Teachers Strike

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.

Fixing the Schools

Despite the fact that official spokespeople for the teacher’s unions, and teachers themselves, repeatedly make excuses for the poor scores their graduates keep recording on standardized tests, it is clear that there is a problem in the schools. American schools consistently rank among the lowest in the world among developed countries, and talk about “bias” on the tests won’t get us around that fact. Until those in the profession (and those who make their living from those in the profession) admit there is a problem, it will not go away. But the problem is complicated.

To begin with the obvious, teachers are not paid what they are worth. That’s a given. Compared with other industrialized nations — even tiny Finland that provides the world with a paradigm for the way to educate students — our teachers are not paid a living wage; many have to find supplementary work to make ends meet. Talk about long summer “vacations” is bogus. Most of the teachers I know have to find other work in  the summer. If we want to attract the best minds to the profession, we need to start paying them what they are worth. But that is only part of the solution.

Another key element in the equation is the fact that teachers in the public schools in this country must be certified to teach. This is not true in the private schools where, generally speaking, the students perform better on standardized tests. Nor is it the case, again, in Finland — though they do require a Master’s degree. There may or may not be a connection between low test scores and certification requirements for American public school teachers. In any event, in order to “guarantee” that our public school teachers can do their jobs, a very large bureaucracy has been built up that certifies public school teachers by dictating to the colleges in the various states what they must teach future teachers. Most of these courses must be taught by those who are themselves certified to teach and in many cases the courses they require are what are referred to as “methods” courses. The assumption is that teaching is a science and can be taught, but only by those certified to teach (a vicious circle). This assumption in any case is blatantly false. Teaching is an art and while experts can give beginners tips on how to do the job, it comes down to intuition and common sense in the end. In addition, methods courses are deadly dull and drive away many of the bright students who might otherwise make their way into the profession. I know this is the case from forty-one years of advising students, seeing any number of bright students drop out of the teaching ranks because they simply couldn’t stand to take the dull methods courses that tend to teach the obvious. Thus, if we want to attract the brightest minds to the profession, we need not only to pay the teachers well, we must also do away with the certification requirements, starting with the methods courses. It would serve the nation well if teachers were required to major in a discipline of their choice and then take an additional year of student-teaching. Knowledge of the field of study coupled with a year of working in the schools with a master teacher would help the young teacher learn the ropes.

There is a third step, however, and that has to do with dismantling “the Blob,” former Education Secretary William Bennett’s term for the “education establishment.” This blob consists of an “interlocking directorate of schools of education, local school administrators, and cadres of officials, ‘experts,’ and bureaucrats who populate the state departments of public instruction,” as Charles Sykes points out in Dumbing Down Our Kids. As Sykes goes on to point out, this directorate is mutually supportive and not open to criticism: they make the rules and guard the chicken coop to make sure everyone follows those rules. This is an absurd situation.

If we could implement them, these three steps would take this country a long way toward the goal of excellence in teaching. But that would not suffice to raise the level of learning in the schools. It starts in the home. Parents must spend more time with their kids, as Jane Healy has shown, reading to them and telling them stories. There are a number of windows of opportunity in pre-school years that close rather quickly, and if these openings are ignored, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for even the best teachers to help the student learn. As things stand now, according to the studies of brain development that Healy refers to, the left hemisphere of the brains of a growing number of young children never develop, something that should happen before they ever enter school. And without that hemisphere of the brain functioning, learning cannot take place.

In the end, unless we show ourselves, as a society, committed to the welfare of our children with better parenting, a determination to eradicate the many layers of the education establishment, and a willingness to pay the piper, improvement will never happen and our schools will continue to trail behind those of other developed nations.