Students are a product that comes off of a teacher assembly line

Time to start a new school year and with it wading back into the conversations about rethinking school. I’ve spent the past two months reading and talking with students, teachers, and parents about what is going right in their schools and what are their greatest frustrations. As I was considering what my first post would address this school year I happened across a link (in my Twitter stream) to the transcript from the August 15 edition of, “This Week with Christiane Amanpour.” The interviewees included, Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, Michelle Rhee, chancellor of Washington, D.C.’s, public schools, and Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers. Though there is much to comment about, the following really stuck out:

Rhee: “And I think that’s incredibly important, because one of the things that we have not done in public education in the past is differentiate between the types of performers that we had. And it’s incredibly important to recognize and reward the people who are doing heroic work in our classrooms every single day, just as important as it is to ensure that for those who are not performing, we’re swiftly moving them out of the classroom.”

Reading between the lines here, Rhee is making it clear that in her mind, her world, the only teachers that can be recognized as “heroic” in the classroom are those that reduce their practice to preparing students for standardized tests and do so in such a way that those test scores increase over the previous year. Additionally, rather than finding ways to help teachers improve their practice she just wants to fire them (euphemistically referred to as “moving them out of the classroom”).

Nothing in Rhee’s approach to educational reform address the issues underlying the swift march toward irrelevance that American schools are engaged in. Change has been reduced to student performance on standardized testing (which in Rhee’s world is weighted at 50% of a teacher’s value and worth to their school). Rhee’s approach is simplistic and arcane in its application. Students become nothing more than a product at the end of an assembly line that are checked for defects via standardized testing. Defects are directly attributed to teachers only. Take a look at Rhee’s algorithm for determining teacher success:

Rhee: [ ] in our new model, 50 percent of the teacher’s evaluation is based on how much they’re progressing their students, in terms of academic achievement levels, 40 percent is based on observations of classroom practice, another 5 percent based on how their school is doing overall, and then the final 5 percent based on their contributions to school community.

Let’s break that down:

  • First, compare student standardized test scores from one year to the next. Take no consideration of socio-economic concerns, family issues, physical and mental health consideration, and/or cultural barriers. Take no consideration of the learning culture’s health within the teacher’s school or district. Take no consideration of support or, lack-there-of from, from the school/district administration.
  • Second, classroom observations would not seek innovative/creative teaching approaches, rather, they would have to support the goal of the school/district which is evidenced in item #1: higher standardized test scores. Teachers who dared teach in ways that didn’t evidence that the learning in the classroom was directed toward guaranteeing higher test scores (even if those methods were grounded in solid research and WORK) would have to be “graded” as unsuccessful.
  • Third, teachers will be forced into adversarial relationships with their co-workers who dare to teach on principal and choose not to design their learning environment as a test preparation operation. This works well for Rhee (and “leaders” such as Arne Duncan) because it creates a toxic environment where teachers will either acquiesce or work in greater isolation in fear that their fellow teachers will “out” them for not insuring that the school is “succeeding” overall.
  • Fourth, the simple act of teaching is a contribution to the community. Will the “powers that be” grade the community on its involvement and support of the local school? Probably not, instead this evaluation over looks the personal financial sacrifice most teachers make as they make sure that their students have the basics they need to in order to learn. It is a well documented fact that most teachers spend significant sums of their personal income to supply their classrooms.

In the same interview segment, Arne Duncan added:

Duncan: [ ] this stuff is complicated. [ ] Rewarding excellence is important. [ ] There’s no simple answer here. [ ] We have to learn from excellence in education. The answers are all out there.

We know that there is a tight connection between Rhee and Duncan, they share the same philosophy of educational reform. Duncan claims the situation is complicated and yet his answer (evidenced in Rhee’s approach) is to reduce reform to a simplistic, ineffective approach by ranking teachers and keeping those that share your philosophy and getting rid of those who don’t, labeling them as ineffective using the above types of metrics. The irony here is that in June 2010 Duncan told the National PTA Convention, “We want to launch a national teacher improvement campaign.” Nothing in the Rhee equation touches on “improvement” or the facilitation of improving teacher practices. Duncan’s support of school boards firing entire district staffs isn’t about improving teacher practice, it’s about putting in place those teachers who share a philosophy that focuses (arguably) solely on standardized test scores. That type of philosophical approach to educational reform is anti-student, anti-intellectual, and if one considers Dewey’s original vision, anti-leaning.

Duncan got one thing right, “this stuff is complicated” and it’s time he broadened his search so he can really “learn from excellence.” Until Duncan spends a week at/in/with:

among a growing chorus of truly great educators who dare to rethink school, he will continue down his primrose path. There are many educators who are creating environments that revolve around the missing element in American education: Learning. I could create an entire post listing great educators from my Twitter stream and Google Reader who know how to create real learning environments that are not focused on student scores on standardized tests. Educators that Duncan will never seek out, the result being, he will never be able to “learn from excellence.” Instead, he, and those that share his pedagogical philosophy, will continue to perpetuate a status quo that fails students and treats teachers as a renewable resource – easy to replace when they no longer buy his snake oil.

Photo Credits:

Pencil in hand: by beX out loud on Flickr

Testing girl: by Bastien Vaucher on Flickr

Teacher: by ben100 on Flickr

Cross posted at Cumulative Knowledge

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About Greg Thompson

I'm a dad, Educational Freelancer, Edupunk thinker, EdTech Blogger, Paralegal, Foodie, and I love inspiring and facilitating change in education.
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One Response to Students are a product that comes off of a teacher assembly line

  1. Pingback: 21st century (fill in your educational consideration) | Constructing Meaning

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