That Sinking Feeling: The Way We Are Thinking About Teachers Is All Wrong

Occasionally I wake in the night with the sinking feeling that maybe I’ve been living my life by all the wrong rules and making bad choices that hurt those I love.  It’s a terrible feeling that makes it hard to go back to sleep, but usually in the morning with some light and reason I can calm down, readjust a bit and move on.  With public policy, the sinking feeling usually comes with the news, as it gets clearer that we are moving in the wrong direction. Then the challenge is to get more information and figure out how to help change the public will.  It isn’t always so easy.

This month important information has been published about the punitive policies our federal government and states are using to evaluate public school teachers and to determine whether they are qualified.  Have we been operating by the wrong rules and making bad choices that hurt those we depend on?  But first a little history…

The public education policies of President Barack Obama’s administration have featured “holding teachers accountable” for their students’ accomplishments at school.  The policies of Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants have required that states impose prescribed turnaround plans for schools with low test scores, including one called “reconstitution” that fires the principal and at least half the staff.

Then in 2012, when it became clear that Congress was unlikely to agree on any kind of reauthorization of  No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the omnibus (and very punitive) 2002 federal law on public education, Obama’s Department of Education began offering states waivers from some of NCLB’s deeply flawed and  onerous consequences.  The law had set utopian and unrealistic benchmarks by which all schools would bring their students to tested proficiency by 2014, or the schools would be declared failing and be forced into an ever deepening cycle of punishments.  It had become apparent that, because scores were required to rise so quickly, a vast majority of schools across the United States would be doomed to severe punishment.

In 2012 the federal Department of Education set very specific rules by which states could qualify to apply for a NCLB waiver.  States had to promise to use one of the prescribed “turnarounds” for the lowest-scoring 5 percent of public schools (We see the school closures and growth of charters in many big city school districts.); states had to adopt college and career-ready standards (We see the rush to adopt the Common Core Standards.); and states had to agree to evaluate teachers using, in part, students’ standardized test scores.  These are the conditions states had to meet in order to apply for a federal waiver from NCLB.  Just about all the states have applied for waivers and most of the applicants have been granted their waiver.  Almost all the states have been incorporating students’ test scores into teacher evaluations, and many policy makers have come to judge effectiveness as measured by test scores as a substitute for credentialed and well-qualified teachers.

So…  about the sinking feeling.  What do we see in the news this month to warn us about the way we’ve come to think about teachers?

Writing for Catalyst Chicago  Sarah Karp reports that in Chicago, where “reconstitution” (fire the principal and at least half the staff) has been used as a strategy for low-scoring schools, “At 16 of the 17 schools that underwent a turnaround between 2007 and 2011, more than half of teachers hired in the first year of the turnaround left by the third year.  In the 10 schools that were turned around last year, a third of the faculty left by the start of the current school year.”  Among the 32 schools that have undergone “reconstitution” as a turnaround strategy, two-thirds of new teachers left by the third year.  “Prior to the turnarounds, more than two-thirds of teachers at the targeted schools were black; among black teachers two-thirds had more than 10 years of experience…. In the year after the turnaround, less than half the the teacher were black….”  Discounting the need for faculty stability, Jarvis Sanford who manages the Academy for Urban School Leadership—the not-for-profit Chicago hires to manage school turnarounds—defends his agency’s policies:  “It has never been our model that staff stay for three to five years.  We want to put the effective teachers in front of students.  It does not have to be the same teacher.”  In contrast, Karp quotes the Consortium on Chicago School Research that has criticized instability and rapid turnover in school staff:  “It can produce a range of organizational problems at schools, such as discontinuity in professional development, shortages in key subjects and loss of teacher leadership.”

This month there was also the American Statistical Association’s warning about using econometric Value-Added Models (VAM) for evaluating teachers.  The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has invested millions of dollars in the development of these VAM formulas, and they have been widely adopted by states seeking to apply for NCLB waivers (Remember one condition for a waiver is that states must promise to use measurements of students’ achievement to evaluate teachers.).  The American Statistical Association uses the careful language of the social sciences, but among the warnings in its report is: “The measure of student achievement is typically a score on a standardized test, and VAMs are only as good as the data fed into them.  Ideally, tests should fully measure student achievement with respect to the curriculum objectives and content standards adopted by the state, in both breadth and depth.  In practice, no test meets this stringent standard, and it needs to be recognized that, at best, most VAMs predict only performance on the test and not necessarily long-range learning outcomes.  Other student outcomes are predicted only to the extent that they are correlated with test scores.  A teacher’s efforts to encourage students’ creativity or to help colleagues improve their instruction, for example, are not explicitly recognized in VAMs.

Finally, there is the new examination of Teach for America by Alexandra Hootnick, writing for the Hechinger Report (This piece was also published in The Nation.): Teachers Are Losing their Jobs, but Teach for America’s Expanding.  What’s Wrong with That?   Teach for America (TFA) is an alternative five-week certification program that prepares recruits for two-year, Peace Corps-like stints in school districts where there is a shortage of fully qualified candidates.  Hootnick reminds us that TFA won a $50 million competitive I3  innovation grant from Arne Duncan’s Department of Education; now a third of its funding comes from tax payer dollars.  As a condition for the innovation grant, TFA promised to serve the “highest-poverty districts in the country.”  While TFA has sought to grow rapidly the number of its recruits, “since the recession, with education funding across the country drying up, teacher layoffs have become more of an issue than teacher shortages.  Between 2008 and 2013, 324,000 teaching positions in local school districts were eliminated, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.” Hootnick reports serious criticism of TFA when school districts hire TFA recruits for prized positions when experienced teachers would be more expensive.  She also quotes parents and other critics who wonder why inexperienced TFA recruits are being placed to teach children in impoverished communities instead of better qualified professionals:  “How dare you send these applicants to teach our kids?  Just because they’re kids of color, you think you can dump anyone on us.”  Hootnick describes something new—an uprising in the ranks of California’s TFA recruits themselves, after TFA argued that additional training was unnecessary for recruits being placed in classrooms filled with English language learners.  The protesters within TFA’s ranks reject TFA’s claim that they are qualified to teach English language learners, “While we deeply value our commitment to TFA, we must stand up for the 1.4 million EL students today struggling in California’s classrooms.”


5 thoughts on “That Sinking Feeling: The Way We Are Thinking About Teachers Is All Wrong

  1. I agree with Mike. I have come to rely on you for providing your readers with an excellent synthesis of the topic at hand. It has been said that teaching is the only profession that trains all the other professions, but teaching has become the profession most mistreated, abused, and scorned.

  2. And I agree with both Mike and Rick! Today’s piece is quite timely in Chicago as the morning papers are reporting on plans before school officials to place three more schools in “turnaround” by handing them over to AUSL. Meanwhile, the Times has an editorial on the 10th anniversary of Abu Ghraib. How is this relevant? Private contractors played a major role in the degradation of prisoners and detainees in the post-9/11 world. The United States turned its war on terror over to contractors and now seems intent on turning its children over to private contractors. Why do we assume they’ll do any better in a classroom than they did in a military prison?

  3. On my end of the spectrum in teacher education, we are seeing a bleeding of candidates willing to commit 4 years of their education to a job where so many of the teachers that they love and admire are disheartened by these very perverse incentives. It is becoming very difficult to convince young idealists that they can nurture their students and love their content while the Sword of Damocles is constantly over their heads.

  4. It’s hard to imagine a 5-week preparation session for TFAs being adequate for more than temporary substitution roles, not permanent teaching positions for which others spent 4 to 6 years in an academic environment. I volunteer at the Ronald McDonald House in Philadelphia next to St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children, and one of these 5-week wonders sometimes replaces me as well as sometimes eats the evening meal with me and others before her p.m. shift. She teaches science in a charter somewhere and loves it, but she and I conflict over how TFAs not only were “trained” but how they seem to fare better than seasoned teachers in their dispute(s) with the Philadelphia School District pared to the bone & bleeding from over 4,000 staff positions deleted over last summer. What’s “fair” for the goose is definitely not fair for the
    “gander” here. Altho’ the School Administration “has taken the unprecedented step of asking the School Reform Commission to revoke Palmer Leadership’s charter, alleging poor academic performance. financial woes. and billing for students no longer attending the school,” [A3: 4/23/14, Inquirer], one charter or another is in the courts, in the law enforcement arena, and/or in the court of public opinion constantly. Public schools and PS teachers are definitely the outsiders every day, no matter their superior accomplishments in “bad” neighborhoods. Cutting tenure re-quirements for the 5-week wonders to 2 years from the standard 3 years is another slap in the face. I taught 40 years in college but have always been a strong supporter of PSs & have admired the tenacity and professionalism of the staff often under less-than-good conditions.

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