The Destructive Craziness of "Evaluating Teachers" in Public Schools
Copyright 2010, John Manimas Medeiros
The "movement" to evaluate teachers "objectively" and adjust pay according to such evaluations is based on anger and a dysfunctional misconception of how people learn. When we evaluate what the student has learned, we are not evaluating the teacher, we are evaluating the student's learning effort far more than we are evaluating the professional qualities of the teacher. Just as a horse is not responsible for how a rider rides, a teacher is not solely responsible for how a student learns.
Millions of American citizens, including public school administrators and politicians and "educators" and teachers themselves are wasting a lot of time and money and doing a lot of damage to our system of education by focusing on the irrational concept that learning in the public schools is caused only by teachers. Improvement in public education requires evaluation of our entire education system and parent attitudes and all of those social and economic practices that appear to discredit or interfere with effective learning and good citizenship.
I was trained as a teacher but worked only one year in a public school. I later worked for twenty-five years in human services including seventeen years as a social worker, in which position I participated in many educational planning meetings for students with special needs as well as students with behavior problems.
Learning occurs in public schools primarily because children enjoy learning, but also enjoy learning much more when they believe that what they are being "taught" is something that they actually want to learn. Learning occurs in public schools because of the methods used and the teaching tools and equipment that are provided by the school district. A child will not learn to play the guitar without a guitar. A child will not learn how to play football without a playing field and protective uniform, and a child will not learn how to create a work of art with no tools or art materials. The same is true for all of the academic subject matter. Children cannot learn language skills, history, math, geometry, physics, biology or social sciences unless they have tools, equipment, methods, practice, and a teacher to guide them.
The emotional discussion and contrived "debate" about evaluating teachers arises from people's mixed and often negative feelings about public schools. First, property owners do not like paying property taxes and they don't like school policies, so many feel like they are being forced to pay for an institution that they do not support and have no real control over. The myth of "local control" of schools is nonsense. Teachers are certified by states and virtually all school policies are limited by the federal and state constitutions and the rights of the students and their parents. None of these national and state influences can be diminished or modified to any significant degree by "local control."
The purpose of the public school is to have children from all classes or sub-groups in our society get to know one another and learn in an environment of mutual respect and mutual support. The primary responsibility for learning always rests with the learner, not the teacher. The effort of the student is determined by the student; the intensity of self discipline and self-application, the study habits, the practices and the time devoted to learning assigned subject matter is in the hands of the student, and these are the primary and nearly the only factors that determine how much and how fast the student will learn. These factors determine the quality of the student's new skills. The "movement" to evaluate teachers objectively and adjust pay according to such evaluations is based on anger and a dysfunctional misconception of how people learn.
Firstly, it is probably impossible to evaluate a teacher objectively, and I will explain why. In summary, a teacher's success is based in part on personality, in part on the student's feelings about the teacher, and on the student's feelings about the subject matter being learned. The student's learning is based in large part on the student's attitude toward learning and his or her parent's attitude toward learning in general and the subject matter, and on how the parents support the student's efforts to learn, as well as how some parents actually negate, invalidate, discredit or even oppose the student's efforts to learn in school. Some parents want their children to learn in the street, and how to outsmart the law or any social considerations or restrictions that the parents don't like. Some parents teach their children to hold teachers in contempt, and to hold public policies, such as civil rights, in contempt. By discrediting major public policies, upheld in the school, the parents teach the student that the school is not the right place to learn, so why bother. Why cooperate with the teachers when they are not worthy of respect - as demonstrated by my parents?
Secondly, the concept that learning will be substantially improved if we have standardized tests and if we evaluate teachers, and pay teachers more for the test grades of their students, is outrageous in that such practices do not and cannot occur in any other workplace. Do we want police officers to be evaluated on the number of arrests and on the level of "criminality" of each convict. If a person is arrested and later found not guilty will the police officer get a demerit and a deduction from his pay? How will we evaluate elected officials, and how will their pay be adjusted upward, when everything is going well, and how will we deduct from their pay when they are caught lying?
How will we evaluate doctors? If I get sick, then get well, does the doctor get paid more? If I get sick again, does the doctor have his license suspended? These examples are not as far removed from an evaluation of teaching, because they simply illustrate more clearly that the factors that go into a student's learning are not really under the control of the teacher, any more than a criminal is under the control of a police officer or a future illness is under the control of a doctor.
Children learn in communities and in society. The whole community and the whole society is responsible for what children learn and how they learn it. When we evaluate teachers, are we going to measure the student's level of interest? Commitment to learning? General attitude toward school and behavioral record? The parents' attitudes? The family's social and economic status? How other family members feel about education? Do they live in a high crime area? Has there been a family crisis? Coping with illness? Job losses? Alcoholism or drug abuse?
Are all students equally easy or hard to teach? How can we possibly evaluate a teacher without evaluating the specific students in that teacher's classes? Have you ever heard the joke that training some kids to pay attention is like "herding cats." What are the rules in the classroom? What are the limitations on how the teacher can manage the students in the classroom? Can the teacher touch a student? Can the teacher send an unruly student to a detention room or have them get some significant consequence -- significant to the student -- for disrupting the classroom?
Thirdly, and most importantly, understanding how and why some students do poorly in school is oversimplified by most citizens and also by professionals. A valid understanding of how children learn, and how they do not learn, and a realistic view at all of the communications in our society that discourage children from learning, or disrupt or damage their ability to learn, will show that the problem is not teachers in the school classroom, but all of the teachers who are not in the school classroom, including drug dealers, football stars, and media celebrities. They so often tell the story of how I dropped out of school and got rich and I get lots of attention, and lots of sex and have fun all the time because I have plenty of money. And some students wonder, as is normal, where should I put my efforts, really? Am I going to gain anything worthwhile by studying and getting better grades? How do teachers help students make that decision? Is it possible for us to measure the ways in which a student decided to study because they respected or admired a teacher?
The wastefulness of blaming teachers for "failure to learn" can best be shown by taking a good look at the outcome of the public school system as a national institution. This is what we can do now, and then move on to some real changes that will improve our schools and learning nationwide.
Number One: The Ridiculous Dysfunctional Property Tax:
First, let's look at the dysfunctional way that we tax people to pay for public education. Drop this ridiculous nearly two-centuries old practice of taxing property to pay for education. You want the best educational system in the world? Then use the same tax structure that paid for the best military machine in the world: progressive income taxes. Public education was originally paid for by the property tax because that was the only legal mechanism available to levy a tax in the 1850's: either on registered voters or on property owners. The tax was levied on property, because, believe it or not -- easily verified by a review of history -- Horace Mann and others persuaded the general public to pay for public education on the grounds that it would reduce vandalism! That's right, the sons and daughters of poor farmers were displaced and "roaming the countryside" looking for work or getting into mischief, and they needed to be pinned down and "educated" so that they would learn how to be compliant factory workers. That is the true origin of public education in the United States, and that is how the property tax started. Because people have difficulty changing their habits, we still use this ridiculous property tax even though it makes no sense.
During the peace movement in the days of the Vietnam War, one of the arguments of the peaceniks was "I look forward to the day when people have to raise money with a bake sale in order to build a submarine." This was a reference to the fact that public school budgets were struggling in order to maintain "non-academic" programs such as sports, music and art.
Have you heard elders say: "These property taxes are killing me, and I don't have any children in school, so I don't benefit from these property taxes." What a foolish misunderstanding of public education. You do not benefit from public education because your children are being educated; you benefit from public education because your neighbor's children are being educated. Further, we all benefit from public education, probably more so than from any other public program or public policy, because public education produces a vastly more accomplished and safe and productive society. The children in public schools today will be the auto mechanics and store managers and maintenance workers and doctors and lawyers of tomorrow. Every citizen benefits from public education every time they hire any skilled worker or professional to do something for them, a nurse, a bookkeeper, an accountant, a repair person, lawn care, a gardener, a psychotherapist, a doctor or lawyer or business consultant. Every time we go shopping, the products for sale, their availability, their prices, the efficiency of the production, distribution and sales process are all due to the skills of people who were educated in public schools. There is no other act of government that benefits society more than public education except for the enforcement of public health policies.
One could even argue that public education is more beneficial to everyone than is national defense. The effectiveness of military personnel begins with their education in public schools. Therefore, we must have public education in the first place in order to have an effective national defense. Further, the rich benefit more from national defense, because even if a nation loses a war the rich usually do not suffer as much as the poor. The poor become soldiers and get killed or maimed for life, while the rich are protected and often even profit from a war. Therefore, national defense can be defined as a program that benefits everyone but especially the rich. Even a losing general gets complimented by the victor and returns to his previous life of relative comfort and privilege. But the poor citizen, used as meat loaf on the front lines, is either dead or damaged, a disabled veteran who gets a speech once or twice a year to tell him how grateful we are that he paid with his life and is quiet about it most of the time. Public education clearly benefits everyone, and especially the poor, because it provides the poor with opportunities that they would otherwise not have access to.
How we evaluate employees, and how we should evaluate employees:
I was employed for the most of my working life in state civil service, but I also worked as a high school teacher, an insurance claims adjuster, a factory machine operator, a landscaper, a house foundation crew worker, and in a temporary personnel agency. I experienced how employees are evaluated, and employers almost invariably begin an evaluation by focusing on any mistakes or moments of poor performance or places where the employee "needs improvement." Such criticisms often suggest that the employee does not work fast enough or not hard enough. Instead of using an opportunity to really evaluate an employee's work, the mid-level supervisor is giving himself or herself an opportunity to show the boss-man that they are on the side of management and abhor the high cost of labor. Such evaluations are subjective and have more to do with how the evaluator feels about the employee. The ongoing and pervasive dysfunction in employee evaluations is that employers evaluate the person and not the work that they have performed. Let me show an evaluation process and how it should have occurred. And then let's discuss what is the product, the output of the public schools of the United States of America. This is what we need to look at. What is the net result of the work performed by all of the public school teachers? How many high school graduates are law abiding citizens, and how many are not? How many, or what percentage, make a specific kind of constructive contribution to the economic and social life of our society -- doctor, lawyer, or machine operator, etc? This is where one needs to begin if one really wants to evaluate the work performed instead of venting your anger at teachers and expressing your resentment toward the property tax and what you believe is the political power of educators as a group.
Step #1: What is the successful output of the public schools?
What percentage of public school students, in the entire nation, get better than average grades (As and Bs) and graduate within four years and are employed within sixty days? What percentage graduate and are admitted to a college or university within two years? What percentage are admitted to a technical or professional certification school within two years? What percentage join the military service? What percentage later earn a Master's degree? What percentage later earn a Doctorate degree? What percentage become professionals: physicians, nurses, social workers, accountants, civil servants, psychologists, etc.? What percentage become skilled technicians: electricians, plumbing and heating, electronics, etc.? What percentage become self-employed in small business? What percentage are employed in service industries or in manufacturing? What percentage experience significant periods of unemployment within the first ten years following graduation from high school? What percentage are convicted of a crime and sentenced to prison? What percentage receive substantial treatment for mental illness? What percentage abuse addictive drugs or alcohol? What percentage are the victims of crime? There are probably more questions to be asked. Answers to these questions are necessary in order for us to have the information we need. We need to answer questions like these in order to begin to draw the lines that separate success from areas where we want improvement or we want to address a problem. Then we ask the same set of questions for students whose grades were mostly average, mostly Cs. Then we ask the same set of questions for students whose grades were mostly below average, Ds with some Cs. Then we ask the same questions for students whose performance was consistently problematic, involved behavioral issues, disruptive behavior and violations of school rules, suspensions. What percentage dropped out of school and did not graduate? Why? -- Why? Why? Why?
For every state, we ask these same sets of questions; then for every school district; then for every school. If we search for low scores in reading, math, science, social studies, reasoning, even extracurricular participation or social skills, we need to find these low scores for each school district and each school. Then we must ask why. Why? Why? Why? THEN, in order to perform an objective and scientific evaluation of how and why these types of problems or "failures" or deficiencies occur, we cannot simply vent on a school district, or a school, or a teacher. We have to ask the questions that make sense in terms of what characteristics of the school district or school, or OF THE COMMUNITY might be contributing causes to poor academic performance, behavioral problems, lower than average percentages for the successes that we recognize as students with good grades, graduates, college admissions, employment and citizenship, etc.
The vitally important point here is that if we want a scientific measurement of how and why some students fail, or do not learn, WE MUST thoroughly measure all of those social and economic factors that might be CO-RELATED to poor academic performance and a negative attitude toward learning in the school. This includes measurements of the school program itself. How much learning is expected to occur from reading? How much from hands-on practice? Is the school building clean? New or old? How old? What is the number of students per teacher? What is the community attitude toward public education? What percentage of households in the community send their children to private schools? Why?
There is a viewpoint that parents send their children to private schools because they believe the private school is better. There is another argument that the more parents send their children to private schools, the public school is diminished by the absence of serious students who are motivated by the serious attitudes of parents who place a high value on education. To make an analogy, small business owners often are opposed to a big factory or any new big employer, including a hospital, moving into town, because that new factory or hospital will pay high wages and provide benefits and the small businesses will lose many of their best employees to the new employer who "pays more." In a similar manner, if the better students are sent to private schools, the public schools lose the better students and have a higher percentage of "lesser" students. Because there is "downward pressure" on the quality of students in the public school, the attitude toward learning is diminished and the teaching becomes more difficult. It is easier to teach students who want to learn. Ask any teacher, any teacher anywhere. Students are not all equal as learners. A student who does not want to learn finds the teacher to be an annoyance, an interruption of their daily plan to listen to music and joke with their friends. Where education is devalued, the teaching and the teacher is devalued.
These measurements of community influences, social and economic factors, HAVE TO BE INCLUDED AND FOCUSED in order to perform a scientific evaluation of how and why students perform poorly. To do a really good job, such an evaluation would also need to include other behavioral patterns that are clearly related to learning and the effort that a student applies to their own learning. How many hours per day, or week, does the student engage in listening to music or text messaging? Does the student take prescribed drugs for physical or emotional or behavioral problems? What is the income level of the household? Has there been instability in the household; marital problems; divorce; fighting; erratic employment; financial distress; social distress due to behavioral problems of the student or siblings? What is the relative crime rate in the community? Has any household member been a victim of crime? THESE QUESTIONS ARE IMPORTANT, VERY IMPORTANT, BECAUSE WE ARE LOOKING FOR THE CAUSES OF POOR ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE and any social, emotional, or household factors could be the cause of a WITHDRAWAL OF EFFORT IN SCHOOL.
In order to measure the causes of poor academic performance, it is totally unscientific to start by discrediting the teacher or teachers. Every scientific study of how and why children learn shows or will show that the student's attitude and application of effort, the degree to which the student wants to learn and has the ability to learn, are the primary causes of academic success. THEREFORE, these factors need to be measured first before we move on to measuring the behaviors of the teacher.
Now, employing the usual scientific methods, we list the successful students and then the students that we consider to be unsuccessful, or a problem, or a deficiency, or a "failure" of the public school system, by school district or by school. THEN we document all of the social and economic factors that apply to each student, such as household instability, frequent moves, emotional-behavioral problems, domestic violence, victims of crime, level of income, etc. etc. etc. AND THEN WE WILL BE ABLE TO SEE WHAT ARE THE CORRELATIONS BETWEEN the status of the household and the medical or behavioral problems of the student, and the student's academic performance.
THEN, if we find, as is likely and predictable, that there are meaningful correlations between poor academic performance and all or some of these factors, including the economics of the community, the social character of the community, the level of crime, the status of the household, medical and or behavioral problems, and so forth, we will then see what are the probable causes of WITHDRAWAL OF EFFORT ON THE PART OF THE STUDENT. The student lost interest. Why are you telling me to study, the student asks, for what? To become a better burger flipper? To be unemployed like my father? How will being smarter prevent me from being beaten and robbed? I have a cousin who dropped out of high school and he makes $2,000 a week and sometimes he makes $2,000 in a day. So why are you giving me this bullshit that I will be wealthier and happier if I study algebra and pass a test? Or if I read Grapes of Wrath? I don't give a shit about your algebra and your Grapes of Wrath; I have my own grapefruit of wrath.
And so this is the essence of my argument. It is unfair and destructive, unfair to everyone involved who wants good public schools, to begin evaluating the system by attacking teachers as the cause of the schools not meeting our high expectations. What must be measured FIRST is the ability of the student and the character of commitment and effort on the part of the student, and what are the factors that contribute to a withdrawal of effort to learn. This is the only sound approach, because I know from my own life experience and professional experience and my careful observations of human nature, that, in fact, if a child wants to learn something there is nothing you can do to prevent them from learning it. It is unfair and dysfunctional to assign to the teacher the whole responsibility for motivating, intriguing, exciting the student to learn, when there are other factors brought to bear by us, television, cell phones, drugs, junk food, crime, failures of our economy, that turn the student away from learning in school. They learn other places, where learning is light, stimulating, fun, and requires little or no effort. The problem for our public schools today is not that the teachers are not good; the problem is that our society has made the childish mistake of treating the teacher like a technician who makes things. My child is dumb, make him smart. This is not reasonable. You must first make your child respectful of learning. The child will do the rest, and will perform nearly as well with a poor teacher as with a great teacher. If a child wants to learn something, there is nothing you can do to stop them. That is the principle of education that should guide parents and the public schools.
Then, if you want to follow through with evaluation of the performance of a particular teacher, AFTER you have measured all of the possible influences on the students' efforts to learn, look at how students influenced by the same set of conditions learn from this teacher as compared to how similar students learn from other teachers. That way you will be measuring the learning of similar types of students when exposed to the teaching skills of different teachers. But you can NEVER evaluate a teacher scientifically unless you first measure the characteristics of the students and their efforts applied to learning.
Step #2: Simply provide teachers, like other professionals, with ongoing education and workshops and conferences to keep them interested in themselves and their skills as educators. They and their employers can tell when they are growing professionally and when they are not. Keep in mind that saying teachers make students dumb is like saying doctors make people sick, or lawyers make people commit crimes. We have to give teachers the environment in the school that communicates to all the students that "learning is what occurs here," not entertainment. Learning is work, work that the student performs for themselves, not work that the teacher performs for them. And the public school is not a stage provided for children to act out their personal dramas. If the urge to act out a personal drama is irresistible, the student needs to be given a different location, with a suitable audience.
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