Too often lately when I read about teachers and teaching, I am bothered because I suspect the writer has never taught in any kind of school. Even though I know that data from tests and classroom work has always informed teachers’ strategies for working with particular students, I am puzzled by people who assume that teachers keep in mind a compartmentalized mental file of each child’s standardized test scores as the key to strengths and weaknesses and a finite list of steps to be taken to erase the weaknesses. And I am troubled by statisticians calculating econometric formulas to measure the amount of knowledge particular teachers add to a child’s education.
To my mind teaching is an art, though teachers certainly need to inform their practice with what science tells us about psychology and sociology and child development. Teaching is relational. It is not the mere imparting of bits and bites of information. Teachers must come to know their students deeply and respect what each student brings to the relationship. Teaching is about awakening interest, inspiring hard work, stimulating curiosity, listening, considering, supporting, encouraging and making students feel safe enough to learn from criticism. Teachers need to be able to encourage students to analyze, be critical, and challenge authority while at the same time creating a safe and orderly classroom. So much of today’s talk about teachers fails to consider what teachers really do. When learning happens, there is a spark of connection. Gloria Ladson-Billings titled her classic book about teaching, The Dreamkeepers; Sonia Nieto called hers, The Light in Their Eyes.
Even if I try, I find it meaningless to apply the “Value Added Measure” (VAM) concept to my experience with my favorite teachers. A lot of these measures would try to connect “value added” to the salaries I have been able to earn over the years—the economic value of my education. While I certainly don’t want to scoff at the importance of my capacity to work, I don’t really value my own education at all from an economic point of view. The teachers who took the trouble to connect with me, help form my habits of thought, encourage me to be and feel competent—these are the teachers I value, but I can’t measure the worth of my connection to my teachers or assign a numerical value to the experience.
Mike Rose, one of my favorite writers about teachers and education, describes what is rarely considered in much of today’s talk about schooling: “I’m interested here in the experience of education when it’s done well with the student’s well-being in mind. The unfortunate thing is that there is nothing in the standard talk about schooling—and this has been true for decades—that leads us to consider how school is perceived by those who attend it. Yet it is our experience of an institution that determines our attitude toward it, affects what we do with it, the degree to which we integrate it into our lives, into our sense of who we are. We need to pay attention to the experience of going to school.” (Why School?, 2014 edition, p. 34) I value my favorite teachers as the people who shaped that experience of going to school.
Today’s school reform—codified in the federal testing law No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and continuing in the Obama Administration’s NCLB waivers that require states to incorporate students’ scores on standardized tests into formal evaluations of teachers—has failed to address the social conditions that affect learning in our poorest school districts and has failed to invest seriously in resource equity across school districts. It has framed a conversation about closing achievement gaps but ignored a wide set of opportunity gaps that must be closed. The ratings of schools and teachers incorporated into these federal policies are designed to blame school teachers, supposedly to motivate teachers to to work harder and smarter. A significant number of policy makers these days also seem to believe that we can improve public education through a regime of firing and replacing teachers who are not quickly raising the standardized test sores of their students.
However, there is encouraging new evidence that while Americans’ views of school teachers have been affected by all this negativity, many people have managed to hold on to a more nuanced understanding of education and teaching. Yesterday Phi Delta Kappan and Gallup released the second part of their annual poll of Americans’ opinions about education. Much of the material released yesterday explored Americans’ opinions about teaching. It seems that although public opinion has been influenced to some degree by the widespread trend of blaming school teachers, the majority of Americans have retained healthy skepticism about attacks on teachers.
William J. Bushaw, the chief executive officer of PDK International and author of an analysis of the poll’s findings about attitudes toward teachers and teaching, writes: “Once again, Americans have identified a blueprint to support public education, and it is centered on investments in classroom teachers. That is not a quick fix, but other countries have had success with this strategy, resulting in unmistakable gains in student achievement.” “Americans said they believe teacher evaluation should be primarily designed to help teachers improve their ability to teach. If we listen carefully to the opinions of Americans, we need to research better ways to evaluate teachers and principals that are not overly reliant upon how students perform on standardized tests.”
The PDK/Gallup poll this year indicates that 61 percent of Americans oppose using students’ standardized test scores to evaluate teachers. The number of parents who have trust and confidence in public school teachers declined from 72 percent last year to 64 percent this year, but is still a wide majority. Fifty-seven percent of Americans still say they would be pleased if their child becomes a school teacher, down from 62 percent in 2005, but still a sizeable number of parents.
While those polled would like to see teaching improved, their focus—like Mike Rose’s focus—seems to be on improving the experience of schooling for America’s children by more thoroughly preparing their teachers. Seventy percent of those polled would like to increase the length of the supervised student teaching experience to one year and make entrance requirements for teacher preparation programs more rigorous. Finally 77 percent of Americans said the most important goal of evaluating teachers is not to punish but instead to “help teachers improve their ability to teach.”