A few weeks ago, fellow TFA alum Matt Barnum invited me to a public ‘discussion’ about education reform. Though Matt seems to consider himself further to whatever direction ‘reformers’ are in the spectrum, I’m not so sure I’d place him there. Still, based on the massive number of comments (72, though a lot are from Matt, himself) on the initial ’round’ of the discussion, many of the people who read and comment on the blog definitely see him as somewhat of an opponent.
Matt wrote a second letter and sent it to me over a week ago. What follows is his letter and my response:
Thanks for your response. I hope I didn’t put you on the defensive too much. In fact, the reason I wrote to you is because of how much I respect your writing, as well as the fact that I respect that you’ve chosen a career as a teacher. I did it for just two years – I fully realize the challenges of the job, and some of the insights teachers understand about education policy that non-educators don’t.
That being said, I think you miss something fundamental in your response: the goal of teacher evaluation systems is not to make teachers “try harder,” a common straw-man argument. Evaluations systems are designed to reward and retain effective teachers, and support and dismiss ineffective teachers. That’s the theory; practice of it is much more difficult, of course.
The recent Times article, I think, should be a wake-up call to reformers that they must pair teacher evaluations with efforts to sustainably improve the teacher talent pool.
It’s not particularly helpful to think about getting rid of ‘bad’ teachers in the abstract. At my school, at least, there were perhaps one or two teachers who I thought were probably awful and should not be in a classroom with children. Likely, you would agree that they should be fired. And likely we’d both agree that firing those one or two teachers would not dramatically improve education quality. (Though I do think the gains would be meaningful and important, and while reformers surely overstate this value at times, traditionalists also understate how difficult it is to dismiss a bad teacher.)
A much larger group of teachers at my school, perhaps a quarter or a third, were truly fantastic. They were exactly what many imagine of a great teacher: dedicated, hard-working, inspiring, and life-changing for some students. These were teachers who I would love to have teaching my own (hypothetical) child.
The final group of teachers – which I counted myself as a part of – could neither be classified as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Almost all of us were hard-working, and cared about children, but weren’t so good that I think most parents would actively want to send their kids into our classrooms. (A note: Obviously my assessment of the proportion of awful, ‘good enough,’ and great teachers is purely anecdotal. I’d be curious your thoughts on this, Gary.)
This is why I say that we can’t think of such teachers as ‘bad’ in a metaphysical sense. We need some point of comparison, some better option. That, I think, explains why so few teachers are being rated as ineffective – because principals may realize that they can’t get a better teacher, so they go ahead and rank a good-enough teacher as effective.
(Another potential explanation – and one that I saw play out at my school – is an observer effect: teachers and students changed how they acted when a principal was in the classroom, sometimes leaving the evaluator with a mistaken impression of how effective the teacher was.)
I’m disappointed that reformers are not doing a better job focusing on increasing the number of teachers who are great rather than just good enough. Many really want to address this problem, but I don’t think there has been enough energy around creating a sustainable pipeline of excellent teachers. This is understandable, insofar, as this goal is difficult, and might only lead to results far down the line. It’s easier to focus on the small number of truly awful teachers than to address the larger, more important goal of supporting and attracting exceptional career teachers.
I guess my question for you, Gary, is whether you think it’s possible to recruit a teaching force that includes a larger number of great teachers? Do you believe, as I do, that great teachers can ameliorate poverty and change students’ lives? Do you accept my distinction between excellent teachers and ‘good enough’ ones?
Before I end, I want to briefly address a few other points.
o No, the Chetty study has not been ‘debunked.’ Reasonable people can of course disagree about what the policy implications of the study are and can raise some legitimate methodological question (though of course an ideal methodology is likely impossible in such context). Consider Bruce Baker’s reaction and Matt DiCarlo’s reaction – both raise some interesting questions but neither suggests that the study is patently invalid.
o I do not think a 1% increase in salary for a given year is small at all. Let’s say a teacher has 20 students in a class and those students, over a 40 year working career would average a salary of $30,000/year. If that teacher increases the average salary by 1% to an average of $30,300, that means the teacher has added a monetary value of $240,000 for each year teaching.
o There’s now very strong psychological evidence that testing doesn’t just assess learning – it promotes learning. Though reasonable people can disagree about whether this logic applies to standardized tests, this phenomenon is certainly something that those who oppose high-stake test should engage with a bit more.
o I believe that you’re making a false dichotomy in suggesting that a teacher can do well on standardized tests by avoiding critical thinking exercises. Indeed, I think critical thinking exercises will likely improve high-stakes test results
o I absolutely agree with your point about ‘bubble’ kids. My school was obsessed with proficiency rates rather than overall averages, and I always argued against this view. However, I don’t believe this serves as an indictment of high-stakes tests; instead, it’s an important implementation issue that should be considered and can be overcome.
o I think I have to point out that one of my chief complaints was how rarely research is cited in opposition to standardized testing…and then you didn’t cite a shred of research for any of your opinions regarding testing. You say, ‘In my research I’ve found that often there is not much of a difference between the two schools.’ I know you have a lot of experience in schools, but I hope you can understand why I don’t simply trust your intuitions and experience.
o I myself do not see school closing as some panacea, and I realize that many students will just end up going to an equally bad, but farther away school. I do hope and believe that some may end up in a better school, and I don’t think that, here in Chicago, the city can sustain paying for a huge number of schools that under-enrolled. (I do realize that closing schools will not save money in the short-term, but will in the long term – to its credit CPS has been upfront about this. Another interesting note is that CPS says that it is not using test data to determine school closing, and is only looking at utilization.)
Alright. I think that’s more than enough for one letter. I’m definitely enjoying having a dialogue rather than a monologue. Thanks, and I look forward to reading your thoughts.
No, you don’t ever have to worry about putting me on the defensive. Some of my thoughts are tough for me to explain, sometimes, so I might tend to over-explain so they can’t be misinterpreted, but other than that I’m completely comfortable answering any questions, no matter how tough.
I agree with your percentages about how many teachers are average, below average, and above average. You seem to say that about a third are truly excellent, two thirds are just ‘average,’ and there are a small number, perhaps two or three percent, who are ‘bad.’ But this does depend on how exactly these categories are defined. I think we’d agree on what constitutes one of those ‘bad’ teachers (and also agree that there are so few of those that a policy focused on identifying and terminating them isn’t going to ‘fix’ education), I think that the ‘average’ teacher is doing an admirable job and would have no problem having my two actual kids being taught by one of those. Sure, I’d like them to have a few that I would consider ‘great’ from time to time, but I’m fine with the fact that most of my children’s teachers will fall into that ‘average’ category.
Like in Baseball where a ‘great’ hitter bats 300 and an ‘average’ hitter bats about 260, I think that great teachers are not as different from average ones as the reformer crowd claims. When discussion about the importance of class size comes up, reformers often talk about how they’d rather have a great teacher with 40 kids in a class than an average teacher with 20. Knowing what I do about how difficult teaching is, I’d put my kids in the small class with the average teacher over the ‘great’ teacher with the 40.
This is not to say that I don’t try to be a ‘great’ teacher each day that I go to work. I’ve won various awards and written various books and articles about teaching, yet too often I’m up in front of my class, generally when I’m trying out a new lesson idea for the first time, and humming to myself to the tune of “We Are The Champions” something like “I am a failure, my friends, and I’ll keep on sucking till the end …” My hope is that I have more ‘great’ days than ‘bad’ days that on average I’m considered ‘good.’
When I was younger I suppose I would have agreed with your belief that “great teachers can ameliorate poverty and change students’ lives.” I don’t know that ‘great’ teachers (at least the mythical ones we hear about from TFA) are that much better at ameliorating poverty and changing students’ lives than ‘average’ teachers. Maybe the difference is that I think ‘average’ teachers are better than you do, or that I don’t think that ‘great’ teachers are as good as you do. Part of my belief has been shaped by my experience during my 2nd, 3rd, and 4th years of teaching when I was in TFA and at E. L. Furr High School in Houston. This was the school that was recently on the front page of the New York Times in an article about how the school has finally curbed some of their gang related violence problems.
During the three years I worked there, I found the staff to be very impressive. Yes, there were a few clunkers. One was a man who was a year away from retirement and was, I felt, going senile. Another was a woman who was an extremely hard working science teacher, but who had never really learned classroom management so all her hard work was wasted as students did not take her seriously. But there were a lot of excellent teachers including the best English teacher I’ve ever seen. I taught many eleventh and twelfth graders there and these were the top students in the school as many students never made it out of ninth grade. Many of these upper classmen were, to use a TFA term, on or near a ‘trajectory’ to college. If great teaching is supposed to help nudge them onto that college track, I was certainly in an excellent position to be someone who could have done that last push. And despite my efforts and those of my co-workers I’ve come to learn, by keeping in touch with, or by recently reaching out to, my best students that few of them truly ‘overcame poverty’ or graduated college. I don’t think that this means that we were not good teachers, or even great teachers.
And just because I don’t think that teachers have the power to do all that reformers think they do, this does not mean that I don’t think that teaching is a noble profession or that it is a very important one. I guess a good analogy would be that I see teaching math not unlike teaching someone how to play a musical instrument. The music teacher is not a failure if the student never becomes a professional musician. Hopefully the music teacher will encourage the student to enjoy music and to want to practice and get better. Also there’s the very important relationship that the teacher has with the students in which other life lessons can be taught, aside from music. I was fortunate to have such a music teacher who I took private trumpet lessons with from 4th to 12th grade.
But if you want me to say it more directly, yes, ‘great’ teachers are better than ‘average’ ones who are, in turn, better than ‘bad’ ones. Everyone knows that.
The issue, though, is how this should drive policy in such a way that we maximize whatever the purpose of schooling is? Of course this ‘purpose’ would have to be defined first and though my definition might be a lot more holistic than yours, I would imagine that you are opposed to one that relies too much on standardized test score gains. Then again, everyone nowadays claims to agree with this which is why they always stress ‘multiple measures’ in teacher evaluation. But when I hear numbers being thrown around like 50% for value added or even 30% (no reformer I’ve read about dares to suggest a number less than 30%) I get very uncomfortable.
I do not think that putting this much weight on very inaccurate metrics will make schools better. My belief is that if this pattern continues, it will make education actually worse, which is why I spend so much time reading and writing about this. It hasn’t worked in D.C. because it is based on a false premise. It seems like reformers are banking on the idea mentioned in Waiting For Superman that if we could just fire the bottom 5% of teachers each year, achievement would soar. The only way that this would work is if there were a significant number of other teachers who need to fear for their jobs in order to get motivated to do their best teaching. I just don’t think that this is the case. Treating the wrong disease can be very dangerous. It would be like a doctor prescribing chemotherapy for the flu. It is misguided, painful, and will likely make the patient sicker.
I very much agree with your point that more effort should be dedicated to making the vast number of ‘average’ and even ‘great’ teachers even better. This is where organizations like StudentsFirst have completely missed an opportunity to use all that money to truly improve education. Teachers can definitely benefit from having more resources, professional development, truly usable lesson plans and activities online. I personally just attended the NCTM (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics) conference where I attended workshops that I hope will make me a better teacher. There were 20,000 math teachers there, which is a small percent of the math teachers in the country. Most people paid over $1,000 to go to the conference, but maybe if there were more much cheaper opportunities to get good professional development, more people would participate. Teachers want to improve.
I do not see ‘teacher evaluation’ reform, in the direction that it is currently going, as a way, as you describe, of helping teachers improve. In New York teachers don’t even get to see the tests so how is that supposed to help them improve. I personally have learned very little about how I can improve by analyzing the results of my own students on standardized tests. Generally what I learn is that when someone else writes a very bad question about some topics, then even students who understand that topic quite well could get the question wrong. These tests are just not good enough and to make them good enough, I think, would not be an efficient use of scarce resources. As newspapers gush about the common core standards and assessments, all I see is hundreds of millions of dollars going to Dell and Apple to get the schools tech up to date to administer these tests. As you wrote about the lavish cost of TFA and how this is not a good use of funds, I feel that way about the trend to keep teachers honest by making them ‘accountable’ for their standardized test ‘gains.’
Yes, teachers can learn to teach better. I certainly don’t think all teachers (myself included) are perfect. But the witch hunt for teachers ‘bad’ teachers is, in the long run, going to dissuade people from becoming teachers. This will, in time, lower the quality of education in this country. That’s what I’m afraid of.