Monday, April 4, 2011

What's a Bad Teacher?

First off, a question: does anyone really think that old, intractable problems can be solved by the stakeholders re-stating the same positions they've been stating for at least a generation? What if they state them more angrilly? I don't think so either. So how about, when we hear old, stale, useless positions being stated for the umpteenth time, we just dismiss them immediately and say "Next!"

"We need to fire the bad teachers."

"We need to leave teachers alone and let them do their jobs"

The problem is, really, both statements are true, but neither is sufficient unto itself.

We should leave teachers alone to do their jobs...but only if we have reasonable assurance that they know what their job is--the same kind of assurance we demand from doctors, lawyers, and airline pilots. You meet some quality criteria agreed upon by your entire profression, and we'll leave you alone. Problem: There are no quality criteria agreed upon by your entire profession.

We should fire bad teachers, just like we should fire bad anyone--after, of course, we have taken appropriate steps to help, guide, support, and remediate. When everything else fails, you should be able to fire incompetent employees. Problem: if we can't agree on what competence means, how can we have a fair evalution, remediation, and dismissal process?

If we can't agree on what a good teacher is, how can we decide what a bad teacher is? We don't want the decisions to be arbitrary or personal or vindictive, so...what do we have?

Should we allow teachers to evaluate each other as peers? Well, to do that, they'd have to be able to observe each other's work, and we are radically against allowing teachers to do anything during their day except stand in front of students.

Should we judge teachers by the grades they give their students? That's asking for trouble.

Should we judge teachers by the standardized test scores of their students? That's reductive and limiting.

Should we judge teachers by the growth that their students show during the time they spend wiht those teachers? Growth of what? Growth by what measure? And are all growths equivalent? If Teacher X inherits children who are 4 years behind in their skills and knowledge, how much "growth" during the school year denotes competence on her part? If Teacher Z is teaching gifted and talented students who are already 4 years ahead in their skills and knowledge, how much "growth" should one expect during the school year?

So don't tell me that a superintendent is courageous just because she "went after bad teachers." And don't tell me she's a monster, either. In fact, don't talk about her at all. The teaching profession has to clean house before it can point fingers. If it wants its members to be "left alone," then the profession has to publish the criteria against which its members should be measured--and maybe even design the preferred evaluation tool. Lawyers created the bar exam. Doctors created the medical boards. Why do teachers continue to allow others to define them...and then cry out about being victimized when others do just that?

I know we have a pathological fear of centralization in this country--which is pretty damned funny, considering how conformist and homogonized our culture has become. But saying, in essence, "what I do is not judge-able by anyone except me" is an absurd position to take. It invites abuse. And it's getting plenty of it.

There are districts trying hard to figure out teacher evaluation. They should be commended for the effort, even when we disagree with the outcome. But if we want teaching to be a profession, then evaluation has to be done in a professional model, not a corporate model. The person signing the paycheck creates the evaluation tool in business. The practitioners themselves create the evaluation tool in professions.

And teaching is....which?

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