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Educational assessment and helping kids

Several times in the past week I’ve heard teachers criticized for “putting their own selfish interests above the interests of the children” they teach, and although I don’t really know enough about teacher unions to defend or oppose what they do in the details of (say) a normal contract negotiation, I found myself viscerally reacting against this way of framing the issue given what I know about the dedicated and I would argue even impossible work done by teachers in the trenches.

Charlie Rose easily elicited this rhetoric from the head of the District of Columbia school system in a recently loving interview.  Michelle Rhee is a young and energetic reform-minded administrator who apparently has the strong backing of Washington, DC’s mayor, and the grand bargain she is offering DC teachers (we will significantly raise your pay if you agree to contract changes that will give administrators more authority to hold teachers accountable for educational outcomes) was clearly music to Rose’s ears even though this perspective isn’t so loved even by many Washington parents.

This is a deal Jonathan Alter, the Newsweek columnist, was pushing in a recent column (“Obama’s No-Brainer on Education,” July 21, 2008, pg. 35) onto the presidential candidates (he refers to Rhee as Washington’s “brilliant new superintendent”):

…Obama needs to embrace a Grand Educational Bargain – much higher pay for teachers in exchange for much more accountability for performance in the classroom.  Good teachers need to be rewarded with more pay and respect for being members of our noblest profession.  They need more resources.  But they also need to be removed from the classroom when they fail to improve.  Obama occasionally says as much, but goes fuzzy when it comes to how.

And then Alter delivers the infamous punchline, which in standard form he insinuates as a slur against the unions as opposed to the individual teachers who join them:  “The teachers unions, for all their lip service, don’t believe their members should be judged on performance.  They still believe that protecting incompetents is more important than educating children.”  That would be incompetents (as in, human beings who teach for a living) as opposed to incompetence (as in, those foolish ineptitudes in which we all traffic).

I’m skeptical of both this deal and of the rhetoric used to defend it that demonizes teachers as only interested in hiding their own incompetence.  Considerable danger lurks in such a deal, even conceding the urgent need to address collapsing graduation rates (in the last quarter century, as Alter notes, America has fallen from number one in college-graduation rates to 21st) and other mounting evidence of disastrous underachievement.

First, in an age where open hostility toward government is successfully nurtured by the right and too often ceded even by the left, I do not believe the promise of long term pay raises for good teachers will be made good.  I don’t doubt that Rhee is sincere; I just doubt that once she’s gone the voters of the District will vote taxes on themselves necessary to pay the higher bills. The odds are thus good that protections long fought for will be sold away on the cheap, never to be reclaimed.  Such skepticism is well justified by the failure of the federal government to make the promised investments in education legislated into No Child Left Behind that persuaded liberals like Ted Kennedy to sign on to the measure’s tougher accountability measures in the first place.

Second, the case made by the self-identified reformers is overly committed to the virtues of corporate America, which is defended as the end-all of institutional effectiveness despite considerable evidence that worshipping the Bottom Line isn’t so great either and that the High Rationality of the balance sheet is too often a cover for absurd speculation and hopeless managerial faddishness and incompetence.  The case often takes two forms.  In one, teachers are attacked for having tenure or civil service protections.  As Alter puts it:  “teaching is arguably the only profession in the country with ironclad job security and a well-honed hostility to measuring results.”  Well, arguably, no:  ever heard of lawyers (who enjoy their own version of lifelong tenure once their apprenticeship converts into partnership), or Supreme Court justices, or clever media pundits, or priests, or midlevel military officers, or prison guards, or members of Congress, or cops and fire fighters and garbage collectors in most cities, or psychoanalysts, or CEO’s?  The point isn’t to celebrate all these careers – you can be the judge of that – but simply to deflate the common hyberbole that attacks teachers as enjoying amazing gigs when usually they don’t.  In fact, when salaries are not-so-great and retirement options often second-best and working conditions leave, shall we say, much to be desired, the prospect of assuring job security is a not unreasonable way to make positions more attractive.

In another version, business is openly celebrated as the right model for the schools, where phrases like “return on investment” and “value added” and “the customer is always right” are slapped onto children in ways that belie narrow educational visions and the often impoverished idea of the whole person such ways of thinking imply (this is directly though passingly admitted by Alter when he notes, with too glib a use of the word important, that if we wish “to save our children and our economy in the 21st century” the answer will not be found in “more money for important programs like art and music”).

In the same issue of Newsweek, Anna Quindlen tells the awful story of Connie Heermann, an Indiana teacher and 27-year classroom veteran, fired for encouraging her students to read an inspiring book called The Freedom Writers Diary.  The same theme pops into view – Heermann learned “that bureaucracy is more important than pedagogy” – but this time the  story is a cautionary tale told from the perspective of those demonized teachers who are regularly insulted and second-guessed to do right by the kids and accede to this year’s version of the Grand Bargain.

So what is to be done when kids are too often undereducated, when a basically reasonably designed system does sometimes shield the incompetent or the burned out, when even passionately motivated administrators are too readily tempted to the view that more power for them to knock heads will always change things for the better?  Let’s at least start with an agreement on the complexities and a Grand Bargain not to demonize each other.  For the odds are good that the the only solution at hand is to attack the problem on multiple fronts that will require some humility from teachers and bureaucrats and politicians and, yes, parents too:  a recognition that schools need more money, teachers more training and support, students more opportunities to get excited about what they are learning (even if what excites them to engagement is poetry more than accounting), and parents more options when their assigned schools are manifestly failing their children.


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