We Won’t Improve Education By Making Teachers Hate Their Jobs

How can you improve education by attacking educators?

Jeff Bryant May 5, 2016

(naosuke ii / Flickr)

This post first appeared at Com­mon Dreams.

The survey findings add strong anecdotal weight to previous statistical surveys of teachers that have found their work dissatisfaction is at an all time high.

Does this sound like a place you’d like to work?

The work envi­ron­ment is depress­ing” … morale is at an all-time low.”

It feels like a lot of busy work and hoop jump­ing and detracts from the work.” Every move … needs to be doc­u­ment­ed and noted.”

We have to respond to feed­back giv­en by an admin­is­tra­tor who did a one-minute walk through and thought they knew what was going on … but didn’t.”

There is no time for con­ver­sa­tions” … my salary has been frozen for six years” … every­one feels like losers.”

Prob­a­bly not.

But this is how class­room teach­ers and school prin­ci­pals describe what it’s like to work in pub­lic schools.

The com­ments come from a new sur­vey of K‑12 edu­ca­tors nation­wide that yield­ed respons­es from 2,964 teach­ers and prin­ci­pals from 48 states. The sur­vey was con­duct­ed by the Net­work for Pub­lic Edu­ca­tion, a grass­roots pub­lic school advo­ca­cy group found­ed by pub­lic school advo­cates, par­ents, edu­ca­tors, and uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sors, includ­ing edu­ca­tion his­to­ri­an Diane Rav­itch. NPE recent­ly released the sur­vey find­ings in a report titled Teach­ers Talk Back: Edu­ca­tors on the Impact of Teacher Eval­u­a­tion” at its nation­al con­fer­ence in Raleigh, N.C.

The sur­vey find­ings add strong anec­do­tal weight to pre­vi­ous sta­tis­ti­cal sur­veys of teach­ers that have found their work dis­sat­is­fac­tion is at an all time high. A sur­vey from 2012, found teacher job sat­is­fac­tion has plum­met­ed to 39 per­cent, its low­est lev­el in 25 years, accord­ing to one review of the findings.

Find­ings from a more recent sur­vey, pub­lished in 2015, revealed only 15 per­cent of teach­ers feel enthu­si­as­tic about the pro­fes­sion, and about three in four often” feel stressed by their jobs.

One like­ly out­come of this high work dis­sat­is­fac­tion rate among teach­ers is that many states and school dis­tricts are now report­ing acute teacher short­ages. One major school sys­tem, Philadel­phia, still strug­gles to fill teacher vacan­cies, even as the cur­rent school year nears end.

Mean­while, oth­er reports reveal record low num­bers of col­lege stu­dents enrolling into teacher prepa­ra­tion pro­grams, fore­telling even worse teacher short­ages in the future.

Cer­tain­ly, it doesn’t help that teacher salaries are stag­nant. As an op-ed writer in a recentU.S. News and World Report not­ed, Teach­ers haven’t got­ten a raise in 15 years.” But poor teacher pay is a chron­ic prob­lem that doesn’t by itself explain the shortages.

Teacher pen­sion pro­grams are also being chis­eled away, but why would even short-timers — such as those com­ing from Teach for Amer­i­ca, whose recruit­ment is down 35 per­cent over three years — be discouraged?

Indeed, the NPE sur­vey reveals there are fac­tors oth­er than eco­nom­ics that are mak­ing teach­ers’ work-lives miserable.

What val­ue added sub­tracts from teaching

As an arti­cle for Edu­ca­tion Week explains, the NPE sur­vey had a spe­cif­ic tar­get in mind: to paint a qual­i­ta­tive, descrip­tive por­trait of the effects of new teacher eval­u­a­tion sys­tems that are now in place in most schools.

The new eval­u­a­tion sys­tems,” accord­ing to the EdWeek reporter, were most­ly devel­oped as part of the U.S. Depart­ment of Education’s Race to the Top com­pe­ti­tion and NCLB-waiv­er projects” dur­ing the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion. The eval­u­a­tions com­bine the tra­di­tion­al prac­tice of class­room obser­va­tions with a heavy empha­sis on stu­dent test scores. The test scores are fed into a com­put­er-dri­ven algo­rithm typ­i­cal­ly referred to as a val­ue-added mod­el, or VAM, which, accord­ing to the reporter, attempts to esti­mate how much a teacher has con­tributed to stu­dent-achieve­ment growth by fac­tor­ing in the gains the stu­dent was expect­ed to make based on past performance.”

In 2012, the promise U.S. Edu­ca­tion Sec­re­tary Dun­can and oth­er edu­ca­tion pol­i­cy advo­cates made was the new eval­u­a­tion process would lead to clos­ing the noto­ri­ous achieve­ment gap between black and brown low-income kids and their high­er per­form­ing white and more well-to-do peers. We were told the eval­u­a­tions would ensure the worst teach­ers would be weed­ed out of the sys­tem, the best teach­ers would emerge from the scores, and these rev­e­la­tions would ensure dis­tricts could reas­sign the most effec­tive teach­ers to schools with the most strug­gling students.

The the­o­ry was nev­er based on evi­dence.

In fact, as a recent op ed in a Con­necti­cut news out­let observed, The poli­cies of the sec­re­tary, which he car­ried with him from his tenure as Super­in­ten­dent of Schools in Chica­go to Wash­ing­ton D.C., nev­er achieved the aca­d­e­m­ic gains that were claimed. A 2010 analy­sis of Chica­go schools by the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go con­clud­ed that after 20 years of reform efforts, which includ­ed Mr. Duncan’s tenure, the gap between poor and rich areas had widened.”

The VAM process might make sense in man­u­fac­tur­ing or agri­cul­ture, but in the flesh-and-blood edu­ca­tion pro­fes­sion, class­room teach­ers hate it.

As the NPE sur­vey finds, 83 per­cent of respon­dents said the inclu­sion of stu­dent stan­dard­ized test scores in teacher eval­u­a­tions has had a neg­a­tive impact on class­room instruc­tion.” Teach­ers over­whelm­ing­ly com­plain the eval­u­a­tions pres­sure them to focus on test scores to the detri­ment of focus­ing on their rela­tion­ships with their stu­dents. Many think the new eval­u­a­tion sys­tems reflect racial bias­es, and most think they unfair­ly tar­get more expe­ri­enced staff. In oth­er words, a process that is seem­ing­ly objec­tive — through the automa­tion of com­put­ers — yields results that are sim­i­lar to inequities that are all too com­mon in many workplaces.

What’s worse, teach­ers believe the test-based eval­u­a­tions dam­age the edu­ca­tion process itself. The EdWeek reporter writes, Teach­ers report­ed that they now felt forced to teach to the test,’ instead of plan­ning fun or mean­ing­ful units and spend hours por­ing over data instead of brain­storm­ing ways to bet­ter reach their students.

A Dr. Franken­stein moment

NPE is not the only orga­ni­za­tion to reveal the immense dis­trust teach­ers have for these eval­u­a­tions. Accord­ing to a recent sur­vey, 81 per­cent of State Teach­ers of the Year award-win­ners and final­ists strong­ly dis­agree with fed­er­al pol­i­cy require­ments to use stan­dard­ized test scores in teacher evaluations.

Par­ents … should think twice when politi­cians say they can use com­plex com­put­er pro­grams to iden­ti­fy and get rid of fail­ing teach­ers,” warns New York attor­ney Bruce Led­er­man in a recent op-ed.

Lederman’s wife, a fourth-grade teacher, was labeled inef­fec­tive” by New York’s VAM eval­u­a­tion sys­tem because she had a stu­dent who scored 98 on his stan­dard­ized math tests. You read that right. The stu­dent got two ques­tions wrong on the three-day test but the teacher was deemed inef­fec­tive because the com­put­er pro­gram gave her a growth score” of 22 out of 100. You see, the same stu­dent scored 100 on his third grade math test the pre­vi­ous year.

This shows the dan­ger of rely­ing on com­plex com­put­er pro­grams that claim to be able to pre­dict per­for­mance and rate people’s job per­for­mances,” Led­er­man writes.

Results like what Led­er­man, and oth­ers, reports defy com­mon sense and are caus­ing experts to speak out more force­ful­ly for a recon­sid­er­a­tion of these approaches.

I’m deeply trou­bled by the trans­for­ma­tion of teach­ing from a com­plex pro­fes­sion requir­ing nuanced judg­ment to the per­for­mance of cer­tain behav­iors that can be ticked off on a check­list,” writes Char­lotte Daniel­son in a recent opin­ion col­umn for Edu­ca­tion Week. It’s time for a major rethink­ing of how we struc­ture teacher eval­u­a­tion,” she declares.

Daniel­son is a pop­u­lar author and edu­ca­tion con­sul­tant whose books on a frame­work for teach­ing” are often the blue­prints for teacher eval­u­a­tions in many schools. Yet, the NPE sur­vey of teach­ers finds the mod­el in prac­tice is cum­ber­some and exhaust­ing.” Teach­ers say appli­ca­tions of the frame­work cre­ate an eval­u­a­tion sys­tem in which snap­shots of instruc­tion take on over­sized impor­tance as mea­sure­ments of abil­i­ty, devoid of context.”

Faced with what teacher eval­u­a­tions, based on her frame­work, have turned into, Daniel­son must be hav­ing some­what of a Dr. Franken­stein moment. Indeed, in her op ed, she now real­izes appli­ca­tions of her meth­ods have led to teach­ing being dis­tilled to num­bers, rat­ings, and rank­ings, con­vey­ing a reduc­tive nature to edu­ca­tors’ pro­fes­sion­al worth and under­min­ing their over­all confidence.”

Despite Danielson’s reflec­tive moment, there are nev­er­the­less hang­ers-on to the belief in test-based teacher eval­u­a­tions. One of their last hand­holds on the slip­pery slope to irrel­e­van­cy is a recent study of the test-based eval­u­a­tion sys­tem in Wash­ing­ton, DC con­ceived under the admin­is­tra­tion of for­mer chan­cel­lor Michelle Rhee. That study found the high­er rate of teacher turnover caused by the more oner­ous eval­u­a­tions may have led to more teach­ers rat­ed inef­fec­tive” who were in turn replaced with teach­ers who even­tu­al­ly rat­ed effec­tive.” The pos­i­tive” turnover may have been a fac­tor that ulti­mate­ly boost­ed stu­dent achievement.

But the study of the DC eval­u­a­tion sys­tem is nowhere near as con­clu­sive as pro­po­nents of the sta­tus quo sug­gest. Fur­ther­more, who can doubt the some­what cir­cu­lar log­ic that design­ing edu­ca­tion sys­tems that increas­ing­ly empha­size stu­dent test scores — which are rather ques­tion­able mea­sures of stu­dent learn­ing and edu­ca­tion qual­i­ty—may even­tu­al­ly yield high­er stu­dent test scores? But how does this dri­ve to have effects on the almighty test scores jus­ti­fy abus­ing teach­ers rights?

Do this instead

It is dif­fi­cult if not impos­si­ble to iso­late the impact of a sin­gle indi­vid­ual on a stu­dent because teach­ing is a col­lab­o­ra­tive and devel­op­men­tal process,” write the assess­ment experts at the web­site of the Nation­al Cen­ter for Fair and Open Test­ing, FairTest​.org. Their analy­sis of VAM-based teacher eval­u­a­tions finds numer­ous rea­sons to aban­don these sys­tems and no jus­ti­fi­ca­tions that bear up under scrutiny.

For­tu­nate­ly, there is an oppor­tu­ni­ty to lift the bur­den of these eval­u­a­tions and devel­op alter­na­tives based on what makes sense to teach­ers and what might also bol­ster stu­dent learning.

With the enact­ment of a new nation­al edu­ca­tion pol­i­cy, known as the Every Stu­dent Suc­ceeds Act, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment is now pro­hib­it­ed from requir­ing states to use stu­dent test scores in teacher eval­u­a­tions. The law pro­vides fund­ing for states to invest in sys­tems that pro­vide bet­ter feed­back, but the bur­den of devel­op­ing these sys­tems clear­ly shifts to the states. What will they do?

What Daniel­son now calls for in eval­u­a­tion sys­tems is a col­lab­o­ra­tive eval­u­a­tion pro­ce­dure” with more empha­sis on cre­at­ing a cul­ture with­in the school con­ducive to pro­fes­sion­al learning.”

Class­room teach­ers them­selves have lots of wor­thy ideas for how to mea­sure their work per­for­mance and the per­for­mance of their peers. Maybe it’s time law­mak­ers lis­ten to them?

No one doubts that teach­ers, and employ­ees of any kind, need to be eval­u­at­ed and can indeed ben­e­fit from an eval­u­a­tion sys­tem that pro­vides sup­ports for get­ting bet­ter. And the pub­lic has a right to know whether its tax dol­lars are being spent on teach­ers who do their jobs and schools that pro­vide a qual­i­ty education.

Using stu­dent test scores to deter­mine mea­sures of per­for­mance might pro­vide us with some reas­sur­ance we are not throw­ing good mon­ey after bad, but it’s a false reas­sur­ance. And in the mean­time, we’re mak­ing teach­ers miserable.

Jeff Bryant is an asso­ciate fel­low at Cam­paign for Amer­i­ca’s Future and edi­tor of the recent­ly launched Edu­ca­tion Oppor­tu­ni­ty Net­work, a project of the Insti­tute for America’s Future, in part­ner­ship with the Oppor­tu­ni­ty to Learn Campaign.
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