty minutes.
Other good questions: what teacher would want to work in a school with high poverty and low parent involvement if their job security and compensation depended purely on test results? What teacher would choose to remain in education after being wrongly fired for failing test scores, while the students that took them moved on to the next grade? Finally, what student will want to become a teacher in the future, knowingly choosing a life of blame at an exceedingly difficult job, whose pay and benefits are forever subject to the whims of unforgiving voters and shrinking budgets?
Indeed, there is a larger equation that we forget when we seek to link test results to teacher evaluations: everyone else. The fact is that administrators, teachers, parents, students, and society at large, all play a role in determining educational outcomes. Pinning consequences on teachers alone is not only flawed—it is deeply unfair. If we’re going to judge teachers based on the test scores of their students, and hire, fire, reward and/or punish them as a result, shouldn’t parents have to pay a tax penalty if their kid flunks math, and shouldn’t students be, at the very least, compelled to attend summer school or night classes to catch up?
Yet, as it stands now, our school system socially promotes students regardless of test scores and achievement—that’s right, kids rarely get held back anymore, especially as they get older, even if they fail every class and every test.
Still, this is not to say that teachers should be unaccountable. On the contrary, more and more data confirm that the quality of a student’s teacher has massive implications for their economic success later on, and unions that duck this issue will soon find themselves under increasing attack. However, instead of placing a premium on test scores, which are dependent on a number of uncontrollable factors, why not focus on aspects of instruction that teachers can directly control? For example: curriculum delivery, planning and use of resources, classroom management, use of data-supported methods, use of best practices, etc.
The truth behind the union wars in Chicago is that our society is on a dangerous trajectory, in which we’re increasingly comfortable placing the blame for failing schools solely on teachers, even as we cut their days, pay, and benefits. Again, school reform is necessary, but if we don’t find a way to make everyone involved more accountable for improving education, we won’t fix our schools—we’ll hurt them.