Educating for Democracy: Turning 'Good' Teachers Into 'Bad Teachers'

NOTE: The following is meant ironically: I don't believe in "good" and "bad" teachers since sometime in a career you can be either one or the other.

A recent op-ed by Samuel A. Culbert "Why Your Boss Is Wrong About You" (New York Times 3/1/11) reinforces the perception I and many other teachers have had that it is very difficult to make a fair evaluation of teachers when it is filtered through the subjective responses of administrators. Many of them do not spend or have the time to spend giving careful, perceptive, constructive assessments of the many teachers they are responsible for evaluating. Thus the scores on "standardized" tests are increasingly being used as a more reliable form of evaluating teacher performance because "numbers don't lie," which is not always true.

Rather than once again argue about the fraudulent nature of these tests to measure anything more than how well students are drilled to take a test that does little if anything to promote learning, I'd like to suggest the "message" that is being conveyed to teachers around the country through so-called "educational reform." I have been in communication with quite a number of them through an organization that is promoting a national protest against the measures being taken around the country to terrorize and control teachers and teaching. It is to be held in Washington D.C. the weekend of July 29-31. These teachers, as well as the many I have interviewed in the New York City area, suggest the following pattern in how the "reformers" turn good teachers into bad teachers.

1. A "good teacher" focuses on methods of inspiring, motivating and developing students' intellectual curiosity to explore their subject thoroughly using many different methods of measuring their progress in mastering the material. She will have little time to do "test prep" for standardized testing and will most likely end up with low test scores for her students. She will be given an "Unsatisfactory" as a "bad teacher."

2. A" bad teacher," being warned that unless he "produces the numbers" he will be deemed "Unsatisfactory," will spend a disproportionate amount of classroom time "prepping" his students to take a test that has little if any connection to those areas of his subject that his students need to know. He might, through constant drilling, increase his students' test scores and will receive praise and encouragement from his supervisors for being a "good teacher."

3. A "good teacher" will have an active, open mind to curriculum development, methods of teaching, show concern for the well-being of her students, and a challenging attitude toward her supervisors if she feels that their policies are not in the interests of promoting student learning but rather "test scores." She will most likely be considered "insubordinate," "uncooperative," and eventually suspended from teaching while a hearing is being arranged to determine if she should ever be allowed to teach again since she is a "bad teacher."

4. A "bad teacher," who is terrified of getting an "Unsatisfactory" rating will agree with everything his supervisor tells him, never question any curricular or policy changes even if he thinks they are unhelpful to his teaching, and never make suggestions for changes that he thinks might advance student learning for fear of "rocking the boat." He will be considered a "team player" by his supervisor: a "good teacher."

5. A "good teacher" will innovate, modify curricular requirements when she sees they are not producing a satisfactory outcome, use "teaching moments" when students are excited and motivated by an unplanned event in the classroom, even if it means temporarily leaving her lesson plan. She will avoid as much as possible any "scripted" instructions. She will be considered "incompetent" by her supervisor because she doesn't seem to be able to "follow the plan" as prescribed by the Department of Education and is thus a "bad teacher."

6. A "bad teacher" will follow the script rigorously, ignore any opportunity to inspire the students when unplanned opportunities occur in class, never venture into areas not approved for his classroom teaching, and remain, if possible, as intellectually inert as he is required to be in order to get a "good teacher" evaluation.

7. A "good teacher" will recognize that some of her students simply are not up to her requirements to pass her course, even if she is pressured to do so in order to "raise the graduation rate." She will be confronted with evidence that her pass rate was lower than that of her intimidated colleagues and that she needs to be "less demanding" in order to "support the school" in improving their graduation rates. If she continues to maintain her standards, she will receive an "Unsatisfactory" evaluation as a "bad teacher."

8. A "bad teacher" will pass as many students as he can whether or not they've demonstrated sufficient subject mastery to justify being promoted to the next grade. His low standards will be the same as many of his colleagues who do not want the school to be closed with the ensuing chaos that inevitably follows. He will be praised as a "good teacher" for doing his part in improving the graduation rate so that the school would receive a favorable rating even if it doesn't earn it.

The direction being taken by the Obama Administration, many of the states, municipalities and school districts around the country -- except at the exclusive private schools and elite public schools -- is the same: encouraging and rewarding bad teaching and punishing good teachers, driving them out of the profession. From what I am now hearing from some of my colleagues, the younger teachers, with no prior experience of what good teaching really means, might well accept bad teaching as the norm. Then we can be certain that the future of education for the overwhelming number of public school students in America is assured: "bad teachers."