The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Never ascribe to malice that which can adequately be explained by incompetence"...  ...Napoleon Bonaparte.

Commentary of the Day - April 15, 2009:  On Teacher Accountability.  Guest commentary by Poor Elijah (Peter Berger).

After eight years of No Child Left Behind, I was kind of hoping, what with the onset of the depression, that the federal government would be preoccupied enough that they'd leave education alone.  I was wrong.

President Obama recently confirmed that public schools were a critical part of his program to rebuild the economy.  Echoing A Nation at Risk's 1983 warning, he characterized the decades-long "decline of American education" as "untenable for our economy, unsustainable for our democracy, and unacceptable for our children."  He described what's "at stake" as "nothing less than the American dream."

He's right.  The question is what will we do about it this time.  Education experts responded to Risk by embarking on a series of alleged "innovations" that simply renamed and repeated the 1970s student-centered, content-light follies that had laid schools low in the first place.  Risk recommended, for instance, that teacher training programs refocus on subject area expertise rather than on the dubious "cutting-edge" methods courses that had become the fashion.  The education community responded by tipping the scale even further toward dubious cutting-edge methods courses.

President Obama is similarly concerned about the quality of the teachers who serve in our classrooms.  He's called for a "new culture of accountability."  He believes that if a teacher "still does not improve" after "a chance, or three chances," there’s "no excuse for that person to continue teaching."

I'm not defending incompetence.  But if your objective is to purge schools of all mediocre teachers, you need to confront at least two practical problems.  Since mediocre means "middling" or "ordinary," most practitioners in every field, including education, are mediocre by definition.  Where are all the excellent replacement teachers supposed to come from?  While a high unemployment rate might temporarily swell the applicant pool, at least for a few years, and while I really enjoy what I do for a living, there aren't a lot of stockbrokers, biochemists, and journalism majors who can go the distance with a classroom full of American adolescents, no matter what the enlist-experts-in-their-fields-to-teach-for-America boosters tell you.

Setting aside the supply problem, how do you identify the "bad teachers" the President wants to eliminate?  If No Child Left Behind has taught us anything, it has to be that cutting-edge standardized testing has proven grossly, expensively, and embarrassingly unreliable when it comes to tracking student achievement over time.

A Brookings Institute paper found that "fifty to eighty percent of the improvement in a school's average test scores from one year to the next was temporary" and "had nothing to do with long-term changes in learning."  A RAND analysis described modern standardized tests as so unreliable that they identify not "good" and "bad schools," but "lucky and unlucky schools."  A 2009 nationwide study judged current state assessments an "enormously uneven and misleading system of school accountability."  Scoring errors are epidemic, standards are inconsistent from grade level to grade level, even on the same battery of tests, and despite the pretense of objectivity, scores are commonly corrupted by what the Educational Testing Service concedes is the "variability of human scoring."  Recent debacles include the statewide assessment program that last year, when scores rose, proved that Maine's laptop-based writing program was working, and this year, when scores fell, somehow didn't prove anything at all.

I entirely agree that I shouldn't keep my job if I'm lousy at it.  You'll pardon me, though, if I'm not willing to be judged by tests that consistently fail to do their job.

I also don't want to be judged based on the performance of students, many of whom regard standardized tests as opportunities to absent-mindedly color in random circles.  As for assessments that evaluate students based on their written responses -- the problematic humanly-scored ones -- writing things down is even less popular than thinking about which circles to color in.

Besides, which students do you propose to judge me by?  The ones distracted by family crises, the ones on drugs, the ones who just don’t care, the ones having a bad day, or the ones I've never taught who moved in a few months or weeks before the tests.  If you think there's an accurate way to track which mobile students are whose, guess again.

You can't hold someone accountable for things he can’t control.  Judging my performance as a teacher based on my students' performance is as flawed as judging my doctor based on my lab tests.  If my genes are bad, or I won't eat right or exercise, it's not his fault.  Don't misunderstand. I  expect to be judged.  That's supposed to be my employer's job.  I'’s true that teachers have a little more job protection than most workers.  I've known a number of teachers who otherwise would've lost their jobs because they offended the wrong bureaucrat or gave the wrong litigious parent's offspring a C or a detention.

But no worker deserves to keep his job if he's proved incompetent.  If incompetent federal judges with Constitutionally-guaranteed lifetime appointments can be impeached and removed, it ought to be possible to get rid of me if I fail to do my job.  Any labor union that defends teachers, truckers, or any other workers, in the face of proven incompetence or malfeasance unconscionably smears those isolated blots across the entire profession.

President Obama proposes encouraging excellence through merit pay, which rewards superior teachers with bonuses.  There's nothing wrong with extra compensation for valued employees, but setting aside the practical problem of measuring who the superior teachers are, merit pay misses the point of what’s wrong with public education and why good teachers often leave the classroom.  Most good teachers don't stay because of the raises they get.  They also don't leave because of money.  They leave because they're compelled to lower their standards, water down their curricula, implement asinine regulations, and contend unsupported with an onslaught of antisocial, narcissistic behavior bordering on criminality.

They leave for the same reasons too many students aren't learning.

If we want to retain good teachers, we don't need to pay them more.  We just need to make schools a better workplace -- for teachers and for students

2009, Peter Berger.
Peter Berger teaches English in Weathersfield, Vermont.  Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer messages sent to him in care of the editor.

The Irascible Professor comments: Most of the time the IP agrees with Poor Elijah's observations.  However, this is one case where the IP disagrees with Poor Elijah's arguments.  There now exists a substantial body of evidence showing that a really bad teacher can have a very negative effect on student progress.  Students exposed to a really bad teacher can lose as much as a grade level in their academic progress.  As Poor Elijah notes, not all teachers can be above average; and, in fact most teachers are fair to middling in their effectiveness.  But, those are not the teachers we should be focusing on when we talk about removing bad teachers from the profession.  It is the teachers whose effectiveness lies in the bottom five or ten percent who do the most damage.  If we could remove that cohort, we would improve overall educational outcomes significantly.  And, the truth of the matter is that these teachers are easy to spot.  By and large, their colleagues and their supervisors already know who they are.  They just lack the will to go through the effort that's required to remove these people from the profession.  Often principals do their best to get their worst teachers transferred to other schools where they will be someone else's problem.  But that does not solve the problem.

Obtaining the objective evidence to support the dismissal of a teacher for incompetence is not easy.  But the IP thinks that those much maligned standardized tests can be of value in this regard, even though they have all the shortcomings that Poor Elijah outlines in his essay.  The key lies in analyzing the test data in ways that adjust for those shortcomings.  Risk-adjusted data data analysis is used frequently to identify doctors and hospitals whose outcomes are significantly below (or above) expectations.  And similarly the data from standardized student achievement tests can be "risk-adjusted" to find those who have outcomes significantly below expectations.  Again, we are talking here about teachers whose performance is so bad that it sticks out like a sore thumb.  The data can be adjusted to compare a teacher against other teachers who have taught the same students or who have taught very similar cohorts of students -- those with similar educational background and socio-economic status.  If that teacher's students consistently score significantly lower than those of other teachers who work with the similar students, then that teacher needs to put on notice that his or her job is in jeopardy.  It will take some effort to carry out these kinds of analyses, but the results will provide an objective framework with which to identify the grossly incompetent five or ten percent who do the real damage.

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