Sunday, July 22, 2012

Holding Teachers Accountable

Correctly understanding what I read in the press these days is increasingly problematic.  But if I understand it right, No Child Left Behind, and similar programs, measure teachers by the performance of their students on standardized tests.  If that is right, it’s among the silliest ways of measuring performance ever.  Teachers should be measured by the performance of teachers, not by the performance of students.  
You might recall the classic 1975 essay by Steven Kerr, “On the folly of rewarding A while hoping for B.”  The point he made then, and which we have not yet learned, is that individuals and organizations often tell people that they want a particular behavior or outcome, but they reward something different, frequently something at odds or incompatible with what is desired.  
Something like that is going on here.  What is it that we want out of teachers as teachers?  To be well educated in their fields?  To demonstrate a thorough understanding of pedagogy?  To have personalities appropriate to the environment in which they teach?  To demonstrate a sense of calling and delight in the profession of teaching in the place where they are?  To demonstrate a life long commitment to their own continuing education and professional development?
We can hold teachers accountable for things such as these, and we should.
They make up a critically important element of the environment needed for education to take place, but there is more that is, for the most part, outside teachers’ control, and we cannot hold them accountable for what is outside their control.
We cannot hold teachers accountable for whether they have adequate support from school administrators and tax payers.  We cannot hold teachers accountable for the condition of the buildings in which they teach or the socio-economic conditions of their students.  We cannot hold teachers accountable for the quantity and quality of text books, ordinary school supplies, specialized equipment, up to date computers, and so on.
The best teacher will flounder without adequate institutional and public support.
We cannot even hold them accountable for the performance of their students on standardized tests, which are themselves of doubtful value.  Teachers and parents can hold students accountable for what they have learned, and they must. 
If you want A reward A.  If you want B reward B.  But don’t hope for A while rewarding B.  It never works.  For a more detailed discussion of this folly I recommend reading Dilbert daily.

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