As I write this, the teachers’ strike in Chicago’s public schools continues over two key issues. As a recent story tells us:
The two sides were not far apart on compensation, but were on other issues, including health benefits — teachers want to keep what they have now — and a new teacher evaluation system based partly on students’ standardized test scores, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said.
I won’t address the health issue as it isn’t clear from the article what that involves. Further, I am not in a position to comment on the Chicago strike in particular as it is a complex issue in which both sides have strong arguments — though if William Bennett is to be believed and the average salary for Chicago teachers is in fact $71,000.00 while 46% of the teachers themselves send their children to private schools it will be difficult for the teachers to garner sympathy from people not directly involved, especially since the city’s school system is reportedly $615 million in debt and America’s economy has seen better days. Bennett seems to think it’s all about money, whereas the teachers themselves are concerned about the requirement that they teach to standardized tests and then be evaluated by how successful their students are on those tests. I will ignore the question of the money since that seems to have been settled and instead focus attention of the general question of teacher evaluations which is complex and requires some careful thought.
From the teachers’ perspective evaluations are suspect because they appear to be a way of giving the administration arbitrary power over them that might result in lower salaries or the termination of the teacher’s job. Evaluations are very hard to get in the first place and they are seldom objective — depending on such personal factors as popularity, easy grading, good looks, or heaven knows what. I used to be delighted by my favorable evaluations when I taught until I discovered that one of the students had given me high marks on his evaluation because I drove a sports car! So it goes.
In this case the Chicago teachers worry that their promotions and salaries will be based on how successful they are at teaching students to do well on standardized tests. They argue, correctly, that a student’s success on standardized test does not reflect how well the teacher is doing in the classroom. It stresses rote memorization and penalizes the more creative teacher. Teaching and learning are essentially mysterious, like writing a symphony, painting a picture, or throwing a pot. Some things simply cannot be quantified. Again, the difficulty here is how to get an evaluation from a student (or anyone else) that is not somehow biased and skewed so that the teacher doesn’t get screwed. It is a sticking point.
On the other hand, administrators and school boards know (as we all do) that there are some teachers out there that are doing a poor job and they want to weed them out and get better teachers to take their places. There are a great many students graduating from colleges all around the country who might do a much better job than those teachers who simply go through the motions five days a week and draw their paychecks without making a positive impression on any of their students. And judging from the available data, the kids in Chicago’s schools are not doing very well at all. How do we get the data we need to make informed decisions? Bureaucrats are enamored of “outcomes,” which is the new adminispeak. Evaluations seem to be the answer. And using standardized test scores seems the way to go because we have numbers to look at and we know numbers don’t lie.
But they do. And that is the core of the problem. To my knowledge there is simply no way teaching can be evaluated in a fair and impartial manner — prejudice and bias always creep it. Using standardized test scores is certainly not the way to go. The teachers are right to want the administration to get out of their face and let them teach. But the administration needs some way to evaluate the performance of those who are on the public dole: they owe it to the taxpayers, if not to the kids. But as suggested above teaching is an art, not a science, and until someone comes up with a fair way to evaluate something as enigmatic as teaching and learning, the teachers have the stronger hand. We will just have to trust the judgment of the administrators who oversee the schools and hope they do the right thing by the students and their parents. After all, that’s what they are paid for.