Earlier this month, one of the most popular pieces at The New York Times website was titled "Confessions of a 'Bad' Teacher." The author, William Johnson, is a special ed teacher in New York and he movingly conveys the frustrations and aspirations that many teachers encounter:
My students have learning disabilities ranging from autism and attention-deficit disorder to cerebral palsy and emotional disturbances. I love these kids, but they can be a handful. Almost without exception, they struggle on standardized tests, frustrate their teachers and find it hard to connect with their peers. What's more, these are high school students, so their disabilities are compounded by raging hormones and social pressure….I don't just want to get better; like most teachers I know, I'm a bit of a perfectionist.
Johnson's eloquence sharpens the irony that he is officially "a bad teacher."
That's not my opinion; it's how I'm labeled by the city's Education Department. Last June, my principal at the time rated my teaching "unsatisfactory," checking off a few boxes on an evaluation sheet that placed my career in limbo. That same year, my school received an "A" rating. I was a bad teacher at a good school. It was pretty humiliating.
It's easy to sympathize with Johnson. Teaching high school is doubtless a ring of hell inexplicably overlooked by Dante in the Inferno. And I take Johnson at face value when he asserts that, "At the school where I work today, my 'bad' teaching has mostly been very successful."
But he—and many like him the education establishment—lose me when they turn to the reason why they do not do well on evaluations. Critics have spent decades blaming teachers, administrators, curricula, you name it, for why outcomes haven't improved. Rather than rehash those excuses, Johnson blames the students:
That said, given all the support in the world, even the best teacher can't force his students to learn. Students aren't simply passive vessels, waiting to absorb information from their teachers and regurgitate it through high-stakes assessments. They make choices about what they will and won't learn. I know I did. When I was a teenager, I often stayed up way too late, talking with friends, listening to music or playing video games. Did this affect my performance on tests? Undoubtedly. Were my teachers responsible for these choices? No.
But all his creativity in denouncing high-stakes testing and teacher evaluations ultimately leads back to the same-old, same-old. Nobody dast blame a teacher for anything, he argues, especially since who can say that one is better than another.
If you give some students green fields, glossy textbooks and lots of attention, you can't measure them against another group of students who lack all of these things. It's bad science.
Until we provide equal educational resources to all students and teachers, no matter where they come from, we can't say — with any scientific accuracy — how well or poorly they're performing. Perhaps if we start the conversation there, things will start making a bit more sense.
Come on already. Teachers consistently argue that, like doctors and lawyers, they are professionals who deserve the respect of everyone and even more money than they already make. Yet in the same breath, teachers are always asserting that their profession is uniquely incapable of being evaluated in any sort of meaningful and fair way. There are just too many variables—some schools spend more per student, some students are smarter or dumber to start with, parental involvement is varied, etc.—to get a good sense of who's good and who's not.
I'm sure most evaluation schemes are designed and executed by idiots (however well meaning) and I'm glad to hear that Johnson (by his own admission) is flourishing at his new school (perhaps his shakey rating helped him after all?). But arguing that it's so impossible to control for variables that we can't judge teacher performance is no way to lobby for more resources or be taken seriously. Especially since school systems have gotten more and more money per pupil for decades now without improving outcomes. If teacher pay and classroom resources haven't kept pace with the overall increase in funding, that's maybe a reason for Johnson and his fellow teachers to question paying union dues. But it's not a reason to make taxpayers pony up more dough for people who say that teachers are really important but can't be judged.