Educating for Democracy: Randi Weingarten's Faustian Bargain

In this Tuesday's New York Times, Bob Herbert wrote in an interview with Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers:

In a speech to be delivered Tuesday in Washington, Randi Weingarten plans to call for more frequent and more rigorous evaluations of public schoolteachers, and she will assert that standardized test scores and other measures of student performance should be an integral part of the evaluation process. ("A Serious Proposal," NYTimes)

I have serious problems with this proposal, and not because I don't believe that there should be standards for teachers. But the use of "standardized test scores" troubles me, since they are being so often abused and misused these days in Mayor Bloomberg's administration of the public schools.

Schools in high-needs neighborhoods are allocating more of their class time to drilling students to pass tests that, as it is, seem to be "dumbed down" to create the impression that the students are "improving." Certainly the disparity between the state-wide tests used by the City and the more rigorous NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) exams, which showed a much lower success rate than the state scores, should make the use of these measurements of student achievement suspect.

What I am more curious about is the reference to "other measures of student performance" alluded to as part of the evaluation process. Now, what do "other measures" mean? Teachers could give oral exams to students who might perform better verbally than in writing. On the other hand, for students more adept at writing, the "portfolio system" could be used to determine the progress they can make between earlier and later drafts of their work and improvements between one assignment and the next.

Some students learn and can express themselves better visually than verbally or through writing; some even kinetically or musically. The point is that "standardized tests" in themselves, even if they are not compromised by "test prep" and other artificial ways of emphasizing rote memorization, do not necessarily measure with any accuracy what students learn and how much of their knowledge they retain and can later apply.

In order to give students opportunities to learn, teachers must be skilled in many aspects of instruction and have as a resource "experts trained in best practices," according to Herbert of the Times, to guide them on the most effective methods to teach students who may have a great variety of ways of learning. These "experts" used to be the assistant principals who had themselves been veterans of the classroom and could give advice and support to new teachers and those older ones who were having difficulty with their classes.

What I gather from some of my sources in the school system is that many of these "old hands" have been replaced with young technocrats who accept the Bloomberg "business model" approach to learning. The bottom line is higher test scores above anything else. And that means that the "experts" will have to come from somewhere else, and serious funding will have to be found to get them to supervise and instruct tens of thousands of teachers. I have serious doubts that such a number of "experts" can be found, let alone provided the necessary resources to have a significant impact.

When I was teaching at a college that has been noted for its teacher training, I found myself too often disappointed with my education students' lack of intellectual rigor and broad knowledge that I believe is an important part of a successful teacher's resources. I found no lack of enthusiasm among them for "liking children," but the sad fact was that pursuing a degree in education was the "safety net" for far too many students who had been unable to succeed in any other field of study. So although certainly some of the "best and the brightest" go into the teaching profession, the greatest portion of them, especially female students, pursue degrees in law, medicine, business or higher education.

But even with the best of teachers, there are many other factors contributing to students' success or failure that has little to do with their classroom experiences. Many of these factors are connected with poverty, but even among middle class families there are young learners who have serious emotional, intellectual or behavioral problems that cannot be dealt with easily in a classroom of 25 or more students, each of which may have different ways of learning.

In short, to evaluate teachers fairly and objectively, many factors have to be taken into consideration besides test scores and even other measures of performance. But, most importantly, teachers shouldn't be put into a situation where they are being judged without the proper support they need in order to improve their teaching. And I very much doubt, given the Bloomberg industrial model, that they will receive that support.

Of course there are incompetent teachers that had no business getting into the profession in the first place and should be removed from classrooms as quickly as possible. But some of the teachers in "the Rubber Room," as it is called, are there for no better reason that they resisted "getting on the team" and were more interested in improving their students' minds than in raising their test scores. Teachers are in a very difficult profession: administering them through fear of losing their jobs when they are not getting the support they need is no way of improving our school system. Randi Weingarten may believe she's accepting the inevitable from a political point of view, but in terms of its result, she might find she's made a pact with the devil.