The bad teacher conspiracy
Any time I see an article about the evaluation system for teachers in New York State, I wince. People get it wrong so very often. Yesterday’s New York Times article written by Elizabeth Harris was even worse than usual.
First, her wording. She mentioned a severe drop in student reading and math proficiency rates statewide and attributed it to a change in the test to the Common Core, which she described as “more rigorous.”
The truth is closer to “students were tested on stuff that wasn’t in their curriculum.” And as you can imagine, if you are tested on stuff you didn’t learn, your score will go down (the Common Core has been plagued by a terrible roll-out, and the timing of this test is Exhibit A). Wording like this matters, because Harris is setting up her reader to attribute the falling scores to bad teachers.
Harris ends her piece with a reference to a teacher-tenure lawsuit: ‘In one of those cases, filed in Albany in July, court documents contrasted the high positive teacher ratings with poor student performance, and called the new evaluation system “deficient and superficial.” The suit said those evaluations were the “most highly predictive measure of whether a teacher will be awarded tenure.”’
In other words, Harris is painting a picture of undeserving teachers sneaking into tenure in spite of not doing their job. It’s ironic, because I actually agree with the statement that the new evaluation system is “deficient and superficial,” but in my case I think it is overly punitive to teachers – overly random, really, since it incorporates the toxic VAM model – but in her framing she is implying it is insufficiently punitive.
Let me dumb Harris’s argument down even further: How can we have 26% English proficiency among students and 94% effectiveness among teachers?! Let’s blame the teachers and question the legitimacy of tenure.
Indeed, after reading the article I felt like looking into whether Harris is being paid by David Welch, the Silicon Valley dude who has vowed to fight teacher tenure nationwide. More likely she just doesn’t understand education and is convinced by simplistic reasoning.
In either case, she clearly needs to learn something about statistics. For that matter, so do other people who drag out this “blame the teacher” line whenever they see poor performance by students.
Because here’s the thing. Beyond obvious issues like switching the content of the tests away from the curriculum, standardized test scores everywhere are hugely dependent on the poverty levels of students. Some data:
It’s not just in this country, either:
The conclusion is that, unless you think bad teachers have somehow taken over poor schools everywhere and booted out the good teachers, and good teachers have taken over rich schools everywhere and booted out the bad teachers (which is supposed to be impossible, right?), poverty has much more of an effect than teachers.
Just to clarify this reasoning, let me give you another example: we could blame bad journalists for lower rates of newspaper readership at a given paper, but since newspaper readership is going down everywhere we’d be blaming journalists for what is a cultural issue.
Or, we could develop a process by which we congratulate specific policemen for a reduced crime rate, but then we’d have to admit that crime is down all over the country.
I’m not saying there aren’t bad teachers, because I’m sure there are. But by only focusing on rooting out bad teachers, we are ignoring an even bigger and harder problem. And no, it won’t be solved by privatizing and corporatizing public schools. We need to address childhood poverty. Here’s one more visual for the road: