The current “reform” effort in public education, financed mostly by what has become known as the Billionaire Boy’s Club (that name was already taken in the 1980’s but currently it refers to the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, etc.) is in favor of “market-based” reforms, especially using VAMs or “value-added measures” to determine teacher effectiveness. It goes like this: a teacher’s students are given a test at the beginning of a term. They are then given a test later in the term to see how much progress has been made and then a great deal of the teacher’s evaluation is based upon the score improvement. Teachers who raise test scores a lot are “good” teachers; teachers who raise them little or not at all are “bad” teachers . . . and bad teachers need to be fired. This all sounds realistic and even scientific . . . but, let’s see how this works in the real world.
As this idea is being imposed from outside of education circles (the foundations, the linkage (illegal linkage) of federal support to the schools to adoption of such practices, etc.) a number of obvious questions pop up: what is the current system it would it replace? How does it compare with other systems?
As one who is old enough to have been subject to the Viet Nam War draft, I remember the “intelligence test” required for all “recruits.” When insufficient numbers of young males were passing this test, a solution was easily found; they lowered the score considered passing. Then and more recently, school districts have found themselves frequently in a similar position: a new school term begins in just a few days and more than a few classes do not have teachers assigned because there were not enough teachers available. The solution . . . provisional credentials. Local school boards would grant what one hoped were reasonably well-qualified job candidates a “temporary teaching credential” and voila, a teacher had been found. The “provisional” aspect was that said credential holders were to meet the certification requirements in the next X years. I have not read any research on how many of these provisional credential holders were able to become fully qualified, but I heard stories of “teachers” whose Provisional Credential expired in one school district, so they migrated to another school district to receive another provisional credential. (Hey! Market forces, supply-and-demand, you know.)
“Public education is no different from our military services. A private cannot just be “fired” from the Army by a general. There are processes involved.”
There is also a presumption that “teacher tenure” is a guarantee of lifetime employment, which is untrue. Tenure refers to policies in place that guarantee teachers a process by which they can be fired and that any such termination needs to be based upon performance and not on the fact that the principal’s nephew needed a job. (It happened.) And this can appear strange to people in the private sector where they can be fired for almost any reason with no process. But the distinction is that in the private sector, the firer is the owner of the company and in the school systems, the “administrator” is just another employee like the teacher, with no economic stake in the “company.” I have never had a problem with a business owners hiring and firing at whim (within the laws applicable) but the public owns the school systems, and Boards of Education are elected to run them, and procedures are required to avoid abuses. In this, public education is no different from our military services. A private cannot just be “fired” from the Army by a general. There are processes involved.
It is interesting that VAMs have been used in the private sector and mostly failed to achieve any of the promised results. So, what kinds of things do they actually do in the private sector to increase the quality of their workforces?
Let’s take Wall Street as an example. During the recent scandalous melt down, government bailout funds were taken and then given as large bonuses to the Wall Street traders who were a part of the problem that brought the world’s economies to their knees. There was considerable outrage at these actions. The defense was that if those bonuses hadn’t been paid, the traders would have up and moved to another firm, a significant loss of intellectual capital to their firms. Do you “buy” this argument? (Doesn’t matter; they do.) So, to keep quality employees, you must pay them well is the lesson.
Almost nowhere is there a business that is run as these folks want to run public education. Take highly educated employees, underpay them, and then just fire those who are less competent and hire replacements. This is bizarre. Teachers go into the teaching profession knowing that the profession is underpaid (my salary as a chemistry professor was roughly half what people made in my profession with my credentials). The tradeoffs for the low salary were a lower number of work days, relatively good pensions, and job security (most teachers are at least competent, so few get fired, although some did at my workplaces). How many people are going to go into a profession that requires a graduate college education but offers poor pay, a weak pension, and poor job security? Is that the way commercial interests do it?
How did Silicon Valley attract its highly qualified workers? Let’s see: good or high salaries, many fringe benefits (some lavish), attractive workplaces, stock options, hmm. VAMs, not so much, with one big exception: Microsoft Corporation. Bill Gates was fond of a policy that resulted in the bottom X% of employees being fired every year. (Now that Mr. Gates is no longer involved in the day-to-day operations of his company, that policy has been scrapped.) And Mr. Gates, through his foundation, is the primary advocate of applying VAMs to teacher evaluations. Hmmm.
So, of course, all of this was tested out, right? Right? Wrong. In fact, it is quite sure that the previous studies on teacher evaluations weren’t even read before embarking upon this jihad. Business owners don’t have to justify their whims (unless they cost the company lots of money and then they need to justify themselves to stockholders if they are publically financed), they just implement them.
So, why is this being done? Speculating on the motives of the “reformers” is probably specious but conservatives have two dependable memes: they hate unions and they intensely dislike opposition to their plans. Teachers are often unionized (when it is allowed) and teachers often support progressive candidates (with their feet and their money), two very strong reasons to paint them as “undesirable actors” in the political arena. Even if these weren’t explicit reasons to justify undermining them and their unions, they certainly support the efforts of the “reformers.”
“In the longer term, the teaching profession will attract only people who are interested in such working conditions (low pay, poor pension, testing to determine your job security, so, no job security) so ask yourself: will the general quality of teaching be improved over time by the imposition of such conditions?”
So, we see: attacks on tenure (to be replaced by short-term contracts), attacks on teacher pensions (more so in states that mismanaged teacher’s retirement funding), insistence on “merit pay” (for people not motivated primarily by money?), and attacks on teacher’s unions (They oppose innovation! You would too, if they were after your job. And it is just not true, teachers support innovation if it benefits students.)
Let’s set aside these “motives.” Let’s look at how the system will be affected if there is wide-spread adoption of these techniques. Districts will spend a lot more money on test purchase and administration. Districts will fire more “substandard teachers” (hopefully not by making math errors like Michele Rhee’s old system did) and have to train new ones, and the consequences are? (Certainly classrooms with teachers with “provisional credentials” a la Teach for America teachers.) The reformers say that since teachers will be better, students will be better taught and will learn more and we will all benefit. I say . . . wait a minute. Teachers are not blindly selfless, they will respond to these new conditions. They will focus more and more on their students passing the tests or scoring better on the tests. And what will happen to subjects that are not amenable to “bubble in” testing (music, sports, dance, painting, acting)? What will happen to nuances of learning? What will happen to subtleties? (Bye-bye.) In the longer term, the teaching profession will attract only people who are interested in such working conditions (low pay, poor pension, testing to determine your job security, so, no job security) so ask yourself: will the general quality of teaching be improved over time by the imposition of such conditions?
The sad thing is who has been left out of this discussion: students, who embody our future. Do we ever ask them what they want? I certainly think that they would prefer to not be treated as “throughput” in some industrialized system. Let’s ask them what they want. It is their future as well as ours.