Web Only / Features » July 4, 2013
Taking the Caring Out of Teaching
New York’s new teacher evaluation system is tests, tests and more tests.
It's not like tests themselves are inherently evil. Almost every teacher gives some kind of test or assessment. But when you place so much, so many outcomes on that edifice it's too much weight for that instrument to bear. It distorts and warps the whole teaching and learning process.
“Teaching is a caring profession–a humane profession about human beings engaging with one another,” says Brian Jones, a former New York City public-school teacher now pursuing a PhD in urban education. “Relationships between the teachers and the learners are an important part of the whole process.”
Jones and other teachers worry that the new system of teacher evaluations slated to be implemented this fall in New York's public schools will take caring out of the equation.
The new system, which was imposed by state education commissioner John King after the United Federation of Teachers and Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration could not negotiate a deal, will bring millions in federal “Race to the Top” funds to the city's schools.
In a statement, Michael Mulgrew, the president of the UFT, wrote: “New York City teachers will now have additional protections and opportunities to play a larger role in the development of the measures used to rate them. Despite Mayor Bloomberg’s desire for a 'gotcha' system, as Commissioner King noted today, New York City 'is not going to fire its way to academic success.'” He pointed out that there are additional opportunities for teachers to challenge violations of the process by supervisors before they get their ratings.
But UFT members now face the possibility that they could lose their jobs if they receive “ineffective” ratings two years in a row. Teachers will be ranked “highly effective,” “effective,” “developing,” or “ineffective”—or, as John Surico at the Village Voice describes it, “Instead of pass/fail, we now have more of a letter-grade-esque method to grade our educators with more lethal consequences if you earn too many Fs.”
The deal requires that 20 to 25 percent of the teacher's rating come from state tests, another 15 to 20 percent from “measures established by the school” (which Jones says are likely to be more tests), and 55 to 60 percent from in-class observations or video-recorded performance assessments by principals.
But an “ineffective” rating on the tests trumps the other measures. Jones explains, “Teachers rated ineffective on the tests have to be rated ineffective overall. Even a glowing teacher with great rapport with her students, if the test scores don't rise at the predetermined level, that teacher has to be rated ineffective.
Carol Burris, New York's 2013 Principal of the Year, criticized this aspect of the system in the Washington Post, calling it a “foolish inequity, with real life consequences.”
A brief history of (resistance to) standardized tests
The new evaluation deal comes at a time when the pushback against standardized testing, from parents and students as well as teachers,has reached new heights. Seattle's Garfield High School teachers rocked the education world when they refused to administer the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test this past January, gaining support from students and seeing their boycott spread to other Washington schools before winning a huge victory—the MAP will now be optional. And the president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, called for a moratorium on high-stakes standardized testing tied to new Common Core Standards, noting that tests have led to unprecedented student stress and proposing that until states and districts work with teachers to implement the standards properly, “the tests should be decoupled from decisions that could unfairly hurt students, schools, and teachers.”
Last winter, I spoke to Ira Shor, a City University of New York professor who studies urban education, about the problems with standardized testing:
These tests, he explained, emerged around World War I as “intelligence” tests for the US Army. Public schools took them up at a time when dropout rates were high among working-class students and young people were “sorted” into tracks, pushing working-class students into vocational programs while the more elite students were tracked for more rigorous academic work. During the Cold War, students were tested more rigorously, but the '60s and '70s saw pushback from social movements on the way education was set up. But, Shor noted, for the last 40 years, there has been a strenuous public relations campaign pushing for more testing – more “accountability” to keep American students “competitive.”
As discontent has grown, parents around the country have been opting out of standardized tests for their children, but New York, it appears, is doubling down instead.
“For the students, this is going to be way more time spent taking assessments, in every single class they take, there will be no break from assessments,” Jones says. “If we thought the testing regime was too much already, it's going to be more out of control now that you're going to have to have a test for the gym teacher, a test for the music teacher.”
That's right—even gym class, art and music will need to have a test. So will kindergarten.
“It's not like tests themselves are inherently evil. Almost every teacher gives some kind of test or assessment,” Jones says. “But when you place so much, so many outcomes on that edifice it's too much weight for that instrument to bear. It distorts and warps the whole teaching and learning process.”
That teaching process becomes focused on the test, drilling students over and over so they can answer the questions properly, so the teachers' ratings don't fall. It incentivizes cheating, Jones notes, and indeed we've seen this problem in other cities that relied heavily on standardized testing. And all that cramming leaves less room for the other parts of a teacher's job, the parts that aren't as easy to test.
As I wrote recently for Jacobin, the emotional labor component of many jobs, including teaching, has been systemically undervalued even as those jobs were shaped by the expectation that those who did them would be natural carers. Their purported inherent ability to care was a convenient ideological excuse to seek out women, who would work for less money, for teaching jobs, as Dana Goldstein has written. Emily Giles, a high school science teacher in the South Bronx, noted during a recent panel I hosted at Left Forum that since the beginning of public schools, teaching has been dominated by women. Currently, 75 percent of New York State public school teachers are women.
Women teachers had to then fight to get equal pay and job security. “In some states it took up until 1960 for, specifically, married women to be granted the right to tenure,” said Giles. “In other places, like New York City, equal wages for women in the classroom and tenure for married women were won as early as 1911, because along with super-high demand for teachers in the classroom, there was an active feminist movement fighting alongside [the teachers], saying 'Yeah, we're going to put women in the classroom but you're going to pay them the right amount, they're going to be granted the rights that they deserve.'”
The care women were expected to provide was never treated as a skill that deserved decent pay; instead, it was (wrongly) seen as an inherent characteristic. Yet in the push to strip down teaching to its testable components, the very traits that were once seen as integral to the profession are now being cut out. “The space for other kinds of pedagogies that are more child-centered or more child or learner-directed is very much closing,” says Jones.
The end of any pretense at valuing care instead seems to lay bare the real reasoning that the field became dominated by women—the lower wages and less respect.
Now, Giles sees what she considers the removal of tenure as a feminist issue. Only 13 percent of teachers who receive an “ineffective” rating will be allowed to appeal, she noted, and it's unclear how those 13 percent will be chosen.
Teachers under the microscope
Concerns about the new evaluation system stretch beyond the standardized testing component. Jones notes that the new evaluation system requires far more observation of teachers by administrators.
“Administrators are going to have very little time for parents or children or programming or planning or anything other than these observations and teacher evaluation,” he says.
Video recordings of teachers' work may be part of the evaluation process, adding yet another layer of surveillance to the process that already leaves many teachers feeling like they're not trusted.
(But it could be worse—news broke earlier this month that the Gates Foundation is spending $1.4 million to test biometric bracelets that claim to measure student engagement by a sensor on their wrists. They're not required in classrooms yet, but the very news that they're being tested shows the increasing desire to observe, control and measure every aspect of what happens in the classroom. Measuring how much a student is responding to a lesson by their “arousal” might seem in some sense more humane than boiling everything down to a Scantron sheet, but in the end the result, a Gates spokesperson admitted, would probably be the same—a process originally sold as a way to help teachers improve winding up as a way to make it easier to fire them instead. It's the drive to measure every facet of the classroom experience taken to its most absurd end. )
Mayoral candidate and former school-board president and City Comptroller Bill Thompson called the new evaluation plan “unworkable in its complexity and bureaucracy.” The comments were notable, the Wall Street Journal pointed out, because Thompson's campaign co-chair is Merryl Tisch, the New York state Board of Regents chancellor, who oversees the education commissioner who imposed the plan. (Tisch, not surprisingly, disagreed with Thompson's comments.)
The position taken by mayoral candidates on the evaluation system is particularly important because the UFT still has no contract with the city and will be looking to the next mayor to be willing to negotiate. In his statement, Mulgrew noted, “The precise measures of student learning established by this ruling will be in effect unless and until they are altered in collective bargaining with the new Mayor who takes office in seven months.”
UFT members have been working without a contract for over four years now, longer than most of the other public unions, who've also been struggling to come to a deal with Bloomberg's administration. Thompson received the endorsement of the UFT after his comments, despite a report that he's been cozying up to charter school backers who are close with the outgoing mayor.
For teachers, though, the question isn't one of politics, but of teaching. With the focus remaining on finding more and more ways to track, test, and punish individual teachers, the human parts of their job get shoved to the back burner, and they—and their students—suffer.
“The parts of helping students find confidence, helping them to latch on to their passions, empowering them,” Jones says, “that aspect of teaching and learning is greatly undervalued, and that's a very difficult thing to impose from above. If you want that kind of teaching and learning you have to work at that from the ground up. You can't just issue an edict: 'Thou shalt be an inspiring teacher.' ”
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Sarah Jaffe is a staff writer at In These Times and the co-host of Dissent magazine's Belabored podcast. Her writings on labor, social movements, gender, media, and student debt have been published in The Atlantic, The Nation, The American Prospect, AlterNet, and many other publications, and she is a regular commentator for radio and television. You can follow her on Twitter @sarahljaffe.